Standing at my podium, calmly taking notes on what my students were saying, jotting down thoughts about their progress, I started to wonder: Am I doing anything here? My students were sharing great insights about an incredibly difficult poem, and I was feeling exultant at their reading skills. But still I wondered: Is it weird that I’m not talking? If a principal walks in right now, do I look lazy? I really think I’m pretty unnecessary at this moment.
Eight and a half years ago, I was desperate. I stared at a huge list of curriculum objectives I was supposed to teach in order to prepare my students for the Advanced Placement exam in May. An even longer list of literature appeared as I started examining the syllabi of other AP Literature teachers. How was I ever going to re-read all of these novels, plays, and poems, align objectives with each text, and then develop activities, lessons, and assessments for all of this literature?
Not to mention the grading that would come afterward.
Out of sheer survival mode, I decided to incorporate classroom discussion. I reasoned that this course was a college- level literature class, I had a literature degree, and nearly every literature class I had ever taken ran totally on discussion. English majors know how to move those desks into circles.
All thoughts of reading quizzes fleeing my brain, I searched for the best methods to use. I experimented with Inside/Outside Circles and Socratic Seminars before finally adopting the Harkness method.
What began as a lifesaver has become the most powerful teaching method I have ever used.
Although I should probably call it the anti-teaching method. Student–led classroom discussion is teaching by getting out of the way.
Thomas Carruthers said, “A teacher is one who makes himself progressively unnecessary.” So if my presence is superfluous as I watch my students talk to each other about difficult texts, that’s okay. That’s my job.