By James Compton
MCC English Instructor
Grouping students into houses has increased participation, made classes more fun, and according to my electronic grade book history, has even raised average grades.
But what are houses? Houses are self-selected groups of students in a class who compete with each other for points in the form of marbles (five points per small, twenty-five points per large) tossed into mason jars.
Points are earned for particularly erudite, insightful, or clever comments; for coming in first, second or third on quizzes (50, 35, and 20 points respectively); first through third (200, 150, 100 points) on tests and papers; for wearing or bringing in house paraphernalia, such as five points for house color clothing or notebooks; or sometimes five points is given just for being helpful.
The idea for house competition came at the suggestion of students in my first ever Harry Potter Film Adaptation class back in Spring 2011. Starting a group activity, I’d said, “let’s get into…,” and before I finished the sentence, someone said, “houses?” I rolled with it, and now put all literature and Composition I classes into houses, and I’m thinking about adding Composition II.
Students really get into it. I have a collection of jars decorated by students – multiple Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, Slytherin and Gryffindor jars, which is to be expected considering the devotion Harry Potter fans have to the series. But I also have jars dedicated to Dr. Seuss, fantasy fiction, sci-fi, romance movies, eighties movies, and horror films.
Every two-to-three weeks we do a point count to see where the houses stand, and if I forget, students very vocally remind me. At the end of the semester the point count decides a winner, who gets a house cup certificate the next semester.
Again, if I forget to print out the certificate, cup winners will e-mail, call, and stop by my office to ask where their certificate is. This includes students who have graduated and gone onto the four-year.
The easy part is giving points. I run class with a handful of marbles I pull from the skull basket donated by student Tanya Voelker. When students earn points, I toss the marble into the glass jar, which makes a satisfying ring when it hits. I watch the students smile and high five other members of their house.
I also watch students study harder for quizzes and tests as they try to win the house cup for themselves and their Housemates.The positives far outweigh any perceived silliness, as long as I discipline myself to take points out of jars when students disrupt the flow of information. This is the hard part, and is just as necessary as giving points, and is not applied by me nearly enough.
For example, during an intense discussion as to whether Professor Snape should have been fired by Dumbledore at the end of The Prisoner of Azkaban, a Slytherin student got into an argument with a Hufflepuff, whose house was on the other side of the classroom. The loudly arguing Slytherin stood and walked, fast, across the room toward the Hufflepuff.
I reached into the Slytherin jar and called out, “10 points from Slytherin.” The angry and excited student stopped short, looked down at her feet, turned back to her house and said, “Sorry.” She then walked back to sit with her house, and the discussion began again with no loss of intensity or student animation.
The beauty of the system became clear to me. The student’s “sorry,” was not aimed at me, but toward her housemates. Control was maintained with no loss of class enthusiasm and interest. Students were cooperating, focused, and happily discussing high-level concepts, everything a classroom is supposed to make happen.