Category Archives: Active Learning Strategies

Beyond Final Papers, Beyond the Classroom

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In the past few years, I’ve invested in assigning creative final projects for my upper division classes. Across the three institutions I’ve taught at as a tenure-track professor, the risk is high (because students loathe group work so they’re always giving me side-eye for assigning a group project as a requirement and sometimes it ends up the evals) and the outcomes of the projects vary wildly. The range of quality in the projects can be attributed to the fact that I don’t teach an art or film editing course—I teach sociology. But also because students have varying abilities in creating finished and polished projects whether they be visual graphic posters, videos, art, etc. The final product is not my main concern though—really, its the process students undertake to create their final project that is important to me.

This Fall semester, I had the privilege and pleasure of starting a TT position at my alma mater (San Francisco State, go Gators!) where I knew I could really push students to do something other than a final paper, and where I knew that my department would recognize an “alternative” final assignment as a pedagogical strength (I mention this for those of us on the tenure-track who might want to try this method but ya’ll got to take into account the context of your institution). I taught a Families and Society (SOC 464) class and the students were amazing from jump. They were all open to challenging their own ideas and embodied identities. They were down to be co-teachers/co-learners in the classroom with me, taking on discussion activities through reading groups. I mean. They were great. So I thought that these final projects might be good.

But y’all. They were AWESOME.

I structured it like this. After the mid-term, I had them focus their energies on the final creative project which set up the final project grade with a process-oriented assessment instead of assessing the projects as a final product. I had four assignments due before the in-class screening during the final exam period:

  1. Progress report with research topic, research questions, methods, concepts
  2. Storyboard that outlined a vision of what the 5-6 minute video would look like
  3. In-class Pitch of their idea and what they had collected already
  4. Reflection essay on the course concepts, experiential learning and reflexivity on their roles in the group

I provided at least 2 class sessions where they would only work on the project assignments in terms of brainstorming and collective concept development. For their assignments, I gave detailed feedback to the groups via iLearn (SFSU’s instructional tech management system). I also checked in with groups via email periodically, perhaps in the future, I’ll set up some office hour appointments too.

Here are some course structural things that I want to remember for future courses:

  1. Scaffold the assignments: Every assignment (short papers, free writing activities, group formations) should lead up to preparing them for this final assignment. I know. DUH. But I didn’t set up the class like that this time so I had to play catch up mid-semester; creating assignments along the way. Start at the beginning of the semester!
  2. A Paradox: We already engage the construction of the “normative” in the class, why not have them identify a paradoxical normative narrative in the class as it progresses and have them juxtapose that with their own experiences or better yet, other people’s experiences? That could be the “data” in their final projects.
  3. In-class Tutorials: I should bring an instructional designer in one or two times in the semester to show them iMovie or another PC-based software.

On to the good stuff—the perfect storm: students, the past election season and the medium of creativity produced amazing results. I think partly this was because the students at SFSU are really plugged into political discourse but I also I think they create amazing things when they come together.

With the consent of my students and the consent of the people that they included in their projects, I want to share some of the creative final projects with all of you.

In this short video entitled, “Never Meant to Survive”, students explored the “possibility of queer kinship as the site of political resistance” as Christopher Dokko, one of my students writes. Their group interviewed Queer Folks of Color (QFOC) about chosen families and Queer kin in a time of Trump. They begin with an Audre Lorde poem and splice in interviews with QFOC’s over the realities of living under a Trumpian administration. Important to note that this group decided to switch the direction of their whole project when they met up the morning after the election of Donald Trump as president. The students in this group described their change as a way to heal and wrap their heads around what our lives were going to be like.

This video entitled, “So Who is this ‘Muslim’ the Media Keeps Talking About?” was born out of a critique of my syllabus. I did not have a reading on the families of South Asian or Middle Eastern families or families that practice Islam. Although, we discussed Asian American families and media frames depicting the “model minority, the students in this group wanted to fill in that gap with their work. Students in this group sought to debunk the media narratives circulating about Muslims and Muslim families.

I especially liked this video project entitled, “Creating New Endings,” because the students in the group were what I like to call the “ratchets” of Earth with a play on Frantz Fanon Wretched of the Earth. These students were always quick to reference their epistemologies as women of color, working young women and Bay Area representatives in class and it showed through the song choices and creative turns in this video.

