The Pocket Instructor: Literature: 101 Exercises for the College Classroom

The Pocket Instructor: Literature: 101 Exercises for the College Classroom

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Princeton University Press


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The Pocket Instructor: Literature: 101 Exercises for the College Classroom

This is the first comprehensive collection of hands-on, active learning exercises for the college literature classroom, offering ideas and inspiration for new and veteran teachers alike.

These 101 surefire lesson plans present creative and interactive activities to get all your students talking and learning, from the first class to final review. Whether you are teaching majors or nonmajors, genres or periods, canonical or noncanonical literature, medieval verse or the graphic novel, this volume provides practical and flexible exercises for creating memorable learning experiences. Help students learn more and retain that knowledge longer by teaching them how to question, debate, annotate, imitate, write, draw, map, stage, or perform. These user-friendly exercises feature clear and concise step-by-step instructions, and each exercise is followed by helpful teaching tips and descriptions of the exercise in action. All encourage collaborative learning and many are adaptable to different class sizes or course levels.

A collection of successful approaches for teaching fiction, poetry, and drama and their historical, cultural, and literary contexts, this indispensable book showcases the tried and true alongside the fresh and innovative.

  • 101 creative classroom exercises for teaching literature
  • Exercises contributed by experienced teachers at a wide range of colleges and universities
  • Step-by-step instructions and teaching tips for each exercise
  • Extensive introduction on the benefits of bringing active learning to the literature classroom
  • Cross-references for finding further exercises and to aid course planning
  • Index of literary authors, works, and related topics

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691157146
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 11/03/2015
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 374,946
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Diana Fuss is the Louis W. Fairchild Class of '24 Professor of English at Princeton University. William A. Gleason is professor and chair of English at Princeton. Both Fuss and Gleason have led teaching seminars for graduate students and received Princeton's President's Award for Distinguished Teaching.

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The Pocket Instructor, Literature

101 Exercises for the College Classroom

By Diana Fuss, William A. Gleason


Copyright © 2016 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-7378-4



Active learning almost always starts with getting students talking. The exercises in this opening section — which include several classic activities with time-honored track records — are designed to do just that. Ranging from a simple around-the-room discussion starter (with a twist) that will work in any classroom, to more complex and in some cases multistage group activities, these exercises are designed to train students in the critical skills that make for effective, even transformative, classroom conversation: how to enter a discussion, how to listen to your peers, how to frame a useful question, how to develop a supportable argument, and how to work together to create an illuminating analytical synthesis.

The section begins with three general, easily adaptable exercises. "The Sixty Second Game" and "Fishbowl" involve everyone quickly and help normalize a discussion-based classroom in which all are counted on to contribute, while "Read, Reread, Close Read" creates a community of careful readers through close listening. All three exercises model discussion as a collaborative activity rather than a sequence of loosely related comments funneled through the instructor. The next three activities use the students' own questions to organize discussion, whether those questions are prepared ahead of time, as in "Put the Question" and "It's Time We Talked," or generated during class itself, as in "Reverse Entropy." Each exercise in this set also helps students recognize what makes a good question in the first place. The final two activities, "Debate" and "Leader, Skeptic, Scribe," turn from pointed questions to arguable answers, asking students to produce and defend interpretive claims about literary texts. Adaptable to any genre and almost any class size, these eight exercises will help turn even the quietest students into lively, engaged participants.

The Sixty Second Game

Vanessa L. Ryan

A classic around-the-room discussion starter with a twist.

Genre: any

Course Level: any

Student Difficulty: easy

Teacher Preparation: low

Class Size: small

Semester Time: any, especially midterm

Writing Component: optional

Close Reading: none to low

Estimated Time: 20 minutes


Bring a timer to class — a kitchen timer with a bell, or a phone or tablet with a timer application — and introduce your students to "The Sixty Second Game." In this classic "one minute around the table" discussion starter, each student has exactly sixty seconds to comment on the day's reading: no more, no less. The twist is the timer: even if a student is in the middle of a sentence when the bell rings, move on to the next person. Students who complete their comments before the clock is up can recite the alphabet to finish the time (though students usually find they have another thought to share instead).

After you explain the ground rules, invite the students to use their sixty seconds to discuss their favorite or most challenging moment, make a connection to another reading in the course, or comment on a previous student's reflection. Go around the room in order, so that everyone knows when he or she is next. As each student speaks, write a keyword or phrase on the board that captures a salient aspect of each contribution. Group the comments as you record them, underlining observations that are made multiple times, but do not interject your own responses: let the students do all the talking until everyone has had a chance to speak.

Once all the contributions are on the board, open discussion for follow-up comments. Now your own voice can emerge as well. If you like, continue to use the board to track the discussion. At the end of class, return to the board to show students how their insights took shape: pull out the most valuable shared interests, highlighting the larger claims that emerged from their original comments.


