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Getting Acquainted

posted: 9.23.11 by archived

One semester I brought my juggling balls to the first class meeting. The theme of the course was education, and as a way to start talking about the learning process, I planned to teach a host of eager volunteers how to juggle. I was surprised by how reluctant so many of my students were even to try so strong were their self-consciousness and fear of embarrassment. Everybody drops balls when they’re learning, I drop ‘em all the time, you can’t worry about that, I said. I haven’t tried the juggling-initiation again, but I’ve remembered the lesson (or at least the one I took from it), the parallel with trying to teach writing: that first I’d need to cultivate a level of daring, a comfort with momentary failure, a safe climate for experimentation.

That attempt to make students feel at ease starts with my trying to learn their names as quickly as possible. Many online posts and articles, such as this one, give strategies for doing this. My own method is much simpler and, as I freely admit, stupid (but it works for me, I emphasize to my students, and takes only five or ten minutes). I start in one corner, asking a student his or her first name. After repeating that a few times, I go on to a second student, asking his or her first name, and then repeating the names of both students.  Proceeding in similar fashion, I add name by name to my collection, going back each time to repeat the growing list, amazing students with the fallibility of my memory, asking other students for help (What letter does her name begin with?). I jot down on my roster distinguishing features or locations in the classroom (next to Amanda, front R, like <the name of some ex-student or acquaintance of mine whom the student resembles>). In a deliberately lame attempt at humor, I tell students they can’t change seats, or clothing, for the next two weeks.

In addition to their names, I also collect some information the first day. I ask students to take out a sheet of paper and jot down their names; their major or goal here to the college; heir career goal, if they have one; what other college-level reading or writing classes they have taken; something about their experience, access, and attitudes towards technology; and any interests they would like to share that might give me suggestions about possible article topics or research areas. (Perhaps I should add a question about number of work hours per week?)

Typically I’ll also share some information about myself, such as my long-term affection for the Red Sox or my new fondness for cycling. As I grow older, I’m finding myself more open about sharing more personal information as well, most often in the context of talking about my own writing projects. To my I-should-think-about this list, I need to add considering the value and appropriateness of sharing such tidbits as my daughter’s anxiety, my mother’s alcoholism, and my own flunking out of college the first time around (and it’s maybe a large enough topic for a future post).

Finally I like to end that first class with an opportunity to get students talking with each other, disguised as one of those hokey ice-breaking activities that students dread. In my version, which I term the classmate snapshot, pairs of students interview each other to capture a typical or revealing moment in the other’s life, which they then, for homework, write into a short paragraph. It’s true that I use this as a way to get a quick writing sample and that it affords me a first opportunity to talk about specific details, but its main purpose is to start conversations that I hope will foster a sense of community in the classroom.

I fear I’m falling into a rut with some of these strategies, though, so I’d welcome your input. What are your aims on that first day: what atmosphere do you try to establish, how do you start to develop lines of communication, what information do you collect, and how do you start the transformation of this roomful of strangers to a productive and stimulating classroom of colleagues?

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Categories: Community College issues, Holly Pappas
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