I share these 3 projects not because they were my favorites over other projects but the students accomplished what I had set out the final project PROCESS to be.

  • They translated the academic debates, scholarship and concepts from class in their own words to their people, peers, communities, friends, families to collect data.
  • They internalized the importance of challenging normative ideological codes that circulates about families in the US.
  • They flipped the script and used their own experiences and emotions as the guiding analytical lens to create this projects that will go beyond me reading it in my office and assigning a grade to them at the end of the semester.

For these reasons, I feel really proud to be a part of their learning process.

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What do you write after a 2-year blog silence?

I haven’t published anything on this blog for a while now. And mostly, it’s kinda like when you had beef with your friend in high school and then you just don’t talk for a long time and then it becomes real awkward to even think about talking and then the distance just grows so you give up on talking. Yes, I likened my relationship to this blog as I would a real person. That’s where I’m at y’all.

So I thought, I’d post an update on my life or what not: baby, tenure-track mothering, sociologizing, organizing but instead I decided I’m gonna write something about teaching to begin with. As summer is gearing up, I’ll try to write more on the other things.

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Background: I am teaching a class of sometimes 90 students at a CSU and many of these students are first generation students, working class, immigrant, working full-time and full-time students. Many are having a hard time keeping up with their classes. Baaasically, many of them don’t get to the reading.

In the past couple of semesters, I have been learning about “active learning strategies” (which I got wind of from Dr. Valerie Futch Ehrlich and was always talking to Dr. Alice Gates about how to do it) and I’ve tried to incorporate it in my classes. For 3 reasons: (1) I want students to engage with the text, (2) research has established that lecture style isn’t really working for students, and (3) politically, I want students to know that they are knowledge-producers in our classroom. It ain’t all about me.

Before I had such impacted classrooms, I relied on a problem-posing pedagogy (a la Freire) with some remix of a Socratic method. But that seems so long ago when I had the privilege of teaching smaller classrooms. Back in grad school, we weren’t really trained in developing our teaching skills and I’ve always felt like I’ve been trying to get a hold of what my pedagogy is as I grow as an educator and scholar. So my objective for this post is to help folks who is googling “active learning strategies” in “large college classroom”, as I was furiously searching on teaching prep days.

Here’s a list of ways that I think students really responded to active learning methods in my class:

(Disclaimer: I’m not formally trained in this method, so these might not even be active learning strategies, they’re just my active learning strategies)

1. Keyword Scavenger Hunt: In the beginning of class, choose 3-4 key words in the reading. Have the class bring text(s) to class and in small groups have them find the key words and discuss what it means in the context of the material.

2. Question Map: To begin the class, write or post a set of questions or just one and ask students to answer that question using phrases and pages from the text(s). You could even do a more directed activity by giving them page numbers.

3. Time After Time: If you’re teaching a text where a chronology or a timeline is key, print out slips of paper with the different moments. Ask the whole class, or in small groups, to organize the slips of paper in the right order. Then ask students to post up their chronology order in the front of the room for discussion.

Okay, so those are a few that worked really well. When I teach my 75 minute class, I like to break up the time into 2 or 3 segments to keep students’ attention. So what’s really key to these activities is that I use them for the time where I’m going over the content that they’ve just worked with.

So for example:

1. For Keyword Scavenger Hunt: the keywords they work with in the beginning, end up on the slides of my PPT. I ask for their definitions and sharpen it by asking other students to share and then proposing my analysis.

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2. I often ask students for the phrases they found to answer the question presented in the beginning. I usually pair their answers with phrases that I find important. And sometimes, when the goddesses hear my prayers, the phrases on my PPT and their phrases match!

3. Dedicated to Cyndi Lauper, this activity works because often students “go slow” (since they aint’ done none of the reading, ‘cept them ones who’s your ride or dies) and you follow behind. As you go through each group, you’ll find that some of them got it wrong so you’ll use that as a teaching moment and ask the next group who has gotten it correct to explain why.

What I’m tryna say is that the active learning strategies help students touch, read, discuss some part of the text. And I feel like that’s half the battle!

What active learning strategies do you do in class?