10 Assignments on Hashtags

Hashtag mark drawn in the sand
Image Credit: Piqsels.com, used under public domain.

I’m working on a series of assignments and classroom activities that will support the “Digital Assignments for Activist & Justice-Oriented Projects” presentation that I’m giving at the Computers and Writing Conference this year. Hashtags seem like the right place to start. Campaigns like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo have demonstrated that hashtags capture attention and can fuel justice-oriented social action.

Bruce Bimber, Andrew J. Flanagin, and Cynthia Stohl (2005) identify “two foundational aspects of collective action: (a) the binary choice to participate or not and (b) the role of formal organization.” As they unify voices around a common cause, hashtags provide “formal organization” for collective action using social media. In the same way that corporate logos and taglines work, hashtags can become the brand identity for a social movement. By adding a hashtag to a social media post, writers choose to participate and further to align their comments with others who use the same hashtag.

To use hashtags effectively in their activist and justice-oriented projects, students need first to think critically about how hashtags work in social activism (AKA hacktivism). These ten assignments and activities present opportunities for students to examine how hashtags have contributed to collective action in the past.

Assignments and Activities

  1. Ask students to hashtag themselves.
    As an icebreaker, invite students to introduce themselves by hashtag. Have students list seven to nine hashtags that describe who they are, what they care about, and/or what they like and do. Students can post anonymously if they desire. Collect all of the hashtags for the class in one document. Students can enter their keywords in a Google Form to simplify this process. Go to the Voyant Tools website, and paste in the class list of hashtags to generate a word cloud showing frequency as well as additional statistics on the hashtags. As a class, discuss what the hashtag data reveals.
  2. Tell the story of the local community hashtag.
    Begin by examining the story of a highly visible hashtag. Time‘s “The Silence Breakers: Time Person of the Year 2017” reviews people who spoke up during the #MeToo movement. Supplement the Time article with the 2018 Pew Research Center’s “How Social Media Users Have Discussed Sexual Harassment Since #Metoo Went Viral.” As they review the story behind the #MeToo hashtag, ask students to identify how the story connects with details on the impact of the hashtag. After examining the #MeToo story, ask students to choose a local hashtag used by community members to influence collective action. Suggest a chronological order for the stories, perhaps with flashbacks. Remind students of the importance of including a discussion of the impact of the hashtag (the “so what?” for their stories). As an alternative to writing a narrative essay, students can enter key moments that tell the story of their hashtags on a timeline, using a tool such as Knight Lab’s TimelineJS.
  3. Create a one-page info sheet for a hashtag.
    After examining resources on info sheets on local issues, have the class create a list of useful information to include on an info sheet for a local community hashtag. At a minimum, lists should include the hashtag, details on who uses it, and its purpose. Further details depend upon the hashtags and how they are used. If students are examining existing hashtags, they can add some background information on the creation of the hashtag, for instance. Encourage students to create and add graphics to illustrate their info sheets. Students can add embedded posts that include photos or other graphics related to the hashtag.
    To support students as they structure their info sheets, use the Fact Sheets resources from Kent State.
  4. Design an infographic for a local community hashtag.
    Have students read “Designing Effective Infographics” (2018) from the Nielsen Norman Group to learn about the characteristics of a strong infographic and use the information from the Nielsen Norman reading to analyze recent infographics. Once students understand the infographic genre, ask them to create infographics for local community hashtags. Share one or more of these readings from the Pew Research Center to demonstrate the kinds of data students can gather about their hashtags:

  5. Define and describe a hashtag.
    Ask students to write technical descriptions
    of their hashtags that explain what the hashtags are, how they are formed, and how they function. For example, students might discuss how various word or numbers are combined to form the hashtag. Have students include photos or embedded media that show the hashtag in use, integrating the graphics with the text description. Suggest students add details on history, privacy, and other background as appropriate for their hashtags.
  6. Explain how (and why) to use a hashtag.
    Discuss the complex ways that hashtags are used, asking students to unpack rote practices and typical expectations. Consider questions such as the following:

    • Where do you include the hashtag—the beginning? the middle? the end? wherever it falls in the statement? How do you decide?
    • How does the social media tool that you use (for instance, Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, YouTube, Instagram) influence the way the hashtag is included?
    • How are hashtags used with other ways of communicating, like sound, photos, and drawings?
    • What persuasive information belongs in explanations of how to use a hashtag?

