March 22, 2005

Index Cards, Folk Music, and the Three Little Pigs

Yesterday was the first day back from spring break, so I planned something lively for class. I thought I knew what to expect from my students, and I was right: when they came to my class on Monday morning, they were functioning in a stupor not unlike jet lag. Most of them, especially the seniors who have already been accepted to grad schools or who are in the midst of job interviews, were trying desperately to remember why they thought it was a good idea to take an elective course when they could have just slept late all semester instead. I knew something interactive was in order just to wake them up.

In one class, we've been talking about attitudes towards nature, how underlying attitudes can inform politics, and how literature can be used to get people thinking and questioning those attitudes. So I divided the students into groups and told them to take a children's story, analyze the attitudes towards nature in the story, rewrite the story, and then perform it as a skit. They had to make reference to at least two texts we've read this semester.

The skits went pretty well. Actually, most of them were hysterically funny. And serious at the same time. The Three Little Pigs became three privileged white people fleeing the city to build a gated community in a pastoral setting. The wolf, who had lived on the land for generations, gave an impassioned speech against the evils of rampant development and the need for urban growth limits. The Oldest Little Pig, when asked whether or not she cared at all about ecology, replied, "Oh, but I do. I use recycled coffee filters."

The Little Mermaid became the Powerful Mermaid, who decided that the Prince needed therapy because he was caught in the web of consumerism and cracking under the pressures of corporate life. She made all kinds of sarcastic comments about how she could not imagine why any mermaid would choose to become human like the prince, since humans are the most evil of species. Eventually the Prince, who had damn few lines in the whole skit, decided to change his ways and become a sea creature. I think there was going to be more about how he ended up with SpongeBob SquarePants instead of the Mermaid but we ran out of time.

My favorite class yesterday, though, was my last class of the day. The students, who saw "Creativity Day" on the assignment schedule and who know me pretty well, took matters into their own hands. One woman brought a guitar and sang us folk songs. Another student took my supply of index cards and passed them out. While we listened to the music, each of us wrote a couple lines of poetry on the index cards. At the end, a student shuffled the cards and read them aloud as a collaborative poem. What was amazing was how well this worked: class discussions all semester, the most recent awful news about the future of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and the background of music got us all thinking on the same track.

In my book, any class that features Joni Mitchell songs is a worthwhile class.

14 comments:

Rhonda said...

I so desperately wish I were in your class (not when I was in college, mind you -- right now). The Three Little Pigs skit sounds especially inspired and grounded in the reality of how Americans think of rural space.

Scrivener said...

These sound like such great classes. I don't think I could pull this off, either. For one thing, my Tech students in particular would never be willing to sing folk music and perform skits. But even beyond that, I don't do "creative" classes like this particularly well, I think.

I do really like the idea of analyzing and rewriting the fairy tales--I might steal that for some classes next semester in fact.

jo(e) said...

Scrivener, creative classes like this are sort of my specialty. It's when I have to pose as an academic that I fall apart ....

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

I'm with Scriv. Most of the students I have taught in the past would never sing songs or perform a skit. Also, most of the students I have taught would not criticize white people leaving the city, even after I have presented such criticisms to them in detail.

Things are different at my current university. Students are liberal and willing to take chances in class. But I still feel really uncomfortable asking them to do this sort of arty thing in class. I make them give arguments, present analyses, write and share writing, but I could never ask them to perform a skit.

Part of it, I guess, is that I know I would feel uncomfortable doing performing a skit, and as a result, can't imagine making the class do that.

Also, there is always the chance that one of my students would sick David Horowitz on me. Professors here have already been singled out by the conservative press for their liberal bias, and I have no doubt it will happen again.

Phantom Scribbler said...

Mr. Blue does interactive stuff like this all the time with his graduate students (ok, not rewriting fairy tales, but role-playing games like everyone has to act out a city council meeting or something). They eat it up. But I don't think it's the sort of thing you could force yourself to do as a teacher. If it makes you uncomfortable, it will make the students uncomfortable too.

jo(e) said...

I agree Phantom. And I think every campus needs lots of different teaching styles. If every teacher on campus was like me, well, I think students would get pretty sick of this stuff. But my students mainly take big lecture and lab science courses so I like to force them to get in touch with their creative side in my classroom. They get lots of hard facts in their other courses and I am always just trying to get them to put that information all together.

What Now? said...

jo(e), a technical question: How long are your class periods? How did you pitch the assignment? (e.g., did you assign groups? how long did they have for putting together the skit? etc.) I'm just wondering about replicating such a cool assignment in my freshman classes.

Congrats on a great class!

PPB said...

now that's a class that I would take!!!

dr. m(mmm) aka The Notorious P.H.D. said...

I do interactive and group work in my classes, too. What makes it hard is when you have a class of 150 students, 80-90 of which are ardent supporters of President Bush.

dr. m(mmm) aka The Notorious P.H.D. said...

Oh, and none of them have gotten into graduate school or are having interviews. Most of them already have jobs or have jobs awaiting them in the future.

jo(e) said...

Dr. M, I have 25 in my classes -- and most of them hate Bush passionately.

What Now?: My classes are 55 minutes and meet three times each week so I feel justified in sometimes doing a creativity day. When I broke them into groups, I made them count off by 4. I always do it that way so they meet new people and aren't with their friends. I think they had 15 minutes for planning (I gave them index cards of course) and then we spent the rest of the time with each group doing the skit and us talking about it quickly. They understood the concepts right away because we talk about this kind of stuff all the time.

PPB said...

I think the last time I was in a room with 25 young adults that hated Bush passionately was an Indigo Girls concert. I want to work at your school!!

Yankee T said...

The Teenage Girls Who Run My Life all hate Mr. Bush passionately. Does that count? Younger Daughter, at the ripe old age of (almost) 13, leaves the room if he comes on TV...before I can even change the channel!

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Boy, these activities really do sound great! I'm with those who probably don't do "creative" classes very well - it would depend a little on how I pitched them (and what material we were covering). I did recently put my students in groups to write their own version of a travel guide to the regions we'd read about for that day (we've been doing travel guides) with the thought in the back of my head that some of them would play around with tone/content and/or try to mimic medieval guides we'd been reading - nope! all were straightforward recitations of facts. Next time I guess I will have to REQUIRE them to be "creative" about it...

But I definitely agree that how things like this work depends on how comfortable you, personally, feel with the activities. If you're not whole-hearted about it, the students will all back down. LDH, for instance, was great about acting stuff out in class (he'd stand on a desk to imitate a Virginia planter on horseback looking down on his slaves), and I just canNOT do that at all. Closest I get is getting lost in telling stories.