The other day in my English 101 class, we were working through a particularly tricky section of Susan Sontag’s 2002 New Yorker essay “Looking at War.” After reading out loud about how constant exposure to images of war can desensitize us to war’s disturbing corporeality, there was silence. The three most vocal students in the class raised their hands to react, but after they had shared their ideas, silence again.
“Ok, you have to help me out here. I want everyone to participate. Let’s go around the room, and everyone say what your passion is. What do you spend a lot of time reading about and looking up online? My passion is true crime, especially serial killers.” The class came alive. We went around the circle naming hobbies like sports, cooking, motorcycles, travel, and more true crime. “But what if that’s all you could look at, like if you had to stare at the screen all the time, would you still love it?” It was slow going, but it was working. The whole class was participating, and in minutes the conversation wove through analogies involving ice cream and Adidas sneakers back to war and pictures of Syria and Afghanistan and Myanmar on social media and TV.
These are not the words I would have used or the questions I would have asked to get the conversation going, but I was not the one standing at the front of the room. I was part of the circle, adding my “cooking blogs” to the list of passions, but otherwise holding my tongue. This semester, I have been experimenting with student-led discussions in my English 101 class, something that I have been doing for a while in upper level literature courses and have written about elsewhere. On this day, it was Alexis and Bryant at the teacher’s desk, coaxing the class to share their ideas about Sontag’s text. They were well-prepared with passages to read, images to project, and questions to ask the class, and they covered those, but they were also willing to be flexible. They knew how to talk to their peers like friends, and it was Alexis who saved the class from awkward silence.
Many professors “flip the classroom,” that is, have students prepare the readings at home and do the hard thinking in class, but how many of us actually let the students do the teaching? When students lead discussions, no one performs the role that Paulo Freire calls a “narrating Subject,” depositing information into the class; instead they embody Freire’s ideas of reconciliation and gaining consciousness. I’ve learned a lot about engaging students by becoming a student in my own classroom this semester. My freshmen, even the quiet ones, have the capacity to practice at being leaders (different from the skill of presenting to the class, by the way). I don’t have to beleaguer the point of why this is important. They get it, even if they are scared of it at first. Moreover, English 101 is a composition course, and close reading and writing skills are best honed actively, dialectically. What better way to practice than to think out loud and help teach others? What better way to master a subject?
Image credit: Adapted from “Follow the Leader” by Doug Caldwell. Used under a Creative Commons license.