Many new teachers feel frightened by the prospect of actually standing in front of a room of students. I know the feeling well.
Many teachers also start each term excited, only to lose enthusiasm once the students seem not to be doing the reading, or begin refusing to engage in classroom discussions.
It’s easy to start to feel halfway outraged by the students’ lack of interest, and halfway terrified by the suspicion that you are one lesson away from mutiny.
This essay offers you, the teacher, some ideas for designing class sessions that keep students engaged and involved. It’s possible to create lessons that model, in their structure and tone, the very heart of thinking, considering, learning: it’s possible to present in experiential form the kind of cognitive practice you want your students to develop.
When I began teaching college-level writing, I struggled to do this because I had little idea how students would respond to my assignments. Some of my activities and planned discussions would simply fail. Since those early days, while I still mess up from time to time, I’ve learned how to structure class sessions in ways that (mostly) ensure each activity will work well.
So, on the simplest level, my first proposal is this: never unintentionally give your students the power to upset your lesson plan.
Following this little rule will make both you and your students happier, and will put you in a great position to really teach them something.
In other words: it is possible to design your class sessions so that your students rarely get the opportunity to derail your plan for the day. On the one hand, this might sound obvious. Of course you make a lesson plan and stick to it. But as I hope to show below, it is strangely easy to hand over the success of the session to your students.
Now, on the other hand, the principle may sounds crudely autocratic, at odds with the ethics of freedom and self-discovery we hope the Humanties can impart. However, I believe it is the teacher’s duty to plan and execute a smooth-running “classroom experience,” one which students find worthwhile, affirming, and productive.
To me, the goal of a smooth-running class is not in opposition to the goals of a “pedagogy of the oppressed.” Failing to run a good class doesn’t free students from their oppression: it just leaves everyone frustrated and annoyed, with the larger structures of grades, fees, and credits still intact.
Succeeding in teaching a good class, in contrast, offers your students a vision of “the life of the mind” that, one hopes, they can take with them long after they have completed your course.
Before I begin, two (very large) provisos:
- I am a white, able-bodied, British-sounding, conventional-looking man. Getting advice from me about classroom discipline might be as useful as getting swimming advice from a seal: I can simply get away with things that another teacher might not. I would love to hear how female, non-white, non-British-sounding teachers react to these ideas.
- In this essay, I am specifically imagining a very select classroom environment, the middle to high tier college classroom, where discipline problems are (usually) fairly small. In the past, I have taught in more challenging environments, and I consider those experiences invaluable to my present day teaching work. But this specific essay is more about “classroom management” than it is about dealing with genuinely disruptive students, or with working in classrooms where your students are in fear of their lives, or have not eaten a proper meal that day. This essay merely attempts to offer tips for creating an enjoyable, learning-focused, low-stress classroom session — for both teacher and students.
This post is the eighth entry in the series How I Teach College-Level Writing. You can start at the beginning, if you like:
- The Intro
- The Theories
- The Diagnosis
- Why I Teach Cool
- The Essay, The Problem
- Every Sentence is a Question
- Don’t Grade Too Much
Don’t Ask Them What They Think of the Homework
Here’s one example of what I mean by “not giving students power over the class”: if you begin the class session by standing at the whiteboard, ready to take down notes, and you ask your students, “What did you think of the homework / chapter / assigned reading?” you are effectively handing over control of your lesson to them.
Does that seem extreme? Well, what if no one answers? What do you do then? If they do want to talk about the assigned reading, great, but — what if they don’t? You suddenly look silly, powerless.
You need them to answer, in order to continue with your lesson plan, but if the room is silent, you are stuck.
Perhaps you start calling on students by name — perhaps you get exasperated and try to shame them into replying. Perhaps you start telling them what you thought of the chapter. None of these are good solutions, in part because the crisis was entirely unnecessary.
Sometimes, of course, students do arrive eager to discuss the work you assigned them. You never know. But if you are a new teacher, and students don’t volunteer their thoughts, these kinds of silences will probably freak you out and leave you doubting yourself.
The worst of it is, in such a situation, the students may not want to make you feel bad. They would talk about the book if you had prepared them, but they are studying four or five other subjects, they had a huge argument with their parents the night before, and they feel unsure if they really understood the writer’s argument.
They simply aren’t ready to produce commentary on it.
Take a Break Rather than Fight
A second example of “giving students power over your lesson plans”: I try, wherever possible, to never openly argue with a student inside a class session. I realise this is a luxurious position to have, and I understand that some students are so disruptive that teachers have no choice but challenge them, but my practice, for better or worse, is to avoid pushing my authority on upset or frustrated students.
