Historiann as (as usual) a good post up this week about a phenomenon she calls "Mr. Warmup"--the kind of student who, when you walk into a class, has already broken the ice and has the class chatting, which makes the transition to discussion easier for everyone. Being your own Mr. Warmup can work, too, she says.
Now that she's named the phenomenon, I realize that I've had some of these, too--not always an older student, but often a male student, although I've had small groups of women students do the same thing.
If you have to be your own Mr. Warmup, it helps, I think, if you don't plant yourself behind a lectern but wander around the classroom chatting before the class. It also helps if you have some common ground that you're not going to turn into A Lesson for them. I'm hopeless at telling jokes but can usually come back with a quip or something that makes them laugh within the context of the class, if the opportunity arises.
I'm teaching a large lecture class now, which makes me think even more about how to get the students engaged. A few of them have laptops, but most of them seem to be engaged with what we're doing, even if only maybe 25% of them speak up during the class. I can see their faces, and they're thinking even if they're not talking. It's a different experience from one of the classes I had last semester, which was small and "decentered," with far more participation than lecture.
The thing is, I genuinely want them to tell me things and have set up what we're doing so that they (I hope) want to speak up. It's not a grim march toward a predetermined end where they tell me what X word in Y poem means. I was looking today at the copies of the marked-up poems that the students had discussed in previous iterations of this class, and no two classes said the same things--and yet they all said good things. I haven't seen a Mr. Warmup in this class yet--it's still early--but wonder whether one will emerge now that the ice is broken a little bit through the class's participation.