How do you focus attention again after an event, a disagreement, a stony silence, an exam, or a break?
We had a President's Day holidays between weeks three and four of our course, right in the middle of Group 1's superb presentation on the extraordinary, little known, posthumous novel by Chester Himes, Yesterday Will Make You Cry (pub. 1998) To refocus attention, what we did upon our return, before Group 1 began the second half of its class presentations, was a classic focusing technique called an "entry ticket," an inventory method for refocusing attention at the beginning of a class.
The entry ticket method is simple and it works. As usual, it needs to be very low stakes—90 seconds max. (The longer you take, the more self-censoring sets in and disrupts the process in all kinds of odd ways.)
Entry Ticket: Everyone participates. Sometimes I hand out index cards and ask for names, sometimes not. This is a classic "inventory" method where everyone contributes, everyone is heard from.
(1) “Write down one sentence or short passage that you are still thinking about from this week’s reading.”
(You might love it, hate it, agree or disagree with it, be perplexed by it. All you need to do is write it down.)
(2) Next, go around the room and, in rapid succession, each person reads what they have written. (NB: The prof should have written and read one too.)
It could not be more simple. There is something remarkably attentive and respectful about copying (a tradition of learning that goes back at least to the Middle ages in Europe and is also used in many Eastern religious and pedagogical traditions (such as hand copying of Buddhist sutras). Copying puts students right in the text they are discussing.
There is also something remarkable and collectively powerful about each person reading out loud without comment that makes the whole class appreciate the richness of whatever is being read.
I learned the technique of "copying" as an entry ticket just a year or two ago, from one of my students. Prior to that, I used entry tickets in many different ways, including by my asking a question that everyone answers for 90 seconds, and then (same drill) everyone reads an answer.
Or (this is a favorite), I'll have everyone take 90 seconds to write out what they think is the most important question to ask about the assignment--and then everyone reads. It works on any kind of reading assignment in any field--I’ve done a form of “entry tickets” with poetry, historical work, archival documents, and with quantitative cognitive neuroscience essays.
In the copying exercise: I always point out the "meta" and talk about traditions of copying and learning. I also point out that rarely do students choose the same sentence. We think we are all reading the same thing, learning the same thing, but, in fact, we all pay attention most to what matters to us most--so, in essence, we both have shared information and then have very particular ways of processing and making meaning from that information and rarely are aware that we sit next to people who read in a different way than we do (and in a different way than the prof does).
That is the brilliance of active learning inventory methods. You learn diversity not in some bureaucratic and simplistic way but in a deeply human way, as an insight into how we all respond to the world we inhabit together and, also, each within our own experiences, passions, and past and present history-making.
After everyone reads their sentence, the prof can either elucidate on some of the passages read, write down key words from each passage read and then read off all the key words, or use this as material for class discussion or a lecture.
Whatever you do next in class, the exercise brings everyone’s attention to bear on the material—and on one another as contributors to a complex understanding of a complex text.
Large Lecture Variation: In a large lecture class, a prof can have a student write out a line, and discuss why they are intrigued by it (3-5 minutes total). The prof can point to students and simply have them read their sentence (optional whether they read why). Have everyone sign their name, and hand it in. It counts as roll, as a pop quiz, and, if you have TA’s, they can use the tickets from their group to start the smaller group discussion.
Our class focused on Chester Himes’s really astonishing novel, Yesterday Will Make You Cry (1998).
Himes is well recognized as a major Black detective novelist, the author of Cotton Comes to Harlem --but this early novel, about prison and written originally while he was serving seven of a twenty-year sentence for armed robbery, is rarely talked about in literary history--not in American literary history, in African American literature courses, in gay literature courses, in prison literature courses. It's all the above and brilliant. And it is “double consciousness” doubled because it is an author who is Black, who is very aware of racism (including incidents with the KKK), and whose main character, Jimmy, both has clear biographical similarities to himself and who is white and who often includes Black characters in his plot (some in racially stereotyped ways, some as colleagues and friends in a way that would not have been typical in white-authored literature or in segregated prison cells).
Originally published in 1952 as Cast the First Stone, in a highly censored version that turned third person to first person, and omitted much of the frank, candid, loving, and passionate substance and plot of the book. It was finally published posthumously in 1998. Incredible.
Here are some notes taken by Allison Guess, Assisting Instructor in “Black Listed” in our collaborative notetaking Google Doc. Group 1 also asked us to make a connection between "our sentence" and the theoretical readings for the previous class--another fantastic "active learning method." (Challenging students to connect back and forth over a class correlates very highly with both retention and applicability, a students' ability to not just read something new but find ways that they themselves can apply it in future situations.
Notes on some of our favorite sentences from Yesterday Will Make You Cry:
Pg. 480 “dying for want of laughter”
1st sentence: Edited (1952) vs. un-edited (1998) version
Pg. 315 and “He had always believed that they were right” (Unwritten and unmapped thinking-- alongside McKittrick)
Pg. 11-12 and pg. 167 “grinning black” “...his mouth was still grinning….” (Black author/white main character/writing about Black characters)
Pg. 308 Bottom of 3rd paragraph “It stained their relationship...have to be returned” Also pg. 13 of Wilson (Himes’ life as it relates to the book.)
Pg. 361 “each day when they went up to super...however, he did not let insignificant matter affect him anymore.” (Person looking for intimacy)
pg. 53 “The 5 F Descriptions of the carceral space, very calculated measurements Dormitory…where they housed Negros...less than 50 feel away…” (Stuck in this space, but the description keep thinking about McKitrick getting lost and demarcating space for himself in a place where it is difficult to find prison. Keeps thinking about a beige prison right down town in (Metropolitan Prison) small slits.
Pg. 227 “Two things he did not want to do...going crazy and to die”
Queer horizon and abolitionist horizon of social and civic death. McKittrick
Pg. 44 “There are many hazards in prison, but none greater than the hazard on friendship” (preposition “on”) breakdown of social relationships not just in the “inside” “outside” separation, but also the disruption of social relationship on the inside. Pg. 51 the Negro says, “W’ut goddamn window?” (liking this to racist diagnosis of Drapetomania)
Pg. 64 “every power of freedom...smile” (White character and the meaning behind this).