    Once students have explored the conventions for using hashtags, ask them to write step-by-step instructions for using a hashtag in a particular way (e.g. for a particular medium and purpose). Ask students to consider the audience for their instructions as someone who understands and uses social media personally but has never used social media as part of collective action in an organized way. Supplement the assignment with outside resources on Writing Instructions.

  7. Propose or recommend how to build a collective action campaign with hashtags.
    After exploring how hashtags can be used as part of collective action, ask students to write a proposal or recommendation report on how to engage with hashtags as a company, nonprofit, or community. The audience for the project will depend upon the group involved. If a company will be participating, the audience might be marketing management within that company and possibly the company’s owners or executive directors. For a community-oriented project, the audience might be members of that community who are unsure how to participate or want to have a stronger impact. Encourage students to think broadly about the ways that hashtags can be used, rather than limiting themselves to a single kind of use, such as status posts on Twitter.
  8. Curate an annotated bibliography that illustrates how a hashtag has been used for collective action.
    To learn about how hashtags work in community action campaigns, have students compose annotated bibliographies of resources on topics such as the stories behind hashtags, how hashtags evolve with use, viral distribution of hashtags, public impact of hashtags, or how to use hashtags effectively. Alternatively, students can focus on a particular hashtag. For instance, students can begin with an article like “The Hashtags that Brought Black Scientists Together,” from Nature (2021) or “How Black Lives Matter Came to the Academy,” from The New Yorker (2021) and then investigate the hashtags involved. Share the Annotated Bibliographies resources from the Writing Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to provide background information and tips for the genre.
  9. Compose an FAQ about hashtag use in a collective action campaign.
    Ask students to imagine themselves as people who want to participate in a campaign but aren’t quite sure if they understand enough about how hashtags work in an organized campaign.
    Brainstorm questions and relevant issues that people may have about using hashtags for collective community action. Spend some time discussing how to phrase questions for the FAQ so they fit the language and style of the audience. Next, ask students to choose five or more questions and then provide clear and complete answers for each, again with attention to the language and style of the audience. Share advice on writing FAQs such as ZenDesk’s “8 great FAQ page examples and how to create your own” or Truckee Meadows Community College’s “FAQ Writing Guidelines.” If desired, talk about document design and the formatting tools in the composing software to ensure that they know how to make the separate questions and answers easy to read and use.
  10. Write an Op-Ed encouraging support of a campaign by using a hashtag.
    Choose a hashtag that has been used as part of local community action, and write an op-ed that encourages readers to use the hashtag to share their support for the community action campaign.
    For background, read “Hashtag Activism Isn’t a Cop-Out,” from The Atlantic (2015) and “The Second Act of Social-Media Activism,” from The New Yorker (2020). As a class, discuss the successes and challenges of community hashtags as explored in the articles. Based on their reading and analysis, have students look critically at their hashtags, assessing the impact of their hashtag on the local community. Write your op-ed that encourages readers to use the hashtag to support the community action, using their research on its impact to support their argument. As students work on their op-eds, share the “How to Write an Op-ed or Column” from Harvard or the “Writing Opinion Editorials and Letters to the Editor” resources from the CDC’s “Community Action Toolkit: A Guide to Advancing Sex Education in Your Community” (2021) to support their understanding of the op-ed genre.

Integrating these Activities

Because these ten activities all deal with hashtags, each can be a segment of a larger course-long project on community action, social justice, or digital media.

  • Students can spend the term working on a community action toolkit, including a variety of the projects on the list. The story behind the hashtag (#2 above) can become part of the opening of the toolkit, providing background on the campaign. The info sheet (#3) or infographic (#4) can be included in the toolkit to show the impact and use of the hashtag in the community action campaign. Instructions on how and why to use a hashtag (#6) can be part of the body of the toolkit, as they provide details on how to participate in the campaign. The FAQ (#9) can be included toward the end of the toolkit, to address questions not covered elsewhere in the document.
  • Students can first write the info sheet assignment (#3) and then after gathering the data in the info sheet, they can convert their ideas into a more visual composition by creating infographics (#4).
  • Students can write recommendation reports (#7), beginning their work with research on their hashtags, the community involved, and the intended influence and impact of using the hashtag. They can organize their research in an annotated bibliography (#8), which can be added to the appendix of the report (and referred to in the Methods and Results sections of the report).


