Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Chaucer Classroom First-Day Flipping: A Plan


Tomorrow's the first day of Fall 2013 classes at Brooklyn College. If you teach college, you probably started this week too, and you likewise know that the first day often tends to be a waste of time: an embarrassed slog through the syllabus, with dire warnings about plagiarism and absences and misused electronic devices, or a series of accidental mini-lectures that the students endure for each of the required 75 minutes.

I stopped doing that year(s) ago (of course! of course!) and now tend to have first-day written text analysis and small group discussion; I can also have them do preliminary translations, if I'm teaching Middle English; but there still tends to be the syllabus slog, however abbreviated, and the 'intro to the Middle Ages' lecture.

Not tomorrow. I spent last Spring flipping my classroom, but there's more flippery in this old dog yet.

It's simple. First thing is to cut the syllabus way back. It's now just 4 pages of a normal-sized font without anything complicated in terms of due dates. A short syllabus means no syllabus slog.

More importantly, rather than going through my normal first-day factual talking points, I've generated 14 or so questions to divide up among up small groups (2 or 3) in various ways ("everyone on this side look up the even questions, and you guys, look up the odd," for example). They'll find the answers on their phones or tablets or whatever, and then be clumped into larger groups (7 or so) to run through their answers, which we'll then review together. Basic classroom flipping: they'll teach each other and learn how to find answers.

In a class of 26 or so, in 2013, I'm relatively sure we'll have sufficient gadgetery to make this work. If not, at least I'll know the answers. And if they're using their phones &c to find the answers, and doing this in small groups, they won't have time or space to text their friends. Everyone wins except for students who don't want to do any work.

While they're doing this, I'll project some manuscript images and get them ready to translate and recite the opening lines, as tens of thousands of students have done before them.

Here are some questions:
  1. when did Chaucer write?
  2. What is the etymology of the word "medieval"?
  3. list 3 historical events from before Chaucer and 3 from after Chaucer, excluding events in the 20th century
  4. Who was the king when Chaucer was writing The Canterbury Tales, and what happened to him?
  5. Name a significant historical event that happened in Northern Europe when Chaucer was alive.
  6. How many popes were there in 1380?
  7. What were some written languages in fourteenth-century England?
  8. What are some differences between Middle English and Old English?
  9. How many Canterbury Tales did Chaucer plan to write?
  10. Are The Canterbury Tales complete?
  11. What is a "quire"?
  12. What is "paleography"?
  13. Could Chaucer have ever eaten a potato or tomato or turkey? Why or why not?
  14. How would you pronounce the word "knight" in Middle English? Why?
  15. Bonus question: name a difference between the order of the tales in the "Hengwrt" and "Ellesmere" manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales.
Share your questions, or at least your first-day flipping tricks.


Well, it didn't work, and it worked. Here's the problem: smart phones connect us with the world and our friends, so long as the world and our friends are anywhere but where we are at that very moment. Of course, we professors will apply critical pressure to the notions of "world" and "proximity" and "connection" too: but, c'mon, I think you know what I mean.

It's like this: for making connections within the classroom, smart phones don't work, so long as you're trying to make connections between groups of 2 or 3 students. In one sense, then, the exercise worked: the students busily looked things up, and they asked questions (like, one wasn't sure of the difference between a pope and a cardinal, and most realized quickly that #4 was a bad question, given that the answer was Edward III, or Richard II, or Henry IV). But they mostly asked me questions, not the people they were supposedly paired with.

However, when I then clumped the small groups into larger groups of 6 or 7 and had them share their answers with each other, the exercise worked beautifully. The only real problem was me. I couldn't stand to watch all that excited talking and not participate, and I knew that if I circulated through the room, joining groups in succession, that they'd stop talking to each other and just look to me for the answers. So I twiddled my thumbs and watched, jealously, as they worked out the problems. I'm afraid I cut them off too soon.

I had my shot at redemption, though. Apart from my English Comp class, I've been given two Chaucer classes: the undergrad "lecture," and a weekly grad Chaucer "lecture" for Master's students. Obviously, my goal is to make both of these 26-27 student classes not lectures, and I'm using the same tools for both.

