Students as Teachers
Reversing the Roles
By Michelle Shin
I love to read. I consume as many books as my schedule allows and often find the time even when there isn’t any. However, that quantity combined with my overloaded memory means I barely remember what I just read.
Yet, this is not so for the books I teach. Nothing commits knowledge to memory better than having to teach it. Being the “expert” on something, and being responsible for the transference of not just knowledge, but its relevance and application, has a way of making people rise to the challenge. Thus, what better way to teach students a piece of literature than to have them teach it themselves?
Our students are used to presenting, doing in-class work, and working in long-term group projects. But they are not used to teaching a class, for the entire period, along with everything it entails: time management, classroom management, preparedness, adaptability, lesson planning, and academic knowledge.
This project puts them in front of the class, with a real audience, and requires them to deal with various situations—both internal and external. I don’t know how many times students have come up to me after their “Teach-a-Short-Story” project, or during it, and told me, “This is hard! How do you do it?” Sometimes, they’re referencing having to re-explain when a student has questions. Sometimes they’re talking about getting anyone to pay attention or stay awake. Sometimes, it has to deal with speaking in front of an audience that is evaluating them, making mental (or verbal) judgments. Either way, these are important life lessons about how to convey knowledge and how to treat the person trying to convey it to you.
I have students who barely read other books, pore over their “Teach-a-Short-Story” stories, scour the Internet for insight, and come up with creative games to apply to the lesson. Part of it is the empowerment of being in charge and being the authority on the subject matter. Part of it is how fun it can be to teach (and boss around) the class, and part of it is not wanting to let the team down. And perhaps part of it is also wanting to “save face” and not be “shamed,” but that’s a large motivating factor in many facets of life. Plus, working in a small team to accomplish a concrete goal is very motivating for them. The dynamic of being able to discuss a specific topic or assignment, in-depth, with peers provides valuable exposure to different perspectives, modes of thinking, and pushes students to collaborate and adapt.
As we all remember from our student teaching days however, no one should throw a novice teacher to the sharks. Thus, I prepare my students to teach with a step-by-step process that is checked by me at every stage. This also emphasizes self-regulation on their part because of the specific checkpoints. Students feel more motivated and are better able to monitor and prioritize if the process is defined and broken into do-able steps.
Step one: Explain, Assign Stories, and Discuss
First, I have students read a short story and then I teach it to the class and model what I expect of the group. I switch modalities—lecture, group work, group presentations, an activity, a writing prompt, and a test. Switching between the different modes energizes students and displays the importance of keeping the class engaged.
Next, I explain the assignment and assign groups. Each group has a different short story. I let students choose their own groups, but I set how many slots per group and each story has a firm presentation date. I explain that this is like the final band concert or a big football game—the date is set and you can’t make it up if you miss it.
For their story, groups are required to cover the main themes, how they develop and apply to the story, and how these themes apply to society. They must teach the message or lesson of the short story and, again, show a real world application. Next, they tackle characters and the importance these characters have to the story. What did this character teach us through his/her actions? What was the author’s purpose in having a character like this one? Finally, groups are in charge of one miscellaneous category: satire, symbolism, cultural issues, noticeable literary terms, societal criticism, historical context, or importance of place/setting. All groups must do a minimum of one writing prompt, one activity, and have a “test” as well.
Groups then meet, discuss the story, divide up the work, and must take detailed, annotated notes on the story for homework. The next class, I meet with each group to do a temperature check about how well they are understanding the concepts. Sometimes a lot of prodding and leading questions are needed, and other times the students are on it and I can move on to the next group and simply get out of their way.
Step two: Lesson Plan
Groups must create a lesson plan—this step is essential. It allows the teacher to pre-check the lesson before teaching day, requires students to plan and collaborate, and models an effective organizational strategy. The lesson plan includes 1) all the required elements, 2) names attached to each element, 3) time estimates, 4) and descriptions of each required element. The themes must list each theme they are going to teach and provide a brief summary of how it applies to the story and society. For characters, they must list each character they are going to cover with a summary of why that character was important. Groups must also include a summary of their activity, include their writing prompt, and include their test questions.
Step Three: Review and Revise
The lesson plan is submitted to me—usually on a day when we are working on our final essay. I write feedback (such as altering their time estimates, asking for more information on a certain section, or asking them to more specifically clarify what their activity entails and what it teaches) and then return it the next class. They must then turn in a revised and final version that is graded on their teaching day.
Step Four: Grading
Group work can be tricky. The benefits are vast and the complaints can be endless. My rubric incorporates a mixture of individual and team grades so that every member of the team could get a different final grade. Elements on the lesson plan with names next to them (such as themes, messages, the miscellaneous category) are graded on an individual basis. So if one person is not prepared and another excels, their grade reflects that. If the lesson plan indicates that “everyone” worked on an element (like the test or activity) then everyone gets the same grade for that component, but that is up to each group. I do this to “protect” students against those not doing their part, but have noticed that most students decide to take joint responsibility, which is another life lesson and skill.
The two mandated team grades are the lesson plan (I provide class time to collaborate) and time management on teaching day. If they are short, it deducts points from everyone. One step I take to combat this from happening, however, is requiring an “emergency plan” on the lesson plan. An emergency plan contributes to the lesson, perhaps strengthening a concept or elaborating on a theme, but is not crucial to the test and could be “thrown out.” Ideally, it does not get used, but it is there and ready-to-go in case a group is running short.
Step Five: Self-Assessment and Team Feedback Letters
Feedback on collaboration and projects is essential to improvement, so team members are expected to keep self-assessment logs and write each other feedback letters. Students keep a log of when they worked on the project, what they contributed, and what they learned (academically or socially). After teaching, they do a final self-reflection on what that experience taught them, made them realize, and a specific teaching skill they can apply to a specific life situation.
I also require that each student write a peer feedback letter for each team member. The letter must address three areas: positive feedback for the individual, overall group evaluation, and a specific improvement goal for the individual. This way students are required, by me, to give constructive feedback which allows them a more culturally acceptable venue if they feel deeply uncomfortable with talking directly to a team member. It also makes students accountable to each other—for their success and for pushing improvement goals.
The best way to learn is to teach. So let’s give students more opportunities to do so while also providing the guidelines and structure to ensure success. Who knows—we could be mentoring and inspiring students to become the future generation of teachers.
Michelle Shin lives in Hawai‘i with her husband and son and teaches at Kapi‘olani Community College. She received her doctorate from the University of Hawai‘i with an emphasis in creative writing and contemporary American literature and was a public high school teacher for ten years.