Saturday, February 28, 2009

The web gives hesitant students a forum

Years ago, author Neil Gaiman introduced me to a French term that's stuck with me ever since—"L'espirit de l'escalier," meaning "the spirit of the stairway" or "stairway wit." It's the notion that we often come up with the best comeback or reply to an argument or discussion long after we've left. In other words, when we're heading down the stairs after everything is said and done. Who hasn't experienced this? Heck, they made an entire episode out of it on Seinfeld.

I remember feeling that way quite often in high school. There'd be a class discussion, and I contribute far less that I could have because I would be slow to form my thoughts into a coherent answer, while the class know-it-all would have her hand up in the air before the teacher finished his question. If often felt like I was on Family Feud, and my reflexes weren't good enough to hit the buzzer first. If I felt that way, I'm certain that many others who might take several minutes or even hours to formulate a solid answer did as well.

Actually, make that "do as well." This happens in today's classrooms too. Many, many times a "class" discussion is still really three or four eager beavers and the teacher with a captive audience of twelve to eighteen others. It might as well be a panel discussion most of the time. Last year I decided to try it a different way.

In previous years, my senior English would read a poem out loud in class, then I would fish for student commentary on the meaning, the symbolism, the purpose and the like. What I added was an online discussion board. I visit discussion boards daily in my downtime, and thought it would be a great way to extend the lessons beyond the classroom. I created a board on the small Moodle site I'd set up for myself and a few other teachers. I then broke it into smaller forums, one for each period of time we would look at, and I would initiate a thread about each of the works we would cover.

I made it mandatory that the students had to post commentary about each of the works, and that that they reply to at least five other students. All comments had to be school appropriate and on task to receive credit. As I was teaching English, I made correct grammar and mechanics a part of the grade- no txt-spk. The initial post had to be done prior to the in-class lecture/discussion about the work in order for credit to be earned.

One of the first things I found that surprised me was that students generally went above and beyond the minimal requirements. Posts needed to be at least 75 words in length, and many went upwards of 100. They only needed five replies to others, but it was most common to see them reply to ten, or even twenty other posts. More than a few told me it was more fun to write to a message board that sit with pencil and paper.
In addition to getting more verbiage out of them, the quality was up. Kids I honestly thought weren't paying attention were shooting off some extremely well-thought out and eloquent thoughts on works as complex as Macbeth and abstract as the metaphysical poetry of John Donne. Sometimes they were actually more on target than the posts of the kids who would have had their hand permanently raised in the classroom.
But the thing I think surprised me the most was that when we did have that physical classroom discussion, the number of students who volunteered to participate doubled and tripled. Apparently, the cyber-discussions acted as prep for the physical ones.
It wasn't a fluke in my classroom either. As CFF coach I've suggested this approach to a couple of other teachers. Two that stand out are the Senior Honors English class and a health class. The Honors class was essentially a clone of my own experience, while the health class used the boards as a way to have students chime in on current events in the health field. Both teachers reported the same sort of results I did, particularly in that the quiet kids have more to say than one might otherwise think, and they are willing to share it.
If you meet them in their preferred medium.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, that is a great idea, Rich. It is very cool to see you got such a positive response not only from your class, but other teachers as well.