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Elisabeth Pain ,

Giving Students a Greater Play in the Classroom

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published the story of how an undergraduate English teacher struck by a disability developed interactive ways to teach her students.

Elaine Smokewood, a 54-year-old English professor at Oklahoma City University in the United States, was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease when she started losing her ability to speak and part of her mobility a couple of years ago. “Most professors believe they listen to their students, of course, and that they hold vibrant discussions in class,” writes the aticle’s author, Jeffrey R. Young. Smokewood was no exception, considering herself a “‘highly interactive'” teacher, she told Young. “‘But I still saw myself as the most important person in the room.'”

Disability forced Smokewood to give her classes from home, using a computer and a Web cam to display her image on a large monitor in the classroom, a videoconferencing system that shows her the students, and a speech synthesizer and typed text to talk to them.

The unusual setting made her a better teacher, Smokewood told Young. In particular, she became a better listener:

“I became a different kind of teacher than I had ever been–I became a teacher who actively listened,” she wrote in a recent essay for the university’s alumni newsletter. “I had in the past often confused listening with waiting for my students to stop talking so that I might resume the very important business of performing,” she added. “I learned that if I listened carefully, thoughtfully, generously, and nonjudgmentally, my students would delight me with the complexity of their thinking, the depth of their insight, the delicious wickedness of their humor, and with their compassion, their wisdom, and their honesty.”

Students are forced to participate much more in class: Smokewood makes them lead class discussions, quiz each others, and participate in an online forum discussion.

Her system may not work in all situations, Smokewood warns, especially for large or introductory classes. It seems to me it would also be difficult to implement in science classes, where traditionally there is less space for discussion and a greater need for equations, drawings, and demonstrations.

But listening more carefully to students and giving them a greater play in the classroom strikes me as a great way for teachers of all disciplines to better engage and prepare students.

Read the entire article here.