"Training" Students

By Dani Brunet and Preston Becker
English Department
Delaware Technical Community College
Wilmington Campus

The traditional classroom where an instructor stands in front of a group of attentive students is all well and good, but we all realize its limitations. It creates a body of passive students who are trained to believe that learning is a one way process where the instructor passes on her superior knowledge. We can all agree that the best instruction isn’t usually like this.

In this blog post, we are going to talk about a different manner of instruction which we borrowed from the most primary source possible: first grade. A first grade teacher beginning a lesson must get a large group of seven-year-olds on the lesson train before it leaves the station, and keep them from getting off track so that all students are still onboard at the end. These teachers know that you have to involve all of the students in an activity, or it will run off the rails.

Thus, the station activity. In a station activity, the lesson is divided into sections and distributed around the room. Instead of students being passive, they must move in groups from activity to activity at their own pace, and unlike rails, students are in control of the order.

As an example, here is a recent activity that we did in our English Composition classes as a way of teaching the use of descriptive language.

After a short introduction to the five types of descriptive language we would be covering, students were divided into groups. There were five stations scattered around the room, each one labeled with a sign specifying one of the types of descriptive language: sensory images, active verbs, concrete nouns, figures of speech, and dialogue.   Underneath each sign was an envelope containing prompts directing students to practice one of the forms of descriptive language. For example, at the concrete noun station, students would find something like:

NOUN: Write 5 more interesting ways of saying Woman.Concrete Noun Station

In order to promote differentiation, there would be a dozen or so prompts from which to choose. Students in their pairs or small groups would then choose one and work collaboratively to complete the prompt before moving on to the next station. Since the stations are in no particular order, they can go wherever they wish.

These prompts were printed on strips of paper, and once the groups had visited every station, a MadLib-style worksheet was handed out to the students as a story frame in which to use their descriptive language:

Concrete Noun Station

One day I saw a           (NOUN)          .
It was the most           (SENSORY IMAGE)           one ever. 

Finally, the groups read their stories aloud.

Descriptive language is an important part of writing, and is a particularly important part of narrative or observatory writing. This descriptive language activity was the first step in a narrative writing piece in English composition, wherein students talk about a time they learned an important lesson about themselves. The collaborative, self-guided activity gave students an opportunity to practice descriptive language in a relaxed setting. We found that the narratives written by the students after the completion of this activity were rich with simile, metaphor and other descriptive language. Engaging students in this activity gave them confidence to use descriptive language in their essays.

We challenge you to think of a way to include a station activity such as this in your classroom, perhaps with the revision process. It does take a bit of preparation the first time you do it but it can be reused again and again, and it is a simple way of letting students run the train, giving them ownership over their own learning. Which is really the point, isn’t it?

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