Chaucer Classroom First-Day Flipping: A Plan

Tomorrow’s the first day of Fall 2013 classes at Brooklyn College. If you teach college, you probably started this week too, and you likewise know that the first day often tends to be a waste of time: an embarrassed slog through the syllabus, with dire warnings about plagiarism and absences and misused electronic devices, or a series of accidental mini-lectures that the students endure for each of the required 75 minutes.

I stopped doing that year(s) ago (of course! of course!) and now tend to have first-day written text analysis and small group discussion; I can also have them do preliminary translations, if I’m teaching Middle English; but there still tends to be the syllabus slog, however abbreviated, and the ‘intro to the Middle Ages’ lecture.

Not tomorrow. I spent last Spring flipping my classroom, but there’s more flippery in this old dog yet.

It’s simple. First thing is to cut the syllabus way back. It’s now just 4 pages of a normal-sized font without anything complicated in terms of due dates. A short syllabus means no syllabus slog.

More importantly, rather than going through my normal first-day factual talking points, I’ve generated 14 or so questions to divide up among up small groups (2 or 3) in various ways (“everyone on this side look up the even questions, and you guys, look up the odd,” for example). They’ll find the answers on their phones or tablets or whatever, and then be clumped into larger groups (7 or so) to run through their answers, which we’ll then review together. Basic classroom flipping: they’ll teach each other and learn how to find answers.

In a class of 26 or so, in 2013, I’m relatively sure we’ll have sufficient gadgetery to make this work. If not, at least I’ll know the answers. And if they’re using their phones &c to find the answers, and doing this in small groups, they won’t have time or space to text their friends. Everyone wins except for students who don’t want to do any work.

While they’re doing this, I’ll project some manuscript images and get them ready to translate and recite the opening lines, as tens of thousands of students have done before them.

Here are some questions. Maybe you have a good one too:

  1. when did Chaucer write?
  2. What is the etymology of the word “medieval”?
  3. list 3 historical events before and after Chaucer, excluding events in the 20th century
  4. Who was the king when Chaucer was writing the Canterbury Tales, and what happened to him?
  5. Name a significant historical event that happened in Northern Europe when Chaucer was alive.
  6. How many popes were there in 1380?
  7. What were some written languages in fourteenth-century England?
  8. What are some differences between Middle English and Old English?
  9. How many Canterbury Tales did Chaucer plan to write?
  10. Are the Canterbury Tales complete?
  11. What is a “quire”?
  12. What is “paleography”?
  13. Could Chaucer have ever eaten a potato or tomato or turkey? Why or why not?
  14. How would you pronounce the word “knight” in Middle English? Why?
  15. Bonus question: name a difference between the order of the tales in the “Hengwrt” and “Ellesmere” manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales.
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