Blog Post

Afterword: Orchestrating a Student-Centered Classroom: A How-To Guide

This semester, students in “American Literature, American Learning” explored the idea that you can’t counter structural inequalities (in the classroom and elsewhere) with goodwill; instead, you must build structures for equality. As educators, one place where we can begin structuring for equality is in the spaces we are in charge of namely, our classrooms, whether that’s a formal classroom or an informal one (a meeting, an activist organization, or a workshop). This afterword contains an annotated guide to the student-centered activities we explored this semester to try and structure our course around equitable participation. When possible, I’ve tried to give credit to the graduate students who designed these activities. For additional ideas, see The Pedagogy Project on HASTAC.

Student-designed syllabus
Public blogs with assigned commenting
Private group forum
Pre-course self-introductions
Think-Pair-Share
Exit tickets
Skills inventory
Superpowers
Collaborative agendas
Everybody raise your hand
Everybody speaks
Taking stack
Writing out then reading quotes in class
Secret comments & questions
Speed dating
Class constitution
Student-led discussions of readings
Student-designed class exercises and interactions
Cosmo quiz: are you a formative or a summative?
Plotting the past: a collaborative, time-travel game
Myers-Briggs activity
Mapping key concepts
Pseudo-Socratic method
Final paper/project as public contribution to knowledge
Midterm feedback evaluation
Metacognition

 

Student-designed syllabus 1

Image of student designed syllabus reads, in four rows:  "Rough Outline. 3/9 - Identity Politics -> Testing, Psychological, Sociology. 3/16 - Power + Race: Foucault vs Dubois, bell hooks. 3/30 - Games -> "active learning and assessment."

After the first four class sessions, where the reading was assigned by the instructor, the remainder of the course was designed and taught by the students in the class. For their midterm assignment, they each designed their ideal syllabus for the remainder of the course. After reading and commenting on each other’s syllabi, they had a syllabus jam session during which they took ideas from each syllabus to design the remainder of the course.

  • Midterm syllabus assignment: Design your ideal class. In other words, you do not need to know or have read all you assign. You just have to know enough to want to read it with a group of other dedicated, interested classmates. This probably means doing research of the kind that you might do for a short term paper, looking at bibliographies and other sources for texts and ideas. Contact your instructor(s) with any questions.

    Here’s the basic architecture of the assignment: You will be creating 6 classes: March 9, 16, 30, April 13, 20, and May 4.

    You will be writing a course description and goals, creating the assignments and activities for each course, and designing a final project (individual or group) that is some kind of public contribution to knowledge (a public blog, tutoring in American literature in a local high school, a poster and communications plan of free literary readings in New York, etc.). When you are finish you will post it to the website. Everyone will read every syllabus and make comments on each one.

    In class next week, you will then have all these as your basic “ideas” and will build a syllabus for the rest of our course drawing from them. Our goal is for everyone to be represented in this class, so try to ensure that each person’s individual syllabus is represented somewhere, at least once, in the group syllabus. You will already be changed and have learned from reading the individual syllabi you’ve each constructed.

  • Students posted their syllabi as a blog and categorized it under “student-designed syllabi” so they would all appear in one place on our course website.

  • When some students felt like their work/ideas had not been represented in the initial syllabus, we did activities to structure more equitable contributions into the syllabus. Read more here.

  • Read students’ syllabi and the final syllabus.

Read more about this activity.

Public blogs with assigned commenting2

a blog post entitled “Translingualism: Linguistic Multiplicity as Asset Rather than Deficit.”

As we explored in the course, blogging and commenting on readings before each session encouraged students to synthesize information and engage with the ideas of their peers. Students came to class not only thinking about the week’s readings through the lens of their own experiences, but also thinking about how the assigned texts had been read, perceived, and processed by other students. In addition, doing this in public allowed the course to extend beyond `the classroom to reach a larger audience.

Materials: A public blogging platform (we used the Futures Initiative installation of Commons in a Box, or CBOX).

  • For each class, one to two students are assigned to write a public blog post in response to the readings.

  • Everyone reads these blog posts, comments on at least one of them, and reads each other’s comments.

View our course site and read more about how blogging changed the shape of our class conversation.

