In the writing classrooms where I teach, we often sit in a circle and do a “quick share” to begin class where everyone offers a brief comment. Examples of what students might say include a golden line from a reading, a question for our fellow writers, or an observation about a project in progress they are working on. Beginning in this way helps me to avoid talking too much to start off the class, and I hope to encourage students who might otherwise just sit back and relax to try and engage actively with the activity of the course.
the challenge of conversation
Even trying for rapid-fire sharing around the room, with up to twenty-five students, writers can get bored, feel left out, or be uncomfortable enough talking in front of a group that they don’t speak in a way that the students in the class can hear them. Even if a student speaks two minutes out of fifty, that’s not much engagement or opportunity to be heard. In considering this problem, I’m taken back to my days as a basketball coach. I was always looking for ways to maximize our practice time and the opportunities each player had to improve. For example, if I were to put fifteen players in a line and have them shoot, get their own rebound, and then pass to the next player, then each player might get three shots in ten minutes. This isn’t helping anyone very much and to my way of thinking, not so different than a student in a writing class who only gets to be heard once or twice. So what to do?
As a teacher, I often go back to my time as an athlete and then a coach. For me, developing as a writer has a lot in common with my development as a shooter of the basketball or training for a long run. When I coached and wanted to get my players more practice, I arranged shooters into five lines of three, and all of the sudden each player got five times the amount of practice than if they were in one big-long line. The classroom version of this basketball solution would be to make use of small groups. Theoretically, a student in a small group has more opportunity to join a conversation about their reading and writing. However, I’ve been in small groups as a student and now as a faculty member, and I’m often not impressed with the sort of work that gets done. There’s often a lot of noise, but it doesn’t often seem to be the noise of conversation about reading and writing. If you want students (or faculty) to work in small groups, then there has to be a plan for how this conversation can flourish. As someone who was beginning to get more and more interested in Twitter, I wondered about the possibility of using it to enhance classroom conversation. More on that experiment in coming posts, and if you’ve got your own ideas about classroom discussion or the use of small groups, I’d love to hear them!
Old School Beer Can
Having never before considered the history of the beer can, last night I was reading a book of collected essays by John Updike, and I was surprised to find him complaining (reading as time travel) in the year 1964 about a new innovation: “Now we are given, instead, a top beetling with an ugly, shmoo-shapped ‘tab,’ which after fiercely resisting the tugging, bleeding fingers of the thirsty man, threatens his lips with a dangerous and hideous hole.” Mr. Updike combated this problem by simply turning the can over, popping his holes into the bottom, and drinking mostly as he always had. My mother-in-law tells me the little hole-popping device was known as a “church key” and carried on many a key chain.
Another essay in the collection is on Ted Williams’ last baseball game. Updike explains that the sports of his time are able to avoid “irrelevance…not by the occasional heroics that sportswriters feed upon but by the players who always care; who care, that is to say, about themselves and their art.” I’m certainly not saying that all athletes don’t care. There’s an arc of them flowing from my childhood to today–Walter Payton, Larry Bird, Reggie Miller, Brett Favre, and Tiger Woods (that’s right!)–who’ve been able to keep me occasionally interested in what threatens to become irrelevant, at least keep me interested for the passion they show and have shown on the field of competition.