This past school year I had the lucky experience of comparing two very different approaches to teaching classical literature classes. In the fall semester, there were lots of lecture, little student involvement, and the students did not do the homework. It did not work as well as I would have liked, so I sought help and revamped most of my teaching methods for the spring semester. I will definitely continue to implement these strategies. More group work was one of the major changes that vastly improved the spring semester class.
How I did it
At the beginning of each class, I had groups summarize the reading from the night before: a few poems of Horace, a few letters of Pliny, or a book of Vergil. As the groups were talking, I would walk around the room to get a sense of how well the students understood the reading. After a few minutes, I would bring the class together and ask if there were any questions or confusion about any parts of the reading. Usually with the short poems, we would have to walk through them as a class; but the prose readings or the books of the Aeneid were clear enough without many questions. If the students seemed to have understood the reading, I would not summarize it for them. Overall, this usually took 5-10 minutes, so we all remembered what the reading was about and we had a significant amount of class time to discuss and dissect the reading.
After the summary, we would start discussing the theme for the day, which was based on the reading. I would ask them to discuss a question in groups and then get volunteers to share what their group discovered. I tried to make sure that multiple groups shared each day for each question so that we got a variety of answers. These questions for group discussion were designed to lead the students towards a larger point. I often tried to drive home that larger point at the end of class. Sometimes, I was pleasantly surprised when the discussion went elsewhere.
Later in the semester, I tried to let the students have more control and enjoy the class more. After the summary, I asked if there was anything they wanted to talk about from the readings, anything that interested them. Some days, there was nothing. Most days, it was a major theme that I wanted to talk about and I changed my plan for the day in order to fit their desires.
Benefits (as compared to the Fall)
The students cared more, and they did the reading more often. The students also volunteered to speak more often, and more students enjoyed the class. The group discussions let the students become more involved in the class, and they let them have more control over how the class operated. They could clear up each other’s confusion, help each other learn, and discover ideas through discussion.
Possible areas of improvement
Not all students wanted to engage in group work, and the groups remained the same throughout the semester. On the first day, I said that I would consider assigning groups but I would let them choose their own groups for awhile based on where they sat or who they knew. A few weeks into the semester, I realized that the groups that they were choosing were pretty well balanced, so I did not assign groups for the rest of the semester. In future classes, I will assign groups more often and let students choose their own groups. I want them to feel comfortable and talk to their peers, both those whom they like, and those whom they may not know. If I assign groups, students will meet people whom they don’t know and I can encourage the students who are more reticent about group work. Assigning groups will also help balance skill levels of the groups more.
Other factors to consider
It depends a lot on the students. In the Fall, the students were great if we sat in a large circle and talked. In the Spring, the large circle did not work, but groups of four or five students did. You have to find the right size group for the students, and the right people for each group.
It also depends a lot on the teacher. In high school, I was the eager student who did all the work for a group, so I hesitated at first. I was also used to a heavy dose of lecturing, so the increased amount of group work was a huge challenge for me. At the beginning of the Spring semester, I was nervous and felt uncomfortable without as much control over the class as I would have by lecturing. As the semester progressed, I realized how much more dynamic the classes were, and how much more dynamic I was. I was engaging more with the students and getting to know them better, and I was engaging more with the material. I also realized how much more the students were learning, reading, and talking. More group work was definitely worth it, and I will continue to ask my students to frequently discuss their ideas in groups.