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This post first appeared on January 28, 2015.
One of the great challenges for many of us is getting students to really engage with the readings. Students may read before class, but don’t annotate. Student may not read at all. And many students don’t necessarily think on their feet about the readings at hand. One of my challenges in the classroom is getting students to go back to the text itself, rather than simply talking in abstract terms about what happened in a story or a play.
As a member of my university’s faculty development committee, I’ve found myself in charge of a workshop on this very topic: getting students to engage with the reading. Given that’s it’s time for a new semester, I thought it might be useful to share a list of activities to use in the classroom to help foster thoughtful engagement with the text itself. Some of these are things I’ve written about before, some are ideas from other people that I’ve found helpful.
In-class discussion questions
Everyone approaches classroom discussion differently, and every class dynamic requires some different approaches to the way we present the questions to the students.
- I’m a frequent user of small groups in my classrooms, and I’ve developed a number of ways to get the groups working on ideas. This particular exercise is one that encourages students to consider their own answers — but then to also evaluate the quality of other people’s answers.
- This semester I tried something new with students who were reluctant to jump into full-class discussions. I projected 4-5 discussion questions (usually culled from the instructor’s manual to the textbook) and gave students the first 5-10 minutes of class to find information that would help answer those questions. I wish I could tell you where I ran across this idea, but it worked wonders with a class that was reluctant to join in discussions.
- I’ve long used student-generated discussion questions in my upper division classes.
- This guest post by Ben Bunting has some nice ideas about literature and contexts as discussion openers.
Writing as Discussion
Many of my courses are writing intensive courses, so I try to integrate written analysis of the literature into classroom participation.
- I’ve found success with having students write analytical paragraphs as part of their approach to the texts, which can work in any classroom where analyzing information is central.
- Barclay Barrios suggests having students write argument haikus about complex informational texts, which could certainly be translated into discussion-openers in a literature classroom. I will be doing this next semester, most assuredly. (Barrios has also suggested a way to do this with Vine.
In class reading
Actually having students read in the classroom can be useful, particularly early in the semester when they’re just figuring out how to do the work of the literature classroom.
- Critical Reading , as exemplified here, is a technique I picked up from the Foundation for Critical Thinking. It can be useful when students are approaching a really challenging work. It helps students recognize the need to slow down as they read, and can build confidence in the idea that they can actually do the difficult reading.
- I also like to have students make use of contexts sections in anthologies.
- Having students view characters through the eyes of other characters in the text can be a useful way to understand character motivation.
Encouraging students to have fun with the literature, while still looking carefully into the text itself can be a useful way to engage students who are not English majors.
- I recently had students create comics about Charles Dickens.
- In teaching “The Things They Carried,” I’ve had students create categories of the items in the book — and I think this is something that could be adapted for a wide variety of stories and poems.
- Barclay Barrios has written both about drawing the argument (which I’ve adapted as drawing the poem)
- Joanne Diaz also has her students use the Woodberry Poetry Room to teach students about active listening.
I think that all of these are adaptable for different levels and for different texts, which is generally how most of my teaching goes: I see what others are doing, and I adapt it to what works with my particular groups of students. I’m looking forward to another semester of teaching — and I certainly plan to adapt some of these activities in new ways for my classrooms.
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