This month, I'm blogging about class activities and teaching strategies from my Media, Activism, and Social Movements course, an undergraduate-level seminar I designed for advanced high school students participating in Penn Summer Prep 2017. You can find an introduction to the course here and other posts about the course here.
Day 1 of Media, Activism, and Social Movements involves laying some important groundwork for the course. Like your typical college seminar, this involves some of the standard elements of "syllabus day" -- we walk through the syllabus together, so I can rest easy knowing my students have read over it at least once. But given the nature of this class -- high school students encountering college-level material for the first time in a discussion-heavy course that asks difficult questions about social justice -- I wanted to make especially sure we were jumping off from a strong foundation.
With this in mind, in our first class, we tackled three important tasks: 1) setting the space for empowering discussions, 2) strategizing for sometimes difficult readings, and 3) establishing the major definitions and questions that will motivate our work. These three steps toward revamping "syllabus day" can be extracted and adapted for the first session of just about any course.
Setting the Space
Penn Summer Prep students come from all over the world. Their backgrounds, their high schools, their interests, and their experiences vary dramatically. Given this, we spent a lot of time on our first day together getting to know one another and thinking explicitly about how we will engage with each other.
One of the first things I do in class is ask students to take part in an icebreaker. Now, icebreakers are loathed by students and teachers alike, and for good reasons; they are often embarrassing and yield little useful information about participants. But good ice breakers -- and they do exist -- not only help students get to know their peers, but they also get students used to talking with one another and to the whole class early on.
I found inspiration for actually useful icebreakers in this Cult of Pedagogy blog post by teaching expert Jennifer Gonzalez. Together, we played five rounds of "Lines and Blobs," in which students line themselves up or form blobs according to a set of directions that I give. First, students line themselves up in alphabetical order according to their first name without any help from me -- they have to figure out what everyone's names are and arrange themselves on their own. This serves as their basic introduction to each other. Then, they line themselves up according to who travelled the greatest distance to be at Penn; this gives them a sense of the diversity of backgrounds in the room. Next, students form blobs by high school year and then by prospective college majors, and finally; my goal here is to help them find something they have in common with their peers from the get-go. Finally, I ask them to form three blobs: one blob of people who would say they have a lot of experience with activism, one blob of people who would say they have some experience with activism, and one blob of people who say they have little or no experience with activism. I purposefully do not define "activism" at this point, and give students time on their own to discuss what this term means and how it has manifested in their lives. The purpose of this question is not to shame students who haven't had many activist experiences., and I am careful to let students know this up front Rather, the purpose is threefold: 1) It creates space for students to talk about personal stories. This helps us stay more on task later on, but more importantly, it helps students get personally invested in the class from the start; 2) It helps me get a sense of students' experience with course content before we dive in; and 3) It gets students thinking about what "activism" actually entails; often, by the end of this class session in both sections of the course, students who initially said they had never done anything "activist" changed their minds and were able to identify some activist action they had taken.
Once we've begun to get to know each other, we lay down some basic ground rules for class discussions. Given that the course revolves around questions related to social justice, we often end up discussing difficult topics, so it's important to intentionally create a productive space for discussion. To facilitate productive discussion, I ask students to keep name tents on their desks, which helps all of us (myself include) refer to classmates directly by their name. In the syllabus, I also ask students to follow three basic discussion guidelines:
1. Respect others’ rights to hold opinions and beliefs that differ from your own. Challenge or criticize the idea, not the person.
Working together as a class, on our first day, I ask us to come up with and agree upon at least five more guidelines for discussion and to write them on the syllabus beneath my initial set of three guidelines. In both sessions, students came up with at least six more guidelines, covering everything from basic essentials (no interrupting, share the floor, etc.) to the more abstract (create space for classmates to ask big or basic questions, understand that experience filters perception, and more). Suggested guidelines were not added to our official list unless we all agreed with them. The act of collaboratively writing these guidelines gives each student a stake in how the course was run, Throughout the course, I reinforced our guidelines as necessary but more importantly, students felt comfortable reinforcing the guidelines for one another.