Bimber, Bruce, Flanagin, Andrew J., & Stohl, Cynthia. (2005). Reconceptualizing Collective Action in the Contemporary Media Environment. Communication Theory, 15(4), 365–388. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2885.2005.tb00340.x

Background Readings for Instructors

Haltiwanger, Shannon. (2014). Embracing Social Media AS PART OF A Storyteller’s Toolkit. History News, 69(4), 7–10.

Jackson, Sarah J., Bailey, Moya, & Welles, Brooke Foucault. (2020). #HashtagActivism: Networks of race and gender justice. The MIT Press.

Losh, Elizabeth. (2019). Hashtag. Bloomsbury Academic & Professional.

Shirky, Clay. (2011). The Political Power of Social Media: Technology, the Public Sphere, and Political Change. Foreign Affairs, 90(1), 28–41.

Strickland, James. (2004). Just the FAQs: An Alternative to Teaching the Research Paper. The English Journal, 94(1), 23. https://doi.org/10.2307/4128843


Ten Ways to Document Your Convention Participation

AtriumWhen you attend a convention, you can gain more than a vita line. You already know that you can learn about the latest research and practices, and you probably value the chance to catch up with colleagues from other schools and colleges. There’s more to what your attendance can do for your career however.

When you attend a convention or conference, you show your colleagues that you’re active professionally and that you care about improving your classes and research. Here’s the important tip though: You have to share what you learned and talk about the experience.

Here is a list of ways you can document your convention participation and share it with colleagues near and far:

  1. Save your convention program.
    Save the convention program or schedule. Also be sure to pick up a copy of the addendum and corrections as well. If the program is online, download a copy or archive it in a Dropbox account so that you have a back-up.

    • If you’re a presenter, the listing in the program is proof of your participation (and some tenure & promotion committees require the printed program).
    • For sessions that you attend, use the the program to look up details on the sessions you want to share with colleagues. You want to be sure you can refer to specific presenters and sessions.

    Save any certificates or other documents that prove you were at the convention, including your letter of acceptance, registration receipt, and so forth. If the information came to you in email form, print it out and include it in your professional development folder as part of your records.

  2. Record the details on sessions you attend.
    Log your participation so that you remember ideas from the sessions and have additional evidence that you participated. Either add notes by the session listings in the program, or keep track in a notebook. I make sure I have this information:

    • Day/Time, Session #, and Page # in Program
      I write down enough information that I can find the complete details later.
    • Speaker and Presentation Titles
      Most sessions have several speakers. I jot down enough information to be sure I can tell who said what when I’m read my notes later.
    • Keywords or Tags (e.g., portfolios, writing center)
      I use tags to organize the information when I go back through my notes later. I usually write them sideways or in bold so that I can find sessions without reading everything in my notes.
    • Notes and application ideas
      I jot down everything I can use later. I try to keep how I will use the information in mind and note questions that I want to follow-up on later as I go.
  3. Ask for more information.
    If you really connect with a presentation, ask the presenter for a copy. All you have to do is approach the speaker and say something like this: “Hi. I really enjoyed your presentation. My research is on a related topic (explain in a sentence or two how it’s related). Would it be possible to get a copy of your paper?” Be prepared to exchange email addresses or jot down information on where to find the presentation online. If the presenter seems reluctant or was working extemporaneously, ask if she has published similar ideas elsewhere that you might consult. When you get home, you can refer to the piece in your work and share it with others. Add details on why the piece connects to what you do.

  4. Share while you’re at the convention.
    Post great comments you hear on Twitter, Facebook, or your own favorite social network. Be sure that you clearly indicate who said what you’re sharing and add a convention hashtag. Share your pictures from the event as well. It’s easy enough to post a photo to Twitter or Facebook with your cell phone. Why not post some scenes from a presentation or social event?

  5. Pick up handouts to share.
    Look for handouts on the latest books, calls for proposals, and upcoming events. If you see something that a colleague might be interested in, all you need is a post-it note that says, “Saw this at CCCC and thought you might be interested.” Be sure you find a copy of the Call for next year’s convention. Take it home, photocopy it, add another post-it encouraging colleagues to join you at next year’s conference and spread it around the department mailboxes. Before the deadline for proposals, set up a proposal-writing workshop to help people coordinate panels and workshops.

