Over the summer, I moved across the country, from the southwestern United States back to New York City, and from full-time lecturer back to work as a term adjunct. These changes have allowed me to pay close attention to new classroom situations, and the necessity of reexamining my approaches to teaching in order to fit ever-changing circumstances.
My work with charting such shifts began on the second day of class as I reconsidered an activity I had adopted a few years ago, the File Card Discussion: A Beginning-of-Semester Activity. Two years ago, I wrote about this activity because I appreciated its relevance for building classroom community, especially for students who appreciate alternatives to traditional class discussion.
In the File Card Discussion, students worked individually to come up with questions about the course syllabus. Those questions, written at the beginning of the second day of class, were submitted to me anonymously, and I spent the entire class period clarifying writing and reading assignments, due dates and extended deadlines, grading criteria, and other course policies. This activity was intended to familiarize students with the course syllabus and with the work of the course as described by the syllabus.
But on the first day of class where I am teaching this fall, in each of the locations where I am teaching, the synergy felt different. The first day was spent diving into the work of the course, engaging briefly with the syllabus, then moving into the first reading of the year. Students seemed eager to engage with one another, and with the work of the course. So on the second day of class, the File Card Discussion very quickly became Ask Me Anything.
For Ask Me Anything, I invited students to:
- Form groups of 2-4 members.
- Introduce themselves to each other.
- Compose 4 or more questions as a group, attending to individual questions as well as to questions that the group shared.
The questions covered a much broader range of subjects than anything I had tried in recent years. Students asked not only the usual questions about the course, but also questions about the readings, and questions about my own schooling. They wanted to know about my favorite books and authors, and why I felt so strongly about writing. Students also were interested in my reasons for choosing James Baldwin’s “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity” as our first reading. (See Why Is Writing So Hard? A Writing Assignment for Difficult Times)
Additionally, I added a culminating activity for the first week, Exit Tickets. In the last several minutes of class, Exit Tickets ask students to:
- Reflect on the first week of college, including our writing course and other experiences, inside and outside the classroom.
- Respond in writing to the question: What did you learn this week?
This activity has two goals. First, student often will be asked to make sense of complex ideas in a short amount of time. Exit Tickets provide students with an initial experience to process those ideas in writing. Second, I read the Exit Tickets carefully to see what themes emerge from the students’ brief writing, often no more than a sentence or a quick paragraph. From these themes, I will become better able to plan future course activities.
At the end of each class, students left Exit Tickets on the table, and I eagerly awaited the train ride home to consider and absorb their thoughts and concerns. From this early work, our classroom communities would begin the arduous journey of learning and growing together as writers.