There's an exercise of sorts that I like to do in class every couple of weeks called Open Forum. I don't know exactly how I got started with it, but I've been doing it for probably 30 years now in one form or another and it's still one of my favorite class activities. I call it "open forum," and I begin it by handing our a file card to each student and asking them to write down on the card something—a topic, a statement, a question—they would like to talk about. The topic does not have to be related to what we have been doing in class. It can be about anything, and you don't have to sign your name to it. I collect the cards as they are completed, shuffle them up, have the students put the desks in as close to a circle as we can manage in my rather oddly-shaped room, and then I review the ground rules, of which there are four:
1) Only one person talks at a time. If more than one person wants to speak, we start to my left and just go around the circle.
2) After we've been around the circle one time, and everyone has had the chance to say something if they would like to, when it's your turn to speak, you can say "I'd like to move on." At that point we take a vote. If a majority wants to move on, we move on. If a majority wants to keep talking about the topic, we stay with it until someone else moves the question. At which point we re-vote.
3) I reserve the right to censor questions that in my judgment are inappropriate or potentially hurtful.
4) If you don't like a topic, don't complain about it or criticize it. Someone else may like it, and be intimidated by your disdain. Just wait until you have a chance to say "I'd like to move on."
Then I simply read what's on the first card, and we talk until we decide to move on, and then we read the second card, and so on.
What do I like about this activity? Well, it's a nice change of pace, and sometimes when the students are feeling stressed they like to be able to simply sit and talk in a semi-informal setting. I also find that it's not always the same students who talk in regular class discussions who talk in open forum. Something about it feels different to them, and some students really come alive in these discussions who don't do that otherwise. So it's a chance for me to get to know them. Plus, it's interesting. It's unpredictable. Sometimes the topics which would seem least likely generate great discussions.
What kinds of topics come up? Pretty much everything. Here's the list from Friday's 11:30 class:
How does it feel to be almost a junior in high school? How do you feel as the year is coming to a close?
The Triennial Dance Performance (The Little Mermaid)
Today's chapel (Mrs. Freitas and her daughter)
Athletic Mental Focus
How many shells does she sell by the sea shore?
Why does having a life matter?
Sustainability Cups: Where can I get one?
Unforgettable childhood memories; the "old days"
Does anyone have any interesting quality projects?
How much do you spend on birthday gifts? (Less than $10 = 2; $10 to $30 = 8; $30-$50 = 5; $50-$100 = 3)
The Virginia Tech Massacre
Sometimes I ask the students to do something as a followup, and sometimes I don't. Since my 8:30 class is working on blogs and my 11:30 class is working in a wikispace, this time I asked them to take seven minutes at the end of class to freewrite about one of the topics, and then to post an elaborated and edited version of their freewrite on the the web by Tuesday. I'm curious to see what they will have to say.