Now, a week away from this marvel of higher learning, I find myself considering the first day of last year's Fall semester. It's pretty much the same every year. The first class usually goes well. My energy is up and students are actually excited, albeit a bit apprehensive, to read the syllabus and spy the required readings. A select few are jumping at the chance to study poetry and others are terrified of it, poetry being the big, dark monster in the corner of the room. Of course, they are willing to attack the monster and I am thinking of ways to get them to do so. My next class begins and I am still riding that roller coaster of expectation. But by the time my third class starts, I realize once again that not every class is the same by any stretch of the imagination. These students are stiff and quiet, seemingly exhausted already, and it's only 1:00pm. They don't want to talk to each other and half of them don't have the book. So what do I do?
This is an issue that I have seen many professors tackle with fervor. How can we get non-responsive students to respond from the very start?
The first step is to get them to know one another. In my personal experience, there is little that is as discouraging as feeling completely alone in a college course, especially when group work is mentioned in the syllabus. The idea of this future collaboration becomes an anvil weighing down the shy student, the student who would be fine just writing her essays in her own corner, meeting me for office hours every now and then for clarification. And so, the icebreaker presents itself.
We all know icebreakers. These are exercises that we hope will introduce students to each other. My hope is that by the end of the first icebreaker exercise, students will have exchanged email addresses and will be connected by their own personal information. For the first icebreaker, I usually ask students to interview each other and then present their findings to the class, an old standard, but a reliable one. What is your favorite book? Let's make friends!
But are icebreakers only for introductions and the support of burgeoning friendships? Not necessarily. Icebreakers can be used to introduce the course as well and, especially in a writing course, they can be used to explain. Let me explain.
In a writing course, I find that one of the concepts the students struggle with (especially in First Year Writing) is explaining their ideas. They will state their points (i.e. "The Lottery by Shirley Jackson is an upsetting story."), but they do not explain why the discomfort this story projects is important to a larger issue. They shun the word "because." They feel we should already know. To combat this lack of explanation, I ask students to complete the following exercise:
Who is your favorite musician or musical group? Write down three reasons as to why they are your favorite. For example, you might say, "Adele is my favorite musician because her voice is very unique" or "The Foo Fighters are my favorite band because they write all of their own songs and have been around for most of my life." You should have three clear reasons. When you are finished writing them down, give your paper to your interview partner and he/she will read it out loud when introducing you to us.
They might hate this exercise, but in my experience, they usually welcome it. It gives them a chance to talk about what they love. You can revise this to be specific to literature too, asking them about their favorite books, but I find that this approach does not always work because you will always have students who don't really read books and who would rather read blogs (like you!), magazines or Facebook updates. Most importantly, this exercise introduces students to the concept of analysis and the ultimate question in analysis: Why?
So, as the Fall semester approaches, it's big, muddy footsteps following us as we sleep, it's time to prepare for the worst. Maybe you will have a class that doesn't want to answer your questions, introduce themselves or read the stories you have so painstakingly picked out. When faced with this class, what will you do?