From the first day of class, students can begin to exercise their voices in the classroom in a non-threatening way by means of the oral introduction of another class member. The earlier in the quarter that students can experience their own voices as helping to constitute the culture, and at times the content, of the course, the less threatening more formal speaking will be later on.
The oral introduction exercise (and any variation thereupon) is designed for early on in the quarter, when students are getting to know each other and themselves in the space and community of the classroom. The other activities, as follows, can be conducted throughout the quarter to give responsibility to students for carrying the conversation.
- Oral Introductions
- Student-to-Student Discussions
The oral introduction is a straightforward introductory exercise that can help to set a tone for collaboration and community-building on the first day of the quarter. Reading the syllabus, introducing the subject of the course, and laying out the trajectory of the course are, of course, necessary first-day activities; the oral introduction can be presented as an equally necessary activity as students' voices, prior experiences, and expectations often infuse and sometimes shape a substantial part of the course, whether implicitly or explicitly. This exercise gives students a chance both to assert their voices (and to be uniquely heard) as well as to listen to another voice in a focused and careful way. It also gives students a sense that they, indeed, have a place and a voice in this community.
- Ask students to get in pairs. Each person should take out a piece of paper for taking notes.
- Allotting about five minutes for each member of the pair, ask students to introduce themselves to their partners. It is a good idea to give some direction to the introduction that may resonate with the direction the course itself is taking. For example, if this is a literature course, you may ask students, after giving their partners the basics (name, year in school, academic and career interests), to describe a metaphor they would use to describe their current everyday lives or their senses of the future. If this is a psychology course, you may ask them to share an anecdote about a time when they recognized or came into contact with their unconscious (by means of a Freudian slip, a dream, etc.).
- Reconvene as a class and ask pairs to volunteer to introduce each other. Each person should introduce his or her partner to the rest of the class using the notes he or she took during the exchange. Continue until everyone has had a chance to introduce and be introduced—even if the exercise spills over into the second day of class.
This exercise is straightforward in its execution and is meant to preempt the discussion-as-racquetball phenomenon that occurs when each student's comment gets directed at you, the instructor and then, in turn, you must (akin to the walls of the racquetball court) bounce the ball back out to elicit another student's comment.
- Call on the first student in the discussion.
- After speaking, she or he calls on the next student, and so on.
- Each student must acknowledge in some way the comment that was made just before and create a transition between that comment and his or her own comment.
Debates are useful exercises for getting students to demonstrate their familiarity with and understanding of texts, as well as to practice their ability to extrapolate verbally and extemporaneously on writers' arguments and ideas. Use the debate exercise when you want student to think about how to put various writers' ideas in conversation with each other.
- Get students in groups of about four (depending on the size of the class and the number of essays/writers with which you want them to engage). Just make sure that students are evenly divided among the different readings.
- Assign each group an essay or a writer.
- Raise a question to which the members of each group, in the voice of their writer, must respond, using specific support from their writer's work. For example, you might ask them to engage with the question: What role does or should art play in social reform? One group will represent W.E.B. DuBois, one group will represent Carl Van Vechten, one group will represent Langston Hughes, and one group will represent Zora Neale Hurston. Sometimes it is also useful to ask them to respond to a question that seems out of the immediate context and concerns of the writers. For example, you might ask how each group's writer would respond (however anachronistically) to Spike Lee's film Do the Right Thing.
- After groups have had about fifteen minutes to prepare their stance, bring them together in a configuration such that they can all see each other (a circle around which the various groups are clustered together can work well). Ask one group to initiate the conversation. After the first group has presented its position, call on another group to respond to the first and to articulate its own position, and so on.
- After each group has had at least an initial opportunity to respond and to articulate its position, invite all groups to keep the conversation going. The only real rule is that groups must support their arguments with specific statements made by the writers they represent.