First-day Chaucer classroom flipping: a report

Here’s how it worked:

Well, it didn’t work, and it worked. Here’s the problem: smart phones connect us with the world and our friends, so long as the world and our friends are anywhere but where we are at that very moment. Of course, we professors will apply critical pressure to the notions of “world” and “proximity” and “connection” too: but, c’mon, I think you know what I mean.

It’s like this: for making connections within the classroom, smart phones don’t work, so long as you’re trying to make connections between groups of 2 or 3 students. In one sense, then, the exercise worked: the students busily looked things up, and they asked questions (like, one wasn’t sure of the difference between a pope and a cardinal, and most realized quickly that #4 was a bad question, given that the answer was Edward III, or Richard II, or Henry IV). But they mostly asked me questions, not the people they were supposedly paired with.

However, when I then clumped the small groups into larger groups of 6 or 7 and had them share their answers with each other, the exercise worked beautifully. The only real problem was me. I couldn’t stand to watch all that excited talking and not participate, and I knew that if I circulated through the room, joining groups in succession, that they’d stop talking to each other and just look to me for the answers. So I twiddled my thumbs and watched, jealously, as they worked out the problems. I’m afraid I cut them off too soon.

I had my shot at redemption, though. Apart from my English Comp class, I’ve been given two Chaucer classes: the undergrad “lecture,” and a weekly grad Chaucer “lecture” for Master’s students. Obviously, my goal is to make both of these 26-27 student classes not lectures, and I’m using the same tools for both.

So, last night, I had the grads first work together in groups of 5 or 6 translating the famous first 18 lines of the General Prologue. This built camaraderie and got us into the text right away. Then, and only then, did I show the 15 questions, with these instructions: “you’re going to be answering these questions. no need to write things down, and feel encouraged to use your phones to look things up. My first recommendation: first determine how many of the answers your group already knows. Then work through the remainder collectively, maybe by dividing them among each other. Report back to your group when you find the answer. This side of the room [gesture] work top to bottom, and this side of the room [other gesture], work bottom to top.”

And that, my friends, worked perfectly. It was noisy, learned, and above all saved me from my same old boring intro-to-Chaucer-and-the-Middle Ages lecture. When I asked the groups to provide answers, I elaborated, especially with #7 (“What were some written languages in fourteenth-century England?”). In both classes, I asked “what about Hebrew? why not Hebrew?” The grads more or less could guess, but the undergrads–interestingly, especially for Brooklyn College–tended to say things like “well, they read the Bible in Latin.” A little learning is a thing: I asked, “everyone in England in the Middle Ages read the Bible in Latin? Really?”

In short: with some changes, recommended. I’ll be doing this again.

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