Teaching at 8 o’clock in the morning makes me feel that my real calling is a very nerdy version of stand-up comedy. I’ll do almost anything to keep my students awake. When Thoreau says that we lead lives of “quiet desperation,” I believe I know exactly what he means at 8:10am twice a week because by 8:15am in a half-empty, quiet classroom I’m about as desperate as I’ve ever been for attention–and that’s saying a lot remembering my adolescent glitter phase…
For some, it’s worse–like starting at 7:30am! But have you ever noticed that courses with start times before 9am inevitably get called “8-A.M.”s? I don’t tell my colleagues that I teach an “Advance Topics in 19th Century Literature” course. I don’t tell them that I teach “Gender in the American Renaissance.” I tell them I’m teaching “an 8am.” And then the sympathetic groans ensue. And you know what? On some mornings, I need that sympathy. But so do my students.
Strategies for Starting Discussion
When I pull out my lesson plans, here’s what I see: notes upon notes about group work activities and writing prompts for free-writes. Here are some strategies that have worked for me–some aren’t at all new but they might be helpful to new teachers, so I’m not leaving anything out.
Free writes. In creative writing classes, “free writes” are frequent. The rules are that once given a topic, the writers write whatever comes to mind in a stream-of-consciousness exercise for a given period of time. If students aren’t sure what to write, they can just continuously write “I have nothing to write about” or “blah, blah, blah” until a new idea comes and with that inspiration, they’ve got a fresh start again. It’s important to give students enough time for that second or third idea to pop up because at the beginning their pens (and brains) are just warming up. I tell students that often times the blank “in-between” time is necessary because our brains are forming a great idea that’s about to come to us. I normally time my free-writes between 5 and 10 minutes.
Fishbowl. Each student gets one minute to speak about the topic for the day and everyone in the class gets an opportunity to practice good listening skills. I use a timer on my phone and when students feel they’ve said all they need to say, we can either sit in silence and reflect on what they said (because getting comfortable with silence is also useful practice for the world after college) or they can recite the ABC’s until their one minute is up.
A Question and a Passage. I ask students (cough-REQUIRE-cough) to bring in one question about the reading and one passage for discussion. This gives students something prepared in advance to draw from when the conversation goes quiet. It’s often a good jumping-off point for others to chime in and it makes the discussion more student-driven based on student interest.
Listening Dyad Activity. This is something that my colleague Frances Tran taught me. Students get into pairs and are given a topic or question like “Tell your partner about a book you absolutely hated.” One partner speaks for two minutes and then they switch and the other speaks for two minutes. The rules are that listeners cannot interrupt, the conversation is confidential, and both partners get equal time for speaking and for listening. This has been invaluable to my 8am class–I cannot recommend it enough! Sometimes the topic is related to the course (e.g., “describe a feminist”) and sometimes it’s not (e.g., talk about your favorite TV show). After the dyad, we reflect for a few minutes on the activity itself (the challenges of going first, of good listening, of trusting someone) and students offer to share some things that came up in conversation.
YouTube Videos. Perhaps this seems an odd choice, but I promise it’s a great idea. Students are very accustomed to watching YouTube videos for fun, so when you pull one up on the projector screen it feels equivalent to rolling in the old TV box into the room. I’ve found some great sources that are both educational and fun: Crash Course by PBS, C. G. P. Grey by himself, V Sauce by Michael Stevens and other contributors, and Terrible Writing Advice by J.P. Beaubien. What I like about starting the morning this way is it lowers the stakes, gives students a lot to think about in an accessible format, and it also buys some time for the early morning stragglers. This is a great idea to keep in your back pocket for one of those rainy days when everyone walks in late.
Strategies for Getting Students Involved in Their Own Education
An indirect approach to increasing student engagement is getting your students to write (at least part of) the syllabus. You might have to adjust your lesson prep or maybe even read something for the first time that you haven’t read before, but it’s worth the struggle for both you and your students and you can decide how much agency (read: authority) you’re willing to give them (read: to give up). Here are some ideas with increasing levels of student-centered pedagogy.
