Pedagogical Lessons from Student Activities

From summer 2010 until the end of the 2012 academic year I had the privilege of working as the Leadership Learning Community (LLC) Graduate Assistant for the Leadership and Involvement Office of UConn Student Activities. Today I continue to use the valuable pedagogical lessons I learned every day as the Humanities House Associate Director. I’m incredibly excited about the opportunity to bring a holistic education model to another group of stellar students. But as my students say, “I will always be a proud member of Leadership Learning Community.”

Ever since spring 2011 when I began my transition from Leadership House to Humanities House (HH) I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on what I learned over those two years. When I accepted the position with Leadership I knew that it would be different from my experiences teaching Freshman English and working with the Connecticut Writing Project. However, I didn’t realize at the time how much I would be able to learn about teaching by taking this position outside of an academic department. In Student Activities I was thrilled to final a number of amazing, engaged teachers in and out of the classroom who I still consider to be my professional mentors. In honor of my time with the LLC, I’m devoting my first blogs to a list of the top five pedagogical lessons I learned from that experience. This week I begin with numbers four and five.

Number Five – Icebreakers are Amazing

What was your first screen name, and why did you choose it? Can you figure out whose name tag you have on your forehead? And how many times can you throw a rubber chicken to a different person across from you in a circle without messing up their name? Some college instructors would not see these questions as worthy of precious classroom time. A couple years ago I may have even agreed with them. However, to get students to think critically and talk candidly about meaningful topics in the classroom you have to develop a reasonable level of comfort. Icebreakers are fun, quick ways to do this. They make sure everyone in the class has to talk and interact with one another, eliminating the tension of being the first ones to speak. And they allow students to support each other as they take chances and make mistakes in a low-pressure setting. This helps students to develop an openness to take intellectual risks later on. For these reasons, icebreakers are amazing ways to start building a community of scholars out of a class of strangers.

Here are a few of my standby icebreakers what I’ve used regularly over the last two years:

1)Line Ups: Ask the students to line up across the room in order of names (alphabetically), birthdays (by month, day, and/or year), height, shoe size, or really anything else you can think of. If the students do this quickly the first time you can make it more difficult by telling them to complete the task with their eyes closed or without talking.

2) Winds Are Blowing: Ask all the students to stand in a circle with one person standing in the center. The person in the center then says “the winds are blowing for anyone who has —.” Each person inserts something original (and class appropriate) that they have done. Examples include traveling to another country, coming to the university from out of state, or playing a musical instrument. Everyone who has also done this then needs to move to another spot in the circle that is not directly next to where they are currently standing. This part is reminiscent of musical chairs. The person remaining in the center when all the spots are full is the next person to direct the group.

3) Name Alliteration: Ask all of the students to stand in a circle. Then go around the circle having each person give their name and an adjective that begins with the same letter. For example, I’m usually “Super Shawna.” To make it even more fun, and ridiculous, you can ask them to add a gesture to go with it. In my case it might be “flying” like Superwoman. To make it more challenging, if you have the time, you can make each person begin by repeating all of the names, adjectives, and gestures of the people who went before them. This icebreaker is particularly useful in the classroom because when the students all know each other’s names it’s easier to have a good discussion.

However, icebreakers can also be more serious. This one, for example, is designed to get students to consider stereotypes and the assumptions we often make about people before we ever meet them.

4) Labeling Bodies: On the first day of classes, even before asking the students to share their names, randomly hand out name tags with identity labels and directions for interacting with each person. The students should not be aware of what their tag says, but they should be able to read other tags and interact with those students accordingly. The goal of the activity is to get students thinking about the labels we put on people’s bodies before we even learn who they are. The students are asked to reflect on this experience and to go forward in the rest of the class with an open mind and respect for everyone’s individuality.

If you’re a teacher it is my hope that you may consider trying one of these icebreakers for the first time the next semester you teach as well. I truly believe you will find that it is worth the effort. If you’re a student it is my hope that the next time you step into a classroom and are asked to stretch yourself beyond your comfort zone you will give it your full effort and see what you can make of the experience.

Number Four – Reflection is Important

“What? So what? Now what?” This is the basic series of underlying questions used to facilitate a reflection. Again, some people might question whether or not this activity fits well into the space of the college classroom. I suggest that yes, it is absolutely invaluable. One thing I want to emphasize is that this is not just asking students to talk about their feelings. If the time is used merely to talk about personal feelings I agree that there are more appropriate opportunities outside of class. Successful reflection, however, goes beyond the surface-level and asks participants to critically evaluate their intellectual and personal growth in the context of their lives as citizens of the world. Real reflection, therefore, has the power to make learning activities relevant enough to stick with us and shape us for the better. It gives students the opportunity to consider who they are and who they want to be as scholars, professionals, and individuals.

Each week over the summer I had the pleasure of meeting with several of my colleagues to informally discuss scholarship about learning communities. One line of discussion that grew out of our meetings was how having the opportunity to reflect on big questions of ethics, personal values, personal and career goals, and our roles in the world can be a powerful learning outcome. If a student understands what they are getting into with a career and can articulate how their passions fit, or fail to fit, into the life they are building they are better prepared to confidently face the challenges that will arise in their education and professional career. This type of self-reflection is ideally suited to the college classroom. As one of my colleagues noted, it can even enhance the classroom experience by helping the students see how the steps of their education are more meaningful than they might have realized prior to reflection. These discussions led s to conclude that there are four key elements to meaningful reflection in the first-year experience (FYE) classroom.

Elements of Meaningful Reflection:

1) Critical Thinking – Students should look at the topic from multiple angles with an eye for both the productive and problematic facets of each.
2) Creative Thinking – Students should be encouraged to create new ways of viewing the topic that might lead to innovative analyses and solutions.
3) Academic Theory – Students should be introduced to relevant theoretical approaches to the topic under consideration so that through their discussion they can engage in an academic conversation, like any other scholarly work.
4) Real World Implications – Students should be pushed to see the practical implications of the theoretical discussion so that it can have lasting implications outside of the classroom.

We concluded that this way students and teachers might be able to interact with each other and the course texts to see each course assignment as a personal growth opportunity. Through an application of this philosophy in my one-credit FYE courses over the last few years and in my three-credit Political Science course this summer I became further convinced that this is valuable and applicable to a wide variety of academic courses in multiple disciplines. Some of the best academic arguments I have seen grew out of ideas that first appeared in critical reflections on personal learning.

I look forward to your thoughts on these lessons. And I’ll see you next week for Number Three: Valuable Learning Happens Outside of the Classroom, and Number Two: Authenticity is Priceless.

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