Reflection: Two Weeks In

We’re two weeks into the school year, and I’ve already encountered a number of highs as well as a few lows. I know that every year will provide its share of lows at some point, but I seemed to have more than usual last year and often felt drained by them, so I hope that I can sustain the current ratio throughout.

Since implementing Harkness discussions is my big pedagogical experiment of the year, it would make sense to start there. So far, we’ve done a lot more discussions in my government classes than in my American history classes, and they’ve been a somewhat mixed bag. On the whole, I’ve been very pleased with my students’ ability to handle the expectations, and I would say that we’re ahead of where I thought we would be at this point in the year. I asked the seniors to hold a discussion without me even sitting at the table this week, and both sections were able to sustain a thoughtful, on-topic discussion for half an hour. There were bumpy moments in each, but I honestly believe that the students gained something from the experience, not the least of which (I hope) was the confidence that they are in fact capable of taking responsibility for their own learning—and succeeding at that!

One thing I’ve learned already: the quality of discussions (and thus, the quality of the student experience as a whole) really hinges on the quality and accessibility of the readings. I “knew” this, of course, in an intellectual sort of way, but I didn’t really know it until I saw it with my eyes. This is where I play my largest role—in selecting the texts and in framing the discussion at the outset. From there, I try to let the students delineate the boundaries of the discussion. I do need to be more thoughtful about my reading selections, though, and I’m already starting to get a better idea of what works and what doesn’t. The problem is that some of the things I think are “essential texts” (Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, for instance) don’t immediately grab the students’ interest, and they’re not always immediately accessible to high school students (or even teachers, for that matter).

Some of the best discussions I’ve seen so far were on individualism vs. community as ideals in American society. The readings for this discussion were Robert Lipsyte’s recent article in The Nation, “Jocks vs. Pukes” and an excerpt from Robert Bellah’s 1985 book Habits of the Heart. (By the way, if you’re an educator and haven’t yet read Lipsyte’s article, you really must. Even if you don’t agree with it, it’s a fascinating bit of writing.)

The other discussion that went really well was today, actually. I asked my students to read short excerpts (about ten pages each) from Paul Johnson’s massive tome, A History of the American People, as well as the late Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Not surprisingly (if you’re familiar with the authors or their works, that is), the students had much to discuss. They were shocked at the brutality of the Spanish, including Columbus, but the conversation really focused on the different approaches to history and how two well-educated, intelligent people could start from the same source basis and end up with such different interpretations of a period. I was impressed.

Although I’ve been pleased with the majority of discussions, some have gone less smoothly. I realized about fifteen minutes into a discussion of Hobbes and Locke that we were going nowhere, so we backed out and started again. I asked students to get into groups and develop at least one question that would provoke discussion. I made a rock-climbing analogy, which I think helped them understand what I was looking for. When you climb (which I don’t), you start with a hand-hold or a foot-hold, and you’re always looking for the next one. But you’re also looking a couple of holds ahead—you don’t want to find yourself on one hold where you can’t get to another.

In a discussion, you need to start from a place of relative security. Start with something—anything—that you feel somewhat comfortable with. It could be a piece of a single sentence. From there, you should look to build a question and will expand our knowledge of that sliver of an idea. We spent nearly 45 minutes on developing a good discussion question alone, but the discussion that we had on their questions the following class period was much better. For me, that was eye-opening. Give the time and the freedom to pursue what they think matters, and they will surprise you with their ability.

I’m working to accept that this type of teaching will be slower. It is a near-certainty that we will cover less content, and although I’m perfectly fine with that in the abstract, I’m finding it a little more difficult to accept in practice. My hope, though, is that whatever we do cover, they will understand much better. More importantly, perhaps, their ability to think critically and creatively, collaborate, and communicate will benefit from the opportunity to explore ideas together rather than having the ideas of others thrown at them.

I’m also working to resist the temptation I often feel to jump into the fray. Our discussions have sometimes devolved into Socratic seminars, which is not necessarily a bad thing—it’s just not what I’m trying to do. I’ve noticed that when I start to speak, they let me. Once or twice, this has snowballed into a near-lecture experience, which I am desperately trying to avoid. I’ll continue to strive to find a balance between correcting their misperceptions and adding supplemental information, on one hand, and allowing them to make meaning of the text themselves on the other.

In other news, the first “flipped classroom” lecture I introduced in American history classes was largely well-received by students. They liked that they could pause to take notes, rewind to catch something that they missed, and watch the lecture again if necessary. More importantly, when we “brainstormed” the lecture just to quickly recap, the kids seemed to be much more on top of it. In about three minutes of brainstorming, we had listed nearly every topic from the lecture, and when I asked them to elaborate, they were able to fill in the gaps pretty easily. I was impressed with their level of recall. At the end of the day, that’s not really what I’m after, but I do think it’s important that we enter our discussions with some shared baseline knowledge.

I hate to end on a negative note, but I do worry that the honeymoon period is coming to an end. Students are beginning to submit their first major assignments, and with that, I expect to student—and teacher—stress to increase at least slightly school-wide. This is something else I’m working on this year, but I’ll leave it there for now. Until next time.

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