I wrote lots of recommendation letters for students this summer, probably because last year was the first year that I taught students in their final undergraduate year, and many of them are looking for or have recently found jobs. I always die a little inside when I read or hear the word “employability,” because I think it’s a jargony term that seems to reiterate the point that a university sells a degree to its customers, the students. I do not think that education should be viewed as such a service, but neither do I think that it’s responsible to entirely eschew discussions of marketable skills that students can mention in their pre- and post-graduate job searches. Not all of them will become professional historians, and given the state of the academic job market, that’s okay! I spend time at the start of each term, in class and in my syllabi, explaining why I think it’s important for students to participate in class discussion. One of my key points is that a student’s class contributions are something that I can and do mention in my recommendation letters. Having spent the summer writing letters for recent graduates I know that I’ve mentioned their contributions in every single letter I’ve written. Lately, my feelings have gone beyond believing that students should participate: I think students should lead discussion.
It’s important for students to lead and otherwise control the direction of class discussion for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I’m kind of over the feeling of walking into a classroom determined that we’ll discuss certain points about the reading. Yes, there are usually several, fixed ideas that I want students to take away from a primary or secondary source, but A) if we don’t get to all of them, I can always wrap things up during the last minutes of seminar, and B) I’m increasingly more interested in students’ takes rather than making sure they internalize my own. On a practical level, I make students lead discussion because it gives me the chance to witness the leadership skills that I’ll write about in those recommendation letters.
Now, I’m not saying that students should be responsible for leading discussion in every single seminar, and in fact I only make final-year students lead one half of a seminar on one of the two days per week that the class meets. There are variations on the students-leading-discussion theme, and what I want to do in the remainder of the post is to go through three methods I use at all levels of a student’s degree.
Number One: The Going Around the Room Trick
This method is one that a professor in graduate school used, and I’ve incorporated it into all of my classes. It’s pretty simple. At the start of each seminar, each student makes a 30-second-to-a-minute-long comment on the reading. The prompt they’re answering is one that I’ve set on our first day of seminar. I tell them that they shouldn’t talk longer than a minute, then tell them that what they say A) Can be a question they still have about the reading, B) Can be a comment about something they found surprising or confusing, and C) In later weeks of the semester, can be about something that connects to previous weeks’ discussions.
Why it works: From week one, all students know that they should expect to speak at least once during seminar. Shyer students have time to prepare for it, and it’s useful in telling me and the other students where most of us want to focus our discussion. I do it because, as an undergraduate, I sometimes left seminar feeling like I hadn’t gotten to say what I wanted to say about a reading. This exercise helps to put a pin in that sort of feeling, and in the later weeks of the semester, it raises the stakes by encouraging connections between the weeks.
Number Two: The Grab Bag Trick
I’m pretty sure that I stole this one from a colleague, but am not sure where he got it from. Here’s how it works: you ask students to take out a scrap of paper, and to write a question on it. The question can be a legitimate question they have about the reading or about a lecture, or it can be a discussion question they want other students to answer. All the strips of paper go into a bag (or a hat, or whatever vessel you have in the room), you or a designated helper draw one and read it aloud, and then the class answers the question.
Why it works: no one has to feel silly about asking a question, because they’re anonymous. Students can control how much time we spend on a given question, though I can prod them if I don’t feel we’ve delved deeply enough. This is a good method to use when you’ve read a confusing or polemical text, but it’s also my favorite go-to when I haven’t had as much time as I’d like to lesson-plan.
Number Three: The Very Serious Discussion Leader
This one is the most straightforward, but also requires the most planning and the most flexibility on the teacher’s part. I ask upper-level students to lead discussion for at least half of a seminar. Here’s the phrasing of this activity from a previous syllabus:
This class has no lectures, though there may be moments during which I provide some necessary background on the readings. Each week we will have two, two-hour seminars. I will lead the first seminar, which will focus on an interrelated set of secondary source readings. The second seminar of the week will run a bit differently than some of the other seminars you have encountered during your time at Southampton. During the first half hour of the second seminar, you will not hear me speak. Instead, student seminar leaders will choose to run the class in whatever way they wish—unconventional seminar formats are encouraged! . . . In the second half of the seminar I will jump in to make sure that everyone takes away what they’re meant to take away from the readings . . . During the week when you are a discussion leader it is your responsibility [72 hours before class meets] to use Blackboard to send an email to me and all of your classmates, with a list of potential discussion questions for the second seminar. You are then welcome to drop into my office hours (see the front of this handbook for details; if you are coming during office hours then you do not need to make an appointment) to discuss your strategy for leading class discussion—this is not a requirement, but you are very welcome to do so. Remember: you will be responsible for leading and maintaining class discussion for the first half hour of the second seminar of the week.
