Flexibility: Starting the Semester with a U-Turn

Is any disappointment worse than the disappointment of dropping an ice-cream cone on the sidewalk?

We slogged through our first class. Everyone met via Zoom, like so many classes this year (and all first classes at my institution). There we were, arranged in the now-too-familiar Brady-Bunch layout of faces in boxes and the occasional empty grey square with only a name. “Flexibility” has been the buzzword this semester, and it only took about ten minutes to realize I had underestimated how intensely it had to apply. The class session was an unqualified disaster, with many of us leaving shaking our heads wondering what had just happened. Any hope I had of a creative, enjoyable, playful semester went right out the window. I was deflated and about ready to admit defeat — and that was after only an hour. Yeah, it was that bad.

During my post-class exhaustion, for some reason I opened Twitter. I had no goal; I just needed to scroll through things while I rehydrated and recovered from that special kind of tiredness videoconferences cause. The first tweet I saw made me question whether Twitter had become prescient since my last sign-in.

Inspiring Flexibility

Josh went on to add six addition tweets, each with practical, immediately implementable suggestions for getting students to feel more compelled to contribute. Most of his suggestions were admittedly variations of things I’ve heard (or even done!) before, but something about the kindness with which he presented his suggestions made me stop and revisit them. I knew I needed to make intentional space for quiet students — our campus students are known for their struggles with talking in front of a whole class, whereas they light up the moment they’re given the chance to talk in small groups.

But I hadn’t thought about his other suggestion of posing a question and asking students to write out their ideas before bringing the discussion in front of the whole group. In other words, letting the students do something while thing, even if that’s just writing things in their notes, gives them processing time, a chance to revise, and a crutch to lean on (if needed) while sharing their ideas. Simple, right? Now I just needed better questions…because the ones I posed on Day One flopped.

By Contrast: The Preceding Class

My torturous failed class session began exactly twenty minutes after one of the most engaging, lively, dynamic, cooperative classes I’ve ever experienced. I swear my brain got whiplash from the contrast.

Things started well…

The first class of the day was an honors-level course, a characteristic which by itself can often account for increased apparent engagement and dynamics. But there was more at work bringing the students together. They gelled in a way that suggested a commonality of purpose, aligned goals, and compatible working styles. To be sure, one student commented in a shared document the next day how clad she was that I suggestion she made during class went over so well; she had anticipated resistance but instead faced immediate agreement.

That sense of easy agreement pervaded the entire 80-minute class session. Any time I posed a question and opened the floor for discussion, the first person who spoke set out some rationale while others nodded in agreement. The next three or four speakers would start their contribution with some form of, “yeah I agree,” then go on to highlight the specific reasons they shared the prevailing view. Every choice we made that day became unanimous, to the point that we started laughing at how smoothly decisions happened.

…until the inevitable happened.

And then the power flickered on campus. With most of us connecting from campus offices and dorms, more than half the Brady-Bunch squares went temporarily black, then came back to life. We all connected with battery-powered devices, and the wireless connection somehow remained stable. But then The Beeping™ began. All manner of devices started complaining about the temporary loss of electricity. Alarm clocks reset to midnight. Backup systems demanded attention. One student’s microwave spontaneously started cooking. (Yeah, me neither.) In short, the momentum we had built up got suddenly derailed because the technology all around us started complaining. We paused to address issues and laugh at the absurdity.

See? Flexibility.

We resumed our conversations, which grew naturally. People often referred to what others had said previously, building on those ideas by refining them and adding their own nuances. By the end of the class, we all understood not just where the class was headed, but also why we wanted to go in that direction and what many of us find important in course design. Despite completely skipping icebreakers (oops!), I feel like we knew each other better after one class than often happens after one month.

But then that second class.

After how well the first class worked, I was ready for more of the same, just on different topics. My second class is not honors-level, but it’s the second-semester FYC course, whereas the honors class is first-semester. I figured the students would be more experienced and comfortable with things at our school, bringing some confidence to the table.

I figured incorrectly.

The questions I pose on Day One that usually shake things up a little. Specifically, asking what policies students want in their syllabus usually takes a couple repetitions before they believe I’m serious. For this class, I even gave them a choice between two syllabi — two completely different approaches to the course — which I had emailed to them in advance. I was eager to see which way their interests took them, and I wondered whether agreement would be as easily reached here as in the preceding class. “So,” I asked, “which course do you want to do: the traditional reading-then-essay course, or a single full-semester individual research project?”


Followed by more silence.

I’ll spare you the rest of the torture, but things continued along those lines for most of the class. Only four students spoke over the course of the hour. I threw in the towel at that point, unwilling to subject any of us to the planned 80 minutes. The class was a failure, and I felt utterly defeated.

Flexibility in Pedagogy

After Digital Pedagogy Lab’s quick shift to all-online made me adapt my pedagogy to suit the circumstances. Surely I could apply that adaptability to this semester’s courses. On Thursday, then, I went into each class determined to approach things differently. I wanted to let students take the lead more than I had on Day One.

In the first class, we started with an activity a student had suggested during our first session. Conversation erupted immediately, and we built off that momentum for the rest of the class session. As we wrapped up, someone asked where our physical classroom is, as we are to meet there in person on Tuesday. “I couldn’t figure out where South ARD was in the library. Then I realized it was Southard, and I gave up.”

I tried to put his dilemma in context, but smothered in sarcasm. “It’s a person’s name. A dead white dude. Believe it or not, there’s a room in a building in America that’s named after a dead white dude. I know…shocking!”

As the chuckling commenced, I heard someone say, “This is already my favorite class” as they signed off.

But what about that second class?

I asked them a question about themselves, and I asked them to type their answers in the chat. The question: What’s the worst class you’ve ever had? What made it that bad? We spent a lot of time talking about bad classes. But I started the discussion by responding to everyone’s answers. At the risk of being tedious, I wanted to 1) show I pay attention and acknowledge each of them and 2) assure them that what made their worst classes awful wouldn’t happen on my watch. Then I sent them to breakout rooms for more brainstorming, and they all added their ideas to a shared document.

They were conversant, generative, active, and involved. The class was a complete U-turn from Tuesday’s disaster. What did it take? The same things that usually solve my pedagogical goofs: Letting go and using a little flexibility.