Learning from Spontaneity

I tried something new this semester in order to create a more open, trusting, collaborative classroom. Dave, a math prof and friend, gave me the idea. When he first described it, I thought, “well, maybe…” I didn’t want to ‘waste’ precious class time on game-like activities. You know, there are only 16 weeks and so much material to cover…and this was just the first week of classes! I let go of that–that control that has in the past kept me and students from being spontaneous, from seeing teaching/learning moments in events, conversations, activities that aren’t directly tied to the material at hand.

So this is what I did:

On the first day of class I had students get to know each other and the course material a bit by having them do different activities based on the course material (I’ll describe those activities in another blog post.) Then after they’d introduced each other to the class as a whole, I told them it was time for them to “Question Me,” to ask me questions in order to get to know me, my background, interests, and the course a little bit. In the past I’ve given a short spiel of my professional and academic background, a little about where I grew up, but nothing more personal than that–those things I let out during the semester through examples related to course material.

I had several objectives in mind with this activity: 1) Students could get to know me on their own terms–what they thought was important to know; 2) It reversed the classroom dynamic so that students were in control of the topics–to a degree anyway–I still had the right to refuse to answer; 3) It allowed me to be spontaneous, to appear genuine, and human–vulnerable; 4) The activity would allow for more connection between teaching and learning, among the course, my interests, and my academic and personal backgrounds; 5) It could alleviate some fears and myths about the course and me; and 6) We would laugh a lot–something that I think is important in creating a happy, connected class.

I told students that they could ask anything, but that I had the right to refuse to answer, knowing that I probably wouldn’t have do do this. (We have a campus culture “of nice.”) First,  students individually wrote two or three questions based on the following topics:

  • My personal life
  • My professional life
  • The course

Then, I asked them to form groups of three or four with people they didn’t know, hadn’t had previous classes with, and with whom they hadn’t spoken yet that day. In their groups they were to share their questions, collaborating to revise their questions or to write new ones that emerged from their discussion.

Each group was to pick a scribe–someone to write the final questions, a speaker–someone to pose the questions, and a task mistress or master–someone to keep the group on task.

They were to write two or three questions for each category–that way they would have an inventory to draw from if one of their questions was asked by another group before they had a chance to question me. Each group then was to ask me one question from each category.

As the groups questioned me, a discussion about the course emerged–grading, rigor, assignments, rumors from other students about the course; about my interests–books I’ve read, movies I’ve liked, and colors I don’t like, as well as about my family, tattoos (I have none), pets, travels, languages studied; and my professional experiences–research, schools attended, conferences I present at, publications, my favorite courses to teach…

In one class, sociolinguistics, the questions were particularly well developed. And in that class I’d given them more instruction: the course is more research-based than the others I teach and I suggested to students that in writing their questions they ask how and why, that these kinds of questions go deeper than descriptive what questions. And sure enough, their questions required more developed answers and they asked more questions about research and professional interests. I recognized how I could integrate how to ask “good” research questions early on in the course, and how it would be valuable in all my courses.

In short, this exercise was about demonstrating my ability to let go of control, to be spontaneous, to trust. It helped dispel students’ fears about grades, about the perceived difficulty of the course and my teaching. I think too that showed students that I value and respect them, that I appreciate the various facets that make up our lives and our selves because my life is like that too. I think it also reflected that I like to play hard as much as I like to work hard–that I appreciate a balanced life.

How do I know that this activity has worked–that it wasn’t a “waste of time”?

On entering my classrooms every day this his semester students are laughing and talking–so much that I have to ask them to quiet and come together  so we can focus on the day’s material. I see how we’ve created a collaborative community–they easily and readily form groups for break-out discussions and eagerly ask questions during whole-class lecture/discussions. There’s a sense of belonging and community that I haven’t felt quite like this before. I know that there are many variables that could be affecting the class atmospheres, but my sense is that taking the time to allow students the floor, to take time to get to know each other and me, and for students to have a say in what they think is important to know has empowered and enlivened them. I know it’s done those things for me.

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