INTRODUCTION: We recently created a new class at Gulf Coast Community College called the Human Potential Seminar.  This one-credit hour course is designed to help students achieve greater success in college and in life. The course covers such topics as learned helplessness, coping strategies, goal setting, motivational theories, study skills, time management vs. self-management, and learned optimism (applications of attitude).  Since this is our first time to ever offer the course, I volunteered to teach one section of it.  I am a firm believer that administrators should never lose sight of the dynamics of the classroom.  We are starting our second year of a Title III grant to improve the academic performance and retention of our developmental students.  Like many other community colleges, a large number of our students place into one or more college-preparatory courses.

PURPOSE: In the beginning of the course, we spend a great deal of time talking about the self-fulfilling prophecy, believing in ourselves, and self-talk (victims vs. creators). The following activity was designed to illustrate how we are influenced by the labels others give us, and sometimes how quickly we are to label others. Whenever possible, I look for interactive ways to engage my students.  I first discovered this exercise years ago teaching a course on diversity and multiculturalism.  While I have taken great liberties with the labels, I am not sure to whom to give credit for the original exercise.

SUPPLIES/SET UP:

  • 20 sun visors (I purchased plastic sun visors from a drug store.  However, baseball caps or hats would work as well. Students could bring their own from home. The number of sun visors needed depends on the size of the class.)

  • 3X5 Index Cards

  • Magic Marker

  • Tape

DIRECTIONS:

  1. Write labels (personal descriptions/adjectives) on each 3X5 card and tape it to the sun visor. I used the following labels: React shocked to everything I say, Agree with everything I say, Ignore me, Ask me to explain everything I say, Disagree with me, Smile at me, Move back after I speak, Ask me what makes me an expert, Scratch after I speak, Ask me to repeat everything I say, Listen to me carefully, I’m definitely wrong, Stubborn, Yawn after everything I say, Belligerent, Expert on the subject, Interrupt me, Gullible, Tell me I’m right.

  2. Divide the class into groups of 5 or 6.  Each group chooses an observer/recorder. 

  3. Inform the students that they will be discussing a mildly controversial topic.  (You want a lively discussion; however, the topic is not what is really important.  As the moderator, chose a topic that you are comfortable facilitating. This semester I used the following topic for students to discuss: The concept of “zero tolerance” for drugs and weapons in our school systems.  This had been a hot topic in our community.  It is important that everyone understands the topic and that it is not too emotionally charged.  Students are usually so involved in reacting to each other’s label that the discussion gets side tracked very quickly.)

  4. Hand each student a sun visor.  The student is to immediately put the sun visor on without reading his/her label.  In other words, the students have no idea what is written on the 3X5 card taped to the front of their sun visor. I make sure that each group has a balance between negative and positive labels.

  5. Ask everyone in the group to silently notice the labels written on the sun visors of their fellow group members.

  6. Remind the class that they must respond to their fellow students in a manner consistent with each student’s label. (Students need to treat their group members according to the LABEL WRITTEN ON THE SUN VISOR.)

  7. After the small-group discussions, ask everyone to guess his/her label. After everyone has guessed his/her label, ask the group observers what they saw happening in the groups. Ask the students who had positive labels to tell how others reacted to them and how this made them feel.  Subsequently, ask the group members with negative labels to tell how the others in the group treated them and how it made them feel.

  8. From here, introduce the topic of self-esteem and core beliefs.  Where do our self-perceptions come from?  Who influences them? Who defines our reality?  What limiting messages have we received? What limiting messages have we given?  How quickly do we judge someone by first impressions?  I ask my students to tell me how different this exercise would have been if the labels had descriptors such as disabled student, first-generation, blond, Irish-American, basketball player, militant, scholar, Jewish, homeless, single-parent, ex-offender…. the list goes on.  The discussion leads to stereotypes.  Where do they come from?  What messages do we carry around with us in our heads? This exercise is also a great springboard for the topic of personal affirmations and the role of self-worth.

  9. I asked my students to choose a label they would like to have and three positive actions they could take to promote this quality. I further asked them to actually take one or more of these actions in the next few days and write about their experience as a journal assignment.

OUTCOMES/EXPERIENCES: My experience with this exercise has been very positive.  The students take on the personas very quickly.  The dialog is lively and the students are very engaged in the activity.  However, as a facilitator, I monitor the groups very closely.  I am most concerned with the individuals wearing the negative labels.  This is an exercise—no one should feel ostracized or embarrassed.  I am keenly aware that for self-doubting students, exposure of inadequacy before peers may pose a threatening situation.  I always try to get to know my students well before I introduce this exercise to the class.  There are certain labels I will not use with certain students or even classes. 

Student Evaluations: It is important to make connections between learning and experience. At the end of the class, I ask students to answer the following questions:

  • What was the best part of this exercise?

  • What was the most useful or meaningful thing you learned during this session?

  • What did you not like about this exercise?

  • What could I have done differently to make the exercise more effective?

  • What question(s) remain uppermost in your mind as we end this session?

  • What was the “muddiest” point in this session? (In other words, what was least clear to you?)

  • What label do you have mentally plastered to your forehead?  Is this OK with you?  If not, how will you choose to change it?

Student evaluations were extremely positive.  They responded fully to the exercise and seemed to enjoy the role-playing and lively interaction. The groups that finished first wandered around watching the other groups.  On a positive note, this provided for a more informal setting. However, the down side was that the discussion and movement tended to get loud.  I was pleased by the students’ originality and creativity.  They played their labels very convincingly.  I was also pleased with their level of participation.  Students commented that they had learned how it felt to be judged.  One student wrote on the evaluation, “The way people treated me changed how I felt about myself.”  Another student wrote, “When people ignore me, I withdraw.”   From their evaluations, it appeared that they could see the relationship between self-worth, self-concept, and the labels we carry around in our heads.  My most critical student told me that his inner critic agreed with the label on his sun visor. The most negative response cited for not liking the activity was that the sun visors messed up peoples’ hair.  One older student questioned his ability to change his self-talk at this point in his life. 

LIFE LESSONS: I was saddened by how many of my students had negative labels mentally plastered to their foreheads. Students shared such labels as “not college material,” “dim light,” and “dense.”  But in recognizing this problem, perhaps I have a greater chance at influencing a change of mind. As a result of this exercise, I changed the course syllabus to spend an extra class period on self- esteem.  After this exercise, it became common practice in my class to have students referring to labels.  I would hear comments such as “that girl needs to change her label!” or “whiner is written on her forehead today!”  More than anything else, I am so much more aware of the messages we give and receive.  Teaching this course has stirred a great deal of soul searching on my part, as well as my students.

INSTRUCTOR’S SELF-TALK: Although this exercise heightened sensitivity to self-perception, was it enough of a jolt to actually cause individuals to change prior knowledge and/or beliefs about themselves?  I have struggled with this question.  How often is more said than done? 

–Cheryl Flax-Hyman, Director, Developmental Studies, Gulf Coast Community College, FL

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