©Marva A. Barnett

Co-creating each class meeting with my students and leading a workshop with colleagues means that I need to know the material so well that we can tackle it in an order—and from a perspective—that makes sense to them. Thus, in preparing, I draft activities appropriate to the students and the material but am ready to adapt them at any moment. For example, although I once planned to begin a discussion of Flaubert's "Un Coeur simple" by focusing on the protagonist's childhood, the students’ questions about characters’ relationships led the discussion in an equally valid direction. I consider myself responsible for keeping discussions on track and for providing necessary information. Students appreciate my organizational skills and my ability to motivate them in their end-of-semester evaluations. So persuaded am I of the value of promoting students’ responsibility that I developed and regularly offer the workshop Whose Course Is It? and summarized my approach in a similarly-titled article.

To give briefly some sense of how I teach a course or a workshop, I categorize below some of my techniques according to the aspect of the course to which they most closely relate:

Giving students responsibility and engaging them

  • Eliciting students' expectations and goals. At the beginning of the semester, students offer their expectations of the course, and we explicitly compare them to my objectives; when necessary, I make adjustments and explain why we will not do something they expected when registering for the course. I also wrote a Teaching Concerns article detailing this activity: "On the Same Wave Length?". Alternatively, I write students a letter before the course begins, requesting a response offering their course goals and concerns (see "Personalizing the Engagement").

  • Holding students accountable. For most class meetings, students are required to bring some tangible piece of work. Many of my French 332 students have noted that one thing that most helps them learn is, "Each class we are accountable for something." (TAP, spring 1996). Often, students contribute at least two questions that they truly want to have answered. As I explain in Reflections on my Teaching, discussions grow from their questions, and I provide logical links among comments (for an outline of this activity, see the Student-Initiated Discussion handout from my workshop). Thus the interactivity in my courses comes from a true exchange of ideas.

  • Engaging students' personal interests. FREN 332 students choose the poems they would most like to read and analyze, They receive detailed directions about how both to present their interpretation (French version / English version) and how to react to others’ presentations (French version / English version). Students comment positively on these activities in final evaluations and in one-minute papers. I begin the Hugo course with an overview of his life, work, and historical context in order to enable students to choose a personally compelling research project. My professional development workshops often begin with a brainstorming to elicit the issues that concern the participants.

  • Requesting students' suggestions. My students and I regularly consult about how the course is going, using a variety of techniques, including Teaching Analysis Polls, mid-semester comments forms, variations on the one-minute paper. I benefit by learning how they perceive what I am doing and how they think to improve it; they benefit by thinking about what they can do to learn better.

  • Responding to students' reactions. I continuously look for and evaluate student response, not just verbal questions and answers, but also body language, facial expressions, tone of voice (as explained in my article "Replacing Teacher Talk with Gestures" (1983), listed on CV). I can then alter my teaching depending on who is lost, who is grudging, who is perhaps a little too much carried away.

  • Respecting students. To establish an environment in which the students and I respect each other’s ideas and each other as people, I focus on students’ ideas, challenge students to do their best, and expect them to be adults. Students often note on evaluations that they feel comfortable asking questions. People who realize that their ideas are valued are more likely to work on developing them.

Promoting critical reading, thinking, and discussing

  • Challenging tasks. Because my assignments often ask for thinking rather than simply for memorizing and recalling, they strike many students as difficult. For instance, really understanding rhetorical figures of speech means being able to identify them in a text and analyze their power, rather than simply defining them (sample exercise). To teach these skills of perception and analysis, I first model them in class and then offer students examples of competent work (English version) done by their colleagues. After they think and work on their own, we discuss answers and techniques in class, and I provoke individual feedback.

  • Active learning. I use a variety of cooperative and active learning techniques in class to give students opportunities to develop their abilities to take cogent notes, defend their thoughts, analyze conclusions, synthesize ideas, and lead discussions.

  • Ongoing learning. To persuade students to think before coming to class, I offer a variety of assignments (see Hugo and FREN 332 syllabus), occasionally require comments written via e-mail outside of class, and am available to them in person or by phone and e-mail every day.

Enhancing critical thinking through essay writing

  • To help students develop the skill to focus on, develop, and support their interpretation of a text, I offer them good models of thesis statements, valid supporting arguments, and effective essays written by students in previous courses, with my comments (distributed anonymously).

  • I tell students how to create a decent first draft and train them to edit each other’s papers, believing that editing someone else's work is often easier than improving one’s own but that those skills are transferable into one's own papers.

  • Upon reading and commenting on final drafts in FREN 332, I create "Bêtes noires" grammar correction sheets focused on the most egregious errors that students then avoid in future papers.

  • I give students frequent individual help (via in-person meetings, telephone, e-mail) with all aspects of the course, but especially with their struggles to clarify their thinking and communicate their ideas to a reader.

Promoting intellectual curiosity and lifelong learning

  • The Hugo course research project is primarily intended to provoke students' intellectual curiosity by giving them the chance, and support, to explore a subject of their own choosing. I offer students a step-by-step process through which they choose a research topic, define it carefully, do relevant research, organize/outline their ideas, present their summary in class, receive feedback from colleagues, and write the final paper.

  • The FREN 332 cooperative group poetry presentations (English version) aim to engage students in figuring out how they interpret a poem they have chosen.

  • The ultimate goal of the Hugo course is to develop people who will continue to read and enjoy Hugo on their own, armed with he language and interpretative skills necessary to learn what may be necessary to read and enjoy. The great majority of students attest to their continued interest in Hugo at the end of the course (see evaluations).

A pertinent post-course e-mail (5/11/96) from a French 332 student with reading comprehension difficulties who worked hard, developing her skills from three "C" essays to write a convincing "A-" final essay and earn a final grade of "B":

"D'abord, je voudrais dire «Merci» pour un semestre très amusant et très informatif. Ca, c’est le premier cours de français qui m’a poussé à faire des exercices provocateurs et amusants à la fois!"
[Translation: "First, I'd like to say, ‘Thank you,’ for a very entertaining and informative semester. This is the first French course that pushed me to do provocative and fun exercises at the same time."]