Wednesday, September 13, 2017

What Does a Flipped English Class Look Like? An Example Using Chaucer

Back when flipping classes became the newest trend in conversations about pedagogy, it always bugged me when people would say that "English teachers already flip their classes." Behind such statements the assumption, I think, was that because English students would get content at home (by reading a novel, for instance) it makes possible opportunities for active learning at school (an example being a lively classroom discussion perhaps). As an English instructor, I've always thought that such an assessment misses the point when it comes to "flipping".

The questions we should be asking when designing a flipped course are as follows:

1. What doesn't have to take place during class time (due to tech tools and connectivity)?

2. What should be taking place during class time (but usually doesn't due to time constraints)?

If reading and writing are the skills that dominate the focus of a given English class, it wouldn't be a stretch to say that those are the 2 things that should be taking place in class (even if they demand a lot of time). If discussions and what I call "setting up the book lectures" don't have to take place in the four walls of the classroom (due to technological resources), perhaps activities such as these can take place a-synchronistically outside of class.

Here's something I did this week, for instance, for a unit covering Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales:

Step One: Instead of "setting up" Chaucer in class by lecturing about or discussing together the historical and literary contexts of Chaucer's work, I recorded a podcast (using GarageBand, but if you don't have a mac, check out Audacity, which is free online) that covered in 20 mins. what would have taken at least one entire class period. (You can listen to the podcast by going here).

Step Two: I also created an online discussion thread that prompted students to share insights and thoughts about the podcast they were required to listen to. Every student had to contribute at least once to the discussion, which also was a way for me to monitor that students were listening to the required material. In my case, I utilized the class's portal page to set up the discussion (we use Finalsite at Oakridge), but one could make use of several free, online programs such as Slack.

For almost every unit now, I follow steps 1 & 2.  Students can complete the requirements easily over a weekend, and they're ready to get down to the business of practicing the skills of reading (and writing) together come Monday morning.

Step Three: Students come to class, and first thing, there's highlights from the weekend's online discussion projected on the digital screen for everyone to see. Naturally, it creates conversation at the beginning of class, but quickly, we turn to the text, reading closely together the first lines of Chaucer's Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. Each person gets a specific task (like determining tone, cataloging imagery, detecting allusions, etc.), and with everyone, I model how to read closely the opening passages on the Knight and the Squire. (This gives me the chance to show the difference between idealizing or satirizing a given character...)

Step Four: Students break into groups, and each group gets a character that's portrayed in the opening Prologue. I project on the screen a URL to a Google Doc that everyone can access and edit, and on that doc are questions to guide each group as they read critically the passages that were assigned to them. (The doc looks something like this).

As groups, students must catalog and cite the concrete details that "stick out" after reading the passage in question. Second, they have to discuss and write down any commentary they infer collectively based on the details they've cited. At this point, they're also determining whether the passage is satire or something else. Their third task is to pretend that they're going to write a paragraph about the character in question. With this in mind, they write collaboratively a topic sentence that makes clear the main idea of the passage. (While all this is going on, I get to hover from group to group, helping where I can but mostly listening to the learning that's taking place among peers)

Step Five: After each group is finished, they have to present their work to the class. Someone reads the passage aloud, followed by a brief presentation of the concrete details and commentary they noted. Lastly, we workshop as a class the topic sentence they've constructed, discussing together its merits as well as where we see room for more development. Everyone participates in this process.

Step Six: Once everyone has shared their work, we return to the Google Doc to complete the final task: namely, to create a Meme that makes clear the most important characteristic or flaw related to the character in question. Of course, this activity gets a lot of laughs, and sometimes we post them online for others to see as well.

The lesson I describe above works well with block scheduling. One would have to modify or break apart the stages if dealing with shorter class periods. To me, this is what a "flipped" English class would look like: We front-load the need-to-know info and facilitate much of the more open discussion outside of class so that class time can be spent practicing the art of reading and writing for each other in real time. It went well this week, and students appreciated the collaborative approach. Now we're repeating a similar process (minus the podcast) as we read some of the stories (specifically, "Pardoner's Tale" and "Wife of Bath's Tale"). After that, it's Macbeth, which means another podcast (which you can check out here).