Traci’s 1st List of Ten: Ten Ways to Ask Students to Re-Think the Classroom

Originally Posted July 1, 1998 to ACW-L, WCenter, NCTE-Talk, and TEACH and at the Daedalus Website

  1. Place your students in the future. It’s the year 3098. A team of archaeologists discovers your classroom, exactly as it is now. What do they make of their discovery? How do they describe the space? What do they imagine happened in the place? How do they support their findings–that is, what things in the space support their conclusions? Students could form teams (writing groups) and work in online InterChange conferences to gather ideas about the space. They might write a group paper or individual papers reporting their findings to the organization that funded their archeological dig. Or they could write a “newspaper article” (whatever the equivalent to a “newspaper article” is in 3098). You might even ask them to write about their discovery as an email message to a friend or family member.
  2. Ask your students to work as ethnographers in the classroom–explain the idea of participant-observers, and have your students observe the community in your classroom. What social structures exist? How do members of the community interact? How do the physical structures in the classroom affect the community? By comparison, you might ask students to observe the ways that computers work in other places on your campus–what kind of community is built (or not)in public access computer labs, around workstations in the library, and so forth. Students might examine the differences: how does the community change, and why does it change?
  3. Make your students classroom designers. Give them carte blanche to rethink the set-up and layout of the room–move the desks, tables, machines, and so forth. Add equipment, furniture, and/or resources. If you have a drawing program on your computers, they might even sketch out their designs. After their rethinking, have students write a proposal to implement their changes–ask them to include an explanation of the changes they would make AND a detailed justification for the changes. For example, saying that they want to add a conference table to the room isn’t enough–ask them to explain why the conference table should be added and how it will affect the learning that takes place in the space.
  4. Enter an online discussion on the advantages and disadvantages of the computer-based classroom. Ask students to use pseudonyms–Your discussion should include campus administrators, teachers from other disciplines, family members, politicians, teachers from other schools, alumni, and students from other schools (including, say, high schools, other colleges, and so forth). You might assign roles or have students choose for themselves, but work for a range of aliases. Urge your students to think carefully about the point of view of the speaker that they represent. Before the online discussion, students might write position papers from their speakers’ point of view, to help gather their ideas and think through the opinions. You might use the transcript later–analyze the range of perspectives, revise the position papers based on the group discussion, and so forth.
  5. If your students are used to coming into the classroom, logging in (nearly or completely) on their own, and getting down to work, begin one day NOT on computers. As your students enter, tell them that you want them to wait so that you can make some announcements. Once it’s time for class to start, take a survey. How many students followed your instructions? What did those who followed the instructions do instead of working online? What did those who didn’t follow the instructions do? Move to an online discussion about student-centered versus teacher-centered learning. Encourage students to discuss the ways that they are responsible for their learning and how the computer-based classroom compares to the other classrooms where they attend classes.
  6. Have students choose a historical figure they are interested in. Give them a chance to do some background research on the figure, and then tell them that their figures have been plopped down in your classroom. Ask them to write a paper giving their figures’ analysis of and reaction to the space. You might set some parameters to help avoid papers gone wild with make-believe–the figures know, for instance, that the space is used for education. The point of the assignment is for students to think about the computer-based classroom from another point of view. Students might participate in online discussion, in the persona of their historical figure (see Robin Wax’s “History Comes Alive on the Little Screen,” NEA Today, Sept. 1994, p.25).
  7. Think of your school as a human body, where does this classroom fit? Where do other places, people, and organizations in the school fit?–assign your students a paper that explores where your classroom belongs in the bigger organism. Ask them to consider the ways that your computer-based classroom fits with other kinds of classrooms on campus, how your computer-based classrooms adds or detracts from the bigger whole, and so forth. If you don’t like the metaphor of the human body, try another: the school as an ecosystem, the school as a city, the school as a company, and so on. You might encourage students to choose their own metaphor for the school.
  8. Assign students the task of writing a letter to entering students at your school who will encounter your computer-based classroom for the first time. What can they tell these new students about the space and how it works? What information do they wish they had had when they first began using the classroom? You might combine this writing assignment with the student ethnography paper (#2, above) &#151 asking students to write their letters after having observed the space and thought about the community that exists in it.
  9. Turn your students into computers(metaphorically, of course). From the computer’s perspective, ask them to observe, analyze, and evaluate the humans in the room. If the assignment seems hard to get started on, appeal to popular culture. Ask students to assume a thinking persona for the computer in the same way that Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Data, Voyager’s The Doctor, or Lost in Space’s The Robot take on human qualities even though they are machines. Ask them to think about how the machine would evaluate the space. What role would the machine think it fills? What does it think of these humans who sit down in front of it? Papers might be first-person narratives on a day in the lifeform the computer’s point of view (“I was resting here happily, drawing fractals. I was sort of pleased with the fuschia one, and then I felt one of them reach over and move my mouse. Damn. They want me to work again. Don’t they understand how peaceful it is to sit and draw fractals?”), position papers (a computer writes, “Why I Should Be Networked”), or a reflective essay evaluating the roles that it has played over time (e.g., a hand-me down computer from the Math Lab reflects on the things it’s seen and the differences between the two labs it has lived in).
  10. Put your students in the future, looking back at your classroom. Ask them to imagine that they have come back for their ten (or twenty, etc.) year reunion. They run into one another and decide to find the old classroom. Miraculously, it’s still there (though it’s very likely to have changed greatly). For their assignment, ask students to reflect on their experiences in the place and to comment on how the computer-based classroom influenced their education (and the things they are doing now that they are graduates). The point is to ask them to think about what they think that they will value (or not) about having had a class in your computer-based classroom once they have moved on to other places and experiences. They might write their thoughts in the format of a letter or article for the alumni newsletter, or they might compose their reflections in a letter to a politician or campus administrator, urging more (or less) support for computer-based classrooms.