Classroom Salon: Teaching Engaged Reading

It's a common complaint among college instructors that students just don't read. Or, if they do read, they don't read well. At the same time, most of us don't teach students how to read in our classes. The reasons we don't? We have a lot to cover and teaching reading would take time away from content. They should already know how to read; they're college students, after all. Sometimes the very motivated among us will take a few minutes in a class session to go over a passage, showing students how they should be engaging.

This summer, after attending the 2014 AAPT/APA Seminar on Teaching and Learning in Philosophy, I became convinced that I needed to revise my approach to teaching students philosophy if I wanted them to read and read well. The approach was two-pronged, and in this post, I talk a little bit about my reasoning and the results in an intro-level World Philosophy course.

First prong: assign less reading, measured in page numbers
Second prong: require social annotation before class meetings

1. The first prong of the strategy was a way of addressing the fear that wells up in many students when they see pages upon pages of dense philosophy reading. Inspired both by Stephen Bloch-Schulman at Elon University and Jonathan Z. Smith at University of Chicago, I decided that if the purpose of an introductory level course in philosophy is really to introduce students to the contents and methods of philosophy, piling on ten to twenty pages of reading is not necessarily the most effective approach.

For one thing, it's possible to do excellent philosophy in just a couple of pages (or sentences, in fact). Second, while there is indeed a skill in learning how to skim twenty pages effectively and then go back to dig in more closely, I don't think this is the place I want to start with my intro students. By the end of the course, perhaps. I did always give students access to the longer article or chapter from which the excerpts were taken, as well as contextualize them. This gave the students who were further ahead a chance to challenge themselves.

2. The second prong of the strategy was to use a program called Classroom Salon to have students annotate the texts before class. My thinking was this: when students read, they often only read once. Excellent readers will go back several times. Further, when they read, they don't stop to consider what the author is trying to say, how the details they've just read fit into the bigger picture, whether they actually understand, and so on. Requiring students to annotate meant that it was more likely that they would re-read and generate questions.

Before each class, students were required to ask at least three questions, keyed to sections in the text: (1) a factual question, (2) an expository question, (3) a conceptual question. The idea was to get them comfortable asking questions and not knowing answers, as well as distinguish between ways they could ask questions. They then were required to answer at least two questions of their peers. We talked about using sources and how to challenge presuppositions in questions (more on this later).

Below is a screenshot of Classroom Salon:

You can see the number of comments made next to the number of students who made the comments (so, for the Ślokavārttika, 204 comments by 39 students). The program allows you to download this data as a CSV file, so grading is relatively painless and accurate.

Rather than just adding in a required annotation/discussion to my existing pedagogical framework, I centered the course on Classroom Salon. The CS discussions allowed me to do several things:

  • Identify central misunderstandings/questions before class so I could address them in lecture
  • Construct in-class assignments to continue discussions begun on CS
  • Incorporate annotations into a scaffolded series of writing assignments
  • Reflect on the process of conversation in class and have students reflect on it in their work
Since I want my classroom to be a place of dialogical learning, this platform allowed me to emphasize that in a way I haven't before. Further, I could see the students sharpen their reading skills throughout the course of the semester. They more often appealed to the texts than in previous courses, and I no longer felt obligated to begin with a reading summary in order to get everyone "up to speed." We could work together to engage with the reading in class.  This was not a "flipped classroom" in the strictest sense, but my pedagogy did emphasize student activity in our "lecture" meetings. Since teaching philosophy is, in my estimation, about teaching students how to think, this is the outcome I wanted. Unless they get comfortable with the uncertainty that spurs philosophical inquiry, they'll continue to scramble for the "right" answer that satisfies the instructor and gets them a grade. My goal is to move them beyond this, to intellectual curiosity--coupled with the skills necessary for this curiosity to lead them further than just raising questions.

As the semester concludes, and once I get my student evaluations, I plan to write up a more structured analysis of using Classroom Salon. It will include an assessment of what went well and what didn't, and how I may change my approach in the future. I'll put a draft on my website when it's complete. In the meantime, I'd recommend the following resources, which I leaned on heavily in my course design:

Ann J. Cahill and Stephen Bloch-Schulman, "Argumentation Step-By-Step: Learning Critical Thinking Through Deliberate Practice", Teaching Philosophy, 35: 1.

David Concepción, "Reading Philosophy with Background Knowledge and Metacognition", Teaching Philosophy, 27:4, December 2004.
Donna Engelmann, "Self-assessment: an Inclusive and Student Learning- Centered Pedagogy" (this was a draft paper for the AAPT, but here's a link to a Prezi discussing her work)
Clair Morrissey, Kelsey Palghat, "Engaging Reading", Teaching Philosophy 37:1, March 2014.

Jonathan Z. Smith, On Teaching Religion, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.


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