Getting Students on Board Through Narrating Your Thought Process

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Elizabeth Catanese is an Associate Professor of English and Humanities at Community College of Philadelphia. Trained in mindfulness-based stress reduction, Elizabeth has enjoyed incorporating mindfulness activities into her college classroom for over ten years. Elizabeth works to deepen her mindful awareness through writing children's books, cartooning and parenting her energetic twin toddlers, Dylan and Escher.


One of the things I tend to dread relates to group work, which, when running smoothly, is one of my greatest joys to witness! The problem is usually the moment when I tell students that it’s time to do group work. Often students are tired or expecting to be passive learners that day or feeling some social anxiety. Whatever the case may be, the energy shifts to frustration as soon as I say the time has come to talk with each other (even if students can see the full agenda on the board and know it’s coming). It’s particularly bad if I make a last-minute decision for students to engage in group work, but I have learned over time students are happier to comply when they know why I want them to complete group work and similar activities—and when they know the worries I might have about the activities.

A few weeks ago, I noticed that the energy in the room was low, so I decided I wanted make some visual representation of the content of “The Contendings of Horace and Seth” in groups. Instead of saying “Let’s get into groups now” or sorting student names on the board, I said “I am noticing the energy is low in the classroom, and I’ll bet talking to each other will give you some energy. Let’s get into groups now.” The process went smoother because students knew I was shifting to try to help everyone, not just at random.

Narrating my thought process works for other group activities as well. Last week I tried an activity for the first time where I grouped students based on their chosen essay topics for a brainstorming session. We’d done brainstorming before but never in homogenous groupings. I told them my plan, followed by: “I’m nervous about this because I know this means you will be asked to talk to some people you’ve never talked to before, but I absolutely think you can do it. I’m also nervous because I always leave someone out when I make groups. It doesn’t mean I don’t like you!” Sure enough, Najae did not make the list on the board, but she laughed, and I sighed, and the class went on to have a great time talking with each other; some students even gave email feedback about how helpful it was to hear the thoughts of others who were writing on the same topic.

It’s hard to shake the feeling of needing to be an expert both in course content and lesson planning, but I think these moments of vulnerability are energizing for students. We are, in these moments, on the same plane as students as learners and experimenters. There is, of course, a balance to be struck. It’s true that I could always create the groups in advance or figure out a way to be “a more perfect teacher.” But sometimes I think the best work is done when we embrace our imperfection. We do not have to narrate our thinking to students at every single turn, but sometimes when we share our inner workings, we make space for students to do so with us and with their peers. At this juncture in my career, I find more and more that it’s the smallest shifts in my teaching methods that make the biggest difference in student engagement.