Last semester, I taught a freshman seminar over Zoom. Our subject was how people change as demonstrated by great short story writers. It was a subject that sparked considerable interest particularly during this time of pandemic when our lives are so different. We started with stories about childhood, then adolescence, and so on, going through the life stages. It was, of course, essential to hold the interest of the participants through the hour and a half without the distractions that usually come in a classroom: a whispered word or a glance of surprise or recognition, or even a nudge. 

The students sat alone often in their bedrooms watching a screen in different spaces, and sometimes, because of their geography, at odd hours of the day. One of the students was in Hawaii, it was one-thirty in the afternoon for us and seven-thirty in the morning for him. ” Have you had your breakfast?” I asked the young man.

“Oh, yes,” he said, “This was fine, but Japanese at four-thirty in the morning is hard.”

The students were asked to read a short story before the class, discuss it, and then write something of their own inspired by the story. As is often the case in a group, there were some who spoke up more easily than others. They were shy not having had the opportunity to meet before in the classroom or the corridor or even the cafeteria. It seemed essential to me to make sure that all the students participated in some way.

I began by going around the group asking each one of them to tell us a little about where they were and why they were there, that day, why they had decided to take this particular course, and what they hoped to gain from it. Then I chose a very short story by Chekhov “Grisha” and had each one read a small section (there were twelve students) and discuss what it conveyed and why in their opinion Chekhov had chosen to describe a two and eight-month-old boy in this way. Why the present tense? Why the child’s bewilderment? What was the role of adults? How did this add to the interest? With a series of questions, I tried to draw forth what could be learned from the text about this one boy but also about us all, of course as is always the case with great literature.

Then I asked them to write something similar that might have occurred in their own lives and divided them up into smaller groups (thanks to the Zoom breakout rooms) to discuss what they had written before coming back into the bigger group to read and discuss a few of their pieces.

Over Zoom, the essential seemed to be enabling each participant to play as active a part in the learning process as is possible: thus both in the reading and the writing. Each participant, indeed all our listeners need to have the impression that they are discovering something they did not know, whether it is on the page of a great writer or from something someone else has said, or something that has emerged in their own texts. It is important for each person to feel that he or she has discovered something new which will delight and inform.

sheila Kohler

Source: sheila Kohler

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