On Counterpoint in the Classroom

It often happens that I ask students to work together in pairs or small groups for a few minutes during class. We usually do “think-pair-share”: students write on a prompt for a few minutes, they debrief with a partner, and then, once the class as a whole has reconvened, they share what they learned from talking with their partner. I have the pairs work together for two or three minutes, sometimes five, depending on how engaged they seem.

Sometimes I prepare a series of more involved questions about the day’s text, divide the class into five or six groups, and assign each of them a question, telling them that they will share their response with the group as a whole. In this case they spend longer together, at least five minutes, maybe ten.

This time, when the students are busily working together, is what I want to talk about today.

I find such moments equally satisfying and unsettling. They have a particular texture that, I suspect, is very different for me than for the students. What is happening at such moments? When they are bent over their writing or chatting with a classmate, what am I doing? Am I teaching?

I remember once walking down the hallway of one of the busiest buildings on campus. It was the middle of a class period, and as I passed six or seven classrooms I heard over and over the voices of professors. Some of these classes were lectures, some were discussions, some, no doubt, a hybrid. But regardless of type I didn’t hear a lot of students talking. I’m always conscious that I too am the person who talks the most in my classes. There are good reasons for this (I know more than my students do about most of the things I teach). I’d say I talk more now than I did when I started, for reasons that are both good (I’m more confident; I’ve perfected a spiel that works) and bad (I’ve gotten lazier; it’s easier to talk than to engage in other ways). But my ideal is still a class in which students talk at least as much and preferably more than I do. (I still remember a session on Virginia Woolf many years ago when I only spoke a single sentence for the first hour of class. It was amazing.)

Small-group work has many benefits. It allows people who are shy about speaking in front of the whole class to contribute to class conversation. It helps the ones who need a little time to formulate an answer and who otherwise might be drowned out by students who find it easy to give immediate answers to my questions. And it integrates writing with talking—important because for most people writing is the best way to improve thinking.

When students talk with each other, they wake up, they feed off the changed atmosphere, they gulp down the oxygen that comes into the room. At least, they do when things are going well. Like most teachers, I’ll use impromptu small group work if the atmosphere is particularly leaden (if it’s a particularly rainy or gloomy day I’ll usually come prepared with a small group exercise). Sometimes it doesn’t shake things up. Who knows why. Could be the time of the semester, the day of the week, the weather outside and inside, the intransigence or shyness or fearfulness of a particular group dynamic.

But mostly it works. Things always start quietly; students are shy about breaking the silence. They begin by murmuring, but as they warm to the task they get louder. Soon there is a pleasant hubbub, almost a roar. That’s what I love best. I can feel the class loosening up. There’s more laughter, a kind of ease comes into the room.

I’m not an idiot: I know students aren’t always talking about the thing I asked them to talk about. (Though knowing I might ask them to summarize the conversation usually keeps them honest.) That’s not even the worst thing in the world. If I hear a few groups talking about their weekends or a chemistry exam they just took then I know—though the presence of longer pauses has usually already clued me in—that it’s time to bring them back together as a class. If one group finishes their task too quickly, I’ll go over and check in, ask someone to tell me what they’ve been talking about, prod them to think further, maybe give them another question to think about.

But mostly I stay out of their conversations. Instead I walk, and I listen. Unless I’m teaching a seminar where we can all fit around a table, I always move around the room a lot. Partly because I am nervous and fidgety, but also because I think it keeps them engaged, a little off-balance, in a good way. When I’m asking questions and expanding on their responses—in other words, when I’ve conducting the discussions that make up 90% of my class time—I want to be close to the students: looking in their faces to see what’s happening (are they getting what I’m saying, do they seem confused or bored?) and bringing my presence to different parts of the room. But when they’re doing group work I want to be out of their way. So I’ll wander the perimeter of the room, maybe looking at what’s hanging on the walls (maps of foreign countries, posters listing tutoring times, cheap reproductions of art works hung by God knows who God knows when) or, better still, out the window, if I can. I’ll cast myself outside the space of the classroom, watching the trees rustle in the wind or people hurrying or sauntering along the campus’s walkways or the groundskeepers with their inevitable leaf-blowers. Part of me will be out there, in that space where I don’t have to perform, where no one needs to have something to say about the day’s text. But part of me will be inside the room, roaming.

