Peer-Driven Learning: Final Reflections
Two peer-driven courses during the winter 2014 semester that I meant to and never talked about, now discussed.
Seems like almost two months after the semester ended that it’s a good time to finally FINALLY blog about my two peer-driven classes this semester. I’ve been teasing about them a few times, and I could have sworn that I did in fact blog about them, but I didn’t, and I really do want to share what my students accomplished.
In the honors class, we started the semester creating a collaborative timeline using Timeline JS from Knight Line. The course was designed to cover 1500-1900, so you know, a time where nothing happened and there wasn’t much to read/see/think about/learn. In order to get the students to understand and see how far-reaching the events of that time were, I wanted them to create a timeline that showed over-lapping events, so they could start making connections.
We started by brainstorming all of the possible topics or theme we could take to look at the period. We narrowed them down according to what they were most interested in working on. The students chose the themes/topics they wanted to research to populate the timeline and ended up working in collaborative groups of two or three around their selected topic. The topics were: War and Exploration, Philosophy, Social Structure/Norms, Science and Technology, Music, Art History, and Religion.
We moved on to populating a google form that directly populated a google spreadsheet that would be fed into the Timeline JS interface to produce the final product (it might take a while to load). The advantages of this tool are that it was free, it was easy to use, you could incorporate media, and it showed overlapping events. The downside was that while the students chose seven themes/topics, the timeline would only display five of them. We played around with the spreadsheet to have different views of the events, but ultimately, the students not only learned about the period in question, they also started making connections between events. They understood what was happening at the same time, something that often doesn’t happen when you study a time period in a discipline-specific class.
The rest of the semester was spent reading and exploring texts and topics that they were interested in. We loosely conceived of a theme of “freedom” through the course and got into how that concept came to even be and then evolve through the period. The students also did presentations on a topic of their choosing, collaboratively or on their own, and we learned a lot about the scientific, artistic, and social achievements from that time period. We also read The Tempest and Dracula. The former worked better than the latter, but that might have also been because by the end of the semester, everyone was burnt out.
It was also, however, a very Eurocentric course, which reflects their “interests” but also their educations; they don’t know what they don’t know. I will admit that it is a rather large blind-spot for me, too, based on my own education as well. If I ever taught this class again, I would be much more…forceful (?) in my insistence of moving beyond the typical Western history of the period.
This move away from Eurocentrism worked much better in my Introduction to World Literature course. I selected David Damrosch’s anthology Gateways to World Literature Volume 1 for the students, because of price and for what it included. We spent the first few weeks of the semester putting together an annotated bibliography that sough to pull together that would help us answer the question: What is World Literature? We used Google Docs and the students were responsible for making sure the formatting was proper. The students then wrote a take-home mid-term using the annotated bibliography as a resource to articulate for themselves, what is world literature?
We moved on to then deciding what we would read for the rest of the semester. We were fortunate that there was a student production of Oedipus the King and on of my former students was performing in it. The students read the play, saw the play, and got to hear from the actors and set designers about the experience of the work as a play. Students wrote a critical review of the play incorporating what they had learned with what they experienced in the theater. The students selected an eclectic range of works from our time period (origins to 1650). I was thrilled that we got to read both the Quran and selections from 1001 Nights, and then Paradise Lost. I was introduced to the fantastic Songs of the Aztek.
The students did weekly blog posts that engaged with the texts in a variety of ways, including reading a poem aloud, close readings, comparisons, and research questions. They were supposed to do a “not-essay” (what my colleague Ryan Cordell calls an unessay), but the time we were supposed to spend talking about it got eaten up by snow days. They weren’t as experimental as I had hoped (a lot of powerpoints) but there were a few students who took a chance and did some great work. The not-essays were also supposed to serve as an introduction to the works that the whole class could watch/read before we started class discussions. Again, snow days put a damper on that plan.
What happened was that a class that was non-traditional in format became very traditional in execution, at least once we started reading the literature: a lot of lecturing on my part. I think one of the challenges for me in particular was that I learned to teach literature via lecture and did it for a lot of years. I was learning to teach writing at the same time as I was discovering peer-driven approaches. It was much easier for me to embrace peer-driven in classes that I wasn’t used to teach in a certain way. I still have some un-learning to do when it comes to my approach to literature.
Over-all, it was a successful, if heavy semester; as I was doing these two completely new courses, I was also teaching two other courses, doing freelance, going to on campus interviews, and dealing with the worst winter (at least for school closures) that I had even experienced. My students, I think, learned a lot, and I got a lot of positive feedback from them. Mostly, though, I was impressed at the work my students did, willingly, and how they largely embraced the experience.
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