This week was my first experiment in something different in my classes. I have had discussion days before, so that was not the real difference here. What was different is that I had a day designed purely to explore a single topic in great detail with the students doing all of the preparation work outside of class and coming in simply to discuss that issue. In this case, I set up the material for the discussion by covering the three main tendrils of history that led into the topic — immigration, unionization, and Progressivism. Each of those had been covered in lecture in the days before this class, and so each student should have had a general idea of the historical context in which the incident took place.
In designing my “In-Class Activity” day, I had gone on the web to look at what resources were out there, as I wanted to give the students something that they would not access in a normal class. I did not want a traditional discussion where you have the students go out and read some primary sources and then come back and talk about them. I wanted something different, something that would engage the students in a different way, and yet accomplish the very goals that I always try to reach, having them connect the historical events to the modern age. As well, I wanted them to be confronted with an event that happened to people like them but 100 years earlier so that they could relate to them. Traditional “great man” history does not speak to them in many ways, but getting down to average Americans working hard just to get by speaks well to students, especially the non-traditional ones you find in a community college setting who have been out and worked in the real world.
What I had the students do was go out to the PBS website and watch the American Experience program on The Triangle Fire of 1911. They also were to access a couple of the other resources there, including an introductory essay, biographies of some of the participants, and a few informative pictures in a slideshow. The combination of that material was what they had to do before class, and it was open and available from the first day of class. To get into class on the day of the discussion, the students were required to bring a 1-2 page response to the material. I did not guide them in what they were to write specifically, but left it open to them as far as what they wrote.
It was an experiment in something new, and I really had no idea how it would go. Would they do the work ahead of time? Well, about 80-85% of the students who showed up brought a 1-2 page response. I did not let the rest stay in the class and told them to leave with a 0 for the day. Of those who had a response, I would estimate that about 10-15% of them really didn’t do much of the assigned work. On the other end, about 10-15% went well beyond the required viewings and did their own research. And, another 10-15% couldn’t get all of the resources to work for one reason or another. Of those, a gratifying few did go out and research on their own to find the information. One even told me that the same video was on Netflix streaming, which tells me I should check next time to offer that as a place for students to check.
The next question is, would they engage the material and have something to say about it? I say it was an unmitigated success in this regard. I began the discussion with the most general question possible, “What did you think about the video?” In both of the discussions I’ve had so far, people stopped having a response to that question after about 30 minutes. So, we had 30 minutes of discussion, with me saying quite little except for guiding who would speak next, on just a response to the video. I took notes during that time and did the rest of the discussion off of the topics that they brought up the most. We easily filled the rest of the class period (75 minutes total) with no problems and very few gaps where nobody had anything to say. Of course, some of that is because they were being graded on the discussion, but they really were responding well to the material and had a lot to say at all parts of the discussion. In both classes, I have the feeling that we could have filled much more time if we had it, but that we really did dissect the issues at the time well, while also relating the experiences from that time to the modern day well. I also get the feeling from the responses that I heard that they will remember this event and the discussion we had about it much longer than they probably will the individual things that I lecture on each day.
What do I take away from this? I consider it an overwhelming success on a thing that I wasn’t sure would work. The response was excellent, and students did the work ahead of time, which was something I was very worried about. But why did it work so well? I think some of it has to do with the form of media. There’s something about watching a documentary, especially when you can watch it on your own time rather than being forced to sit there in class and watch it that can be quite engaging. This was a very well done one, which does help as well. Also, it is not “traditional” history. One of the first responses I got, before I even really started the discussion was that almost all of the students had no knowledge of the incident before. They had never heard of it, but they were interested in it. The subject reflects on topics that are relevant in the lives of people who would be at a community college, in that it is primarily about working-age people, mostly women, who are struggling in a system that seems set up against them. The students brought up personal experiences a number of times as they attempted to relate what they had seen there to their own lives, and I did not have to guide them to do this. In fact, I like that word guide, as I felt much more like I was just a guide in the discussion then that I was a leader of the discussion.
I have one more section that will do the discussion tomorrow, and I hope it goes just as well. It’s days and assignments like this that energize me as a teacher and keep me going as an educator.