by Susan Hicks, Geography
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2006
As a graduate student instructor at Berkeley, I realized that while there may be a bag of tricks for keeping things running smoothly in the classroom, there is no instant solution to the problem of students starting out with very different levels of familiarity with the material. In one geography discussion section (one of the first I taught) I had senior anthropology majors, biology-oriented sophomores, undeclared freshmen, and older undergraduates returning to school after ten years of travel — sitting around the same table. For this course, we were reading a book on the effects of the Cold War in a Guatemalan village, and the students needed to be prepared to answer an essay question on the book in less than two weeks. In class that week I heard confusion and a little panic: “What do you mean, the Cold War was in Central America?” “Who were the contras?” Some of the students jumped in to answer. It was clear that four or five students knew about this history from previous classes, while several others were lost by page 10. But now the discussion seemed to be leading in all directions at once. There has to be a happy medium, I thought to myself.
It would be impossible to start from scratch and try to review a history of the U.S. in Central America from the Monroe Doctrine to the present, and we still needed to talk about the themes of the book. So I decided to build a brief and basic history lesson — a scaffolding of events, terms, and ideas that would be enough for the students with the least knowledge of the topic to understand the references made in the book. I did not want to turn this section into a lecture in which I bombarded the students with historical information for fifty minutes. I wanted to know exactly what students were having trouble with, as well as what historical details they saw as most important. I asked students to collectively come up with a list that included all the historical references that they had questions about, and a list of what they thought were the main themes of the book. Questions revolved around certain historical players — contras, Sandinistas, the Reagan years, the United Fruit Company. Once I had written these suggestions down on the board, we together identified “U.S. intervention in Latin America” as one of the dominant themes of the book. Given this theme and the questions they asked, I could address the theme through certain key historical events and actors. I then made a list on the board of what I thought were the relevant historical events and actors — Monroe, the Platt Amendment in Cuba, Sandino in Nicaragua, the Bay of Pigs and the war in El Salvador, for example — and related each one to U.S. intervention in Latin America. Overall, we spent about fifteen minutes talking about this history, and then moved on to a discussion of some of the particulars from the book.
Did this strategy help the students approach the book? As a final exercise, I asked what the students thought an essay question on the book might look like. I suggested that the question relate histories of U.S. intervention to the story of the Guatemalan village in the book, and we together came up with a sample question on that topic. I asked them to look back at the book that week and jot down a quick outline that they might use to help them answer that question. In the following discussion section a week later, I had the students come up to the board and sketch out their outlines. This exercise was also a good way to develop test-taking skills. As I read the outlines and we talked about each one in class, I saw that not only had nearly all the students processed the relevance of U.S. intervention and the Cold War to the book, but the students who had been confused by historical references in the last class could confidently explain the historical references in their outlines and why they were significant. I was satisfied that the students who had started with little historical knowledge now had the tools to interpret the themes of the book, and that the exercise in historical linkages and test-taking had been useful for the all the students. Grading exam essays a week later, I could tell that in general — and with some variation, of course — the answers had improved from the last exam in their use of detail and historical context. For me, they spoke to the importance of “getting on the same page” in class, as much as possible, even if it only takes fifteen minutes.