A Compliment, a Critique, and a Question

Every classroom teacher recognizes the blank stare. It’s the emotionless expression that radiates from students who believe they have nothing to contribute to a discussion. While every seasoned educator has a few tricks to help pupils find their voice, this pandemic has reaped havoc on our professorial toolbox. Those of us accustomed to teaching in-person know that it’s difficult to facilitate some of our favorite activities while adhering to social distancing protocols. We who instruct synchronously have come to know a new challenge—teaching to a virtual classroom comprised of students whose cameras are turned off. Although I’m still finding my bearings in these new environments, I have developed an activity that helps me locate true north in my classes. I call it “A Compliment, a Critique, and a Question,” and my hope is that by sharing this column I can add a versatile engagement tactic to your repertoire.

Whether in-person or online, I’ve found it’s best to begin a discussion of the assigned work with a quick review of the topic. Once my classes have agreed on the basics of what we’ve read, I typically send students off to discuss their ideas amongst themselves. I’ve found that breakout groups are paramount for in-person epiphanies, and I have even had measureable success with them in my virtual classrooms. Yet, I recognize that both socially distant and virtual discussions yield less fruitful discussions than those facilitated in a pre-COVID world. More often than not, current group comments are driven by a single voice with their nearly silent peers merely offering short messages of agreement.

The lack of demonstrable engagement worries me, as I believe that class discussion is the nervous system of academic learning. As such, I decided to create a more thought provoking virtual discussion board on each of my digital homepages. While I have used these virtual spaces for years, I decided to drop any course material-specific prompts in favor of asking students to provide three reactions to their homework—a compliment, a critique, and a question. These three responses are due prior to the course discussion of the material. I’ve learned to check the box that prevents students from seeing their peers’ work until after they’ve posted their own. Simply put, I want each student to bring their own ideas to our metaphorical potluck. I also require quotes, page numbers, and time stamps whenever they are appropriate.

I begin with asking for a compliment on the material, which can range from identifying with a text’s authorial choice, a stylistic flourish, or accessibility of a course concept. In my creative writing courses this has also challenged students to succinctly explain what struck them about a particular piece of work, be it those written by published authors or their own classmates’ work. Moreover, I hope to always foster learning spaces that nurture a sense of appreciation for the work, and I’ve found the best way to do so is to begin discussions with specific, meaningful praise.

Next, I ask for a critique of the materials, thereby freeing students to express sections of the work that were frustrating, unclear, or problematic. In my history of American Indian theater course, this tactic has led us to dive into the texts’ implicit and explicit handlings of race, misogyny, and irreverence towards cultural teachings. I’ve found that requiring students to note something that needs improvement in a work frees them to be analytical.

Finally, I ask for at least one question about the readings that we can deliberate during our course meeting. These questions are rarely ones that can be answered with a search engine entry, but rather dig deeper into material not covered in our classwork. More often than not, the answers to the questions invite students to consider the larger implications of a textual idea, helping them realize that a single course is hardly an exhaustive exploration of any given topic.

The value of “A Compliment, a Critique, and a Question” comes not just when I read the submissions to prepare for a course meeting, but rather when I ask students to elaborate on what they wrote. I’ve found that when called upon, students not only offer rich ideas about the material, they are also confident in the ideas they’ve submitted. Next, I ask for the class to respond to what was shared, sometimes calling on those who need encouraging, and then I listen as the discussion evolves. Of course, I have my own notes to work from to ensure all necessary learning outcomes are met, but I have yet to conduct a discussion where students have not touched upon some of the ideas that I was already planning on asking them to consider.

While we all hope that a return to normalcy is on the horizon, we’re adapting and fortifying our teaching to meet our present reality. I hope that you consider what “A Compliment, a Critique, and a Question” can offer in your own classrooms. Although I can’t promise that it will vanquish all of the blank stares, I can assure you that your next course meeting, writers’ workshop, or book club gathering will be comprised of people with at least three developed points you can use to spark meaningful engagement.

Ryan Winn teaches in the Liberal Studies Department at College of Menominee Nation.

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the Writer’s Corner or any other opinion columns published by the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) do not necessarily reflect the opinions of TCJ or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.

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