So, last night, I had the grads first work together in groups of 5 or 6 translating the famous first 18 lines of the General Prologue. This built camaraderie and got us into the text right away. Then, and only then, did I show the 15 questions, with these instructions: "you're going to be answering these questions. no need to write things down, and feel encouraged to use your phones to look things up. My first recommendation: first determine how many of the answers your group already knows. Then work through the remainder collectively, maybe by dividing them among each other. Report back to your group when you find the answer. This side of the room [gesture] work top to bottom, and this side of the room [other gesture], work bottom to top."

And that, my friends, worked perfectly. It was noisy, learned, and above all saved me from my same old boring intro-to-Chaucer-and-the-Middle Ages lecture. When I asked the groups to provide answers, I elaborated, especially with #7 ("What were some written languages in fourteenth-century England?"). In both classes, I asked "what about Hebrew? why not Hebrew?" The grads more or less could guess, but the undergrads--interestingly, especially for Brooklyn College--tended to say things like "well, they read the Bible in Latin." A little learning is a thing: I asked, "everyone in England in the Middle Ages read the Bible in Latin? Really?"

In short: with some changes, recommended. I'll be doing this again.


Amanda French said...

Years ago, in grad school, I went to some workshop or other given by the Teaching Center at UVA, and they talked about what to do on the first day (or maybe it was something I read?). I may not remember where I heard (or read it), but I remember one piece of good advice: "teach something." I still heed that.

Though, yes, we also do the syllabus slog. Mine is four pages this semester, too. Frankly I'd love to get it even shorter than that.

Kate said...

Brilliant. Thank you! I"m stealing this.

Medievalists @ Penn said...

I'm using Canvas, and I'm including little introductions to the pdfs (such as, here are salient facts about Bede's life and the world in which he lived, and how it relates to the text) instead of doing the usual 2 min mini lecture in class. And I am linking to a google map I am building that shows sites where our authors were born, educated, etc. so now I can do more with discussion, and they have better context BEFORE they read things. (Not as ambitious as Karl's idea, for sure, but based on one day, it seems to getting them into things a little easier.)

medievalkarl said...

" but I remember one piece of good advice: "teach something." I still heed that. "
YES. That's it.

I love the simple weighty lines. Adam Kotsko said he tries to teach his writing students 2 things: "have a point" and "make sense." That covers EVERYTHING: having an argument, grammar, structure. Guess what I put on my English Comp syllabus?

Hmm: Thinking maybe I can shorten the syllabus further if I put the Blackboard sign-up info on the first assignment sheet. The class plan is always going to be 2 pages though, and there's no way to get ALL the other basic info (books, short list of assignments, attendance policy) on just one page. Hmmmm.

PENN - I wonder if you could have them map it themselves? Pose some questions like "roughly where did the Picts live in relation to Bede?" "Map a route from London to Iona." "How many miles between Jarrow and Durham?" They should be able to figure that out with just their phones.

Kate -- very cool. Let me know if it works. I'll certainly report back here.

Kate said...

I am also considering having them come in after the first class with "how to read" reports from the web. So, go to The Google and report back on how we are supposed to read the prologue . . . and then, as a class, we work on problematizing those readings. It could produce a free-for-all, but I'm thinking it might also get them to "out" their high-school readings and push past them.

medievalkarl said...

Oh, that's good. I'll try that too for the second meeting.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I love this: active engagement right from the start. Will you report on how it goes? I'd love to hear some student answers to the more open ended questions.

medievalkarl said...

Will do. Just hoping their technology works for something other than texting.

Basically, this is all the stuff I think they have to know, but which bores me to tears to talk about. So: my trick.

Jeb said...

My partner went along to introductory lecture day for my daughters introduction to university. She noticed kids started reaching for mobile phones at the same point in the day when all the adults in the room started to lose the will to live as well.

Ironically during the lecture of a seriously good academic who is very academic and over fond of going into highly detailed explanations of Latin legal terms.

