Building Class Community on Day One

After a long and simultaneously not long enough winter break, spring semester begins on Monday. This semester I’ll be teaching ENGL 2276: The Arts of Persuasion, which is a rhetoric survey course taken by mostly non-English majors. I have a lot of freedom with the course, so I’ve themed it around “Rhetoric(s) in Digital Culture.” We’ll be examining some of the foundational concepts in rhetoric for the first half of the semester and then move into cultural rhetorics to broaden our understanding of rhetoric. Throughout the entire course we’ll examine digital culture in order to apply the rhetorical theories/principles to see how these ideas work or need to shift to accommodate the 21st century context. I’m looking forward to the class; it’s a course that is a little outside of my comfort zone, and the sheer amount of great rhetorical material that I want to cover has made planning a 15 week lower-level course a bit difficult. I’ve focused more on learning objectives to thwart my initial desire to throw everything into the course just because I think it’s cool.

One of the aspects of course design and class facilitation that I spend a lot of time thinking about is building classroom community. Classroom community is so important, and it really begins the moment students step into the class. The first day sets up how the semester will go: how the students interact with each other, how they interact with the instructor, how the instructor interacts with them, and the type of content and how it is presented are all somewhat set after that first hour. The first day of class is often known as “syllabus day.” The teacher stands at the front of the room, takes roll (knowing there will be shifts in enrollments), reads straight from the syllabus, focuses on the rules of the class, and then dismisses the students early. From the student perspective, they’ve just been lectured at about the “do not’s” of the class, and they probably don’t have a sense about what the class is about or why they should care about it. Why would they be excited to come to the next class session? As an instructor, I can’t imagine being excited myself to show up at class the next day.

To combat the syllabus-day blues, on my first day of class, I like to start off with an ice breaker. My favorite ice breaker is what I call “The Self-Doodle.” Basically, I provide students with a large sheet of paper and a variety of markers, crayons, pens, stickers, and magazines, and I ask them to doodle a portrait of themselves (a doodleature) that contains information that they want their classmates to know about them. I generally ask students to doodle at least 5 objects. I tell students this isn’t a self-portrait because they don’t have to demonstrate any artistic skill, and they aren’t necessarily representing themselves physically. Many students end up doodling some sort of version of themselves surrounded by meaningful objects like a football or a slice of pizza. One memorable student doodled a combination of the sun and the moon. I then ask students to present their doodleature to the rest of the class. I always start off the presentations myself as a way to break down any apprehension students may feel about showing off their doodles; I purposefully doodle terribly so that the class can share a laugh and no one feels exposed by their lack of artistic skill.

From a pedagogical and academic perspective, I love this ice breaker for several reasons. First of all, it encourages multimodal thinking, which is a major component in all of my classes. It fosters community. Students learn more about each other from the visual and oral sharing of personal information, and students are also able to select the most important aspects of their identity rather than respond to a single ice-breaker question that they may have a difficult time connecting to. I’ve found that students learn each other’s names faster after this activity, and I also have been able to learn everyone’s name in one class session because the students present distinctive representations of themselves. “The Self-Doodle” also sets the expectation for what we will be doing in class from day-to-day: we will almost always work together in groups to engage in some sort of active learning opportunity. Most of the time it will be something that is hopefully fun (Rhetorical Jeopardy, Zombie Argumentation, Starting an Epidemic: Viral Productions! are some of the activities we’ll engage in this semester). The activity also has rhetorical components. I use “The Self-Doodle” as a way to show students how they are always making rhetorical decisions, even in small ways like deciding what 5 aspects of their personality they want to share with their classmate. This can lead into a discussion about audience, purpose, the rhetorical situation, the rhetorical appeals, really any rhetorical concept applies here! I like to bring “The Self-Doodle” exercise up in ensuing class sessions to provide students a concrete application of rhetorical concepts.