But this walking is much less important than listening. I’ve always liked to eavesdrop—as a kid I rode the bus a lot, especially when I got to be a teenager, since I took the city bus to school and to work; that’s where I honed my skills of listening in on people’s lives—and these small group sessions are a chance for me to get a (more or less unfiltered) sense of what students are thinking. As I’m wandering the room I’m getting bits and pieces of conversations; I’ll listen for ideas that are repeated from group to group, or for passages that particular groups seize upon. When I can I’ll reference these ideas in our discussions, whether overtly (“I noticed many of you were drawn to the scene at the swimming pool”) or covertly, as a way to structure the rest of the day’s conversation. Eavesdropping is a good way for me to get a handle on misconceptions or just generally take the temperature of the class’s familiarity with the day’s text (if people haven’t read it the small group conversation will be halting; it’s always a tell when students are desperately scanning the pages in the hopes of figuring out what the hell the thing’s about).

As the voices of the students rise and fall, as I make my way around the room, casting an eye outside it and an ear within it, I’ll find myself feeling calmer, even soothed. I’m getting a little break: for a few minutes I don’t have to be the one doing the heavy lifting of making something (a meaningful conversation) out of a room-full of people with their books. I don’t have to worry about time. (When class is going well, time flies by; when it’s not, it’s an enemy, a leaden lump I am forced to try to mould.) And I’m always heartened by the surge of the students’ voices: it makes me feel that something is being achieved in this room—paradoxically, it’s when the class splits up that I am mostly likely to feel the group working together—to feel that it is, in fact, a group, rather than a bunch of individuals who happen to occupy the same space at the same time.

At such times I often recall a scene from the Canadian director François Girard’s film 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould (1993). Canadians of a certain disposition and generation probably know it, but I’m not sure it ever got much traction anywhere else. The film mixes documentary footage and interviews with people who knew Gould and adds re-enactments of important moments in his life. In these, Colm Feore plays Gould, presenting him as gentle and sweet and wise but also strange and demanding and prey to various compulsions, panics, and paranoias. (Much, it seems, like the real Gould.) It’s a good film, and worth your time, regardless of how much you know or care about Gould.

One of the vignettes is called Truck Stop:

As he waits for his eggs and orange juice, Gould, in sun glasses, black beret and wool overcoat, dials into the various conversations around him: a man tells a story about picking up a hitchhiker, a story that seems as though it will be salacious and dispiriting but swerves into a different register altogether; a waitress breaks off her affair with a regular, a long-distance trucker; two men talk sports (the woefulness of the Leafs a topic of almost perennial relevance). We see Gould marking time on his fingers, as if the conversations were a composition by Bach. Girard overlays the different conversations–we’re hearing all the stories at once–but, because he brings up first one and then another, we concentrate on different bits of the general hubbub at different times. This diner fugue is book-ended by Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” which plays on the radio both in Gould’s car and in the restaurant: a more simple musical form, but no less appealing, and important, for that.

Wandering my classroom, I fancy myself as Gould, dialing into first this snippet and then that, but weaving them together into a pedagogical counterpoint that offers an image of what I hope the class a whole will be: a set of independent voices that are nonetheless harmonically interdependent. (Am I understanding “counterpoint” correctly? Help me, musical people.)

At the best of these moments, I feel more than satisfied. I feel exultant. But I’m also uncertain, beset by questions. What exactly am I doing just now? Am I teaching or have I abdicated my responsibilities? Shouldn’t I be taking control and running the show? Similarly, I wonder about Gould’s relationship to the diner’s patrons. He’s with the people but he’d not of them. We get a sense of that distance when the waitress, excitedly, a little flushed, asks “Mr. Gould” if he wants his usual. Is Gould slumming? What is his role here, anyway? Is he composer? Performer? Conductor? Maker of found art? Is he responding to what he finds? Or is he, out of his genius, making something out of nothing, music out of noise? Do the conversations mean anything without his assessing ear?