Private group forum

Readings for each week were posted to a private forum (part of CBOX). Students were also encouraged to use the private forum to connect with one another and plan their readings and activities.

Materials: Commons in a Box (CBOX) or another platform that allows for both public and private conversations.

Pre-course self-introductions

Prior to the first day of class, all students introduced themselves on a CBOX private forum. They also commented on each other’s introductions.

Materials: Commons in a Box (CBOX) or another platform that allows for both public and private conversations.

Think-Pair-Share

Used in classrooms from kindergarten to medical school, Think-Pair-Share encourages everyone in the class to participate.

Materials: Index cards.

  • Think: The instructor poses a question to the class and students have 90 seconds to write down their response on an index card. (Questions that ask students to list three possible answers work well. The small index card encourages immediate, initial reactions rather than a polished response, which helps relieve some students of anxiety.)

  • Pair: In groups of two, students take turns reading their answers out loud while their partner listens. It is crucial for each partner to remain quiet, listen attentively, and not interrupt so that everyone feels like they have been heard.

  • Share: Go around the room and each group reports their best answer to the class.

Read more about Think-Pair-Share.

Exit tickets

Exit tickets are a way to discern the remaining issues, lingering questions, and/or points of interest and excitement at the end of a class session. They can be used in a small group or large lecture class to formatively assess what students are learning (and also to take attendance!). Instructors can use students’ feedback to structure the next class.

Materials: index cards

  • On an index card, write three things you don’t understand, want to pursue more, or are curious about from today’s class. Sign your name and hand in your card on your way out.

Skills inventory3

Image of a student’s exit ticket. The student’s name is Arinn Amer. She lists three things in the To Learn column: classroom tactics to increase participation, pedagogy theory and talking points to get people involved. She lists nine points in the To Share column: a healthy skepticism of the digital, drawing skills, knowledge of American history, film production, labor relations contracts, printmaker, SAG, proofreading and copyediting. And in the Exit Ticket column, she includes the question, “How can we think about the ways digital tools outside the classroom entrench power (even when open-sourced, etc.)?”

Taking an inventory of the skills possessed by students in a class is way to understand the human resources, talents, and capabilities in the group (and areas where students can lend support and expertise to one another).

Materials: Post-it notes and a tool for collaborative writing, such as Google Docs.

  • On separate post-it notes, write down three things you hope to gain/learn from your classmates. Stick these on the board for everyone to see.

  • As a class, read through the post-its and have class members come up to the board and write their initials on post-its they think they can help with. This creates pairs of students who can help each other achieve their learning goals throughout the semester.

  • Consider creating a class chart in which students record what they want to learn and what they have to share.

Superpowers

This activity builds on the skills inventory, and allows students to explore the various talents they have that can contribute to the course.

Materials: Index cards and collaborative notes document, such as Google Docs.

  • Using Think-Pair-Share, have students write down and then share three of their super powers, which are the unexpected skills (editing, HTML, music, drawing, baking, etc.) that they bring to the class.

  • Collect these on a collaborative notes document.

Collaborative agendas4

March 30th agenda for “American Literature, American Learning." It includes a list of materials and 30-minute slots of activities.

Each week, students were emailed a collaborative, editable agenda prior to class. Students in charge of the readings, discussion, and activities would add their plans to the agenda, and the rest of the class could offer comments, questions, and feedback beforehand.

Materials: Tool for collaborative writing, such as Google Docs.

  • The typical agenda included the homework and readings assigned prior to class, a section for housekeeping/announcements about upcoming events, a schedule for class, and then a list of the homework for the next class.

Everybody raise your hand

Rather than asking individual students to raise their hands, science fiction writer and teacher Samuel Delany has everyone in the class raise their hands in response to questions. Students have the option to answer the question or call on another student who they think knows the answer.