  6. Drop names and references when you go home.
    Let people know you were at the convention with subtle references. Start thinking about sentences such as “[Insert the speaker’s name] talked about just this issue at CCCC”— then follow up with the details. If you need to add more context, mention where the person teaches or a publication the person wrote. Try something like “[Insert the speaker’s name], s/he’s a professor at U of wherever, mentioned something along these lines in Atlanta.”

  7. Plug your own paper or research.
    It’s not enough to refer to others. Talk about yourself too. Be prepared to say something like “I found some research on that when I was working on my paper for CCCC”—then to say more about what you found. Don’t be a bore. Don’t drone on about your paper if it’s not relevant, but if the conversation turns to something you’ve worked on, provide the footnote. You can also try sentences like “We talked about this issue in Atlanta” or “I picked up an article about this topic at CCCC.”

  8. Share artifacts with others.
    If you happen upon a particularly good idea, pass it on to others—put it in their mailboxes or email it to your colleagues. You’ll please colleagues and demonstrate to administrators that you’re a good investment for travel money! As you pass on information, be sure to add a note that points out why you’re passing the information on and where it came from.

  9. Pick-up freebies.
    You don’t have to be serious to remind folks where you’ve been. Your colleagues may be just as interested in a computer-shaped stress ball as they are in seeing the latest article by the keynoter. If you have a friendly relationship, it doesn’t really hurt to share such things too. I often pick up items for colleague’s children as well.

  10. Arrange an exchange with a nearby colleague.
    You’re likely to meet someone at the convention who is geographically close to your campus. Work out an exchange. You go to the colleague’s school and lead a brown bag discussion about your research. The colleague comes to your class and presents a guest lecture. If you have the resources to support it, use Skype or digital streaming to connect with guest speakers outside your local area.

[Photo: Atrium by alexbrn, on Flickr]

Top 10 Things to Do with a Banned Text

Banned Book Week 2010 Poster from the American Library AssociationHow will you discuss Banned Books Week (BBW) this year? It’s easy to find ideas for displays and activities for libraries. The problem is that most of them are too general or would be difficult to use in the writing classroom.

To solve that problem, I began brainstorming ways that students can think critically about censorship. The result is this collection of projects that focus primarily on argument and persuasion. When possible, I tried to think of options that allow students to speak their own minds, for or against limiting access to a text.

So here are the top ten things to do with a banned book—other than read it, of course!

  1. [Mock Trial] Put the author of the banned book on trial (or a character from the text). Let Gustave Flaubert’s experience with Madame Bovary be your inspiration. You can adapt Mock Trial resources and the ALA’s suggestions for conducting a challenge hearing for the project.
  2. [PSA] Make a Public Service Announcement (PSA) that supports the text and the freedom to read (or BBW). You can create a video, audio, or slide show PSA. There are audio examples at the ALA site. Your announcement can focus on BBW as a whole or might be a campaign for the freedom to read a particular text.
  3. [Character Diary] Write a diary entry from the perspective of a character from a banned text. The character may be one whose actions are cited when people talk about banning the book or someone else in the text. There’s a List of Ten Character Diary Prompts you can use if you want to extend this activity.
    Adapt this writing prompt for students: Someone wrote the story of your life, and the book has been banned from _____ because of _____. Write your reaction as a diary entry—Are you shocked? pleased? upset? Do you think the banning was fair?
  4. [Warning] Create a warning label for a banned text. Examine that appearance and wording of warnings that are added to movie and television shows, cigarettes, and prescription drug commercials and ads. Have students then create a label that would be placed on the cover of the text. The label can be realistic or satirical. Here’s an example for Huck Finn and some additional tips on designing warning labels you can use to supplement discussion.
    Introduce the Warning Label Generator to add some play to the project. The images may not match properly, but the tool is fun. And if students think no one would ever put a warning on a book, you can share “Ratings, warning labels don’t belong on books.”
  5. [Testimonial] Write a testimonial letter or blog entry that explains why you support (or don’t) a banned text. Your goal is to convince readers to read (or not read) the text. Alternately, you can argue that the text be kept (or not kept) in the school or public library or read by students in a particular class.
    Your testimonial needs to personal, based on your experiences and beliefs. This is your chance to make a personal statement about why the text should (or shouldn’t) be read.
  6. [Language of Persuasion] Choose a statement for or against banned text, and examine how the language contributes to the argument. These questions can guide your analysis:

    • How are specific examples from the text used? When and to what effect?
    • What about euphemisms — how do the authors sugarcoat or generalize their messages with their word choice?
    • What about their sense of audience? Do they understand their readers? How can you tell?