Why it works: Students get to take charge of their own learning! I pick up new seminar strategies! Democracy prevails in England! Also, my quiet observations really do give me a chance to jot down notes on a student’s leadership strategies, in the likely event that I will be asked to write about them in a recommendation letter.
There are a few key practices common to all of these approaches. The first is that some advance preparation is necessary. In the first method, students know they have to come in with a quick comment, in the second, students do the prep during the first 5 minutes of class, and I need to be prepared to talk about whatever questions come up that the class can’t answer, and in the third, student discussion leaders need to be three days ahead of their classmates in the week that they lead discussion. The second commonality is that in each strategy I try to introduce some form of record-keeping. When asking students for their introductory points, I tend to write what they’re saying on the board so that similar comments can go together and so that we have them behind us as we push deeper into discussion. When student seminar leaders in upper-level classes take their turn, I encourage them to record classmates’ comments in a document, which I then upload to Blackboard at the end of the seminar. Students find these records useful when it comes time to study for final exams. The last connection between these strategies is that they all try to take into account the different types of students in my classes. During heavy weeks of reading/essay assignments, I try to accommodate the stressed student by putting discussion leaders in triples; for shy first years, I try to give them time to prepare or to help me to read questions; for keen third years, I give them the chance to plan a debate or a game show-style seminar.
These are a just a few ways that I try to set students up to behave in ways that I can write about in recommendation letters. Readers, what are your seminar tips and tricks?
Download the Lesson Plan
This lesson plan is designed to be used with the film, The Principal Story, which follows the activities of two school principals, one a veteran and one a novice, during the course of a school year. Classrooms can use this film and its companion website resources to explore the nature of leadership.
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Please visit our film library to find other films suitable for classroom use.
By the end of this lesson, students will:
- React in writing to the question "What makes a strong leader?"
- Use viewing skills and strategies, including observations and note taking, to understand and interpret film clips.
- Discuss principles of strong leadership.
- Produce a written leadership analysis of a famous person or someone they know in their everyday lives.
GRADE LEVELS: 6-12
Behavioral studies, civics, U.S. history, current events
ESTIMATED TIME NEEDED:
One 50-minute class period
Clip 1: Meet the Principals (length 9:50)
The clip starts at the beginning of the film and ends at 9:50 when Tresa Dunbar says, ". . . they're doing what they're supposed to be doing."
Clip 2: Getting Families Involved (length 2:02)
The clip begins at 30:50 with Kerry Purcell driving in her car and ends at 32:52 when Purcell says, ". . . they will do their very best for you."
Clip 3: Addressing Student Behavior Issues (length 2:10)
The clip begins at 34:05 with a view of the exterior of Henry H. Nash Elementary School and ends at 36:15 with Tresa Dunbar listening to a parent.
The Principal Story tells two stories, painting a dramatic portrait of the challenges facing America's public schools -- and of the great difference a dedicated leader can make. The feature-length (52 minutes) film follows two school principals, Tresa Dunbar and Kerry Purcell, for a year.
Tresa Dunbar is shown in her second year as principal at Henry H. Nash Elementary School, which prior to Dunbar had six principals over a five-year period and typically ranked at the bottom in state school testing. Previously Dunbar served as an assistant principal, a teacher, a social studies department chair and an evaluation specialist, and she has extensive experience designing and facilitating professional development experiences for teachers. She has a Ph.D. in curriculum development with endorsements in language arts, reading and social studies.
