Words with Friends: Creating the Student-Centered Roots Classroom

This semester I had the absolute honor and delight of participating in a course described as “Mapping the Futures of Higher Education,” a graduate seminar team-led by Professors Cathy N. Davidson and William Kelly in collaboration with the Futures Initiative at the Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY).

One of the main goals of the class was to explore and share pedagogical expansions, innovations, and ultimately improvements to the traditional undergraduate classroom.  My own classroom therefore became the arena in which I was able to implement the theories I was learning in the “Mapping” course and witness how they faired in practice.

I teach one section of the Greek and Latin Roots of English for the Classics Department at Hunter College in New York, NY. Hunter is one of CUNY’s senior colleges and it is estimated that nearly 15% of its undergraduates will take Roots at some point during their college career. This semester I had a total roster of 55 students.

Below is a summary of the blog posts I made this semester in which I chronicled my experiences with bringing student-centered pedagogies into the Roots classroom. The final result is a summation of many lessons learned – all of which have helped me to update my Roots syllabus for the next time I teach this course in the Spring of 2016. This updated syllabus is linked here (CLA 110 S16 Syllabus).

At first glance you may notice this syllabus has much of the expected informational necessities: meeting times, required texts, a schedule of assignments, and a percentage breakdown for the students’ final grades.

I will start with this focus on final grades because that is where most of our students do – they want to know how to get the ‘A’ or how simply pass the course for credit. For many students, succeeding on summative assessments – quizzes, papers, and exams –  is a stressful and demanding yet necessary goal.

Therefore I have written a post on how a classroom might instead be reoriented in order to focus on the process of learning and the gradual development of knowledge. In “Formative Assessment in the Undergraduate Classroom: Three Activities to Try Today” I offer three short and simple activities that serve to evaluate not only the students but the instructor as well.  Formative assessments compel all classroom participants to take a self-reflective look at both the expectations and realities of the course.

The next section of my syllabus concerns homework, not only textbook-based exercises but what I call “projects,” fun and creative short, low-stakes writing assignments that let the students more freely explore and master the course content. These projects have proven to be a tremendously versatile vehicle for introducing student-centered activities into the classroom.

In “MTA Issues Lead to an Unexpected Opportunity,” a delay on the subway forces me to conquer my fear of giving up authority in the classroom and grants me the opportunity to hand over the reins of teaching to the students themselves.

I repeated this pedagogical experiment with “Propaganda Pitches,” drafted as a way to introduce new material by allowing the students to present the information to their peers. In this instance, the class explored the roots of many of the English words we use in the fields of government and politics through a series of short, instructor-guided but student-crafted mini-lectures.

Another project which I was able to improve with the help and support of my “Mapping” class was the students’ “Name Project.” This was in fact their very first assignment  – I asked my Roots students to do some research into the etymology, or word origins, or their first name. As participants in the CUNY Maps of NYC, my Roots students were encouraged to map their names and in so doing produced an international map demonstrating the global onomastic diversity of New York City. The exciting results of their ‘Name Etymology Map’ can be viewed here.

Had there been more time this semester I would have liked to bring even more mapping into the course and I hope to be able to do so the next time I teach Roots.

In this spirit of looking back while thinking ahead, I asked my students for their feedback on many of these student-centered activities I have outlined above. My goal was to gather their opinions and suggestions to help me improve these activities for future sections of Roots. This was done through a survey which I always give to my students about halfway through the semester – thus I consider it a midterm assessment of the course so far. The results of this survey can be viewed here.

As I had expected, opinions were varied but largely rose in support of the new pedagogies I was introducing into the classroom. The idea of group-work is always certain to bring some level of excitement or anxiety to students, but overall my class displayed a genuine and inspirational willingness to participate in the reorientation of the traditional lecture-style course, a classroom environment which is often “vertically” set up so that knowledge moves unilaterally from instructor to student.

As my Roots class concludes our semester, I remain eager to hear more of their opinions and suggestions about the “horizontalization” of our classroom.