Before I started teaching a new PR class last year, I wanted to improve the classroom environment for people with different styles. The previous semester was my first teaching experience and the class included lots of debate, group work and presentations. As the semester clipped along, the same handful of students were always raising their hands or leading discussions. They were terrific, but I also wanted to hear from the “unusual suspects,” people whose ideas and grades were excellent but who weren’t speaking up in class. I debated just calling on them to coax an answer but didn’t want to put anyone on the spot.
My friend suggested I just ask my students at the beginning of the semester whether I can call on them “out of the blue.” That’s simple enough. So on the first class, I distributed blank index cards and asked the students to write: their name, whether I can call on them in class even if they haven’t raised their hand; what they hope to get out of the class; and a fun fact about themselves.
The first thing that surprised me was that students’ personalities immediately shone
through the simple 3×5 lined index card. Their handwriting, use of adjectives, smiley faces all told me something about them.
Answers to a simple “can I call on you?” ranged from enthusiastic “Yes!!!” with multiple exclamation marks or “Absolutely” to emphatic “No thanks!” or “I prefer to formulate my thoughts first,” and variations of “it depends.” I used that information to create a little chart of green, yellow and red dots on my class list so that, at a glance, I could nudge discussion along, without putting anyone on the spot.
The real value came in the “throw-away” fun fact question. One student let me know she’s allergic to nuts and carries an epi-pen. That’s potentially life-saving information that would never come up in the course of regular classroom interaction. Another student wrote that she is hard of hearing. She didn’t have an official accommodation, so I might never have known; but with eight little words on the bottom of an index card I could make sure I was facing her, speaking loudly enough and checking in privately every once in a while.
Students told me they have young children or two part-time jobs, others are simultaneously completing other programs, are international students or world-class athletes. Having this background information gave me instant empathy about some of the challenges and demands students face outside the classroom. When students shared previous education or work experience, I was able to incorporate those into examples and exercises throughout the semester.
Whether students told me they love travel, cats, dogs, hockey, tea, piano or the number 12, that little index card immediately gave me a tiny peek into their lives. It provided an instant connection. Now, when students walk into the classroom, I really feel they are bringing all of their hopes, dreams, talents, interests, lucky numbers and challenges with them. They bring their whole selves to class. It’s different than knowing it conceptually.
You could argue that PR students should be fast on their feet and ready to be called on at any time. I think they’re teenagers in an 8am class who are learning to be PR experts. They have every right to put their best foot forward in their learning environment. They’re not all extroverts who learn by thinking out loud and who get energy from being in front of a group. Some students are introverts who want to think, read, reflect and craft their response before sharing it. Some students have English as a second language who need a little extra time to formulate their thoughts. In all cases, the answers and ideas are just as good. My job is to tailor my approach to get the best from them and to encourage them to participate.
Thanks to my brilliant friend for her suggestion. A five-minute exercise and an index card gave me the information I needed to keep the conversation flowing in class and wonderful insights into the lives of my students. That little bit of insight makes for a richer and more effective environment for all of us.
Do you have a classroom trick or great ice-breaker to share? I’d love to hear it.