In my English class, we have just passed the midpoint of a "discussion" about Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. By discussion I mean a Battle Royale All Will Learn type of discussion, otherwise known as a BRAWL. It's loosely similar to a Socratic Seminar but with the stress and lack of sleep level multiplied by 10. Although I am proud to declare that I did not allow this assignment to get the best of me and cry.
Heart of Darkness is a unique book in that it only contains three chapters which worked out in a painfully perfect way for our class BRAWL. Our class was split into teams of three and assigned to read chapter one. Then on a first come first serve basis, each group chose a category: theme and other, specific, comparison, organization, unusual, or theme examples.
We then had to compose open-ended, AP level questions about chapter one through the lens of our chosen category. This step was done on Monday and Tuesday. By Wednesday, our teacher had chosen his favorite 25-30 questions. Each group then had Wednesday and Thursday (and for a lot of us, Friday morning before 8:00 A.M.) to answer all the questions.
On Friday, one person from each group was selected and asked one question on the list. Each participant also had to respond to two other answers. This process was completed two more times so each group member had his or her turn with the remaining two chapters.
So now that you have a greater understanding of what a BRAWL is, you may be under the ill-informed impression that our BRAWL was fair and close to flawless with all its structure. Allow me to now inspect all the BRAWL's bruises and broken bones and prescribe a healing remedy.
The first fracture in the BRAWL is the constraint of time. Answering 28 open ended questions sucks up a lot of hours. Our class was given two nights and hopefully those two nights you had no sports practice, extracurricular activities, or other homework. Doubtful. With such a time constraint, many students hope to be able to answer all the questions rather than think deeply about each individual question. I find it strange that we were not allotted more time to develop our answers, especially when I reflected back upon a tweet I had made earlier in the year. Deeper answers seem to be the ultimate goal for teachers and it makes me sad because so many of the BRAWL responses had so much potential if they had been given proper time to develop.
On the same note, some of the questions that were submitted by the students and chosen by the teacher also lacked substance. Each student was required to submit at least one question related to their topic before each round of the BRAWL. Some students submitted the first question they thought of and that was it. To prevent irrelevant or incorrect or repeat questions from being chosen, the class should be given the ability to veto one or two questions from the list. Also, to help the teacher out, questions should be submitted online in such a way that students will be able to "like" or "dislike" questions as they are submitted. This is not meant to be offensive but instead to increase the caliber of questions being asked and to prevent students from submitting questions at will.
The way our class BRAWL was set up, each progressive round presented a bigger burden with fewer and fewer people sharing it. Three people to a group, one person BRAWL-ing per round. The preparation for the first round is fine. No one knows who will be called upon to answer so each group member freaks out just the same while answering the questions. When preparing for the second round, there are only two possible tributes left. After talking with my classmates, I found that in most groups, the person that answered during the first round was much more relaxed and much more likely to go to bed before 11:00 PM while the other two members stayed up even later than they did the first round. Then comes the third round and the victim is clear, there is only one group member left. For my group, I was that victim. I knew my fate was sealed and that I was going to have to represent my group with the answers we prepared. So naturally I was the one staying up late and getting up early. In order to even the playing field, groups should be informed of who their chosen one is before each BRAWL. This will make all rounds similar to round three and make round three seem less unfair.
This solution will solve another problem; it will cut down on the amount of time consuming preparation. Since I was last to BRAWL, I had to make sure I had my own answers for each question for each round of the BRAWL just in case I was called on. Yes, working with two others helped to ease the burden but when it came down to it, I knew that I wouldn't be able to make a case for their answers as well as my own. With beforehand knowledge of who the tribute is, each member will have to completely and fully answer all the questions only once. The other two members will be able to contribute to his or her answers by finding supporting quotes or outside information. This will make the answers deeper as well because all three students will be focusing on one answer per question instead of making three separate answers.
After each BRAWL, an online discussion is opened up and students can respond to any of the questions, whether they were brought up in class or not. I like how this gives the students who were outside the BRAWL ring the chance to share their opinions and how it gives unselected questions a chance. But in actuality the online discussion became a chaotic dumping of answers. In order to increase organization, a spot needs to be created where each question can be responded to separately so different answers from different questions aren't thrown into one overwhelming pile.
There also is a problem with those who are sitting outside of the questioning and answering circle. They sit there and do nothing. I feel like very few of them actually listened to what I had to say. There are many ways to engage the outside circle. A simple strategy would be to require that on the online discussion, those in the outside circle respond to something that was said in class within their answer.
Now don't get me wrong, I believe the BRAWL was a valuable learning experience and I now understand Heart of Darkness on a much deeper level than I ever thought necessary or even possible. Things that I overlooked were brought up by classmates and I was impressed by my fellow students' level of analyzing. Our Heart of Darkness BRAWL may be one the activities that best prepares me for the AP test but the fact remains that the biggest room in the world is the room for improvement.