The KNIGHTLYnews is an online forum where FWS instructors and other teachers of writing can swap and share ideas for best classroom practice. Weekly posts are designed to help teachers develop lesson plans and writing assignments, and respond to classroom challenges by introducing new teaching tools and sharing emerging pedagogical ideas. Posts also direct readers to program and campus resources that support teaching and learning, and provide opportunities for peer collaboration and mentorship.
It’s that time of the semester when the gray clouds return to their permanent address in Ithaca. Students, counting down the days to Thanksgiving break, hit the snooze button and drag their bed covers over their heads, staying in bed for just a little longer before rushing to make it to our classes. They arrive to our lessons exhausted, often a little cranky, with snippets of cut-off dreams still flashing before their minds.
During this time of the semester, a set of reflection and community building practices that I use in my pedagogy come especially in handy. One of the most important—if often underrated one—is journaling. I begin class with a five minute journaling exercise that offers students an opportunity to check in with themselves, reassess their intentions for the day ahead and sometimes vent their frustration on the page. Some of my journal prompts include:
- What are the colors of your interior/emotional landscape?
- What feels earthy, grounding in your life?
- What feels water-like, tender or slippery?
- What feels fiery, motivating or inspiring?
- What feels airy, light or refreshing?
- What feels soft or smooth in your life? What feels rough or grating?
- What people, opportunities and/or events are bringing sweetness into your life? What is bringing saltiness or bitterness?
- What intentions would you like to set for the day/week ahead?
When it is time to go around in a circle and share out loud, I remind them that they can share as much or as little as they’d like. Though our community agreements stipulate that people have a right to pass, I find that most, if not all students, are eager to voice their reflections. Some of my favorite journal prompts are those that ask students to think about the elements in their life that are nourishing them or bringing them joy. This allows them to shift into a spirit of gratitude at a time in the semester when they are (understandably so) frustrated about all the ways in which they feel depleted.
An all time favorite is the journal prompt that asks them to write a gratitude note to someone in their life that has been showing up for them in positive ways. You might even ask them to take out their phone and directly send that message to loved ones.
At the end of our classes, I also use journaling to help students concretize their learning by asking them to jot down their main takeaways from our conversation. Because their lives are crowded with so much information, I find that referring to these journal entries at the beginning of the following class also helps to launch us into a more productive discussion. It certainly helps to ground me as a teacher. These journaling breaks can also be used mid-class when you are trying to re-engage those students that more easily tune out of a conversation.
As much as I rely on these rituals to offer students a structure for settling into our classroom space and reconnecting with our ongoing conversation, I find it is also useful to incorporate variety and shake things up when necessary. Depending on your classroom dynamic and on students general disposition, you might also incorporate some movement into these reflection and community building exercises. Sometimes I ask students to switch seats and arrange themselves around the table in the order of their birthdays or on a south to north continuum depending on where they were born.Altering seats in this way is a useful tool for shaking up the classroom dynamic while providing us with a low stakes way of transitioning into the classroom space. At a time in the semester when students have settled into specific roles (discussion leader vs. quiet kid), mini-interventions such as this can help students break out of their patterns.
Overall, I find that these exercises offer much needed opportunities for community building: more voices are heard and students get to see each other anew as they connect over common struggles. It’s this community aspect that ultimately keeps our learning vibrant and alive, even as the trees shed their colors.