Every one of our students brings their own identity – age, gender, ability, language, ethnic background, orientation, experiences, knowledge, skills. You want to recognize and support and build on each student’s strengths but how do you support one student without accidentally alienating others?
I recently had an opportunity to draw out the experiences of more than 100 colleagues, every one of them leaders in their higher education communities, at the June 2016 meeting of the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning (CIRTL) Network at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Before I get to their advice, a quick story of how this came to be.
The CIRTL Network recently expanded from 23 to 46 institutions and this meeting would be the first time everyone was together. Bob Mathieu, Director of the Network, asked me to run some kind of “getting to know you” icebreaker early on the first day of the meeting. I’m a big fan of icebreakers, maybe not as a student (I hated it when my professors did anything like this) but definitely as an instructor. Icebreakers let you kickstart the learning community you’re going to spend the next 6, 10, 13, 16,… weeks building, maintaining, and relying on in your class. In my opinion, icebreakers are also an opportunity to introduce students to the kinds of thinking, communicating, and collaborating they’ll be doing for the rest of the course. In other words, yes, I’d do an icebreaker at the CIRTL meeting. But it has to be meaningful. Authentic. Inclusive. Valuable. I came up with an idea and I’m grateful and honoured by the trust Bob put in me to go ahead and push my new colleagues, potentially upsetting some of them:
The rest of this post is divided into 3 parts:
- A detailed description of the jigsaw activity, mostly so I can remember what I did because I’d really like to do it again. I’ve written about jigsaw activities before so if you’re not familiar with them, you might want to take a look.
- A summary of the remarkable input I received from my 100+ colleagues.
- The documents and other resources I used, in case you want to try something like this yourself.
1. Exploring student diversity
In a jigsaw, recall, participants first build/refresh their knowledge of one particular case or example from a collection (like a collection of 4 artists, 5 calculus/integration problems, 6 National parks,…) Then they gather in groups containing one representative of each case or example to share what they know and learn from others.
For the CIRTL meeting, the examples were 6 students you might encounter in your class:
Six students you might encounter in your classroom. For the purposes of the jigsaw activity, notice they’re colour-coded (so people with white or salmon or blue sheets can easily find each other and then rearrange into one-of-each-colour groups) and the students names begin A, B, C, D, E, F so people (with colour blindness, say) can also find each other by letter.
(Screenshot from a document by Peter Newbury CC-BY)
Each meeting participant was assigned to one of these students according to which coloured worksheet they found in their meeting information packet. The meeting room was set up with tables with 6 chairs, with a coloured/lettered sign on each table. As participants entered the room, they sat at a table with their colour/letter/student.
In Part 1 of the jigsaw, I asked everyone to take 10 minutes to introduce themselves to their new colleagues and then reach consensus on the advice they’d give to a new instructor to
- assure their particular student they’re welcome to contribute to the class
- build on that student’s diverse voice, strengths, experiences
- what not to do
When I said, “…You’ve got 10 minutes. Go!” the room flipped from hesitant, anxious silence to loud, engaged, boisterous conversations. It was great!
As we approached 10 minutes, I reminded everyone to write down their group’s best advice on their worksheets [available below] so they’d have notes/reminders when they moved to Part 2 of the jigsaw. At 10 minutes, everyone re-arranged themselves into one-of-each-student groups (quickly and easily accomplished because of the coloured/lettered paper: look for a group without your colour and sit there!)
I asked them to introduce themselves to 5 more new colleagues and then take turns addressing each of the 3 prompts — assuring students they’re welcome, building on their diverse contributions, and what not to do. Notice I didn’t ask them to go around with the advice for their students, one after another. That would invite each person to talk once, for a while, and then not contribute again. And the representative of the last student might not have time. (Similarly, you’d ask your students to take turns describing the medium preferred by each artist, not all about Picasso, then all about Rodin, then…) I gave them about 20 minutes — many more conversations this time!
In Part 2 of the jigsaw, participants took turns sharing their advice about each student and listening to others.
(Photo: Peter Newbury)
At the end, I asked them to hand-in their worksheets with all their advice and notes and ideas. My plan was try to summarize what they discussed and report back the next day.
In terms of an icebreaker, I think this worked really well. There was no way anyone would be able to introduce themselves to 100 others with any chance of remembering anything. Instead, I opted for deeper, memorable connections with 10 new colleagues. The jigsaw activity met my other criterion, too, that the activity would engage them in an authentic, meaningful discussion, because teaching people to recognize and celebrate the diversity of their audiences is one of CIRTL’s core ideas.
2. So what did they say?
My colleagues wrote 2400 words in 420 responses on their worksheets. I know, I know, I should have approached these data clean and unbiased, ready to let them speak for themselves. Realistically, though, I wasn’t going to be able to properly analyze the responses in the time between Day 1’s conference dinner and the start of Day 2.
I needed a strategy in order to get something done. So I cheated and when looking for the presence (or absence) of something:
What I hoped NOT to find was special advice for students of colour, special advice for students with disabilities, and so on for each student, even if that advice seemed helpful. Why not? Because I fear that in carrying out those recommendations, an instructor would call out the students of colour, the students with disabilities, and each of the others and treat them differently:
“Alicia [the woman of colour], could you tell us what a black person would think of this?”
“Brian [who needs a laptop], you come sit down here at the front where you won’t distract other students with your laptop”
Instructors trying to connect and support their students but may end up doing more damage than if they’d done nothing at all.
What I hoped for, and gloriously found, was the same advice on every worksheet, advice that supports all students and treats all students fairly:
what not to do
- make assumptions
- ignore them
- ask them to speak on behalf of their race/culture
how to assure each student they’re welcome to contribute to the class
how to build on each student’s diverse voice, strengths, experiences
- have student highlight their own strengths, potential, life experiences
- “build a community where students value others’ perspectives and listen to each other”
That last suggestion? Wow. If that was the ONLY sentence that came out of this 45-minute icebreaker activity, I’d call that a success.
The excellent news is you don’t need a huge toolbox of techniques, one for each student. Instead, the same behaviours and strategies — respect, acknowledgement, structure, equity — support every student.
3. My diversity jigsaw resources
If you have the opportunity to run a diversity-awareness workshop or discussion with instructors, and are interested in using a jigsaw approach, here are the resources I created for mine. They’re shared under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License so you’re welcome to adopt and adapt, with a link back to me, thanks.
- worksheets (PDF) – Each participant received a coloured worksheet in their conference info packet
- here are the slides I used