Course Context: I implemented new methods of assessment in two sections of English 2000, which is one of two gateway courses to the major. Classes are 20 members in size, and my targeted threshold concept was close reading.
Target of improvement/evidence: Having not taught this course before, I did not have a pre-existing area of learning to try to improve. However, I have taught a version of this course, which balances close reading and introductory criticism/theory, at my previous institution, and I knew from my own experiences there that teaching students to competently close read was the most important skill that could be imparted in such a course.
What did you do? I incorporated a peer instruction exercise in which 3-4 students taught the materials for a given day. The materials chosen were building blocks (i.e., specific concepts for specific genres) that would form their toolbox for close reading. The choices included the following: 1) for poetry, framing devices, fefrains, lists, and other structures of fepetition and variation, 2) for drama, character analysis, 3) for short stories, third-person narration or allegory, and 4) for the novel, limited omniscience and character development. I purposely scheduled the teaching presentations to occur later in the semester, with the exception of the poetry selection which I added by student request, in order to showcase for the students how I expected the teaching materials to be designed and implemented. As I believe Rick may have suggested, I had students grade these teaching presentations with the caveat that I would raise any inappropriately low grades awarded by their colleagues. Here is the assignment: “Group presentations: After having begun the course section on a given genre, I will assign specific readings to groups of four students to teach the class about a given poem or aspect of a narrative. Examples in longer works might include a character/setting analysis for fiction or a scene analysis in drama. Groups are responsible for leading discussion, providing discussion questions, crafting a handout, and creating a digital poster or other media visual aid. Groups will be graded on coherence, organization, presentation skills, time management, research, insight, professionalism, and thoroughness. I will have students grade the presentations while modeling a reflexive response to the students’ teaching of the topic. I retain the right to modify the class’ grade of a presentation if it is inordinately stringent or lenient.” I gave students who were being taught in class a response sheet with a full rubric and rationale.
Here are some other activities I incorporated: a sonnet-writing assignment that was posted electronically and discussed/evaluated in class (students voted for the “best” sonnet and discussed their rationale); a knowledge matrix for meter; a scansion assignment (presentation) with rap covers and their original songs; close reading diagnostics at the course beginning and end; electronic peer reviews of four close readings that were prefaced by a “think aloud” peer review of four posted drafts in class; and many more.
What difference did it make? Some of these teaching presentations were simply outstanding, particularly those in my 11am section of English 2000. Some of the teaching presentations in the 2pm section of English 2000 were notably weaker than the 11am; however, this was a larger pattern that was maintained with other assignments throughout the semester, though I did think the 2pm close reading portion of the midterm exam was significantly stronger than the 11am. Conversely, the quantitative portions of the midterm (short answer, multiple choice, quote ID) were dramatically weaker. I found that the more information and guidance I gave a group, the more they seemed to excel far beyond the parameters of the assignment. They really did extensive research.
Of the other assessment techniques I incorporated, I found all to be beneficial, though I haven’t compared the pre- and post-course close-reading diagnostic yet, and I did decide to use different genres for that exercise by way of establishing if students could now effectively close read fiction as well. I especially found modeling the peer review with the “think aloud” approach to be helpful; it also allowed me to encourage students to be rigorous in the responding to each others’ work without feeling cruel.
How did the classroom assessment (feedback gathering) help you make adjustments mid-course? I believe the weaker presentations in the 2pm section motivated me to try to engage and motivate these students further; however, I’m not sure how successful I was. I was heartened that their close reading exam grades were good, but I’m unsure if I may have been influenced to give them higher grades in order to preserve some kind of consistency in the curve across the two sections. I did not find that the final paper (4-5 pages) in the 2pm section was stronger in terms of close reading.
What worked? I thought this assignment (peer instruction), overall, went well, and I would repeat its inclusion again. It definitely worked to ask the students to create a PowerPoint or other lecture handout and a secondary visual aid in the teaching presentation. I gave the groups numerous prompts to organize their teaching, and in fact, in some cases I gave them extensive notes. Giving them more material only seemed to further improve upon the quality of the teaching. A number of student groups actually did significant research outside of the course to improve upon their presentations. In the case of The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World, one group found significant historical materials relating to an indigenous slave named Esteban who had a clear relationship to Marquez’ protagonist.
Sharing with colleagues? This fall, for the first time, the English Department will mount a lab 2000 course with five TAs and one professor that has been described as “a pumped-up experimental section of English 2000 for five credit hours with a laboratory outside the three hours of class time and a TA.” As I understand it, typically there are 5-10 graduate students who attend and help teach the large section and the lab. It becomes a way to think through teaching praxis in 2000 as well as mentor TAs in teaching it. I have volunteered to be part of ongoing departmental discussions regarding English 2000 and this lab course. I will definitely offer some of the suggestions from this FTEP Institute that I incorporated (i.e., various scansion teaching exercises, peer review “think aloud”).