In this section, Wyn Kelley shares strategies for facilitating classroom discussions.
The students who took Nobelistas were quite comfortable with each other. Once we got to the second class, they were wonderfully voluble. There was a real sense of community in the class. They had such esprit de corps!
For students who don’t necessarily feel comfortable with each other, beginning with student-led reports (as I did in Nobelistas) can be a good way to cultivate discussion. In these reports, students provide an introduction to the author, a passage to discuss, and a few discussion questions. Students are required to speak for only about 10 minutes, but they set the terms for the discussion. In this way, students’ perspectives and their responses to the reading shape the discussions, rather than the instructor’s pre-existing structure and narrative.
I also suggest breaking students into smaller groups for discussions. They talk so much more to each other in small groups than when they’re in a large class. If I sense someone may be feeling particularly isolated, I usually try to ask how they’re doing in the class during our mid-semester one-on-one conference. Often this conversation gets them over the threshold.
Although I didn’t do this in Nobelistas, one thing I’ve tried more recently is using 10-minute reading quizzes at the beginning of class as a way to generate discussion. I give students' quizzes a check minus, a check, or a check plus and return the quizzes during the following class period. When I previously gave a quiz, it was to find out if students had completed the readings, or if they remembered that so-and-so said a certain line, etc. But lately, I’ve been devising quizzes that I think will focus them before class and give them a chance to remind themselves of what was in the text. I start the discussion based on the quiz.
This strategy has been generating good conversations. For example, I used this strategy with my American Literature class last week. We were talking about regional writers, such as Kate Chopin, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I selected three passages, in which there were trees, but didn’t point this out to students. The quiz asked students what they noticed about the passages, but then in our discussion, we got into how there’s a very different sensibility in each of the passages, a very different relationship with nature. We talked about how there’s a pine tree in one of the passages, and a Chinaberry tree, which you would find in Louisiana, in another, and how these regional details changed the flavor of each passage. So, the quiz led to the topic I hoped to focus on without my having to start the class by saying, “The regionalists came after the realists, who came after the romantics.” We could work from the texts. I find the quizzes break down the subject and give students another entry into something that might otherwise be very formal.
The student reports, the small group work, and the quizzes are all ways to change the rhythm of the class and to help students do more of the talking. I like to insert my voice when students need transitions between one period to another or from one author to another. They need to see where we’ve been and where we’re going. I think it can help our discussions when I pull things together for them.