During the first several years of my teaching career, like many other teachers, I became very accustomed to using the white (or, in the case of some CUNY classrooms, the black) board to underline key points of lectures and discussions. A typical class period might have seen me leading a discussion about a particular piece of reading material, periodically turning my back on the students to write out pieces of what they are saying. Although I always liked the idea of visually underlining the knowledge we collectively created using the board, I’ve also always felt a bit disconnected from students when spending so much class time busily taking dictation. Plus, all that writing is tiring!
So, in the past few semesters I’ve started handing off the task of writing on the board to the students themselves. I bring about a dozen dry-erase markers to every class, leave them on the front table, and invite the students to get up out of their seats, grab a marker, and put something up on the board for all to see. Since I started incorporating this technique into more formalized exercises, I’ve noticed a few immediate, and unexpected, benefits:
1. First, it loosens things up. With the class divided into small groups, with each group responsible for writing a few notes or arguments or quotes drawn from readings, students become more physically active, moving about the room, and talking to each other. The atmosphere of the room feels more exciting, like a learning laboratory. Rather than acting as a disseminator of knowledge, my role is transformed to that of a guide, helping students along their own path of critical inquiry.
2. Because of the prevalence of social media, students are increasingly comfortable with the idea of “public postings.” By duplicating the framework of a Facebook status or a tweet, but layering in a more rigorous and critical element to the production of such writing, I’ve found students to be generally very receptive to the idea of complicated knowledge condensed through careful composition. During a recent exercise in my U.S. History survey, for example, I asked students to imagine that they were administrating the Twitter account of different figures from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. After reading pieces from Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Ella Baker, Stokely Carmichael, and others, I found many students eager to approach the board to attempt to fashion a tweet that accurately reflected the complex arguments made in these readings. As I surveyed a board full of these tweets, I realized that the exercise was really just asking them to draw out the main points of the work; there is nothing groundbreaking about that. But the marker in their hands, along with the form of social media, unquestionably helped many students to make connections that they hadn’t noticed before.
3. While students are writing on the board, I often take the opportunity to ask them about what they are writing and why they chose to put it up on the board. This is perhaps the most unexpected and rewarding element of the exercise. Since the other students are working on their own readings, I have the time to have a one-on-one discussion with the student at the board, and since so many students are uncomfortable speaking in front of the whole class, I’m able to make contact (and actually get to know) a wider section of my class than ever before.
4. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, putting the marker in students’ hands transfers power from the instructor to the students themselves. They are the creators of knowledge, and the recorders of that knowledge, and because they are sharing their thoughts in writing with the rest of the class on the board, aiming for those thoughts to be useful for everyone else, they are forced to become very critical and selective about their writing, and that’s exactly the point.
As I continue to experiment with these kinds of exercises, I’m realizing that I find the idea of students writing on the board appealing mainly because it transforms the classroom into a different kind of space, a more active space, in which the process of knowledge creation becomes the subject of the class itself.