“Don’t you realize that every time you don’t answer a question, you’re learning something? You’re learning how to make do with what you got, and you’re learning how not to ask for a raise…you’re learning how to take it. That’s not good! That’s not good! So, from now on, whenever I ask a question, everybody’s got to put their hand up. I don’t care whether you know the answer or not. You have to put your hand up…I’m going to call on you and if you don’t know the answer, I want you to say nice and clear: I don’t know the answer to that, Professor Delany, but I would like to hear what that person has to say. And we’ll pass it on... I don’t care whether you know or not…You need to teach people they are important enough to say what they have to say.” 5

Everybody speaks

It may seem painfully obvious, but asking each student (or participant) to share a thought is one of the easiest ways not to leave conversation up to the “invisible hand” of the classroom.

Materials: Index cards.

  • On an index card, write down the single most urgent idea from this week’s readings, blog posts, etc.

  • Go around the room and have every student read what they have written on their card.

Read more about how this worked in our class.

Taking stack

Taking “stack” just means keeping a list of people who wish to participate—offer a question or comment.

  • Assign someone in the class to take stack for a given conversation. The person in this role should change each time you do the activity so the same person is not always taking stack.

  • Rather than anxiously waving your hand around and wondering if you’ll be called on, if you would like to participate, signal to the person taking stack (via a gesture, dance move, traditional hand-in-the-air, meaningful eye contact, etc.) and they will write down your name on the list.

  • Those who have not yet had a chance to speak should be bumped to the top of the list.

Read more about taking stack and its origins.

Writing out, then reading quotes in class

Sharing everyone’s favorite quotes from the assigned readings is one way to have students begin the class conversation.

Materials: Index cards.

Part One: Go around the room and each person reads their favorite quotes out loud–no commentary.

Part Two: Pair up and each person chooses one quote and reads it to the other person while the second person listens. Then reverse. Each person interviews the other about why they chose that quote.

Part Three: Fishbowl: Two people talk out loud about their quotes, each representing the others’ quote. Then switch. Then invite questions from the class.

Secret comments & questions

Designed by Jade Davis

This quick activity allows the instructor to facilitate class conversation based on students’ responses to the readings.

Materials: Index cards

  • Each student writes an anonymous comment about the readings on a notecard and passes it to the instructor, who reads them quickly and starts a conversation based on three or four random responses.

Speed dating

Designed by Jade Davis

Through this activity, students learn to work as teams and to negotiate how much time they each spend speaking. They refine their “pitch” as they go from group to group, including learning who talks too much and who talks too little, and learning how to respect one another.

Materials: Index cards

  • The instructor gives an open ended question such as; “What is the cultural role of failure?” and students write down individual responses on index cards.

  • The class is divided into pairs: half of the pairs are stationary and the other half rotate around the room to various partners, forming different groups of four.

  • Each group of four has three minutes to present their responses to their partners, refining their response or “pitch” as they move around the room.

Class constitution 6

The goal of this activity is to better understand the assumption, rarely articulated, about what a course is and how each member will contribute to the class.

Materials: Tool for collaborative writing, like Google Docs.

  • Everyone logs into a collaborative document with a sample constitution. Sample constitutions give students a model to work off of, remix, and adapt for their class, rather than feeling like they must begin from scratch. (Alternatively, hard copies can be printed.)

  • Students can work alone or in pairs to adapt the constitution for their course.

  • As a class, come together to discuss the changes each person/group made and decide which changes to make to the constitution.

  • Vote to ratify the constitution and consider posting it publicly as an example for others.

Read the class constitution from “American Literature, American Learning.”

Student-led discussions of readings

Each week, two students were responsible for coming up with the readings based on the topics agreed upon for their collaborative syllabus. They would blog about the readings ahead of class and respond to each other’s comments on their blogs. In class, they led various activities to explore the questions raised by the readings.

Materials: A sign-up sheet, a method for sharing readings (we used the Futures Initiative installation of Commons in a Box), and a collaborative writing tool like Google Docs.

  • As a class, students decide on the assigned readings for each week and circulate them to the class ahead of time.

  • Towards the beginning of the semester, pairs of students sign up to facilitate one class session.

  • Pairs of students coordinate their plans ahead of time, and add them to a collaborative agenda that the rest of the class can add to and comment on.

Student-designed class exercises and interactions

Each week, the two students who were responsible for assigning readings, blogging about the readings, and leading us in class discussion also came to class with different activities they had developed to engage the class. Many of these are detailed in this appendix.

