INTRODUCTION: In my freshman English class, I have tried a variety of activities to energize, engage, and create community among my students as they navigate the writing process. Curious and Inquisitive is my adaptation of an activity I experienced at an On Course I Workshop. I altered the activity’s name to reflect the task at hand (developing ideas for essays). Curious and Inquisitive is an excellent, learner-centered activity that offers students the opportunity for fast-paced interaction with their classmates. It works well as a prewriting activity and therefore is appropriate for use before any academic writing assignment across the curriculum, especially where the instructor wants to increase students’ energy, engagement, and sense of community. (Approximate time: 30 minutes)
- To energize and engage students in the writing process
- To create a positive sense of community with students helping students
- To generate ideas for developing student-writers’ essays
- Students should come to class already working on an essay—any stage from idea generation to revision would work
- Journal or scratch sheet of paper
- Blackboard and chalk
- A clock, watch or stopwatch
1. Pair students. Write the words “Curious” and “Inquisitive” on the blackboard. Say to students, “Ask your partner which she or he wants to be, Curious or Inquisitive. Ask them now and decide.” Give students a few moments to choose; then randomly, so all can hear, ask individuals in different pairs: “What are you?” When the student answers (e.g., “I’m curious.”), I make a big deal of the student’s claim, saying things like, “I knew you were” or “I’ve always thought that about you.” I want to show them through voice, gestures and facial expressions that I believe they are, indeed, curious or inquisitive. (2-5 minutes)
2. Write on board:
Curious-Tell essay idea (1 minute)
Inquisitive-Listen, ask questions, offer suggestions (2 minutes)
Tell students, “Here’s what we’re going to do. In a minute I’m going to ask all the Curious people to find a new Inquisitive person not sitting in your area.” Demonstrate by walking up to an Inquisitive person on the far side of the room. “The Curious person will have one minute to tell his essay idea to the Inquisitive person.” [Model this.] “The Inquisitive person will listen carefully, and then has two minutes to ask questions or offer suggestions about the Curious person’s topic.” [Model this as well.] “The purpose of the questions and the suggestions is to give the Curious people ideas to develop their essays further. When the Inquisitive people ask and suggest, the Curious people are not to answer. They should just listen. Take notes if you want, but give your undivided attention to the questions and suggestions. Don’t say anything. If someone says something you’re interested in hearing more about, you can ask them after class. Any questions? All right, Curious people, stand and find a sitting Inquisitive person not in your area.” (5 minutes)
3. Once the Curious people have found their Inquisitive partners, instruct them to begin telling their essay ideas. Time for one minute. At the end of the minute tell students, “Stop.” Now instruct the Inquisitive partner to ask questions and make suggestions for two minutes. Say, “Go!” Time them. At the end of the two minutes, tell the Inquisitive people to now stand and find a new sitting Curious person. After they have found a partner, say, “Now you’ll reverse roles. The Inquisitive people will tell their ideas and the Curious people will listen, and then on my signal ask questions and make suggestions. Ready? You have one minute to tell your essay idea.” Time the segments and instruct them as before.
4. Switch “Tellers” and “Listeners” so each person will have at least two different people asking questions and making suggestions about his or her essay idea. Time all steps and repeat instructions when necessary. (15 minutes)
5. At the end of the sharing session, have the students return to their original seats. On the board write, “What is the next thing you will do with your essay? What are you worried about?”
6. Tell students, “Take a couple of minutes to answer these questions in a journal entry. Think about what your next step in writing the essay will be. What do you need to do? For instance, maybe you need to find sources. Then consider what you’re worried about when it comes to writing your essay. For example, maybe you’re worried about how you’re going to develop your essay to the required page length.” (5 minutes)
7. Before moving to the next class-assigned step of the essay—whether it be first draft, revision, or research—allow for a debriefing of the journal activity. Lead a class discussion by asking students what next step they will take in writing their essay, what problems they foresee in taking that step, and how they will overcome the obstacles. Encourage students to supply answers and suggestions for their classmates.
Students seemed to like the idea of labeling themselves as either “Curious” or “Inquisitive.” There was laughter, with some students taking longer than others to decide and others asking me what the difference was between the two. Once I started asking individuals what they were, Curious or Inquisitive, smiles broke out across their faces when I would respond approvingly with statements like, “I could tell,” “Of course, you are,” or “You’ve always struck me as a Curious person.” Though I gave clear instructions, I found that I needed to give start-and-stop action prompts every step of the way. Once they were with their partners, I heard some “Tellers,” who were supposed to be listening to questions and suggestions, trying to explain themselves, so I re-emphasized that this wasn’t the time. I wanted to keep them moving. And move they did.