Department does two things of interest videos all lectures (essential for standard educational disabilities, in most other departments you have to ask) and uses a buddy system where all first year students have a fourth year mentor.

The mentoring in particular works seriously well and students in final years along with staff were a key part of the event which is always a healthy sign.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

I really like this -- I did something similar in my first classes yesterday. In the Arthurian class, I asked them to tell me the story of Arthur in their own words. In the History of the English language course, it was a bit more complex: what is English (language, literature, culture)? What is the difference between English and British? Always fun to see where they're coming from and what background them have.

Jeb said...

p.s the kids left with a real sense they were going to become apart of something exciting,work like dogs but have loads of fun as clubs and social events are also a key part.

medievalkarl said...

Jeb -- thanks for that. I hear a lot of anger over kids and their phones. But the thing is: they're young. They're easily distracted. So the trick is to meet them where they are, or to keep them so busy they don't have time to text. This means getting rid of lecture as much as possible. I'm hoping that if my classes were ever videotaped that the camera wouldn't know what to look at.

So the q for you MKH is how large are your classes. Mine are all about 25, and I have 3 of them this semester. The trick here is to avoid, as much as possible, having them talk to me and to keep them talking to each other. This may be more a do as I say rather than as I do, and it's certainly a reminder to myself as I get ready to teach tomorrow. We shall see! And congrats on your first teaching day on your new job!

Anonymous said...

"This means getting rid of lecture as much as possible"

It is an odd way to learn. I contrast it with the way drama is taught. Yearly intake at my old school was 12 students in each year. You have more than double in one class.

medievalkarl said...

Odd's one word for it. Criminal's another. Would that America believed that higher education was a public good and deserved to be funded accordingly.

Ashby Kinch said...

Great questions, Karl. My little first day Chaucer "experiment" today was to bring in 10 different editions of Chaucer, pair my course of 20, and ask them to analyze the design, structure, layout, and apparatus of their 10 editions, and then tell the rest of the class who the intended audience was, what they liked and didn't like, what was useable. Went very well.

Anonymous said...

Karl, Have you ever used a "Fish Bowl" discussion technique? The title is a little misleading, but I use it a lot to (try to) remove myself from conversation. Students all come in with 3-4 prepared questions about the text/readings for the day. I choose, at random, 4 people to serve as "experts" (or to be in the fish bowl, as it were). They sit at the front of the class and other students ask their prepared questions--the experts must be the first to respond. I intervene when questions seem to not go anywhere (in order to try to redirect), or when there is a disagreement about how to answer a particular question. If you use it enough, the class becomes far more comfortable with each other and far less reliant upon me for "the answers." Let me know if you'd like more details. I can send along handouts, etc.

Jeb said...

Kate I don't know if you could modify this or find it useful but it is a good way for all members of the group to learn something of the dynamic it is making and how to work within it in a high stress situation.

Group in a circle, large set of keys, they get thrown at one member at random who moves to the middle then has to make up a fictive life around them answering questions delivered rapidly at speed as to what each key is for.

In its full horror its design is to spot bodily ticks and habits that affect stage performance need to be identified and resolved. Here you have two members sitting in the middle of the circle very close to each other, they must maintain full eye contact at all times as the one with the keys answers the questions attempting maintain a non-contradictory narrative around the keys.

Clearly no need to take it to the full extreme but it is the ultimate goldfish exercise and its basic features can be used in a range of ways.

The intensity is something you don't forget you also learn a lot about each other.

Jeb said...

I managed to muck up that description so wrote it up properly if any one is interested. They were devised by an expert in the field who taught and experimented on actors like lab rats for over 50 years and never published.


medievalkarl said...

"Let me know if you'd like more details. I can send along handouts, etc"
Kate, yes please!

Anonymous said...

Great post, Karl, and I like your overall impulse toward simplification.

In the past year or so, I have visited the same impulse upon my prompts. I now only allow a single sentence for each of my prompts. This forces me to be as concise as possible, and it impedes my need over-manage student writing. In return, I am receiving a much richer variety of essays.