First Year Odyssey

Chalk Talk

Teaching, and Getting to Know Students, Through the Exchange of Notes by Sylvia M. Hutchinson

From Chalk Talk: Teaching Tips from the UGA Teaching Academy, edited by Loch K. Johnson.

The Teaching Academy for me is about building a community of teachers and I am convinced that one of the best ways to do that is to open our classrooms to one another: visiting classes, discussing and exchanging ideas. Then we can tell other colleagues about the effective strategies we have seen our colleagues using. It is much more effective for another person to call attention to successes rather than the individual to “crow” about his or her efforts. I truly cherish all the opportunities I have had to share classrooms with my colleagues in the public schools and at the University. In that vein some thirty or more years ago, when I was visiting my sister’s high school English/Reading lab, I observed that she used interactive writing folders with the students. They picked up their folders as they entered the class and wrote notes to her throughout the period and left them with her at the end of the period.

As always, it is important to take an idea or teaching strategy and make it your own. So for the past three decades I have used this idea with every class I teach. On the first day of class I give each student a folder with a sheet of paper divided into two columns: one column with my name at the top and the other column with the student’s name at the top. I write a brief note on that first day, usually telling them why I am excited to be teaching this course, a little information about me that I think might interest them, and any information that I want them to know about the class but may not logically fit in the syllabus. I also ask them several questions in that first note about their interests and backgrounds, to encourage them to write me initially. I explain that the purpose of the folder is to provide one more vehicle for them to communicate with me with questions and comments about class content or whatever interests they want to share, but which might not be adequately addressed in class. I stress that it is not “busy work”; it is not a required task, nor will it be graded. Sometimes it is a boon to the shy student who wants to ask a question but is uncomfortable about doing so in class or can’t stay after class. Some students will begin writing as soon as they arrive in class or stay a few minutes after class to complete an entry. Other students seldom write, or write very terse statements.

I write to every student after each class and try to answer each question. I commend them for class participation when appropriate. We use the folder as a transmittal vehicle with articles or Website suggestions to answer their interests and I use the folder to distribute handouts, return tests, and so forth. I don’t share the folders with anyone (unless, as I tell them, there is communication that I would be required to report to student services or legal agencies). As I write responses to the students, I keep a running record of questions that seem to be repeated, or that make me aware of a miscommunication or a lack of adequate explanation in the previous class. I start every class by addressing these “qualitative” notes with the class, without reference to any names. The folders quickly become a continuing evaluation tool. Rather than creating issues that fester over time, the students seem to take advantage of dealing with day-to-day confusions—or take up the opportunity to comment—and I can respond in a timely fashion.

I recognize that this is not an inviting strategy to some, because it is time-consuming and the number of students in the class limits the possibility of writing after each meeting. I can say, however, that after more than thirty years of using this strategy, I would not omit it from my course plans. Period. I have analyzed student responses and they tend to fall into three categories: first, questions and comments about the class; second, questions and comments about career interests; and, third, personal questions and comments, which I have found truly beneficial in getting to know my students and creating continuing working relations beyond the class.