Films, Easter Eggs, and Snow: How to Prepare for Spring Semester

This week I’ve been completing final preparations for spring semester. In New England this necessarily includes planning in some flexibility for the likely weather interruptions. When teaching a course, such as mine, that only meets once a week it’s especially important if you want to avoid make up sessions outside of regular class hours. I learned this the hard way one year when I taught on a Monday in spring. Between holidays and and snow storms my class never met in person until the fourth week of the semester. I was able to shift course content to Blackboard on the fly. But to avoid that anxiety and confusion for both me and my students I simply build in online alternatives right from the start.

For this course I thought it would be fun to include some streaming video options using library resources and the film’s websites, if the filmmakers have authorized a free streaming version of their documentaries. Of course, I wanted to make good choices about which films might be useful and how, so I’ve watched more food-related film over the last couple of weeks than I ever knew existed. My films-to-review list included Food Inc, The Healing Effect, Forks Over Knives, Fresh, Food Matters, The Harvest, The Dark Side of Chocolate, and Super Size Me, among others. Watching all of these films in succession left me feeling ethically (and occasionally physically) uneasy about eating much of anything.

This was especially difficult because two of these films are part of a body of work left behind by my friend U. Roberto Romano whose work I was cataloging for historical preservation before his untimely passing just over a year ago on November 1, 2013. However, I feel like this would have been a gut reaction for others as well. Through this film review process I not only prepared myself for snow days and meaningful course enhancement options, but I also prepared myself for the possibility that this semester’s content might prove emotionally difficult for students. While the former was logistically productive, the latter was by far the more meaningful takeaway. This inspired me to seek out campus resources to produce short video lectures that will contextualize the films and include any trigger alerts that I should share before a screening of the particular film.

Because this is a technology supported course, not a fully hybrid or online class, I also took time to incentivize the students to regularly utilize and explore the site. For the second year in a row, I’ve done this by hiding Easter eggs in the Blackboard course content they’re expected to review in the next couple of weeks. The first student to post a screen shot of the Easter egg in our discussion board gets a prize the next time we meet for class. The rules are that an Easter egg stays in play until a student finds it. But as soon as a prize is claimed it is taken down and a new Easter egg is hidden somewhere on the site that I expect engaged students might find. It’s a game that lasts all semester and adds some competition and comic relief to the class.

With these steps behind me, I finally feel ready for the students to return to campus. I have my films and Easter eggs ready for the snow. And I have my tissue box next to a plush penguin basket filled with an array of hand sanitizers for meetings with students battling winter colds. Bring on spring.

Lesson Number One – My Students are Incredible People

First, happy finals week to many of us in higher education. Whether you’re grading the papers and exams, taking them, or both, remember to smile and know that holiday vacation is near. And don’t forget to take little breaks to maintain your sanity, especially if you’re among the many of us who have been falling to the flu and colds that have been going around. If you’re in this group I would absolutely recommend mint tea be included in your finals week survival shopping. I generally consider it a fall finals necessity. Now, with my tea by my side, I’m happy to share my top pedagogical lesson I learned from working in Student Activities.


Number One – My Students are Incredible People

Yes, it’s true that as instructors we need to show up each day prepared to teach regardless of whether or not we know our students to be creative, engaged, brilliant, fun people. And I recognize that when you have a class of 200 students looking back at you the thought of knowing them all well seems not only impossible, but even perhaps  a little frightening. However, through my time in Student Activities I was excited to see how an engaged staff is able to connect with and support students in using what they learn to do meaningful real-world work. This work often draws on the academic skills that students are developing in the classroom (directly or indirectly) and pairs it with relevant transferable career skills. Although it may not be possible for instructors to get to know each of their students as individuals,  I do believe that with some collaboration across campus we can make a greater difference in student learning by finding ways to connect with more students more often.


How would we do this?

No, engaging with students outside the classroom is not just for the Student Activities and Residential Life  sides of the house. But yes, they have some of the best resources set in place for it. So don’t be afraid to make connections. Here are just a handful of ways that you could start working with students beyond classroom teaching as early as next semester.

1) Community Service: There are a variety of ways you can participate in community service with your students. Some are as formal and involved as including a graded service learning component that is semester-long or an intensive week of service. However, there are also much smaller, more manageable options. My class in spring, for example, is doing a Saturday of service in the local community. This day’s service will be connected to hunger, a major theme of the year.

2) Residential Life Collaboration: Hall Directors and RAs are regularly planning great events in the halls. Some of these are fun community-building activities. But they also are always looking for ways to engage their students intellectually. A great example of this is an Irish language event my community’s RA hosted last week. She invited a visiting Fulbright Scholar to teach the residents about the history of the Irish language, her work, travel to Ireland, and some fun phrases in Irish that could be used in everyday conversation. It was a lot of fun for everyone involved.

3) Advising Clubs and Organizations: There are over 500 student organizations at the University of Connecticut. And new groups are created every semester. Each of these needs a faculty advisor and university staff to help them succeed. It can be a great way to connect with students who share your scholarly interest and to foster their excitement.

4) Connecting with a Learning Community: This is, of course, one of my personal favorites. Learning Communities (LCs) are holistic learning environments that a part of growing movement in higher education. In an LC students with similar interests live and study together. Current research suggests that one of the most important benefits of participation in an LC is the opportunity for students to build meaningful relationships with faculty and staff. If your university has LCs they are perfect places for you to connect with students in and out of the classroom.

5) Advising Independent Research: This suggestion is simultaneously the easiest and most challenging suggestion on my list. I say that it’s the easiest because it is the suggestion most clearly linked to teaching a course. And it is something that many faculty and staff do regularly. At the same time, I recognize that it is the most challenging because it can require a substantial commitment. This, however, can vary drastically. For example, I’m currently working on an interdepartmental team that is advising a multi-year documentary project. This will take substantial time and resource commitments from a number of advisors. On the other hand, it is very possible to have students collaborate on small creative projects of their own design in the span of a single semester. It is this small scale work that can be included in a course to add an experiential element to virtually any class.


What would we gain in the classroom from this work outside of the classroom?

Besides the fact that it’s fun to do things like go whitewater rafting with your students, why should anyone try to do more of the types of things I listed above? Because I enjoy lists I’m concluding this post with my top five reasons for taking the time to get to know your students outside of the classroom.

1) Knowing what interests your students makes you better prepared to explain how your course content relevant and meaningful.

2) This type of engagement makes you better prepared to create spaces for valuable individualized learning and meaningful contributions in class.

3) Knowing more than your students’ writing makes you better prepared to send meaningful letters of recommendation for amazing students who will go into the world and make your university (and you) very proud.

4) It makes teaching more fun.

5) It reminds us that we’re still people too, something we can occasionally lose under our piles of books and journal articles.


Thank you to Student Activities and to all of my incredible students for everything you’ve taught me so far. Happy finals week!


Question of the Week: Do you have any great ideas about how to create meaningful experiential events for your courses?

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.