sharing leadership with students

I have mixed feelings about a recent attempt of mine to share more leadership with students in the classroom.

This past semester, I taught a new course on personal narrative. In this course, we read the memoir Angela’s Ashes; I decided to structure our discussion of the book as a series of seminars. I divided the class into groups, and assigned each group a section of the memoir to teach to the class. Within each group, the main tasks were to summarize the section, provide a brief thematic analysis, and give the class three questions to discuss and write about. The groups also had the option to give geographical, historical and cultural background information, to further analyze specific parts of their section that they felt needed more explanation, or to provide anything else that they felt would help the class understand their section, and the book as a whole, better.

I was excited about this activity, and thought that I had structured it well enough to provide a base from which the students could take control of their own, and each others’, learning. I also modeled the “seminar” format for the students the class before we began the presentations, by creating my own “seminar-style” lesson in the format I expected them to follow, and posting my overheads, discussion questions etc. online for them to use as templates if they wished.

For the most part, however, the seminars fell flat. Aside from the usual problems of oral presentations – students standing stiffly and reading tonelessly from partly plagiarized papers instead of engaging thoughtfully with the class – there were some serious repercussions in terms of learning. For example, it became clear that, although I emphasized from the beginning that students needed to read the whole book and not just their group’s section, many students took the seminars as an excuse to do only their assigned portion of the reading. Also, many of the tips I hoped they would absorb from my modelling, or that I explicitly pointed out to them – the use of well-structured overheads to help guide their lectures, for example, and the organization of chapter summaries into a few pertinent points rather than a long list of disconnected events – went unnoticed.

The “discussion questions” task, in particular, was a botch job. My original request was that the person responsible for the discussion questions – the “discussion leader” – would present the questions, give the class ten minutes or so to discuss and write answers, and then conduct a whole-class discussion in which groups would share their answers. The discussion leader would then collect the written answers and would summarize them in an online text that the whole class could read.

It was soon established, however, that unless I also collected the questions and assigned a grade value to them, many students simply wouldn’t complete them – they sat talking amongst themselves instead of doing the work. When it came time for the class discussion, the discussion leaders were uncomfortable calling on classmates for their contributions, only a few students willingly volunteered answers, and all-in-all, the exercise seemed dull and disorganized.

I made some changes to the structure of the activity. I asked the discussion leader to turn the students’ answers over to me so I could tabulate participation; instead of leading a discussion, I asked the discussion leader to summarize the class’s answers briefly at the beginning of the following class (thus, the “discussion leader” was no longer a discussion leader at all.) This helped a little, but by the end of the semester, I didn’t feel that the “seminar” exercise had been a success.

If I do this exercise again, I will make a few more changes. I will assign it a much greater grade value – this time, because it was a last-minute addition to the course assignments, it counted merely as part of the participation mark. I will also give much more information about how to effectively manage each task, and will give more specific requirements – use of some sort of audio or visual aid, brief and organized summary, cohesion of the group presentation, etc. My hope the first time around was that, by assigning the seminars minimal importance in terms of grades and giving less rigid parameters, I would free students to be creative and to take charge of their own and others’ learning. It is clear, though, that most of these students were not ready or willing to take advantage of this freedom.

“Sharing leadership” is a tricky business, because many college students do not have the expertise, experience or maturity to be “leaders” in the classroom or to respond well to other students as leaders. In a classroom where students are more intrinsically motivated – in a program-specific class, for example, where students have at least shown some interest in the subject matter by choosing the program – attempts at sharing leadership might be more successful. I am not convinced that it is very practical in a CEGEP English classroom, where some students are looking for any excuse they can find to learn as little as possible.

(An earlier version of this post was originally part of a personal response for an MEd course.)

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