I’m always worried I’ll let the group exercise go on too long. My worry is in part pedagogical: I don’t want the energy to peter out; I don’t want students to lose focus. But in part it’s more obscure, more personal: am I doing my job if I’m not taking a more active role? Of course, I set the task, I arranged the groups, I’m keeping an ear out for who is staying on task, and I’m the one who will turn this moment into what with luck will be a productive conversation about the text. So I’m doing a lot. Am I being an artist of sorts—is that the best way to describe a good teacher? Or am I imposing order and structure and form on something that might, admittedly, be more chaotic but maybe more valuable, more organic without me? Worse, am I using these exercises as a kind of distraction, whether for myself or for the students or for us all? After all, Clark’s “Downtown,” which is just as important to Girard’s scene as the inaudible Bach that underlies it, is a song about distraction, presented not only as a way to help us get outside ourselves but also, more troublingly, as a way to let us hide from ourselves. “You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares,” sings Clark on the tinny radio. Is that a good thing or not?

Sometimes in these moments that now don’t seem quite as peaceful, these moments when I’m watching and listening and the students are working, I’ll fixate on the close-up of Gould’s fingers and I’ll feel my own twitching. What are those fingers doing? What kinds of cares are they forgetting?

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14 thoughts on “On Counterpoint in the Classroom

  1. In my experience students learn the most when they are active (in charge of the class, really). When that happens our job is to get out of the way.
    I believe Gould was a Clark fan (he liked most of Barbara Streisand too!).

    • I agree. The trick is to make the conditions that will allow us to exit. Making ourselves superfluous might be one way to describe teaching.
      Gould was a big Clark fan.

      • I do both, especially when I am translating Ovid and Vergil. I do the group pairing as well as whole class discussions. I recently gave my Ovid class an article by Michael Hofmann about his opinion of translating. They read and discussed in small groups the at the end we did a whole class discussion. It was very lively!

  2. Not surprisingly, there are a number of good books about Gould, both scholarly and popular. My local PL has a book concerning the philosophy of Gould and his work.

  3. I think, after teaching high school for a bit, I understand what you mean. There’s always tension between wanting the class to get comfortable together and let the unexpected happen but not wanting to lose control.
    I don’t know that discomfort is bad, just part of the process of coming to terms with many different motivations and negotiating those into a collective project. Lead, but not in an authoritarian way. Educate, but not necessarily according to what each student thinks that means (I doubt 20 students ever sat together wanting the same things exactly). Or to rephrase, discomfort doesn’t mean you’re doing it right (obviously), but comfort means you probably are doing it wrong.
    I really like think-pair-share. If you’re feeling experimental, you might try a more asymmetrical pair exercise (I think the label is ‘rally race’) for close reading. I’ve only seen it with math problems before, but in literature it might look like this:

    1st 5 minutes: Student A close reads a passage, while Student B just asks questions, “what about this part?” or “Great, what does that mean?” (or some form of ‘so what?’). Encouragement but also accountability. Assist the work without doing the work.

    2nd 5 minutes: switch roles, with a new passage.

    After typing that out I’m not sure if it still makes sense to me, but I guess I mean to say there are lots of potential small-group collaborations.

    • Wonderful idea–definitely going to try it out next year. Reminds me of an exercise my wife uses with the board at her not-for-profit: someone says something, then the next person says “Yes! And…” adds something, and so on around the room. Then they do it again, this time the response is “Yes, but…” First supportive, additive, then critical, questioning.
      Anyway, I love this formulation of yours in particular: “discomfort doesn’t mean you’re doing it right (obviously), but comfort means you probably are doing it wrong.” Well put!

  4. Pingback: Five Years Later | Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau

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