I use a particular format to create an environment in the classroom that approximates a town hall meeting. The first step I take is to allow the students to decide the topics to be discussed. I begin by having students brainstorm a list of potential topics in small groups. After each group generates its own list, we compile all the topics on a chalkboard and hold a vote to determine the top ten to be discussed.
Once the topics are determined I select groups of two to four students, at random, to lead the discussions. I require discussion leaders to find at least two articles on their topic, and I give them a list of things to consider when they analyze the articles, including guidelines on how to prepare a set of talking points to use during the town hall meetings.
However, in the town hall format, the most important step is to ensure that all of the students have both the opportunity and the incentive to participate. In order to create that incentive I make each discussion worth two points. To earn the points, people have to take part.
I begin town hall meetings by giving two Post-it notes to every student in class. The Post-its are worth a point each, so I have them write their name on each note. After the discussion leaders are given the floor, all of the students are free to raise questions or to comment. Each time they add to the discussion, students stick one of their Post-it notes on the front of their desk for everyone to see. Once a person has participated twice and placed both Post-its on the front of their desk, they can no longer earn points but they may still contribute to the discussion.
I have found that Post-it notes, visible to all, serve two important roles in class. First, for students who might otherwise dominate discussions, the notes are visual reminders that they have already said their piece. I have found this to be a subtle, but important reminder in those cases. Second, the notes are a less than subtle reminder to those less likely to participate. In this case the notes serve as a reminder that you do not earn points if you do not contribute to the discussion. I realize that may seem like undue pressure to place on students who may not wish to participate. However, during the last three semesters I have found that students who participate quickly and place their notes out in front right away often go on to create opportunities for other students to answer questions or to comment. One of the most rewarding observations I have made during town hall meetings has been the tendency of outspoken members of class to encourage others to add their voices to the conversations. Each semester I watch students take steps to ensure that everyone has a chance to contribute.
During the time I’ve spent using Post-it notes and town hall meetings, I have felt very close to the format of the graduate seminars I enjoyed so much as a student. The discussions flow freely, they are full of excitement, and they serve as a model for democratic participation. As an unintended consequence, I have also been pleased to find that Post-its have had the effect of producing an environment where students consistently demonstrate that they value each other’s thoughts. When I use the notes in class I am guaranteed not to face the silence that vexed me as a beginning teacher. At the same time, they provide a structure that is subtle enough to allow the freedom necessary for students to determine the nature of their own contribution to class. Today I can say that the unassuming stack of Post-its that sits next to my phone provides the means to create balance, equity and a model for democracy in the classroom.
For additional information about engaging students in active learning, here are some helpful texts:
* Beckman, M. 1990. “Collaborative Learning: Preparation for the Workplace and Democracy?” College Teaching 38/4: 128-133.
* Bellah, R., et al. 1985. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
* Bruffee, K. 1993. Collaborative Learning: Higher Education, Interdependence and the Authority of Knowledge. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
* Johnson, D., Johnson, R., and Smith, K. 1991. Active Learning: Cooperation in the College Classroom. Edina, MN: Interaction Book Company.
–Chad M. Hanson, Faculty, Social Science, Northcentral Tech, WI