Questions about Questions

The aspect about my microteach that I most questioned going in was the fold-and-pass method for answering the questions about “Stories,” so I was pleasantly surprised that this aspect of the lesson was as big of a hit as it was.

Going in, my goal for the fold-and-pass was essentially just to “spice up” the usual small-group discussion format.  I needed to ask the questions one at a time in order for the folding part to work—I didn’t want students to work ahead and answer too many questions before I called for everyone to pass—but what I hadn’t considered is how pedagogically valuable it can be to ask questions one at a time.  Also, how impactful the ordering of the questions asked can be. Thoughtful ordering, I see now, can invite the questions to interact with each other—to invite students to really get at the distinctions as well as overlaps between “important” and “interesting,” for example, or feeling versus meaning.

So one take-away for me is that I need to start asking well-ordered questions one at a time more often.  In the ENGH101 course I teach, I keep getting frustrated with my students—bright, smart writers all, but shy to speak, even in small groups—and have tried many different things to try to get them to talk more in class, especially in group settings.  I spent a lot of time at the beginning of the semester pre-planning group assignments, with the aim of mixing up the groups so students were interacting with different people, but grew frustrated with this because student absences made my pre-planning feel like a waste of time.  I tried having students write things down in order to share what they wrote with a neighbor, but they would literally just exchange papers for each other to read!  I tried generating a dozen discussion questions and projecting them on the board, encouraging the groups to skip around in the questions to find the ones their group found most interesting to discuss, but they worked through the list robotically, like they were filling in some kind of worksheet (“So…what should we put for the third question?”).

Then I landed on the pass and fold idea.  Rather, was reminded of it; in a pedagogy course last year, a colleague came up with the pass and fold method as a way of workshopping thesis statements.  How it works in that context is that for homework, students are asked to come to class prepared with a thesis statement for the argumentative essay they are currently working on.  Then I passed out blank pre-folded papers, much as I did in the microteach.  Then the students, in groups of four, write their thesis statement at the top of their papers.  As the students pass and fold, the original thesis statement remains visible at all times.  The second writer re-writes the original thesis statement in his own words, then folds to conceal his work.  The third writer then re-writes the original thesis statement in her own words, folds, etc.  (So the folds are slightly different for this activity in order to keep the original thesis claim visible.)  By the end, the papers are returned to the original writer, who now can examine and consider three new, different ways of expressing his thesis statement.  Many of my students observed improvements to their original statements—re-writers either made the claim helpfully more concise or more thorough; more specific or more simply stated; etc.  Other students realized their original claim wasn’t well expressed, since the revisions missed what they thought the point of their claim was.  So this activity achieved a lot of goals:  Claim-making and idea clarification, but also drafting and revision.  AND THEY ACTUALLY TALKED TO EACH OTHER, so I felt pretty victorious that day.

When the time came to do the microteach, I was still thinking a lot about that pass-and-fold idea, but I wasn’t sure how to translate it from a composition classroom to a literature classroom.  What would I have the students write?  Did I want to do a sort of textual intervention kind of thing?  Should the first thing written remain visible the whole time, or not?   How can I get four different people to write things on passing papers about “Stories”?  That’s how I got to the idea of focusing on questions.  If I have four different questions, I thought, I could have everyone answering the same questions, but in different places.  That way, comparing answers would be even more intimate.  Rather than just exchanging papers, “hey, here’s what I put for the four questions,” they would have to look to the left and to the right and engage with those around them to track the progress of their answers around the circle, and compare how those answers differed from or were similar to their peers.

So, that leaves me with a second benefit (among many others), one that is especially reassuring to me, which is the realization that as I prepare to teach literature for the first time next fall, I’m not starting from scratch.  Rather, I’m already sitting on an arsenal of lesson plans and classroom activities from teaching composition that I can borrow from and modify to be appropriate for literature coursework.  Of course, I’m sure not everything will translate, but I bet a lot of it will.  And for me at least, knowing that I’ve got a starting point makes me more excited, and less daunted, by the task of dreaming up new things to try as well.  So while my summer’s still going to be pretty busy with all this lesson planning I’ve yet to do, the task seems less overwhelming (and even leaves some time for margaritas along the way).