The PDFs have been uploaded to Blackboard, the syllabi have been printed, stapled, and handed out, and names have been learned (well, mostly) as the daunting task of teaching a large survey course is underway this fall. We’re merely scratching the surface at a breakneck pace, reading American literature from the early explorers to the abolitionists, meeting in a long and narrow room for 30+ people twice a week. Trying to keep students engaged and trying to hear from every student in the room in a 75-minute class has already presented its challenges that have required some adjustment on my part, moving away from what I’ve considered a typical English class.
With so much material at hand, and a large amount left out, it’s easy to fall into lecturing or hearing from the same students who are already somewhat familiar with American history. The majority of the class is composed of English majors gaining familiarity with the common practices of the field, but when a great opportunity (e.g. a conversation about Edward Said’s Orientalism when discussing Columbus and Las Casas) comes along, it’s hard to avoid a mini lecture that would bring everyone onto the same page. On the one hand, secondary reading helps to bring class discussion to the next level, but on the other, the syllabus is already packed.
So far the best class-wide participation has come out of group work–something I never did as an English major in college.
- Lesson Plan for Las Casas, John Smith and William Bradford: Break into groups of 4-5 and assign each group one author or one text. Each group reviews reading notes (or reads) the Norton Anthology’s introduction to the author/text and whittles down the surplus of information to 2-3 key things we should take away about the author/text. Groups report back to the class their key facts while the instructor writes them down on the board and adds/edits where necessary. Learning Outcomes: students learn to make temporal and geographical distinctions between authors, and practice parring down large amounts of information into bullet-point notes to have on hand later.
- Lesson Plan for Thoreau’s “Walking”: Students get into pairs and each pair is assigned one page of Thoreau’s “Walking” from which they choose one quotation that illustrates some form of spiritual/religious experience in nature. One student reads the quotation to the class and the other explains why they chose this particular quote. Learning Outcomes: students practice selecting the best possible quote from a text to support a particular claim or argument and rationalize why they chose this quote, fitting it into the larger discussion as they would in a paper.
The group work (especially in pairs) engages all students, helps to get them more accustomed to talking with one another and responding to each other in class discussion, and keeps the energy in the room going as we cover a breadth of literature in a short period of time. Large class discussions have not done enough to incorporate a large number of students, not to mention a large amount of material, whereas the group work has so far served to produce a more democratic, positive, and student-driven class meeting.