If I can, I try to defuse situations with a light remark or a respectful correction; if I can’t, I tell the class to take a short break. Then I make sure to speak to the student one-on-one.
What happens if you order the student to apologise, or to accept your viewpoint, or to calm down, and she refuses? What do you do then? Do you shout louder? In the moment after you issue your order, you’ve lost power over your lesson plan: you now have to wait to see how the student responds.
I feel like it’s almost always better to drain the tension from the room before confronting the student: if nothing else, this keeps you as the central figure in the room, the person in charge of how the session is going to progress.
After all, it’s always possible to say, “Hey. Let’s take a quick break, everyone.” It’s always your option to give the students five minutes to check their phones, allow the sense of conflict to dissipate, and, three minutes into that break, ask the student in question to talk to you one-on-one outside the room, or in the corner.
Without an audience, and with teacher’s full attention, usually the student is calmer, and it’s possible ask something like, “What’s going on?” or “Did something I said upset you?” Then, once the student has explained himself, and I’ve acknowledged their discomfort, I would probably re-outline the course rules, and explain how the student broke them: “Look, this class only works if we all… I can’t allow people to…”
A Good Class Models Thinking
Of course, those two ideas are negative, about preventing trouble. But I believe that a well-designed class session should do more than merely avoid trouble for you, the teacher.
A good class session should model, for students, the process, as well as the pleasures, of thinking.
As their teacher, I know what’s it’s like to sit down to consider something new and challenging. I have practice preparing myself to work through Ta-Nehisi Coates’s The Case for Reparations, or an Anne Sexton poem. I not only know how to still my mind, focus, catch the writer’s meaning, piece together the key stages of the argument, suffer through moments of incomprehension; I also know how to gain pleasure from learning new things, how to experience the joy of gaining a wider perspective, of the heightened consciousness that good writing brings.
But there is no guarantee my students know how do any of this. This is why, in a classroom, I somewhat amplify my delight at hearing new ideas, at hearing successful responses to questions. “Wow! Great response! Ten points!” I evoke in public the usually private satisfactions of study and reflection.
By saying how clever a good student comment was, I am not trying to flatter them; I am trying to model for them the very real joy I feel when I learn new things.
Now, some students may not need this. They might have learned how to process their thoughts very well in high school. However, in my class, they still tend to walk in half-exhausted, confused, stressed about their upcoming Biology test. As clever and diligent as they are, they do not necessarily arrive in the room in a frame of mind conducive to anything productive.
That’s why I like to start each class with an opening ritual or routine. This might include a short solo writing assignment, a reflection or response to the homework. It might be free writing to a prompt. It might also include some opening talk or chit chat — I am currently teaching a class on the US presidential election, and so most days I show them a short clip from the previous night’s convention.
This is to signal that the classroom is a different kind of space: a creative, safe place. Students seem to really appreciate this: it’s a crucial part of the lesson.
I also like to ask a “question of the day” in order to take registration. This was an idea created, I think, by my colleague Tawnysha Greene: to take attendance, at the start of every class I ask the students a question (“dogs or cats?” “Most remote place you’d like to live: cabin in the woods, isolated farm, small village, or none of the above?”). As I go through the list of names, everyone has to answer the question, and it creates a fun, relaxed feeling in the room.
The last part of the opening ritual is where I explain what we’re going to study that day, and why. Usually I have three points on the board, and before anything else, I tell the class what those three points are and how I’m going to teach them.
Small Group Work
Similarly, it is worth framing classroom activities in terms of “products” that the students are required, as the result of each activity, to create. This puts the onus on them, not you, for the success of the exercise.
It also trains them to see intellectual activity as a process that results in something, even if that something is merely a lot more questions.
I, as an intellectual-type, know that talking about an issue is meant to lead to a deeper, more complex understanding, but if you ask twenty tired, stressed 19-year-olds to “get into four groups and discuss the reading,” they are going either sit silently or, within a few minutes, veer off topic.
This is almost inevitable, and can leave some teachers feeling that small group activities “never work.”
However, the brilliant insight of John C. Bean’s writing textbook, Engaging Ideas, is that when you give small student groups concrete “products” to create, and have them appoint officials who will be called upon to give evidence of those products, small group activities work very well indeed.
Bean’s proposal is simply this: every small group activity requires two things — 1. a goal from you, a thing for each group to create, and 2. the election or selection within each group of two officials, a recorder and a checker.