I heard essay ideas being explained and the listeners then turn to questioners and suggestion makers. I saw students with thoughtful faces trying to explain their ideas: “I’m writing about…,” “What do you mean by…,” “When I think of religion…,” “Maybe you could find an internet source…,” “That’s a good idea…”
Occasionally I would see two partners not saying anything, and I became concerned. For the most part, however, when this occurred one partner was forming questions or suggestions. The two minutes of responses went so fast, most didn’t have time to run out of things to say. When I stopped them to find new partners, most scooted to a new student and began explaining before I told them to start, and the room was abuzz with voices, gestures, and energy. After the activity, there were smiles and lingering discussions.
I believe I achieved my objectives with the majority of the students. First, I wanted to energize and engage them. Before the activity I asked students to self-assess their energy level by rating, anonymously on a card, the level of their energy, 1 through 10: 1 being low, 10 being high. Out of 21 students, 11 experienced an increase in energy, 8 stayed the same, and 2 went down. The largest increase of energy assessed was 4 points, from a score of 1 to a score of 5. My observations also suggested a rise in energy and engagement. Once the students started sharing one shy young woman began discussing her essay idea with another class member with whom she normally did not talk. I saw another young woman who often sits with an unaffected expression smiling as she listened to her partner. I also observed one talkative young man—who is often off task in my class—fitting right into the movement of the activity: listening, questioning, and giving suggestions.
I believe my goal of creating a positive class community succeeded as well. During and after the activity, the students talked and listened actively. Students who would not normally work together—such as the shy young woman and her partner mentioned above—encountered different classroom members, who offered new perspectives and insights. I saw, for example, a late-twenties Christian family man and a teen street-rapper giving each other their full attention and thoughtful interaction. When changing partners, students moved assuredly to find their new partners, and they started right in telling their essay ideas. After the activity was over, the atmosphere was light and friendly, and I had to interrupt a few partners still working on the essay ideas, asking them to end their discussion.
As far as my objective of generating ideas for student essays, I can attest that I heard many. After class, four students asked me about the direction of their essays. The journal entries I later received suggested ideas were generated. For example, to the prompt “What is the next thing you will do with your essay?”, students wrote such things as, my next step is “to reorganize my paper and decide what I want to focus on,” “add detailed examples,” “develop the change in people while driving,” “find more examples,” “get focused on the topic,” and “add details.” The prompt “What are you worried about?” garnered comments like, my biggest problem is “deciding what I need to focus on,” “being repetitious,” “focusing on one area could be a problem,” “finding sources,” and “don’t foresee any problems because I have a pretty good background [in the topic].”
In the impromptu survey I gave before and after the activity, I also asked students, to rate their confidence in the essays they were working on: 1 being low, 10 being high. Out of 21 students 13 said their confidence increased, 6 stayed the same, and 2 went down. The largest increase was 5 points, from a 2 to a 7.
I will use this activity again, and I highly recommend it. Writing and reading are solitary ventures, and, for many students, deadening ones. But this activity allows for movement, multiple responses, and the chance to hear other people’s ideas. It forces the quiet ones out of their shells, but does so in a fairly non-threatening way. I will also use this activity for other parts of the writing process, using different names (e.g., in the brainstorming stage “Creative and Brilliant” and in the editing stage “Articulate and Analytical”).
For me, the unexpected learning came from the impromptu survey. I was surprised that not all the students felt their energy levels increased. I speculated reasons why: (a) that some were so unmotivated (e.g., scoring only a 1 on energy level before and after) that nothing could have moved them, (b) the inverse, that their energy levels were so high that there was no moving up (there were 3 who scored 10s before and after), and (c) that those whose confidence level dropped would also drop in energy level (I saw no real correlation, though).
Personally, I realized that students want to have fun while learning. True learning doesn’t have to be drudgery. So I intend to pursue more active, fun learning activities like this. The biggest revelation I had, though, was the recognition of appreciation and pride a student expressed when I asked her which one she was. “I am curious!” she proclaimed. And I said, “I’ve always thought that about you.” A message beyond my words occurred in that instant. I was telling her, “I recognize you as a valuable member in our class, and I affirm the intellectual and creative gifts you have.” That message, I truly believe, was received. It was a precious moment I think will stick with her (and me) for a while.
–Mark McBride, Faculty, Communications, Eastern Florida State College, FL