Strategizing for Readings
At Penn Summer Prep, high schoolers engage with college-level readings and academic articles, often for the first time. With this in mind, I asked students to complete three sentence stems about each of the assigned readings prior to class:
Something new I learned from this reading is ____________________________ .
Since Penn Summer Prep students do not take courses for credit, I did not collect or grade these. Instead, I instructed students to jot these completed sentences down in their readings notes or even directly on their reading packets and asked students to share their responses either at the beginning of sessions focused on particularly difficult readings or during class, when discussion fell flat. For a traditional, credited, undergraduate seminar, especially a lower-level, introductory course, asking students to submit their stem sentences electronically through an online classroom management system like BlackBoard or Canvas could help fuel discussion and hold students accountable for the reading. In my case, these stem sentences helped the readings seem less intimidating for my high schoolers. Once class prep work was boiled down to these three simple questions, diving into the readings became easier.
Establishing Definitions and Questions
Our most important task for the first day of class is to establish our key definitions and motivating questions for the corse. We did this together through two board exercises.
First, we collaboratively define our three key terms for the class: media, activism, and social movements. This exercise works best if students understand why it's important to define our terms in the first place, even when the terms are words we might use in everyday vocabulary. As researchers, our definitions shape the lenses through which we see the world, which in turn shapes the kinds of questions we ask and the phenomena we study.
Once we've established this important point, we get to work defining each key term, starting with media. First, I ask students to spend about two minutes doing some free-writing in response to a simple question: "What is media?" Then, after two minutes have passed, I ask students to share their answers, either by raising their hands or calling them out, and I record them on the board. With each response, I ask the rest of the class whether they agree or disagree. In the process, not only do we develop definitions for our key terms, but we also get our assumptions about these key terms out on the table for questioning before we dive into the rest of the course.
We repeat this for both "activism" and "social movements;" with these two terms in particular, students' responses yield important debates over what "counts" as activism or a movement. These debates become important reference points for the rest of the course.
Importantly, my job is to synthesize students' responses into cohesive definitions and repeat them back to the class. I start our second session with a Google Slides presentation that begins with the definitions we agreed upon, just to reinforce our key definitions before going forward with the rest of the course. Like collaboratively writing class discussion guidelines, collaboratively defining our key terms gives students a personal stake in the course's focus and direction.
With our key terms defined, we can start asking questions about media, activism, and social movements. For this section of class, I ask students to do some imagination work and pretend that they are researchers seeking to learn more about media, activism, and social movements. What research questions could they ask? This is a challenging task for introductory-level students, so I set this up as a "think, pair, share" activity. First, working independently, students jot down questions for about two minutes. Then, they share with a neighbor for another two or three minutes. Next, I hand out big Post-It notes and ask each student to choose their favorite or most interesting question, write it down in big, bold letters, and stick it anywhere on the board. I ask students to stay standing in front of the board and to begin grouping similar questions and to identify emergent themes (an affinity mapping strategy adapted from Cult of Pedagogy).
We repeat this process a second time, this time imagining we are activists. Once we have both academic and activist questions mapped on the board, I ask students to identify similarities and differences between the two categories of questions. This gets us thinking about what social movement researchers and activists can learn from each other and why the course content matters for the real world.
After class, I photograph each Post-It note. These become great material for class wrap-ups. At the end of every class session, we discuss at least one of the Post-It questions and think about whether or not our class readings and discussions for that day have brought us any closer to an answer, or if there are any new questions we can ask about the topic at hand. Again, my goal here is to give students a stake in the class, to identify a question they walked in with and to get them thinking about how their knowledge around that question has grown.
I developed this three-part, revamped "syllabus day" especially for my high school students, but these three basic components can become organizing principles for the first day of any humanities or social science class, especially one at the introductory level. Class time is precious, so making syllabus day actually work for you is key!