Last Monday I went into class and we had a heart to heart. I offered that I knew what we were doing was difficult. When was the last time you had to read all of Tom Paine's Common Sense or Jonathan Edward's "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"? I asked them to explain what felt the most challenging and we distilled it down to three things: its hard to take notes in a discussion based class, we don't go over everything in every reading and we don't go over everything in wiki study guide for our text, the reading at night takes lots of time. Drilling down further, they felt I was asking too much for any one person to do. I agreed with them (which really worried a few). "Of course Advanced US feels intimidating and overwhelming, you are trying to do it all on your own! You want me to provide the solution by telling you what to know."
Then I asked what seemed to be working for them, some found the Moodle forum helpful, by posting questions before class it helped to make sure a question got answered (they also found it helpful when a peer answered a question within the forum). The collaborative class wiki study guides had helped some get ready for the previous test, others hadn't thought to look at it. A few were regular contributors to the study guides, most were willing to make the bare minimum required contribution and take their own notes. None of them looked through it before reading our textbook to see what I thought they should know and by not mentioning something in the study guide imply they could skim over it.
I promised to work with them by backing off a bit in the reading (but we are still going to the source more often than not). Then I asked them if they had seen the movie "Legally Blonde" and why they thought Elle so wanted to/needed to get into a study group (besides wanting to sit next to her slimy ex boyfriend). After a few minutes discussion I commanded them to form study groups, gave them five minutes to form a group of three and commit to meeting once a week for 30-45 minutes to go over things they were struggling with. We then discussed ways for them to meet when they couldn't manage a face to face. One group allowed that if nothing else they would chat on Facebook at a set time. Another is going to try out Skype. We agreed to check in next week to see how the first study session had gone.
Then I looked around the room and asked why no one had their computers with them? On three different
occasions I had encouraged them to bring a laptop if they owned one. I asked for a show of hands for anyone who had access to a laptop they could bring to class. I noted who had raised their hands and ordered them to bring their laptop from that day forward. (They dutifully did the next day, but the day after that two had left their machines at home as they didn't really think I meant EVERYDAY). Then I introduced Google docs. We have had two discussion classes since then --two rounds of Google doc collaborative note taking. The first day I had only one topic to cover, Shay's rebellion. It was a short period and I wanted to give my note takers time to get the hang of things. Later that evening I checked the notes and then posted them to our class Moodle site. Yesterday we slogged through a close reading of the complete texts of the Virginia, New Jersey and New York plans for a new federal government. The notes were better. I have posted the link to them to the class site and noted that they have been improved since their posting. Next week we have more "Resolveds" to explore, this time on slavery and taxation. But, at least now, two days into "forced collaboration" they are feeling better and they are not going it alone!