I used to teach American Literature at a university in Virginia. I taught American Lit 1820-65. I taught that class a little differently than most. I put a current events/ cool things spin on it (Think comparing Hawthorne to the Kardashians.) I chose that particular time period because it was the period in which American culture and identity really began to take shape. I could write forever on that, and one day likely will, but for now, I digress………now I want to talk about my favorite teaching day.
It was the day every semester when I would not say a single word.
Every semester in American Lit I would teach Emerson’s “American Scholar”. If you are unfamiliar, “American Scholar” is an essay where Emerson blasts what he calls “the parrot of other man’s thinking”. In this critical period of American history, Emerson is trying to get people to think for themselves instead of just reciting a bunch of ideas that they’ve read in books. In other words, Emerson is saying, “Think for yourself!!” “Come up with something new!!” “Look at things from a new angle!!” He called it the difference between “Man Thinking” and “The Bookworm.”
Well, if you think about it, there really is no good way to teach this concept of one thinking for themselves. To actually “teach” this idea is contradictory. Under the old paradigm of teaching, the professor (or whoever) would stand in the front of the room and disseminate the information to the receptive, passive students. The students would then remember said information and regurgitate it for an exam at some point. This exact idea is the complete antithesis of what Emerson wanted. He was screaming at people to read stuff, but then take it and do something new with it. (In a way, he was kind of the first project based learning advocate.)
My usual teaching style involved having the students read the assigned text before class, then to begin the discussion, I would usually start off with a question. My whole teaching platform involved asking really tough but good questions of my students, to get them thinking and kick of discussion. Sometimes this worked brilliantly. And sometimes not. But for “American Scholar”, I realized that even me asking a question was too much direction. My students needed to really dig in this totally for themselves.
So I borrowed an idea from a colleague. He was having difficulty getting his students to respond or discuss in class so, in frustration, he conducted an entire class period merely by typing things in a Word document and projecting it on the wall. All classrooms were equipped with technology stations for the instructors with all capabilities and full internet access and the computers were linked to projectors. So he just pulled up a Word document and instead of verbally communicating, he would type in the document and project it on the screen. He did it to communicate a point to his students about class participation. But I had a different idea.
So on the day I was to teach “American Scholar”, I walked into class and did not say a word. My students immediately knew that something was up because I would normally banter and chat with them before class began. When class started, I typed the following:
“Howdy! As you can probably guess, I am not talking today. You will be doing all the talking. Among yourselves. You need to arrange yourselves into a circle”
*students, guessing that their instructor had just lost her mind, would move desks into a circle formation*
“Thank you. Now, since the reading for today is Emerson’s “American Scholar” and since we’ve just finished “Self-Reliance”, you are going to run the discussion today. Not me. I will prompt you with questions if you get stuck, but today’s discussion is on you. You can take it in any direction you want, but it has to stay relevant to “American Scholar” in some way. So your choices are: 1) discuss “American Scholar” or 2) sit and stare at each other awkwardly for fifty minutes. Your choice. Have fun!!”
And they chose to discuss. Every single time.
That showed me the power of what students can do when we put the control in their hands. I think that’s why I am becoming so enamored of e-learning and education technology. I’m excited to see where putting the students in control of their own learning, their own discovery, their own power, will take us. Project-based learning, e-learning, game-based learning, education technology in general, is taking the old paradigm of teaching and turning it on its head. Students have the power now to think, explore, synthesize and create for themselves. I think Emerson would have been pleased.