Saturday, February 20, 2010

On an Ice-Breaker for the Creative Non-Fiction Classroom

When I was a student, there was nothing more I hated than having to go around the room on the first day of class and say why we were there. Or what we wanted out of the class. Or even something less obtrusive like what's your major. I swore to myself that I would never do that when I became a teacher. It's stupid. Plus it provides me with no information that will cause me to remember their names--something I warn them on the first day I'll never remember. Yes: I won't forget what they said or where they sat or what they wore. But theirs names no way. Early on-set dementia, who knows?

Some teachers would say this is irresponsible. And maybe it is. But all teachers have strengths and weaknesses. And that's one of mine. I have worse ones. Like when I open things up for class discussion, and someone starts speaking, I talk over them. What can I say? I get excited. And I'm obnoxious. And who said that it's a teacher's responsibility to exemplify good manners? I like things messy in the classroom, and there's no doubt that I cause a good share of it. Also: why not put students in a situation where they're forced to be a little aggressive? Of course, I keep my eye out for the shy ones, may call on them, and sometimes because they know that, they often are more likely to participate--they don't want me to interrogate them about an assigned reading.

And I do in my class use the word interrogate. So there.

You could say I'm reclaiming it.

So: this semester in my creative non-fiction class, I decided it was time for me to think of some sort of strategy to make me remember their names. No matter how much we may like to deny it, the CNF classroom always becomes in some weird way partly a cathartic space. (If it made just a bit more money, I would be running support groups for a living.)

This was my new idea, and it worked. At least I hope it's a new idea. I'm always afraid of offering what I do in the classroom. I'm afraid I might have unconsciously stole it.

I took the old idea of putting students in pair and having them interview one another. I tried to give them some decent questions: name three props that have touched your life in a weird way, offer examples of a particular vocabulary that you think you may be the only person in this room possesses, etc. You can imagine the drill.

But this time I did something different. I didn't focus on the retelling of the information. I sent my students home with information based on the information they received in private with their partner.

This is what I told my students: based on your partner's information, make a gift for them--obviously, it is not a requirement to spend a single cent, but make them a gift that you think they would like, and IT MUST BE WRAPPED SO THE STUDENT CAN OPEN IT IN CLASS. Then you will need to explain why you got them what you did.

I was shocked how well it worked. Because I haven't asked my students' permission, I won't reveal any of the results except in the most vague ways. But for someone like myself who steers away from what could be perceived as cloying CNF exercises, I was in awe at the amount of time, thought, and energy that went into the presents. It provided specific information and in some case what the person offered their partner was something that could be used in their own work (ie DVD, a diorama, etc.)

It was entertaining for all of us--and suspenseful--is there anything more tension-filled than the spectacle of someone opening a gift? I should say I love nervous energy in the classroom. I have a worse attention span than my students. And this exercises corrected that.

It also gave me the ability to remember their names.


  1. Oh Steve,
    This is wonderful! Love this!!
    Yes, I'm using the exclamation mark because I'm grinning ear to ear.


  2. It was a great exercise -- I LOVE my diorama :)

  3. Please send me a diorama. I need a diorama.

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  5. You are quite a teacher. I think that everybody in the first day of class are bored that in every class teachers ask the same question. But when they ask. It can be easier for them to know what kind of examples to use in class.

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