Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Ping Pong Playa

One of the hardest things about coming to Mines to teach was leading discussion.  At Scripps College, an all women's liberal arts school, I could get away with handing students an interesting text and saying, pithily, "What do you think?" and off they would go.  They were hungry to chew on ideas and to have discussions with one another and it was just in the air at that university--and maybe at most liberal arts universities--to give the text a go.  And, shoot, I thought I was a brilliant instructor.  Basically, they were making me look good just by being fabulous themselves.

Mines is an engineering university, though.  Some of my fellow scholars estimate that, by the time they graduate, students will have completed around 5,000 "problem sets"--they're given problems and asked to "plug and chug" on them.  Constraints are almost always determined and there is nearly always a "right" answer.  Furthermore, their technical classes are largely oriented around lectures, in which they feel they are given "the answers."

So then I show up here at Mines, 27 years old, cocky, thinking I'm a good teacher.  I'm hip, I wear a jean jacket, I crack wise.  I put my stuff down; I give them a good text; I sip my coffee; I ask them what they think.

Blank stares.


Me, panic.

75 minutes to fill.  I got nothing.

Eight years later, I almost never go into a classroom counting on open discussion about a text.  I carefully prepare "agendas" for each of my classes (these are for me, to remind myself what I have planned).  I craft discussion questions, devise pair-share activities, assign "quick-writes," make powerpoints, have video clips, sing, dance, cajole, facilitate, soothe, provoke.

It's exhausting.  But it usually works.  And it's sort of required.  Most of my fellow instructors do some version of all of this.  A lot of it is just good teaching.

But it can also look a lot like ping-pong.

A student pings a comment to me, I reformulate it, comment on it, repackage it, and...pong...throw it back out.  Another student picks it up and pings back to me and I pong.  I am the center of that discussion, the fulcrum, the ponger.  The ping pong makes things move and I meet objectives and things stay lively.  It's not always perfect--many of my coworkers are much better and more liked and more effective teachers than I am.  But it works better than the dead, ill silence, and I think students end up learning in my classes.  Which, after all, is the point.

Still, it makes me the focus, doesn't it?  And my students don't ever get the opportunity to really talk to one another, seminar style.  Which was my fave part of school.

Other than the keggers.

But that's for a different post.

So, today, I bailed on all my fancy, controlling pedagogical tricks and went into class asking them why they couldn't just ping pong with each other while I watched.  They said they preferred for me to give them the answers.  I said that, for today, I wouldn't.  I sipped my tea and stood back.

And you know what?  They ping ponged each other.  They made very smart points.  They participated.  They discussed with one another.  And it was good.

For about 40 minutes.  And then some began to dominate the conversation and we ran out of steam.  I took over and wrote things on the board and ponged and I think it ended okay.

Still, it felt like a victory.  Or at least an interesting experiment.

Could I have done that on the first day of class?  No way.  Could I have done it in my other class, where there is an undercurrent of angst and, dare I say, a seething anger about the grades they got on their last assignment?  Maybe not.

But I'll be experimenting with ye olde ping ponging again soon.

Pong to you.

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