I’ve had the opportunity to teach a few mini-lessons in the composition class I’m observing as part of my TA program, for which I’m grateful. I’ve noticed, during those lessons, that the students are a bit sleepy. It’s not a lack of energy on my part; I’ve taught martial arts for years and I understand that students feed off an instructor’s energy. Part of the problem is that the class is at 2 pm on a Monday; another part of the problem was gray skies. And let’s be honest, not every student wants to learn about grammar and the nitty-gritty of writing.
Class During Nap Time
When I was an undergrad student, whenever I had class around two o’clock, I’d get sleepy. With a full stomach from lunch, and often having been in class as early as 8 am (which meant leaving home at 6:30 am because of traffic and parking woes), by mid-afternoon, all I wanted was a little cat nap.
It didn’t help that one of my classes scheduled at that hour was a history of world music course, and for a month we studied nocturnes. With the lights off.
The professor made it dark and played me lullabies. Sleep was inevitable.
I finally got around to asking her not to turn the lights off because I really did want to stay awake and focus on class.
So, as a TA, after observing sleepy faces in my first mini-lesson, I tried to get everyone on their feet for my second. It worked moderately well, and it was part of this past Monday’s lesson (which ended up not being mini at all–it clocked in at 50 minutes). But I knew, from my second mini-lesson, that it wasn’t going to be enough just to get them up and moving.
For one thing, they can’t really move about easily in the classroom without tripping on the furniture. I didn’t want to cause an injury.
Acknowledging the Issue
I started out the lesson with an introduction on what we’d be covering–when to cite in an MLA essay. Then I abandoned my slideshow for a moment to talk with them earnestly about the realistic challenges of class at this time slot.
“It’s your first day off the weekend,” I said. “You’ve spent the last two days working, doing homework, maybe seeing friends or traveling. I get it–you’re tired.”
Then, I talked about how hard it is to stay awake in class. I told them about my undergrad music history class and the nocturnes. I got a few smiles.
“It’s cloudy, too,” I added. “That always makes me want to close my eyes and go to sleep. And I get that some–or maybe even all–of you aren’t that excited about MLA citations.”
I don’t claim to be a mind-reader. I don’t know what they were thinking at this point, but I imagine the smiles and nods I received were in appreciation of my willingness to understand how sleepy college life can make a person.
Having graduated from my undergrad program in 2007, it’s not so long ago that I can’t recall how much some classes–especially gen eds–inspired sleepiness no matter how energetic the professor was.
Let’s Call it What it Is: A Bribe
Perhaps they were expecting me to just move on with the lesson. But I’d hidden a bag of Starburst on the podium at the front of the room. I picked it up and held it high.
“If you participate today,” I promised, “you get a Starburst. And I got the good ones–the red and pink flavors.”
Suddenly, the room livened. Students laughed. More of them smiled. Some of them sat up straighter in their seats.
I told them I knew MLA citations weren’t their favorite subject, and I wasn’t above bribing their participation. So, throughout the lesson, students were offered Starburst for sharing their work. Some students elected to share even though they didn’t want Starburst. They donated their candy to another classmate.
The key here, I think, is to offer the candy-bribe in exchange for active and willing participation.
I wouldn’t use the candy-bribe in every lesson. But I had a lot of material to get through and I knew it wasn’t as interesting as discussing literature or debating hot-button issues.
Is it okay to bribe students? Originally, I was going to use the Starburst to reward correct answers during an interactive part of the lesson. However, two things changed my mind:
- My fellow TA and I split the Starburst and I worried there weren’t enough for that, so she suggested using them as a reward for participation.
- As the morning and early afternoon wore on, I decided it’d be wrong to reward the correct answers with candy.
The latter is more important–I don’t think correct answers should be rewarded with some kind of treat. I think that would discourage students from participating if their answers were not correct. What good is it to reward students who get the right answer at the beginning of a lesson when the purpose of that lesson is to teach them the right answer?
I ended up giving away the remaining Starburst at the end of the lesson, but I think the students had fun with it even though they knew it was a participation bribe. They actively and eagerly took part in the lesson even though they were sleepy. Even though the first snowfall started outside in the middle of class. Even though it was a Monday.
Starburst saved the day this week, but it was also, I think, my honesty in the purpose for the candy and the acknowledgment and validation of their sleepiness.