Here’s a strategy whose simplicity belies its usefulness: every class period, as the students come into the classroom, put a question or prompt on the board for the students to respond to, in writing. If you make this a habit, it has a number of important benefits.
- It provides a clear break from the noise and distraction of the outside world and the focus you want to instill during class. A brief period—even five minutes—of quiet reflection and writing can help students better make this transition.
- It lays the foundation for a good discussion. Not every student is good at thinking on her feet; many people benefit from having time to gather their thoughts and think things through before being able to discuss something constructively. In addition, those students who are shy or otherwise reluctant to speak as part of a class discussion may find it easier to do so if they have thoughts written down on the page in front of them.
- Writing teaches writing. By making your students write about relevant subjects regularly, in addition to allowing them to think their way deeper into those subjects, you are helping them to become better writers. There is no better way to improve as a writer than to practice regularly. You may find this helps when it comes time to read their essays.
- If you make the questions or prompts about the readings, this activity can take the place of regular quizzes. Having students regularly write a half a page in response to their reading can ensure that they’re actually doing that reading.
In regard to that last point, you may want to collect and mark these pieces of writings, even if it’s only a cursory grade to reflect a good-faith effort on the student’s part. You can have these in-class assignments add up to a very small portion of the students’ final grades, or allow it to play a significant role in the marks you give for participation. But if you do want the activity to impel them to do the reading, you will want to provide some kind of grade. -DG