Cosmo quiz: Are you a formative or a summative?

Black and white image of a Seventeen magazine cover. Printed on the top is: “Are you a Formative or a Summative? Take the quiz!”

Designed by Erica Campbell 7

This activity involves the instructor translating complex material (in this case, formative and summative assessment styles) into an activity that is personal, engaging, and meaningful for students. It allows students to see how the concepts they are learning are related to their lives, and how their experiences might be used to challenge, nuance, or reveal gaps within existing bodies of knowledge (for example, how the formative-summative binary is too simplistic).

  • The instructor designs a quiz that helps students see how difficult course material can be translated to their lives. Alternatively, the instructor may provide students with an example of one question and have them work in groups to come up with the others.

  • After students have filled out the quiz and received your results, they get into groups to discuss them.

  • As a group, come up with an additional scenario and three possible answers that relate to summative and formative assessment.

Read more about this activity.

Plotting the past: a collaborative, time-travel game

A paper timeline with various sticky notes posted on it.

Designed by Iris Finkel 8

This interactive and collaborative timeline activity asks students to work together to accurately plot historical events. Because the post-its are large, students don’t have to recall exact dates, but are encouraged to see historical events in relation to one another.

Materials: Several identical timelines and sets of historical events (one for each group)

  • Students get in groups and are given identical timelines (labeled from 1600 to 1900) and an identical set of seven cards with historical events. Groups race to see who can accurately plot the events the quickest.

  • After the groups finish, the instructor makes corrections and asks students why they made certain mistakes and how they arrived at the correct dates.

  • Another option: the instructor can let a group know how many of their post-its are correctly placed, and challenge them to use their devices (such as mobile phones) to discover which ones are correct and which need to be moved.

Read more about this activity.

Myers Briggs activity

Designed by Kelly Lerash

This activity uses the online version of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to discuss group dynamics, which can be particularly useful if students will be asked to do extensive group work or a group project.

Materials: Online version of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, large paper, and markers.

  • For homework, everyone takes the Myers-Briggs assessment online and comes to class with their findings.

  • Using the large paper, write up where everyone fell and break into small groups to discuss if they agree with their findings and how this can be useful to know when working in groups.

Mapping key concepts

Designed by Arinn Amer

The goal of this activity is to review key concepts from the readings by collectively mapping them on a chalkboard or whiteboard.

Materials: Chalkboard or whiteboard.

  • We divided the chalkboard into four quadrants, each for one of the types of resistance in the Shahjahan article: undermining colonial narratives, subversion, opposition, transformation.9

  • Every student goes up to the board and places their initials in the quadrant where they felt their final project fell.

  • In the follow-up conversation, we discussed the different styles of resistance in relation to the projects that students were working on.

Pseudo-Socratic method

Designed by Lisa Hirschfield

The goal of this activity is to explore the strengths and weaknesses of various viewpoints, and try to see a given issue from another point of view.

  • Make a list of a few different viewpoints/opinions you object to or which got under your skin in some way, in one or more of the texts or films.

  • Pair up with someone – share your lists with each other.

  • Each person picks something from another person’s card and asks the other to explain the objection or issue.

  • Play devil’s advocate (whether or not you agree), and keep asking why – try to counter those objections. Try to get the other person to seriously consider the issue from the opposing point of view in order to make a strong argument against it.

Final paper/project as public contribution to knowledge10

Template for student’s final project. It includes an abstract, audience, method and scope.

For this course, students were required to present a final project that made a public contribution to knowledge (anything from writing public blog, to tutoring American literature in a local high school, or creating a poster and communications plan of free literary readings in New York, etc.).

Materials: Collaborative writing tool like Google Docs.

  • At the beginning of the semester, students were told by the instructor that their final projects could be individual or collaborative, but that they would have to involve some kind of public contribution to knowledge.

  • Early on in the semester, starting around the fifth class, students were encouraged to brainstorm ideas for their final project. They decided on a collective digital book based on Field Notes for 21st Century Literacies.

  • As a class, we came up with a table of contents with multiple chapters, written individually or collectively. We then had to come up with a title that brought together diverse research projects on topics from incorporating physical movement in the classroom to rethinking faculty evaluations.

