Taking risks: an experiment in letting go of the reins

I barely spoke in my new senior elective last week. When I came into class, I didn’t know what the students had read. I wasn’t sure what we’d be emphasizing in class.

'Revolution Rules' Sprayed on Police Truck

‘Revolution Rules’ Sprayed on Police Truck (Photo credit: Jonathan Rashad)

No, I’m not confessing to a mid-life crisis. I’m teaching an experiment. This is the hardest, scariest class I have ever taught and, I think, the best. My kids are running my class and, so far, they’re doing a wonderful job.

The class is on the Arab Spring, which makes it a challenge to begin with.  This is history that has not yet been digested and transformed from news to summary. There is no textbook (the number of published global summaries available when I was picking books was still in the single digits, and almost all of those were memoirs, policy analyses, or collections of articles, not straight historical narratives. I am using a collection of essays about twice a month to give students a little more concentrated background, but that’s it). There is no canon. There are lots of talking points, but not yet any conventional wisdom.

That’s why I picked it: I want this to be a chance for my students to think deeply about the process by which “things that happened” are transformed into “history” and the difference between the two. I wanted to give them a chance to get in on the ground floor.

Given that, I decided when I was designing the course to try to create a structure flexible enough that students could largely determine its direction.  I usually have students take some leadership–assigning students to lead primary source discussions, for example–but I wanted to make that an intrinsic part of the course, rather than an add-on.

Here’s what the course looks like. We’re covering four countries in 12 weeks: Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria. Each country gets a little over two weeks (the rest of the time goes to an intro to the region, wrap up and a mock conference at the end, and work on term papers), and each country has a team of three or four student specialists. The first week is devoted to a broad overview–the kids read/view/explore a collection of web resources I put together, then an essay from the book, then three articles that they each choose and which we analyze comparatively. They also collect resources that they think are particularly useful on topics I’ve chosen (social media, Islamists, women, the military, etc) and post them to an evolving collection of links curated by the country team. We watch some videos and argue a lot about news coverage.  Our mission is to hammer out a rough narrative of key events on which we can all agree by the end of the week.

The second week is run by the country team. The class meets four days a week, and each day is devoted to one of the subtopics we collected materials on and run by one member of the team (she has the option of handing it off to me any time after the halfway mark, but so far they’ve been rather reluctant to do so). The reading is any three resources in the category (I keep saying resources, because lots of them are clips from TV news or live videos of events) other than the ones the student posted him or herself. This is the scariest part for me, because I never know until discussion starts who will have read what, but it also makes our discussions much deeper and more wide-ranging, because their choices cover a much wider gamut than I could assign in a single reading. Everybody blogs about the topic the night before, so the temptation to coast on other people’s reading is minimized, and the discussion leader draws from the blogs in shaping her discussion. I set the topics, but, already, they don’t always stay set–last week’s team detected an interesting emphasis on the intersection of women’s issues and class in the comments and didn’t hesitate to propose throwing out the discussion on the economy I had planned.  It was probably a smart teaching decision on their part.

In the third week, we have one last grand summative discussion, where I get to gently circle back if necessary, and then the students write an in-class essay, and then the whole thing starts again.

This is a scary class for me to teach. It’s scary because I’m trusting the kids an awful lot:  I worry that the ones not running the class will stop doing the readings–no chance for a pop quiz, because everyone read (or should have read) something different. I worry that the discussion leader will blow it and class will be horribly boring or superficial, or even lead students to poor conclusions. I worry that students will be unhappy at how much responsibility I’m asking them to take, and I’m worried that parents or colleagues may think that I’m not really “teaching.” It’s also scary because I have to give up a certain amount of authority–because the class is so unpredictable, it’s hard for me to be as thoroughly prepared for its twists and turns as I would usually be; I find myself saying, “Hm. I don’t know,” disconcertingly often. I think this is actually really valuable for students to see, but it does cut a teacher down to size.

I’ve structured the class as carefully as I can upfront to make sure that, once things start to roll, they roll well.  This class, ironically, has far more complex underpinnings than most of my classes–each night’s work is broken up into several tasks–reading, posting, commenting, etc.–I’ve set up a website wiki with separate areas for all the different sorts of posts, I’ve given them careful instructions on how to post, where to post, and how to decide what to post. I’ve had endless out of class conversations with country teams and answered midnight emails. But I also know that, once I’ve set the stage, I have to let it happen, and part of taking risks is being prepared for the occasional sub-optimal class. I think it’s worth it.

So far, the results have been everything I could ask for. The discussions have been lively and participation has been surprisingly even-handed.  The kids have gotten to some deep and complicated questions, even though they haven’t always seen the aspects of them I would have pointed out (I sneak some of those in later). The posts have been thoughtful and the work has been more than required. Everybody has been enthusiastic.

What makes me most excited, though, is what happened at our first debrief. On Friday, at the end of our first team-run week, I held a 15-minute debrief. I had meant to focus on the quality of the discussion and improving discussion skills, but they wanted to talk about the class as a whole, and they hardly let me get a word in edgewise.  They were excited, they were proud of themselves, and they had ideas to make it better. They thought they should comment on other people’s posts, rather than just writing their own, to get more online conversation going. They thought the country team ought to run something all together in addition to their solo turns. They wondered if I wouldn’t like to participate in the general conversations and promised that, if I did, they would treat me as just another voice. One of them suggested that, to assure that, I might try participating but only in question form. In other words, they have now, seamlessly, begun designing the course.

I’ve never had that before. I always check in with my students about how things are going, and I often get good suggestions, but those conversations tend to follow one of two patterns: usually, students are either cheerful and don’t want to change anything or they are (however tactfully) uncomfortable and want me to do something differently. This time, they were overwhelmingly positive but wanted to tinker with everything.

I loved it. I have been saying for years that my goal was to help students truly, authentically, see the class and their learning as something they owned and were responsible for. On Friday, for the first time, I felt as though I had fully reached that goal.



About wordsarestrong

I teach history at an independent school in California.
This entry was posted in Musing about the field, Teaching with discussion and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Taking risks: an experiment in letting go of the reins

  1. Ann V. Klotz says:

    wonderful–lucky students, courageous you!

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