I’m at the point in the semester in all my writing classes (which are all of them) were I’ve essentially “flipped” them; we take time in the computer lab actually writing papers or a little time in the classroom talking about their assigned task (like library research) before essentially sending them on their way. We spend a lot of time at the beginning of the semester talking about writing, and we work long and hard on our first essay(s). By now, if I have done my job, the students are able to do their work on their own while I make myself available to help them and answer questions as needed.
I’ve been doing this more and more in my classes. It started last year when I had to teach a three-hour Basic Writing night class at one of our branch campuses. When you only meet once a week for three hours, you HAVE to do some of the work you would normally assign for homework. So we did. The students wrote drafts, did research, did active reading exercises, and were able to integrate feedback from me and their peers immediately upon receiving it. I was really happy with the results and, judging by my evaluations (but also the marked improvements in the students’ writing), so did the students.
When I did something like this with my 100-level students this past week, it worked really well, too. I had assigned them to find sources related to their self-generated research question. When we got to the computer lab, I asked them to basically do an extended annotated bibliography. If the student hadn’t done the homework, then they were able to do the research right there, so no one was wasting time with nothing to do. Next class, I tasked them to write an introduction and conclusion. As they worked, I asked them how they liked the set-up. They all agreed that it worked; there were no distractions (not one of them was on any social media site and I know because all the computers face out), it was quiet, they were all focused on the same task, and I was there to help them whenever they needed it. Getting stuck didn’t mean giving up; it just meant calling me over to help get them unstuck.
This, to me, makes a lot of sense. My least favorite (and worst) subjects in high school were English and Biology. I was great at reading and I loved writing, but I couldn’t stand English. Biology baffled me; I never understood it. These were also the two courses where we didn’t really do anything. In Math, French, even Social Studies, we did things: problem solving, writing and conjugating, and other types of work in class. In English, we listened to the teacher talk about the book we were supposed to have read and we rarely wrote in class. Biology only became clear for me when an older friend of mine who my mom hired to tutor me suggested that instead of memorizing everything, I write a story about them (he went on to become a professor and I would imagine, an excellent one).
Suddenly, I was doing something with Biology rather than just memorizing. My undergraduate degree in English was all about actually writing, doing something. My graduate work in literature also involved doing something as we were expected to lead seminars and actively participate in discussions. Why it never (until now) occurred to me that I needed to do more doing in my own classes (or more specifically during my class time) until now is a mystery.
Or maybe it isn’t. I’ve written before about how teaching can (and in a lot of cases should) be seen as coaching, but we still expect professors to stand in front of the class and “teach” (lecture) for the whole period because of the limited available time and the amount we need to “learn” (cover). And I am trained in literature, so my bias is the intro-to-literature course where they read and I talk (something that I am going to have to reconsider and unlearn if and when I ever teach a literature class again). It’s not surprising that I feel (and I use “feel” here on purpose) like I have to fill every second of my class with my words.
But when I really think about it, that all it is – a feeling.