Kerry Purcell is shown in her sixth year at Harvard Park Elementary School. Earlier in her career, she taught kindergarten for 12 years and served in various leadership capacities at the school, district and state level. Purcell has a master's degree in educational administration. During her tenure as principal, test scores increased by approximately 45 percent in reading and 50 percent in math. Purcell currently works for Focus on Results, where she provides professional development and coaching support to help educational leaders use data to make sound instructional, fiscal and human resource decisions.
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1. Give students five minutes or so to react to this prompt in writing: What makes a strong leader?
2. Ask a few students to share what they've written. Take notes on the board to capture student ideas on the qualities and actions that they believe define a good leader. Can the class think of anyone who has these leadership qualities? Have students name examples and describe specific experiences or provide other evidence to back up their opinions.
3. Tell students that they are going to consider some everyday examples of leadership by watching video clips that show two principals in charge of troubled schools in Illinois. Distribute the handout to focus student viewing and then show the clips.
4. Discuss student observations and the supporting evidence noted on their handouts. How do the leadership skills of the principals measure up against the class list of leadership qualities on the board? What strong qualities and skills do the principals possess and where might there be room for improvement? Should school principals have different leadership qualities and skills than other types of leaders? Why or why not?
5. Ask each student to perform a written leadership analysis of either a famous person or someone in their everyday lives. In their papers, students should name specific leadership qualities and skills of the individuals they have chosen and provide concrete examples of how those characteristics are demonstrated. Students should use these points to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of these leaders and what students can learn from their examples.
Students can be assessed on:
- Contributions in class discussions.
- Careful observations and supporting evidence noted on the handout.
- Mechanics and content of the written leadership analysis.
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EXTENSIONS & ADAPTATIONS
- Explore what motivates student behavior by watching The Principal Story in its entirety. Discuss how extrinsic factors shown in the film (i.e., testing data, punishment, community and school environment, parental involvement/encouragement, good teachers) influence student achievement. To what degree are appropriate behavior and academic success determined by the student? Have students create a pie chart that illustrates to what degree these various factors influence their own behavior at school.
- Express gratitude to those who have inspired us to succeed. Throughout the film, both principals provide encouragement to students and tell them that they are confident the students can reach their goals. Ask students to identify people who have inspired them to work hard, persevere and be their best, such as teachers, principals, coaches, religious leaders or parents. Then, have students write thank you notes to these individuals to let them know that their support is appreciated.
- Watch, explore and discuss other POV resources that address education and leadership, including The Hobart Shakespeareans and The Boys of Baraka. These resources have companion educator activities to support their use in the classroom.
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POV Discussion Guide (PDF)
POV creates discussion guides for all our films. Discussion guides offer background information about the film, a comprehensive list of organizations, websites and books recommended for further research and questions teachers can use to kick-start conversations about the themes and issues explored in The Principal Story.
POV's Delve Deeper Reading and Media List (PDF)
A list of movies, books and other media related to The Principal Story.
The Principal's Role in Supporting Strong Learning Communities
This article from Educational Leadership magazine outlines specific approaches to supporting strong learning communities.
School: The Story of American Public Education
This website offers resources that describe the innovators and development of our nation's public education system from the late 1770s to the 21st century.
Standards for School Leadership Practice: What a Leader Needs to Know and Be Able to Do
This article reviews the principal's role and the skills a principal needs to perform his or her job effectively.
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These standards are drawn from "Content Knowledge," a compilation of content standards and benchmarks for K-12 curriculum by McRel (Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning).
Standard 1: Understands that group and cultural influences contribute to human development, identity and behavior.
Standard 4: Understands conflict, cooperation and interdependence among individuals, groups and institutions.
Standard 14: Understands issues concerning the disparities between ideals and reality in American political and social life.
Standard 9: Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media.
Standard 31: Understands economic, social and cultural developments in the contemporary United States.
Working with Others
Standard 5: Demonstrates leadership skills.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cari Ladd, M.Ed., is an educational writer with a background in secondary education and media development. Previously, she served as PBS Interactive's director of education, overseeing the development of curricular resources tied to PBS programs, the PBS TeacherSource website (now PBS Teachers), and online teacher professional development services. She has also taught in Maryland and northern Virginia.