- The Grading Contract. I’ve done this once and found that students are much harsher on themselves than I am. Here are some suggestions, low stakes and high stakes examples, another useful blog post about why this should happen, and some research on the topic (I especially recommend clicking on that last one by Bethany Holmstrom). Author of The New Education Cathy Davidson writes in her HASTAC blog post: “I have found students respond to the challenge of taking their own level of learning seriously if they believe that the instructor takes that challenge seriously, consistently, and for a reason.” I agree. What I’ve done is ask my students to come up with criteria for their participation grade and then I remind them of that criteria about halfway or two-thirds of the way through the semester.
- Surveying Students for the Book List. When I was in college, I wound up reading The Picture of Dorian Gray four times in four separate classes. My only takeaway from it all was that I hated Oscar Wilde. It’s a shame, because Wilde was a great writer…but no! Please no more Wilde!! When I plan my syllabus, I ask for student input on the books we read. I send them a survey asking them about what books they would like to read or avoid. Students have many ideas about this and they like being given a choice. Besides, they are more interested in the topic of the class because they’re reading what they want to read.
- Students Revamp (Almost) the Entire Syllabus. This one’s the hardest because it requires leaving the room for 20-30 minutes, and leaving the syllabus in your students’ hands. I now keep my syllabi in shared Google Docs that constantly change as students tweak them and I tweak them. It makes the syllabus less “concrete” and more flexible. I usually plan the first three or four weeks to give students time to think about their interests, get acquainted with the topic, learn about some new authors and possibilities, and to trust me when I say they have control over the syllabus. Sometimes students regret choices they make, but part of preparing students for the world after college is giving them opportunities to lead, to make errors, and to be creative thinkers in a group setting. Sure, I’m the “expert” there to “teach” them, but being dictated to or lectured at isn’t going to do diddly-squat to prepare them for independence in the world after college, either.
Flops and Failures
And sometimes there’s simply not enough caffeine in the world to make it go right. No matter how solid your lesson plans are, no matter how much agency you give your students, no matter how much you plead or threaten or give them “tough-love,” it’s simply another morning of quiet–unbearably quiet–desperation when it occurs to you that no one is “awake” until there are only 15 minutes left of class. Do you walk out?
While I love giving students control over the syllabus and asking them to bring a question and passage from the readings to each and every class discussion, sometimes it drops like a lead balloon at 8am. I always accept partial responsibility–and the “partial” is important. When I give students agency in their own education, not all of them know what to do with it and it takes some time for them to figure it out. I remind students that they get what they want to get out of my class. This isn’t a “free” ride because it’s student-centered and I’m not a “cool” professor that gives good grades that aren’t earned.
Actually, it’s a lot harder when students have so much responsibility. The conversation flops when no one reads, when no one has a question, when no one has a passage that they want to share, or when no one shows up. Moreover, it’s demoralizing to the other students who did do the work when others don’t do their share. Giving students more control can also burden hard-working students more than others. Student-centered classes depend on trust and accountability, so there’s much more community building that needs to happen–and that takes time away from the course material, but I think it’s worth that time.
When any of the above flops happen, it’s also a lot harder not to walk out and end class early. It’s harder to stay and dwell in the discomfort and problem-solve with students, ask them to answer for themselves, “Do you think you’re contributing equally to this class discussion?” Planning a conversation about accountability can help bring students together and realize how much they depend on one another.
Reminding them that it’ll show in their final grade is just a threat that sounds like every threat they’ve heard since the beginning of their education. But reminding them that the class is basically functioning like a team makes students approach attendance and participation differently. So ask them:
- What do you think you’re contributing as a participant? As a listener?
- What are you doing well?
- What could you be doing better?
- What do you want to get out of this class?
- How can your instructor help you reach those goals?”
I hope this helps you, my fellow morning warriors. The struggle is real. May all the caffeine and chocolate croissants you need to get going in the morning be in your future.
Update: read more about how to effectively manage participatory activities and extended group work from a more recent post I wrote for Cengage’s Today’s Learner Blog: “5 Tricks for Successful Group Work.“