Sue Tullos Duffy
On those days when you're not in the mood to lecture, or when you've stayed up too late grading papers to prepare, the small group may just be your salvation. I used it often in my nine-year college teaching career. It works quite well, provided classes are small--from thirteen to twenty-five people. I usually had between twenty and twenty-five freshmen, except in summer school, when classes were smaller. I did not use small groups in my sophomore literature classes, since the classes were somewhat larger and small group exercises prove less effective when one is covering longer material, such as a drama. Using the small group, however, can be very profitable, since it motivates students to think for themselves. But you must plan carefully, supervise diligently, and reward quickly.
Careful planning is essential, since the small group works best with relatively short assignments. Either divide the class into small groups yourself, or have the students do it. Be sure, though, that not all the good students are in the same group. Otherwise, discussions may flounder. Place each group in a different part of the classroom, but leave enough space so you can walk from person to person and from group to group. Designate one responsible student as group leader to take notes on the assigned exercise. Give copies of the assignment to every participant, explain the requirements, emphasize that group work will be graded and let them begin working.
I found group exercises very helpful in teaching poetry, since many students are shy about speaking up in class, and in addition, find poetry intimidating. Have each group discuss the same poem--preferably a short piece, like Shakespeare's Sonnet 116 or selected parts from Tennyson's "In Memoriam." Old English ballads like "Barbara Allen" also work well. If you're using these, however, be sure to remind your groups to check footnotes in the texts for the meanings of archaic words or expressions. Have a dictionary available, preferably in each group, but certainly on the desk, in case students need it. Ask questions like who is speaking in a certain poem, what the mood of a poem is, what, if any, possible conflicts exist between characters, what images occur repeatedly throughout a text and why, and what, if anything, the poem resolves. Encourage each group to do a line-by-line reading of a short poem, since students tend to skip words and lines they don't understand. In fact, an appropriate exercise might be simply to have students paraphrase one short poem (like Sonnet 116) from beginning to end. Group exercises also work well in teaching outlining, proofreading, and writing introductory, explanatory and concluding paragraphs for essays.
At the end of class, have each group member sign the page of notes which the leader has taken, that way, you'll know who was present in each group and can grade accordingly. Careful supervision is very important, since it's a truism that students love to chatter, and it will be a temptation for them to avoid doing the assignment. Whether we like to admit it or not, students always wonder how and if they can fool their blind teacher.
Supervision, however, needn't be heavy-handed. Walk slowly from group to group and listen to see what is going on. Praise if the group is on the right track; if not, offer gentle guidance. Encourage students to ask about points they don't understand, and make sure they know you are grading the exercise. End the group discussion five or ten minutes before class is over so that you can summarize key points in the assignment and so the students can put their chairs back into neat rows. This leaves the room ready for the next class and shows that, as a blind teacher, you are as neat as your sighted peer.
It is imperative that students be rewarded for group participation. Some rewards are built into the process. Students get a chance to interact with each other and to make friends in the class. More importantly, they have the chance to think for themselves in a carefully directed way about a specific poem or essay. They learn to express their own ideas and to share their ideas with others. When you let them know that group work will be graded, they realize that participation must be thoughtful and analytical and not merely social.
Use group work to judge class participation, not as major exams. Give everyone in the group the same grade. If a class member is not present, give him a zero.
The small group, then, is a wonderful teaching tool for all teachers, since it encourages student participation, is a more personal way of tackling a brief assignment, provides the teacher a rest and compels the students to think for themselves. If the blind teacher plans properly, supervises carefully and rewards quickly with appropriate praise and a good grade, he or she will have no trouble using this teaching tool.
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