    After you’ve examined the language, compose a blog entry, podcast, or video presentation that analyzes the authors’ language, explaining what you can conclude about their goals, their sense of audience, and their ideas on the issues.

  7. [A Fable] Have each student brainstorm a list of things that might happen if a text is banned from a library or classroom. You can focus on a specific text or just banned books in general. Next, students share their lists with the class, and identify the items that recur and those that seem particularly significant or surprising. Ask each student to choose an item to focus on, and write a fable that tells the story of the banned text and ends with or discusses the item chosen from the class lists. The moral of the fable will be related to whether books should (or shouldn’t) be banned.
  8. [Biggest Myth] What is the biggest myth that you’ve heard in the media about a banned book? Write a letter to the editor, to the television show, or to the general public that explains why you disagree with the coverage they have given to the myth you’ve identified.
    In your letter, describe the myth that you’ve heard and read, explain why you believe the assertion is untrue, and suggest reasons that the myth has developed. Identify and share more realistic explanations. Persuade your readers to change the way that they talk about the banned text.
  9. [Investigative Report] Describe the book banning in the form of an investigative report—the kind of piece you’d hear on 60 Minutes, Dateline, or 20/20. Start with a question or issue that the banning focuses on, explain all of the facts and details that you uncover in relationship to the issue, and conclude with the insights you gain as a result of your investigation.
    Like an investigative report on TV, your report should stir your reader to some kind of implicit action as a part of the conclusion — the point might be to stir the reader’s emotions, to inspire the reader to challenge the banning, or to suggest that the reader take an active role in how books are chosen for the library or classroom.
  10. [Censor It] Identify passages from a banned text that have been cited for using inappropriate language. Have students work in small groups to rewrite the sections. Ideally each group should have a different section of text to work with. Collect the two versions of the passages. Share the rewritten version of each passage with the whole class first, and then reveal the original version. Talk about what is lost (or not) in the censored versions.
    Use the activity to talk about how rewriting, expurgation, and omission are used as a way to talk about banned texts. Class discussion can include:

    • Radio versions of songs that get air play versus original versions with explicit lyrics.
    • Beeping out words in audio and video broadcasts.
    • Blocking images with a black box or blurred area in television broadcasts.
    • Adding a “clean” voiceover for inappropriate words said in a movie played on television (e.g., “shoot” for “shit”).
    • Cutting scenes and events from a movie before playing it on broadcast television.
    • The name of the CBS sitcom referred to as “Stuff My Dad Says” when spoken and often shown in print as $#*! My Dad Says. (The show based on the Twitter feed Shit My Dad Says and the related book Sh*t My Dad Says.)

For some specific lesson plans, see ReadWriteThink’s calendar entry for Banned Books Week. Check out my Bedford Bits post for Persuasion, Argument, and Book Banning in 10 Steps.


List of Ten: Fun with Crayons

Crayon Lineup by laffy4kI’m a sucker for office supplies. Snoop around my desk, and you’ll find colored pencils, a rainbow of Sharpies, and a full range of notebooks and pads of paper.

It’s no surprise then that I was excited when I found a link to a Vintage Crayons, Paints, & Art Supplies Flickr set on a friend’s Twitter feed (John D. Lemke aka @lumpy).

Sadly that collection is limited by copyright restrictions, but you can find plenty of other images, like the illustration on this post. Just search for Creative Commons-licensed content for the keyword crayons.

Once you have found a collection of images you like, students can use one of the topics below to inspire a project such as an essay, a Powerpoint presentation, or a YouTube video.

