By Rachel Luckenbill, Instructional Consultant for TAs at Duquesne University
I felt like I was a record on repeat. It was late in the day, the sun was going down, and I was daring to begin class with a rather mundane lesson on paragraph formation. I explained to my students repeatedly the value of having one main idea per paragraph and making sure each sentence contributes to the main idea. But it just wasn’t sinking in. I could see the dazed, uninterested stares. They were smart students, but they either didn’t care or couldn’t connect to what I was saying.
Out of a sense of desperation and a need, myself, to do something more exciting than talk about paragraphs, I proposed that the class, with me as their scribe, compose their own paragraph on the spot as a group. I went to the blackboard, chalk in hand, suggested a paragraph topic (in this case the difference between the class I was teaching them and another class in which all of them were enrolled) and began to direct them in the process of paragraph writing. I hadn’t planned this out ahead of time, so this was very much an exercise in spontaneity.
First, I had them brainstorm a list of words and ideas that might appear in their paragraph (the subject of each class, types of assignments, lecture content, etc.). Once we had a sufficient list, I asked students what might be a good topic sentence. This was difficult. I discovered that we needed to identify a purpose for our paragraph before we could begin to formulate the topic sentence – were we trying to convince someone to take one course over the other? Did we simply want to answer a friend who was asking what our course schedule was like? After some deliberation, the students collectively decided that it wasn’t very interesting to write a paragraph demonstrating that these two classes were different. They found it far more interesting to begin by acknowledging the differences but assert that these diverse courses required students to practice the same set of skills (clear writing, critical thinking, public speaking). I enjoyed watching the students discover that they could take a paragraph which originally read like a list and make it a kind of argument by adding interpretation.
Once our purpose was clear, the class composed a rough draft of the topic sentence. From that point, I called on volunteers as they generated ideas about what sentences could fill out the rest of the paragraph. With each sentence, I asked them to describe how it related to the topic sentence. In cases where the new contribution was more interesting than the original topic sentence, we decided to rewrite the original so that by the end of the exercise we had an entirely new topic sentence and a much more complex paragraph than what we had originally set out to write.
The exercise was a bit chaotic. Sometimes I had two or three students shouting out phrases or sentences at the same time. At other times, I supplied phrases during lulls in the dialogue. I did a lot of erasing and a lot of rewriting of both the students’ suggestions and mine, always explaining why I was making the changes I did. It gave me a chance to model making wordy phrases more concise, varying sentence structure, and weighing the value of one word choice over another.
By the time the paragraph was complete, the board was an absolute mess, barely legible, but the students had seen the craft behind writing a coherent paragraph. They finally understood that it took work, editing, planning. And they grasped the need to make sure everything connected back to one main idea. Best of all, all of us, me and the students, were excited and full of energy. The topic of the paragraph was pretty mundane, but we had created something together, something that required spontaneity and hard intellectual work leaving no room for boredom or blank stares.
Who knew that teaching paragraphs could feel exhilarating? Who knew that students could describe learning about paragraphs as fun?
Sometimes I encounter active learning as risky. I was nervous when I suggested that the class write a paragraph together. I knew it was entirely possible that none of them would offer ideas or that I would have difficulty helping them create a paragraph from scratch that was coherent and yet still incorporated all of their suggestions. It’s often easier to stand in front of the class and explain the concept than it is to either model or engage them actively in practicing that concept. Some level of verbal explanation is appropriate and necessary, but having students do instead of just hear leads to an engagement that increases learning.
It’s your turn: In the comments below, describe an experience where you took a risk on active learning that led to more energy and connection in the classroom.