“Just read the books.” That is my advice to my students at the beginning of each year. Reading the books is one of the most important parts of the Omnibus curriculum. Saying that, however, does not magically make it happen. Students are busy and reading diligently can be a struggle for even the most disciplined students. That being said, here are the five ways in which students go beyond their surface knowledge of the text and grapple with the ideas through forming their own answers to the questions for a recitation:
1. The Law School Style
At one point in my life I was considering going into the law. I loved college classes that were run like a law school. My paradigm for this was my Constitutional History Professor, Dr. John Sparks, at Grove City College. Dr. Sparks would come into class, sit down, announce the name of the first case (we were to have read the cases in advance), pick a student at random, and say, “Mr. Jones, please tell us about United States v. McCullagh.” As the student began to answer he would begin to sigh, squint, quietly shake his head, and look all around, completely exasperated. After Jones was done, he would pick another student at random and say something like this, “Miss Smith, what did Mr. Jones miss?” or “Miss Smith, did Mr. Jones get at the heart of the issues in this case?” Sometimes Mr. Jones had missed something; sometimes the question was to see if Miss Smith knew the case well enough to know that Mr. Jones had, in fact, summarized the case effectively.
This method is extremely effective in finding out what your students really know. If you do it with the entire class, it is difficult to grade because you might not get around to answering a question in any given class. If you want to grade it, have a running score over a number of recitations and set clear standards of what level of participation you are expecting.
This method starts with the recitation questions from the book, but it uses those questions as jumping off points to explore the depth of a student’s understanding. As a final note, because of deep exploration that can happen using this method, I would counsel a gracious grading method. When you are going deep, don’t expect students to know everything. Reward them when they can go deep, but don’t punish them if they are not able to go deep at every point—none of us can!
2. The Modified Law School Style
This is my favorite method. It is almost as fun as the law school method and it is easier to grade. I take two students at a time (sometimes for the sake of time I have to take three or four at a time) out into the hallway. All of us sit and I pepper them with law school type questions, but with only two students there is nowhere to hide. This allows you to get a great read on what the student really knows. I keep a simple sheet with the students’ names on it and give them positive, negative, and half marks for answers that are imperfect but partially right. Again, I grade graciously, but really try to go deep.
Real pros have to develop the false nonverbals that Dr. Sparks had mastered. Sigh. Roll your eyes. Test the knowledge of the student waiting to answer. Also avoid questions that are easy, one word answers—especially ones that the student can answer by simply saying, “yes.” If this is happening, you are actually giving the student the answer which is not really testing them in a meaningful way.
3. The Quick Method
The quickest way to do a graded recitation is simply having students give the recitation as a written quiz. This uses less class time and is a great way to get a grade for everyone, but it does mean that you will have to grade each student's work.
I use this method, but sparingly because it is just not as fun as the others.
4. The Class Game
I love games. Most of my students are competitive and we can have fun as we use the recitation question for review. I like games that either test the students individually by asking questions and then having them slap a book on their desk to signal that they know the answer. (Some students really relish slapping some books!) This can be an individual or team game, but it is easy for the most confident and the most competent students to dominate this game.
You can also break them up into a team, and have questions move back and forth between teams. Assign a question to player 1 on team 1. If that player can answer correctly, his team can get a point. If not, player 1 on team 2 gets a chance. If that player can’t answer, I let all of team one talk together and pick their best response. If all of team 1 can’t answer the question, all of team two gets a chance to answer. This game requires everyone to answer so it leaves less room to hide.
The game method is hard to grade (I never do), but it can be great fun.
5. The Homework
Finally, you can send the recitation questions home with the students as homework. This might be an effective method to us if the book that you are reading is very challenging for the class. This allows them to think through the question, reread sections of the book, or maybe even do research to find an answer.
Be clear with students about whether they can collaborate or use the Internet to find answers. While this might seem too easy, if the book is really challenging, it might take the anxiety out of doing a recitation that could be embarrassing for students who don’t want to face an oral recitation on Aristotle’s Ethics!
Effectively employing and varying these methods for recitation can help you know what your students are getting out of their reading and they can make recitations fun.
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