This exercise adds a gamelike element to the classroom, and shifts the energy from the instructor to the students. The buzzer makes the exercise fun and leads to a fair amount of laughter; I find that students feel a shared camaraderie as they fight the clock and are "saved by the bell." The key is for the instructor to refrain from speaking for the first twenty minutes or so of class. (The length will vary depending on how many students you have; for larger classes, you can shorten the time for each initial comment to forty-five or even thirty seconds.) Putting keywords and phrases on the board as each student speaks validates and reinforces each student's comment. (For beginning students, it also models the process of note taking.) It is essential to write something on the board for each student.

This exercise is particularly successful when you anticipate a set of groupings in which the initial comments might fall, and then use different quadrants of the board to record those groupings. (For example, you might reserve one quadrant for observations about form, another for comments about themes, another for connections to other works, and so on.) This will also allow you to add any topic you think the discussion has missed, or to dedicate one area of the board to an aspect of the text you want to concentrate on for the rest of the class hour. Anticipating these groupings helps you not only to organize the comments but also to demonstrate later to students how their larger claims took shape. Students are always surprised when you show them that what looks like a messy board actually has an underlying structure, which helps them see that even a freewheeling discussion leads to broader insights.

For example, in a discussion of Sigmund Freud's Dora: A Case of Hysteria in a senior seminar, "The Sixty Second Game" allowed students to voice their initial reactions to the work — some impassioned — and begin the complex work of understanding and analyzing together, without my intervention. As we went around the room, students began with their first responses, particularly what they saw as Freud's coercive interpretations of Dora. Students quickly turned the discussion to consider questions of method, interpretation, and narrative technique, especially Freud's storytelling. Each time a student echoed a thought already on the board, I underlined the original comment. When a student mentioned a central term of psychoanalysis, I put a box around it to mark it as a key term ("case study," "transference," "unconscious"). After allowing additional time for follow-up comments, I began by reviewing the key terms in boxes, adding one ("dream work"): the board showed that as a group, the students had together identified the central concepts that structured Freud's text.

During the exercise, I had written comments on Freud's interpretations of Dora on one side of the board, and comments capturing our interpretations of Freud and his method on the other. On both sides, I put more negative comments on the top and more positive comments on the bottom. I was then able to "reveal" the parallels between Freud's dream work and our interpretive reading process simply by drawing arrows connecting both sides of the board. The top and bottom halves of the board also showed us that Freud's reading of Dora and our readings of Freud were both — not unlike Dora herself — participating in a process of identification and resistance. Students left class with ownership over a key insight into the way analysis, whether psychoanalytic or literary, is a constructive process.

"The Sixty Second Game" achieves a number of important goals: all students participate, long-winded students learn to be concise, and reserved students learn to expand on their comments. It can be used at any time in the course but often works best at midsemester or after, when students feel confident about the nature and direction of the course. For a particularly reserved group of students, you could add a sixty-second prewriting component before starting the exercise. "The Sixty Second Game" can be a great way to clear the air, before heading into more structured discussion, for texts that students have strong opinions about (for example, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four or the conclusion to George Eliot's Middlemarch). It also works particularly well with capacious and challenging works: one of my best experiences using "The Sixty Second Game" was in a class on Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot in a first-year seminar. I have found that students often take pictures of the board at the end of class, amazed and excited by what they have come up with.


Ellen M. Bayer

A small-group exercise in which students take turns at the center — literally — of the conversation.

Genre: any

Course Level: any

Student Difficulty: easy

Teacher Preparation: low

Class Size: any

Semester Time: any

Writing Component: none

Close Reading: medium

Estimated Time: variable, 30 to 60 minutes


This classic retreat exercise and popular teaching strategy adapts particularly well to the literature classroom. To prepare, develop a series of questions related to the text you will cover during the next class meeting. Questions that are open to a range of possible interpretations will lead to more productive conversations: Who would you identify as the protagonist in "Bartleby"? What is Sethe's motivation for killing her daughter in Beloved? How do you account for the changes in tone and diction between the indented and nonindented stanzas of "Do not weep, maiden, for war is kind"? How might gender, place of origin, age, or some other factor influence the characters' relationships to the natural world in "A White Heron"? You might pose questions about key passages or the function of literary techniques, or broader questions related to theme. You could also offer a few potential interpretations of a specific aspect of a text and ask students to defend one or offer an alternative reading of their own. Typically, five or six solid questions will carry you through a one-hour class period.

In class, begin by placing four or five desks in the center of the room, and arrange the remaining desks in a circle around them. (If you don't have a classroom with movable desks, set up four or five chairs in front of the room. In a fixed-seat or seminar-style room, you could reframe the activity as a panel discussion, in which the "panelists" sit together along one side of the table or stand at the front of the classroom.) You will now need four or five volunteers to jump into the "fishbowl." Inform the volunteers that you will pose a question, and they should have a conversation with each other in response to the question, drawing from the text to cite supportive evidence as necessary. Encourage them to speak with each other and not to direct their comments to you. In fact, you should avoid eye contact with students in the fishbowl, to remove the temptation for them to converse with you instead of their peers. Transcribing key points raised by the fishbowl on the board can validate students' ideas and keep you engaged without directing the conversation.