  • As homework one week, students had to submit a short, 100-word abstract using the template above. The following week, they submitted an expanded 250-word version.

  • Several weeks before the end of the semester, students submitted first drafts of their book chapters using Google Docs. For homework, they read and commented on each other’s drafts.

Midterm feedback evaluation

Halfway through the semester, students were given a formative, reflective midterm evaluation of the course: they were asked to reflect on what they had learned so far, how they’d been using ideas from course in any aspect of their lives, what was missing from the course, what improvements they wanted to see, and how we could structure the remainder of the semester to ensure a successful final collaborative project that made a public contribution to knowledge.

Materials: Midterm evaluation form.

  • View the midterm we used.

  • The instructor can also summarize and respond to student feedback, and use this to shape the remainder of the course.

Read more about reflection and formative assessment.

Metacognition

According to Cathy Davidson, metacognition is “the moment after learning has stopped, where you pause to think about what you think you learned, where you might even ask the co-learners if you succeeded and what was gained and what lost by the method you used, and you think (together or individually) about what you just did together.”

  • We did this in each activity by debriefing about what worked and didn’t work, and how each class activity related to the theme of structuring equality.

Read more about metacognition.

Works Cited

"American Literature, American Learning Constitution." HASTAC. 2 Mar. 2016.

"Am Lit, Am Learning Midterm Evaluation." Available as a public file in Google Docs.

"American Literature, American Learning Recap 3/9." Futures Initiative, 10 Mar. 2016.

"American Literature, American Learning Schedule." Available as a public file in Google Docs.

Barnett, Fiona. 2014. "The Pedagogy Project." HASTAC. 1 Apr. 2014.

Davidson, Cathy. 2016. "A Reflection on the Importance of Reflection." HASTAC. 31 Mar. 2016.

---. 2012. "Single Best Way to Transform Classrooms of Any Size!" HASTAC. 8 Apr. 2012.

---. 2016. "Towards a Pedagogy for Everyone (Not Just the "Oppressed"): The Engaged Classroom Today." HASTAC. 26 Feb. 2016.

21st Century Collective: Cristiane Damasceno, Omar Daouk, Cathy N. Davidson, Christina C. Davidson, Jade E. Davis, Patrick Thomas Morgan, Barry Peddycord III, Elizabeth A. Pitts, Jennifer Stratton. 2013. Field Notes for 21st Century Literacies. HASTAC.

"Student-Designed Syllabi." American Literature American Learning. Futures Initiative. March 2016.


  1. Image of student designed syllabus reads, in four rows: "Rough Outline. 3/9 - Identity Politics -> Testing, Psychological, Sociology. 3/16 - Power + Race: Foucault vs Dubois, bell hooks. 3/30 - Games -> "active learning and assessment."

  2. This image is a blog post entitled “Translingualism: Linguistic Multiplicity as Asset Rather than Deficit.” Click the image for a link to the post.

  3. Image of a student’s exit ticket. The student’s name is Arinn Amer. She lists three things in the To Learn column: classroom tactics to increase participation, pedagogy theory and talking points to get people involved. She lists nine points in the To Share column: a healthy skepticism of the digital, drawing skills, knowledge of American history, film production, labor relations contracts, printmaker, SAG, proofreading and copyediting. And in the Exit Ticket column, she includes the question, “How can we think about the ways digital tools outside the classroom entrench power (even when open-sourced, etc.)?”

  4. Image of March 30th agenda for “American Literature, American Learning." It includes a list of materials and 30-minute slots of activities.

  5. Samuel Delany's speech is from The Polymath, or the Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman, a documentary by Fred Barney Taylor. You can access a preview clip here.

  6. Image of Class Constitution. Read the full piece here.

  7. Black and white image of a Seventeen magazine cover. Printed on the top is: “Are you a Formative or a Summative? Take the quiz!”

  8. Picture of a paper timeline with various sticky notes posted on it.

  9. Shahjahan, Riyad A. “From ‘no’ to ‘yes’: postcolonial perspectives on resistance to neoliberal higher education,” Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education 35.2 [2014]: 219 – 232.

  10. Template for student’s final project. It includes an abstract, audience, method and scope.

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