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Resilient Pedagogy: Collaborative Class Notes

In my last post, I discussed how I put students into semester-long groups. When groups are responsible for completing a task, the course becomes more resilient because no one student is directly and solely responsible for one thing, and the whole of the group can flexibly arrange its work around the shifting constraints of its members. Also, not everyone has to be good at everything in a group: people can activate their strengths, or, they can choose to try to build up an area that challenges them–so groups offer students a little more agency in getting the work done. Groups are great for me as a teacher, because it allows me to batch up a group of 35 individuals into, instead, 6 units of multiple students I can work with together.

If Lulu is in your group, you’d best believe everything is going to be proof-read

One of the things that groups do is take collaborative class notes. Here is the TL;DR on it:

  • I don’t have to have “lecture notes” to give to absent students
  • I don’t have to take notes during class to remember what happened
  • It obviates the need for “volunteer notetakers” for access requests
  • It allows almost all students to not have to take notes in class, just to listen and engage
  • It is a “real writing” case, where student writing (note-taking, editing, document and information design, adding extra resources) serves a real world purpose, getting put on the main content pages of our CMS for everyone’s use for study or recall.
  • It offers opportunities to learn to work in a group to produce a deliverable in a timely way

Collaborative class note taking means that my class prep consists of creating a Google doc that has a title and four bullet points in it, because that’s my actual lesson plan but then four students (one group) fill it all in as we go, capturing what actually happens which is often very surprising even to me. Before class (sometimes 5 minutes before class) I put the link in the day’s lesson on the CMS. Sometimes, I will add in some links in the document to material I will want students to look at in class: it supports my style of Just-in-time teaching (TM). Sometimes I add in a “curiosity corner” question at the bottom of the doc, for students to add anonymous feedback in, and this is always wild and delightful or insightful or ridiculous. Anyone can edit the doc, and then after a few weeks, I lock it.

Here’s an example from my fourth year honour seminar in Rhetoric of the Selfie this winter. But I do this with my first year academic writing class, and my grad classes, and all my classes, at all levels.

The class notes produce a fulsome record of class for students who could not attend–and also for those who can attend but can’t take notes while listening. And it doesn’t come from me, so students don’t have to email me and ask for it. Nobody has to make up a story or share personal details about why they missed class and why they deserve my notes only for me to tell them I don’t have any. It has obviated the need for ‘volunteer notetakers’–I make very clear that group members don’t all have the same talents, and that some people can’t type and learn at the same time, or take notes at all–but those people might be excellent at reformatting free-flowing text into hierarchical bullets and headings, or at proofreading and editing, or at chasing down links and sites referenced to add them in. Everyone is a volunteer notetaker, and also, everyone has notes taken for them. So in class, no one else has to take notes at all, they can just listen.

The classroom notes are also where I make in-class group work do their reporting–we often don’t have time to have groups 1-8 orally report what they did in their ten minutes, but they DO have time to put their work in the doc, where everyone can benefit from it whenever they want. Each group can work on different questions; we get more done. This keeps groups on task, because even if they don’t report orally, their work answers a question the whole class needs to consider, and so it matters whether they do it or not.

The classroom notes are an excellent resource for me: I can see what they did or did not understand, what they thought the Main Point were, which groups really gave their all during in class groupwork. In classes with exams, this is the main resource I use to remember what the hell we actually learned so I can write relevant questions. We often return to a prior week’s notes to do a meta-critical analysis of what they thought was the point of the class, versus what I thought the point of the class was. Sometimes, at the end of a unit, we go back and rewrite the earlier notes, like we are making a textbook that is also reading notes that is also an exam prep kit. We iterate.

Unexpectly, the class notes supported me in an unexpected way this year. I knew that they would take all the nonsense of notetaking accommodations, and detailed lesson plans, and handouts for absent students, and trying to remember what I did in class out of my life, and that made a huge different. But then, this semester, my mom died. A series of incredibly kind and skilled colleagues covered six weeks of classes for me. They got oriented to the work in part from the collaborative notes the students had produced, each new teacher able to build on the knowledge already there, orient themselves to the course and the students, and keep a record for when I came back. This system is so powerful, the teacher doesn’t even need to be there. Right before the university shut down, a guest instructor showed up to class with some rapid onset respiratory symptoms after travel. There were presentations scheduled, so she sent everyone away except the presenting students and prepared for them to present to her alone, tucked in at the back of the class. But then? The group assigned to do notes raised their hands: “Can we come in, too?” they asked. “We are supposed to take notes, and we can do that so that everyone can at least read about the presentations after.”

I’m not crying, you’re crying.

This assignment is a classic win-win-win-win: it produces a classroom where disability accommodations do not need to be asked for, it makes my life as a teacher a lot easier, it calls forth a sense of ownership and responsibility among students, it allows for a greater number of resources to be shared and documented. And if the main teacher has to disappear for four weeks, and then the whole shit show has to suddenly move online? Well, most of the record of the course is already there, waiting, ready to be picked up by whomever is able, as they can.

Next time: one-page reading summaries.