Anyone who cares about teaching knows that the final day of class can be especially meaningful, especially for a class that has gone exceptionally well. My favorite “final day” exercise is (surprise, surprise) to turn the Big Ending professorial moment into a quietly reflective time where the students ask one another questions. I frame this in a Big Ending kind of way:
“Today is the last time we will all be in a room together. Take a moment to write out the one question you would really like to ask–of the profs, of another student, of everyone in this room.”
Before I get to some of the questions the “Black Listed” students asked I want to reiterate some of the principles that make it beneficial to give students five minutes to have them actually, physically write out their thinking.
- By setting aside time–even two or five minutes–for students to think and to translate that into a succinctly formulated question, helps everyone, including those with cognitive issues or personality differences (extrovert or introvert) a chance to have a silent space of thinking, not a mad race of the top students to raise their hands.
- We know from the demographics of the college teaching profession that we are replicating ourselves in race, gender, and social class. One reason is because “selectivity” methods (even and perhaps especially in discussion classes) favor a certain kind of Good Student. If we are going to change who teaches, we have to change who is rewarded by profs as the Good Student. Here’s the familiar adage: “You cannot change structural inequality with good will. You need to create new, equitable structures.”
- Inventory methods, where everyone has an equal chance to think and to present and everyone is called on (not those waving a hand in the front row) privilege the silent as well as the eloquent.
- By having students write out their question, you also constrain the form of asking. We literally have them read their questions to the class (again, a good way of equalizing).
- By having students write out their question, profs can collect the cards at the end and learn, even from the last day of class, what kinds of things are on everyone’s mind. It’s easy to forget, subsequently, what students most wanted to know on that last day.
- By making the final class be centered around questions students ask, one reinforces the central principle that student-led learning is also about learning how to participate in any group, in school or out, and that extends to society at large. It’s about learning not just to have a voice but to use that voice to advocate.
So what did students in this extraordinary “Black Listed” class ask on their final day together in class? Here are some of their questions:
1- Why were some of the Black writers we read this semester persecuted under McCarthyism while others were not? This is a subject-matter or content-focused question that well could be a “Big Ending” lecture subject, an overview of the central topic of the course. Needless to say, Prof Shelly Eversley gave an incredible impromptu answer to this perplexing, complicated question.
2-Did you end up admiring writers you had never heard of or read before? Which ones? Did you end up feeling disappointed in any of the writers we read, including writers you once thought you admired? This turned into a very deep, exciting, engaged, personal conversation. After talking about all the writers we had read who are not part of the canon but fabulous writers from the era, we then switched to talk about disappointments, writers who did not live up to their principles. But . . . then one student turned things around: “I have two kids. I can be brave and bold for myself; if it means jeopardizing their lives, I can’t say that I would be as willing to stick to my highest principles if it meant I couldn’t put food on my kids’ table.” We went right to the heart of practicality and principle . . . and I think all, once again, felt head-spinning admiration for Paul Robeson, among others.
2-What are some ways that we can apply some of the principles in this class–our method and content–to the rest of our education?
3-How are we going to be able to sit through a “normal class” after this one? Funny! And amusing! And, guess what, there are ways to do this too. There are even ways to help professors who are afraid of student-centered learning use some invaluable techniques for interactive methods. Many profs will let students make a suggestion or two.
4-How can we apply student-centered learning principles to other subject areas, such as math? For me, with my passion for pedagogy, this turned out to be one of the most stunning examples of another application of student-led learning principles that I have encountered in a very long career.
- One student, Luis, is earning a PhD in Urban Education even as he is teaching math at one of the CUNY campuses. For his statistics course this semester, he brought in past syllabi and invited the students in the class to create their own syllabus. Of the vast array of important kinds of statistics one can learn in this data-driven era, what topics and methods are most important to you? His students then designed the course syllabus for the semester, the areas of focus, the sequences. (Amazing!)
- His students also made a crucially important suggestion: They wanted MORE tests, not fewer. In fact, they asked for weekly quizzes instead of one or two long, high-stakes exams. Luis found it no more difficult to create short, low-stakes weekly quizzes than high stakes, students learned from this formative feedback method, he had a better ongoing sense of how they were doing, where more help might be needed. Since math is accumulative, it also helped students steadily learn instead of falling behind and feel like they were drowning.
5-Is there any way that Introductory classes for graduate study–the basic Introduction to Research Methods in X Field–could be transformed with student-centered and student-led learning practices? In practical terms for our Futures Initiative program, this may well have been the most important question asked. An exceptionally lively discussion ensued where several students said they almost dropped out of graduate school because of a dreadful, boring, rigid, uncreative introductory class. I recalled my own graduate school Research and Methods class about which all I remember is that it was so lifeless, rigid, and dull it made me want to drop out of graduate school immediately.
- Good news! The Futures Initiative sponsors and offers special funding and course buyouts for 5-7 innovative graduate center classes a year, where a Graduate Center “Central Line” faculty member invites a prof from one of CUNY’s twenty-four undergraduate (two and four year) campuses to co-teach a course at the Graduate Center and the Futures Initiative buys out that course from the partnering campus. The course is designed to embody critical pedagogy (student-centered learning or radical pedagogy), to be radically diverse in every way, to be interdisciplinary, and to include a component with a larger social application. In 2018-2019 we hope to give special priority to Introductory courses that embody these principles. We’ll report back on how this works.
Other questions were asked as well, all inspiring. I promise you will learn a lot from such an exercise and so will the students. It’s a way of turning the class around so it is about all of us, as a collective, co-learners together.
And it can be very moving, too. We ended with a question that brought out so many deep, emotional, gratifying responses that we just stopped there, with this question and with a feeling that this had been a unique and wonderful experience we all had shared:
6-What are one or two words that describe how you are feeling now, knowing this is the last time we’ll all be in this class together? I won’t share the responses. Needless to say, a lot of us felt deeply moved. I joked, “This feels like a church meeting!”
Thank you, “Black Listed” co-prof, Shelly Eversley. Thank you, Assisting Instructor Allison Guess. And, mostly, thank you students in “Black Listed” for desiging and leading such a deep, thrilling, moving course and an unforgettable experience for all of us.