Asking students in a survey course to break into discussion groups will generally elicit negative responses ranging from audible groans and snickering to eye rolling. “Come on,” I plead, “It’s going to be FUN!” My enthusiasm for what is to come during discussion of that day’s historical topic is rarely contagious in these opening moments.
I teach at a two-year college comprised entirely of commuter students. In terms of age and life-experience, my students are diverse: some are “traditional” college age (18-22) but more are men and women in their twenties, thirties, forties and beyond -- single-parents, veterans, husbands, wives, caregivers, service providers and retail associates, police and firemen. Most days when I enter the classroom I am conscious of the fact that nearly every student is sitting in silence staring at his/her smartphone, intentionally disconnected.
Maybe “fun” is a subjective term. Nonetheless, here are a couple of the simple methods I have employed to enhance the class discussion experience for my students in an effort to move them beyond isolation and into group-based learning, which in turn has dramatically improved the quality of our time together in the classroom.
First, introductions are mandatory. Students introduce themselves to each other and are instructed to be prepared for me to quiz any member of the group on his/her members’ names. When the class is back together after group work I follow through: random students are asked to introduce their groupmates. Often after some giggling and awkwardness, students will help each get through the names. They smile and laugh, and I enjoy the camaraderie they’ve established in a very short period of time.
Second, whiteboards (or chalkboards!) add to the energy of the room while aiding in the process of students sharing what they have discussed. One of my favorite practices is to give all of the groups the same four questions to brainstorm for 10-15 minutes. On the whiteboard I designate a space for each question to be answered by each group. We are ready to discuss and share as a class only when every group has added their answers to the board with one catch: no repetitive answers. It’s amazing how quickly the students can get to work brainstorming when they fear another group “stealing” their answer before they can write it on the board!
Although they would never admit it publicly, my students are noticeably energized when I pass out the whiteboard markers! Often the students will snap a photo of the board notes before they leave the room because the no-repeat rule leads to very thorough brainstorming. It never fails that in classes where I utilize regular (every other week) group discussions the students are more engaged with each other inside and outside our classroom. Seeing students from my classes studying together in the campus common areas in the days following group work confirms my belief that they are craving the connections forged when I ignore their eye-rolling and assign low-stakes group work.
My motto for class discussion this semester is “proceed with caution.” In this era of intensely polarized viewpoints it sometimes feels as though conversations about anything more controversial than the weather are wrought with raw emotions, often anger and frustration. No matter how much we may try to disengage from the political disagreements that have become commonplace, we are faced with a seemingly endless onslaught of “breaking news.” As a result I’ve tried with my students to limit our discussion of current events to focus on those topics about which students may see direct parallels to our course. Many times this semester current political discourse has provided opportunities for history students to consider what we have learned in class in relation to debate among elected officials in Washington.
Take, for example, the March 3rd speech by Housing and Urban Development secretary Ben Carson in which he described African slaves as “immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships….” (Boston Globe, 6 March 2017) Rather than focusing on the outrage that many students felt towards Carson’s comments, our discussion centered around the historical facts we have learned about the Atlantic slave trade that directly contradict Carson’s argument. In particular, students focused on the sad reality that slave men and women were not free to make choices about their lives in the way that immigrants from Ireland during the Great Famine did, for example.
I was reminded as I listened to my students’ perspectives on the Carson speech that we as historians are uniquely positioned to elevate our students’ critical thinking skills simply by asking them to pay attention to current events and digest some of what they’ve read and heard in the opening minutes of each class meeting. Rather than criticizing modern-day politicians in our history classrooms, we can -- quite productively -- ask students to compare what they have heard on the news with what we have learned in class.
We know as historians that connections between the past and present are endless: Can we help our students find connections between immigration policies in the 1920s and the modern-day calls for a travel ban? Could anti-Japanese sentiments in the 1940s provide context for contemporary discussions of discrimination based on race or ethnicity? Were arguments made for/against repeal of Obamacare similar to arguments we read about New Deal legislation?
These classroom conversations -- however brief and informal -- will (hopefully) help my students to cut through the murkiness of media coverage and talking-heads, to draw fact-based connections between the past and the present. As a teacher and historian watching this process unfold in the classroom has been immensely satisfying. How about you? What’s going on in your classrooms?