Students outside the fishbowl may not join the conversation, but they should listen closely. After roughly five minutes, once the initial group has had the opportunity to express their ideas, students outside the fishbowl can "tag in," gently tapping a participant on the shoulder and taking that student's place in the fishbowl. After this first rotation, you can invite students to enter the fishbowl as they feel compelled, but be sure to instruct them to tag a person who has already had the opportunity to speak.

Continue to pose your prepared questions, and feel free to add a new question if the conversation takes a track you did not anticipate. You can adjust the pace based on the quality and quantity of responses. If the conversation feels productive and many students seem eager to join in, you might allow students to explore a question for up to ten minutes. Students outside the circle will tag in throughout the process, but you can also pause the discussion after the fishbowl has exhausted a topic and ask for a fresh set of volunteers. Repeat the process until everyone has participated. While you could extend this activity through a full class period, consider saving five to ten minutes for reflection at the end of class. This gives students the opportunity to pose any additional thoughts about the material that were not raised by the discussion questions.


"Fishbowl" pushes students to go beyond directing an answer to the instructor and teaches them to become active participants in the learning process. The physical positioning of the microgroup encourages the students in the fishbowl to look at each other as they speak; they are on the spot, so they must pay careful attention to their peers and be prepared to respond to them. They can agree with and expand a peer's idea, constructively challenge it, or examine the question from a different angle. Students outside the fishbowl must remain equally engaged, because either they will tag in voluntarily or you will ask them to enter the fishbowl.

Students might seem hesitant during the initial attempt, but I like to introduce the fishbowl during the first week of class to encourage active participation in class discussion. You can then weave the exercise into your lesson plans periodically throughout the semester, and the interaction will be much more energized once students are comfortable with you and their classmates. "Fishbowl" works particularly well in an introductory literature course, as many students enter with a sense that there is one correct interpretation of a text and that the instructor is there to provide it. The fishbowl demonstrates that literary texts are open to a variety of readings and that each student brings a unique perspective to the conversation. At the same time, it also challenges students to ground those readings in concrete textual evidence in order to present a compelling case to their peers.

My students tend to enjoy "Fishbowl." Even in the quieter classes, this activity draws them into the conversation, as students who typically shy away from standard class discussion will often take part in heated debates once inside the fishbowl. My sense is that students like to debate ideas, and by providing a structured, conversational forum, this exercise makes them feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts. There's something about the idea of tagging in that appeals to them as well, and the physical activity of getting up and moving helps keep them engaged.

While I pair "Fishbowl" with all genres, and at all course levels, I have found it especially effective during the poetry unit of my introductory course. My students tend to believe that there is only one correct reading of a poem. To unsettle this view, I pose an intentionally polarizing question to initiate a conversation about possible interpretations. This worked particularly well, for example, during a discussion of Edgar Allan Poe's "Annabel Lee." After seating the fishbowl participants, I led off the conversation by asking if the speaker were in need of serious grief counseling, if he should be inducted into the romance hall of fame, or if the situation appears more complicated than that. A lively discussion followed, with students taking all sides — including creating their own alternatives — and pointing to the text in defense of their readings. The first respondent argued that the speaker was incredibly romantic, and two additional students chimed in to agree. The remaining two students listened to the supporting evidence, and then they voiced their objections. They described the speaker as "creepy" and pointed to elements of the poem to reinforce this reading. With the debate opened, other students soon tagged in and argued in favor of one of these two interpretations.

After nearly ten minutes, one student offered a new perspective: that the poem represents "puppy love," and the speaker is simply a naive youth. This first-year student explained that in making sense of the poem, he drew from his own experience with romantic relationships in high school. This reading gained traction, and soon other students either rethought their interpretations or joined in to support this line of thought. As often happens in "Fishbowl," the trajectory of this opening discussion led naturally toward some of the other questions I had prepared, and soon the class was exploring a series of related matters, such as the reliability of the narrator, his rationale for understanding the cause of Annabel Lee's death, and the tone of the poem. At the end of class, to return the discussion to our starting point, I used the "puppy love" interpretation to open a brief reflection on the ways in which personal experiences can shape our understanding of literary texts.


Excerpted from The Pocket Instructor, Literature by Diana Fuss, William A. Gleason. Copyright © 2016 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

  • Frontmatter, pg. i
  • Contents, pg. v
  • Introduction, pg. xi
  • Discussions—collaborative classroom activities for promoting discussion, pg. 1
  • Essentials—classic literary exercises everyone should try, pg. 27
  • Stories—narrative, plot, setting, structure, character, point of view, beginnings, endings, ethics, pg. 45
  • Poems—content, form, language, sound, meter, pg. 95
  • Plays—interpretation, genre, character, staging, performance, context, pg. 147
  • Genres—identifying, rethinking, and switching genres, pg. 197
  • Canons—using, debating, and building canons, pg. 219
  • Words—understanding, defining, and relating words, pg. 241
  • Styles—naming, describing, and imitating styles, pg. 263
  • Pictures—drawing, printing, and viewing pictures, pg. 285
  • Objects—touching, making, and interpreting objects, pg. 309
  • About the Editors, pg. 333
  • Contributors, pg. 335
  • Four Cross- Indexes to Help You Plan Ahead, pg. 339
  • General Index, pg. 341

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