Mascot for #DevilDiss

Mascot for #DevilDiss
Mascot for #DevilDiss

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Teaching Early Shakespeare Step by Step: Week 2 Student Input and Interactions

Last semester I made serious changes to my classroom, mainly centered around the fact that I just stopped policing things. Just stopped.
The effects were amazing.

This semester I'm just teaching the online early Shakespeare class of roughly 75 students, which was new for me, so I thought a lot about the pieces I used to construct the class.
So this semester, while I spent a lot of time and thought on LOTS of pieces of the course, like last semester, I've come to a decision about a single focus- student interactions.

I think how we respond to student questions, how we treat our students when they ask questions, is key to letting our students know we care, we're a resource, and that their participation matters. I also think that especially at the beginning of a course, it's vital to establishing class culture.

For me responding to questions is also related to tailoring class to student input. I think here tone and approach is key. If you assume right off the bat that students are willfully not learning, not doing, being lazy then 1) that's a crappy attitude please stop teaching and 2) that's going to influence how you respond. That then becomes a cycle where you're snippy, they're offended, then they don't produce, then you feel justified in your initial response.
If instead, rather than assume these awful things about your students you take the stance that either your presentation/explanation wasn't clear and/or your students are genuinely confused, then you can work to help them through it. Maybe you need to rewrite/clarify the assignment (especially true of first time classes or assignments). A lot of times I don't know when something is unclear or a problem until a student points it out. Maybe your student needs more help. Maybe it's simply a matter of letting a student talk something through.

Now I'm not saying that you won't get questions that could have been answered by reading the assignment guidelines. But I will say that these are the minority. And even for these cases, I think a rude, snarky response does a lot more harm. I don't think it's an exaggeration that those types of responses can seriously impact a student's mental health, their future performance in your class, other classes, how they view education in general, and even whether or not they finish and graduate.
On the flip side, a kindly worded response. One that attempts to explain, asks whether or not that's clear, and ending with "please let me know if that doesn't explain what you need, and I'll try to clarify" costs you nothing. And can have a huge impact.
And none of that lowers the rigor of your class. Or your expectations. But with student interactions, I like to err on the side that they genuinely need help.

I've written before on how in other classes I've used check in surveys to get student input in order to improve the class. Most of the time these are informal affairs but the goal is always to ask students about things that are unclear, that I can help with, and go from there.
I've put in my syllabus this semester that I recommend students watch movies of the plays. Not as replacement for reading, but because plays were meant to be SEEN, and especially if you don't have a familiarity with live theatre, or reading plays, this can be enormously helpful to comprehension.
The library has lots of versions, so does Amazon and Netflix. I don't have a preference, although I tell them which version I'll be watching when I host optional class viewings of the play we're covering. It's just an added resource, if students want to participate, it's not a requirement.
This past Monday, for our viewing of Midsummer, no one came. It was just me and my TA. I live tweeted the movie, which was fun.

The next day I asked Twitter for suggestions about how to increase participation.
I got a lot of "if you don't require it they won't come."
Okay, but that wasn't really what I asked.
I specifically DID NOT require it because that's an issue of access. Students take online classes because they are out of the state. Out of the country. Work and have kids and can't attend evening viewings.
I did get one good suggestion, to allow live tweets of the movies to replace a low participation/discussion board grade. So I've made that adjustment.

Since I wanted more suggestions, I put a survey in the class asking why they hadn't attended, what we could do to make them want to participate, and asking if they would live tweet.
  • Many said they forgot
  • Many said it wasn't practical to attend (night classes, work, family obligations) but if they could follow along from home they would
  • One suggestion was to make sure I provided links for online/free versions rather than Amazon or Netflix
    • Because of this I changed the versions of most of the movies to ones available through the library as streaming as this is an issue of access
  • I also posted a Doodle, where they could choose the next night
  • But most said they did plan on attending future nights
    • But they don't want to live tweet
    • But one suggestion was to post a discussion board where they could share thoughts
We'll see how this works out, but I think this combination of approaches, asking the students what makes this better, and then acting on what they've said, will be successful.
If nothing else they know this is important to me, that I want to help them out, and that I am willing to ask them how best to serve them, make the changes I can, and explain what I can't and why.
In my class students have to give a presentation on a play. Specifically, they have to choose a topic or theme to explore in the play.
We cover five plays, and they can choose whichever one they want. I encourage them to choose both a play and topic/theme that they are interested in.
This choice is paralyzing for some (as I've encountered in my other classes). They want a detailed checklist of what it needs to include.

I give them this instead. I'd rather give them nothing, and have them bring ME things. Not to be mean, but because I honestly want them to think through what satisfies what I'm asking, critically think through WHY those things would satisfy the end goal, why presentations are important to the class, how this assignment functions as prep for future papers and projects.

This is a paradigm shift for many. It's hard. I respond to a lot of emails and questions by asking questions. Again, not to be difficult, but to guide their thinking.
  • What are you interested in?
  • For example, if you like .... maybe try...
  • You're a teacher, a lot of these programs are used in both online and face to face teaching, so maybe make something you can use later...
I have a lot of teachers this semester, so I'm trying to steer them towards thinking through things in that lens. And for all my students encouraging them to pursue interests, whether or not they conform to their majors.

I also encourage them to play with the Web 2.0 tools, play to their strengths.
But it's also okay to just make a PowerPoint.
Or a PowerPoint with narration. And videos.

The lesson of choosing a medium to suit audience and purpose I think is as valuable a lesson as the research and presentation on Shakespeare.
These first presentations will inform how I move forward.
These presenters will get detailed feedback. I'll make note of misunderstandings or missteps so I can provide help and guidance to future presentations. I also allow students to revise, so if these first presenters (who often become inevitable guinea pigs because they're first) misunderstood, or need clarification, they can revise and resubmit.

Choice can still be scary. But I think listening to students, actively asking for their input, making changes when you can, and explain when you can't, all help create a good class culture. I think too that how I respond to questions does as well.

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