The checker writes down everyone’s name and makes sure that everyone speaks at least once, “checking” off each name as that person speaks; the recorder writes down what the rest of the group says during their conversation and, when the activity is over, is required to share those thoughts with the class.
This means that in a class of 20 students, a small group activity will result in four groups of five preparing commentary or answers to a given problem: it will then lead, even if some members of the class failed to do the reading, to at least four people in the room (the four recorders) able to speak at length. It will likely also lead to a few more students who want to share their thoughts, people who were energised by the conversation.
Every teacher loves to stand by the whiteboard and listen as the students offer their thoughts.
It’s great fun, letting the students respond to each other, answering your questions, pointing out aspects of the assigned reading that you missed.
The way to ensure these full class discussions go well, however, is to prepare the students for such a discussion in advance, so you don’t end up in the position I outlined at the start of this post: standing helplessly as the class refuses to say anything.
Many undergrads seem to need time to collect and focus their thoughts before they can offer ideas. Before I ask students to join me in a discussion of the assigned reading, I usually “prime” them with a sequence of pre-thinking activities: perhaps I ask them a question about the homework, and ask them to write a paragraph about it. This allows students to refresh their memories of the piece.
Perhaps I pose a more complex problem about it, and set them in small groups to discuss the problem. Perhaps I point out a page or paragraph in the essay I really like, and have each sentence pick a sentence from it to discuss.
Keeping up the pace
I find that students get tired if you ask them to do the same thing for too long. They can listen to me lecture for ten minutes, say. They can do a small group activity for ten or fifteen minutes. They can write on their own for five to ten minutes. Even free-flowing classroom discussions run out of steam sooner or later.
That’s why I design my lesson plans as a run through of a variety of pedagogical formats. Part of every lesson will be a lecture; part will be a discussion; part will be pair work or group work; part will be solo writing time.
If I have an hour and a half to teach with, as I do this summer, I might prepare a plan with a sequence of activities:
Informal catch up
A quick discussion of the plan for the lesson and the question of the day
Solo writing assignment.
Small group assignment.
Groups report their findings.
New topic or technique introduced by me as a brief lecture.
Full class discussion about that topic and the reading.
A discussion of the homework and a review of the day’s lesson.
Maybe I don’t get to the lecture — maybe that’s too much for one day. But the pace is quick, and keeps changing.
Conclusion: it is better to be organised than liked
In the Humanities, teachers often believe, despite their best intentions, that they need to be liked by their students.
I’m no better. I don’t think Biology lecturers worry about this so much, but we English teachers have Michelle Pfeiffer and Robin Williams as role models, and we want to be beloved. It’s very hard to escape this desire, this need to be liked.
However, I think the more important thing is to be organised: to have lesson plans, to mark everyone’s papers promptly, to set rules and apply them.
Failing to be liked is annoying, but the students need the grade — everyone will survive. Whereas failing to be organised quickly leads to a lack of respect, and that’s not good. If students lose respect for you, things can get rough, and it’s hard to recover from: you feel like you are performing day after day to the same unhappy audience.
And yet, there is one more thing to mention, but it’s very hard to describe. I’m kind of nervous to describe it, actually.
While I don’t design my lessons to maximise student enjoyment of them, I do think students enjoy my lessons (at least in the last year or two, when I’ve really become better at teaching these writing courses). And part of the reason why they enjoy my classes is something that I flinch from describing, but — given that it is a very real thing, and I’ve seen many other teachers do it — I feel I must: I believe it is possible to develop a kind of “aura” as a teacher, a kind of presence in the classroom that students find reassuring.
Does that sound ridiculous? I hope it doesn’t.
I could not do this presence thing when I began teaching; I cannot describe how I do it now. I am just conscious that I am doing it, sometimes. And when I teach in a more challenging environment, I am aware that I am doing it more strongly, more intensely, so that students who might be frustrated, bored, or disruptive become less so.
I try, when I teach, to be (or to perform being) a very patient, interested, alert, respectful person. I try to fill the room with a kind of bright, relaxed energy. I don’t make jokes about the students (this can quickly lead to disaster, I’ve learned), but I do try to maintain a wry, half-way bemused air, particularly if things go off track. This air, I like to think, implies that nothing in the class is that stressful, that this is a friendly space for everyone.
For some students, particularly those in more troubled institutions, this may be one of the few times that an authority figure has really listened to them. It makes a difference.
Obviously, I wish I could do this presence thing all the time. In real life, however, I quickly go back to being my usual nervous, self-recriminating, superior, distant self.
During the hours I spend teaching, I get to be a better human being.
It’s part of the reason I love teaching so much.