  1. [Persuasion] Look at the vintage boxes in the image included on the Crayola entry on Wikipedia. You can also use more recent images of crayon boxes. Ask students to analyze the boxes for persuasive information. Point out the box that proclaims, “Not injurious to the hands and will not soil the clothes” as an example. There’s also an early advertisement you can analyze. Discuss how the boxes appeal to customers. How do they attempt to persuade customers to purchase a box of crayons?
  2. [Gender & Race] Ask students to look at how gender and race are represented in the images includes in the Vintage Crayons, Paints, & Art Supplies Flickr set. Crayon companies literally have all the colors of the rainbow to choose among. Are the images diverse? Do they accurately represent the people who will use the product? [You might begin this assignment by asking students to consider the Flesh crayon and the current Multicultural Crayons collection.]
  3. [Naming] Where do crayon names come from? Typically, the name seems to describe the color, but if you read the list of Crayola color names, you’ll quickly see that some are a bit unusual. Consider the Inchworm crayon. That’s hardly a name you’d expect. Review the list of Crayola color names, and choose one color to explore. Consider the connotations and denotations of the name, think about the alternatives that Crayola could have used, and draw some conclusions about their final choice. Your project will be an analysis of the name for that crayon—exploring the name, what it means to people, and why it was probably chosen.
  4. [Perception] Take a look at XKCD’s Color Survey Results and the related resources the results have inspired. Colors are deeply personal and quite objective. Discuss the role that gender plays in the analysis, and suggest what other personal characteristics might influence the names people choose for colors. If your resources allow, the raw data from the survey are linked from the XKCD site. Try your own analysis of the data and report what you discover.
  5. [Culture] Consider how cultural connotations of colors (alternative discussion) compare to the names Crayola has used to label various crayons. You can use Poynter’s Color, Contrast & Dimension in News Design to talk in more detail about how color works. Are there names on the list of Crayola color names that could be culturally insensitive? What alternate names would you suggest if the crayons were used by children in a different culture?
  6. [Color Bio] What if your life were a crayon box? Identify 8 to 12 significant events in your life. The times might be especially happy memories, things that changed your life, or milestones you achieved. Choose a crayon color to represent each event, and explain why the color is appropriate for the event. The project might be published as a kind of graphic life map.
  7. [Special Collections] Crayola has created special collections of crayons over the years. Some are named for the kinds of colors included, like Silver Swirls. Others are specific to an event or situation, however, like the State Crayon Collection (image 2 , image 3 ) or America’s Top 50 Crayons. Create your own special collection of crayons—choose a theme (e.g., the Mardi Gras collection, the Halloween collection, or Thomas Dale High School collection), and 8 to 12 crayon colors that you would include. Provide names and explanations for the colors that would be in your special collection. The Educational Chemistry Crayons are a great example of such a project.
  8. [Tell Your Story] Almost everyone has memories tied to crayons—whether coloring worksheets in preschool or filling in the images on a place mat at a restaurant. Write a personal memory about crayons. Brainstorm the things you remember when you think about crayons. Choose one or two, and tell us your crayon memory.
  9. [Coloring Pages] Take a look at a collection of Coloring Pages or Craft Projects on the Crayola Website. Choose 5 to 7 pages from a collection, and analyze the images and text that are included. How is Crayola presenting the issue or idea? What is included and what is not? The pages are obviously intended for children, but are there other aspects of the audience that your analysis reveals? [Expand this activity by including coloring pages from one of Crayola’s international sites, which include Canada, Australia, United Kingdom, Mexico, and Italy.]
  10. [Coloring a Place] Dump a collection of crayons in a bag (or names of colors on slips of paper). Each student pulls out a crayon (or a color) randomly. Have the student look up the color on the list of Crayola color names if you use slips of paper. Imagine that the color is the name of a place. Using the color of the crayon and the crayon’s name as inspiration, describe the place. What does it look like? What happens there? Who goes there? What sounds and smells are associated with the place? NOTE: If a student has trouble working with a color, just have him pull another one. The idea is for the color to be relatively random, but there’s no reason a student should be forced to stick with a color that he’s having trouble using as inspiration.

Most of these activities will work with any collection that is based on colors. You might use paint chips, for instance, or if students do scrapbooking, the names and colors of paper and ink used by Stampin’ Up would be work.

Check out the other Lists of Ten for writing activities, professional development ideas, and other classroom teaching tools.

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by laffy4k]

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.