Teaching: A Collaborative Classroom

I design my courses at Grinnell with the aim of creating a collaborative classroom. In this post I talk about some of the activities I incorporate into the lectures and discussions in order to encourage student participation (in another post, I talk about how I incorporate Evernote for “virtual” collaboration).

Photo of class writing exercise.

What’s Happening in the Photo?

As part of my emphasis on collaboration, I like to think through writing samples together with my students. In the photo above (used with the permission of my students at Grinnell College), I am standing on the far right and the students in my class are gathered around the chalkboard at the front of the room. Projected onto the board is a presentation slide showing a passage from page 58 of Mikiso Hane’s Peasants, Rebels, Women, and Outcasts: The Underside of Modern Japan (all photos used with the permission of the students).

Hane passage

I asked the students to actively read through the text by putting triangles over the verbs, circles over the nouns, and underlining passages they thought were written especially well. My aim here was to shift focus away from the larger arguments and look at the nuts and bolts of how ideas are articulated in strong English writing.

Hane passage on the chalkboard

Leaving out some of the more common nouns, verbs, and phrases, we end up with a list that looks like this:

Words and Phrases

  • rescript
  • brain-child
  • filial piety
  • imperial subjects
  • pupils
  • benevolence
  • coeval
  • … stressed… as well as…
  • … goes on to…


  • stress
  • assert
  • found
  • exhort
  • pursue
  • cultivate
  • advance
  • promote
  • guard

Many of the words and phrases are familiar, but some are not. Others I have never seen in a student paper before, and at least one (“coeval”) is relatively uncommon even in published scholarship. I separated the verbs from the rest of the words because I think they are the most important to acquire if you want to improve the quality of your writing. Of course, it takes some time to internalize the vocabulary, and it helps to create flashcards as well. However, doing an exercise like this one paragraph at a time and keeping notes on it will eventually build up a writing database that can come in quite handy.


I see two kinds of modeling going on here in this writing exercise. The first kind occurs when we take a piece of writing as a model for our own. In this class, we talked about adopting these verbs, nouns, and phrases into our own writing. We could have also discussed how the author structured the paragraph, how they varied the sentences, or how they chose to translate some of the original Japanese passages such as “[Our imperial subjects] be respectful toward your parents, affectionate to your brothers and sisters, harmonious with husbands and wives, and true as friends; bear yourselves in modesty and moderation; extend your benevolence to all; pursue learning and cultivate the arts…” (Nanji shinmin fubo ni kō ni keitei ni yū ni fūfu aiwa shi hōyū ai shinji, kyōken onore wo jishi, hakuaishū ni oyoboshi gaku wo osame gyō wo narai 爾臣民父母ニ孝ニ兄弟ニ友ニ夫婦相和シ朋友相信シ恭儉己レヲ持シ博愛衆ニ及ホシ學ヲ修メ業ヲ習ヒ).

The second kind of modeling involves discussing how to read a piece of writing. In the photos above, we were trying to identify elements we wanted to adopt for ourselves, but in other classes we look at samples of writing (from me and the students) to talk through improvements that we can make. By sharing with one another how we read, we verbalize our thinking processes about it and help one another to gain new insights into the meaning of the text or the skill of writing.

The writing passages I choose come from the kind of writing that I want my students to practice, but any type of material would be fine. I’ve found this method modeling works especially well for second-language learning, and it is something I also used when I was teaching in Japan at Congress Institute コングレ・インスティテュート.

Congress コングレ

The screenshot comes from the Congress Institute コングレ・インスティテュート website. I’m shown in the photo in the bottom right corner of the image. If you know me well, you’ll probably recognize me by my cowlick!

Congress コングレ


The writing sample doesn’t stand on its own — it’s actually part of the lecture for that day. Later, in other parts of the lecture, I introduced images and tables of numbers from the assignment to complement what the students read, and I talked through the presentation together with the students to try and apply what they had learned about the subject matter.

Photo of the class lecture.

In the photo above, we are looking Ninomiya Sontoku 二宮尊徳 (Kinjirō 金次郎 was his childhood name), a nineteenth-century “sage” who is remembered (and memorialized here) for his teaching to peasants about how to cultivate their inherent virtue (toku 徳). In the case of this photo, we were interpreting the statue in light of the primary and secondary sources we had read.


Click on the image above to view a PDF that contains the entire presentation that I prepared for the class. It’s relatively short, because we often have a lot to say about each slide, and so it takes quite a bit more time to do a collaborative lecture than it would if it were just me speaking.

What about Discussions?

I try to devote most of my classes to discussions, which are different from the lectures in that they provide more latitude for debates and other activities.

Photo of the class discussions.

Sometimes, I lead the discussions. Other times, students do. One of the great things that I have found in student-led discussions is that the students often generate questions and answers that I haven’t considered. This pushes me to revisit the primary and secondary sources to think through the materials again in new ways.

In addition, these questions are sometimes closely related to some of the major debates that have shaped scholarship on East Asia. It is quite satisfying to see students read and arrive at these understandings on their own.