Blog Post

Structuring Equality in my American Literature Class

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It’s syllabus-writing season! After some time away from teaching, time for reflection and growth as an educator, I am thrilled to be teaching “American Literature: Origins to the Civil War” again this fall. I’ve taught this course twice, so I feel confident enough to hand my syllabus over to my students to plan all the readings after October 4th. (I will give them a list of suggested readings to start with although they could choose something outside of that, divide them into groups to plan manageable chunks of the syllabus from policy to reading content, and then we’ll vote as a class.) I’ve planned readings, activities, and guest lectures for the first 10 class periods and then the rest depends on which adventure they decide to go on. While this may seem to some like I’m blowing off work, the opposite is true: I will need to adjust in real time to meet the demands of my students and potentially teach things outside my comfort zone. This requires an enormous amount of class prep and structure to make it a success and give my students the tools they need to plan well and not flounder.

Our first class will start with the best active-learning tool out there: Think-Pair-Share. On Monday next week, I’ll hand out note cards and ask students to write down their answers to this question (I’ve added my timing in parentheses):

“What is your goal for this class? What do you want to learn that you’ll take with you for the rest of your life? Is it mastery of the canon? Is it reading stories by founding women and people of color? Is your goal to be a better-informed citizen? A future leader of the free world?” (90 seconds); Pair up and combine goals into one goal (2 minutes); Volunteers share with the class (5 minutes)

The whole activity won’t take up more than 10 minutes. From there, we’ll go over the skeleton syllabus I’ve prepared with suggestions for their consideration. You’ll see that there’s plenty of content on there but most of it is up for debate. I headline at the beginning that this isn’t going to be like other classes and that may feel uncomfortable at first, but there are good reasons for running a classroom like this–it gives students more agency and better prepares them for the world after the university.

After we’ve reviewed the skeleton syllabus, I’ll put students into groups of 5-6 and assign each group a specific list of tasks. I’m giving them 30 minutes of class time for this and then devoting our second class to sharing their proposed revisions, deliberating, and voting.

Click here for the full lesson plan for the first day, and a breakdown of the group work for the last 30 minutes of class.

[Originally posted here on August 20, 2018. This post has been edited. Click here to read the full, original post.]


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