Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Y'All Want This Party Started, Right?

Teachers, are you having trouble finding a way to set the proper tone for an interactive writing class? Writing teacher Margaret Hundley Parker has tips for starting things off on the right foot.

Since an unresponsive class gives me the howling fantods, I force my students to talk on the first day. My college writing classes depend on student participation—I expect them to discuss assigned literature, read their work out loud, and ask questions. Lots of questions. So after a brief introduction, I have my students lie to each other in an interview.  Yes, I make them fib.

The first day of class feels about as true as a game show anyway—we're all dressed up, searching for the right classroom. What's behind door number two? My writing class? No! Figure drawing, try again. I have taught college classes in labs where I couldn't see my students over the giant sewing machines on each desk, so you never know. When I had a piano in my classroom, I had fantasies about setting grammar lessons to song (like the class I'd love to take at UNC), but a teacher next door complained that we were too rowdy even before we took the cover off the piano. (I guess some classes do require quiet!)

My class is often the students' first of the semester, so all introduction-type activities are fair game. The interview that gets them talking is a variation on Two Truths and a Lie: I have students interview each other, tell one lie in their answers, then introduce their partners to the class and we have to figure out what the lie is.

This works with all kinds of students: the nervous struggling writers get to relax because I'm not bludgeoning them with cold hard facts (yet), and the professional-writers-to-be get to work on their interview skills in case Rolling Stone calls and asks them to interview M.I.A. And although some freshmen have already bonded during orientation via high jinx I don't want to know about, most of them don't know each other and are shy about discussing their writing strengths and weaknesses. (Although I do have other ways to get that info—I hit them with a diagnostic test after the interviews to make sure everyone's on the same page.)

For this interview, a few guidelines suffice. A more detailed discussion about interview skills comes later. For now, everyone takes a minute and writes down four or five questions to ask their partner, from the basic name, hometown stuff to quirkier questions like If you could have dinner with anyone living or dead who would it be and why? I advise them to skip bland questions like how many siblings a person has, and to not ask questions with yes/no answers, such as Do you like school? Yes. Bo-ring. Next question.

The person being interviewed tells one lie but doesn't reveal what it is to her partner.  An example of a lame lie is My brother's name isn't David, it's Jonathan. That might seem hilarious to the person whose brother's name is Jonathan, but not to anyone else. I remind students that most of us know nothing about them at all—something to keep in mind when writing, too. Don't assume your reader knows what you know. 

I give them about five minutes to awkwardly turn their chair to the partner I've given them and start asking questions, write down answers, then switch. When I first started doing this, if there was an odd number, I'd be someone's partner but I stopped that. I had to get out the sandbox.

I've tried the partner interview without the secret lie, but students often zone out during the introductions. With the lie, there's something at stake, so they tune in. Zealous teachers could keep track and award the person who identifies the most correct lies, but I haven't tried that.

Although one minute of silence in a classroom feels like eight days, it's important to give the students time to answer. It's very hard for many of us to let questions hang in the air, yet if we jump to fill in every blank, the students won't.  In this case, I often have to wait them out, so when someone guesses that She has a blue car is the lie, I want to scream Do you really think she was a backup dancer for Lady Gaga?! But I usually hold my tongue and let the class suss it out.

This exercise won't necessarily transform a quiet group into a boisterous one, but at least I've gotten to know them a little better, which helps me remember their names. Practice identifying their lies can come in handy, too, around midterm when students' grandparents start "dying" in rapid succession.

Margaret Hundley Parker's work has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Time Out New York, Oxygen.com, Bust and performed at the North Carolina Literary Festival, CBGBs, and the 24-Hour Plays, to name a few. She has been an editor at FIT magazine and Road & Travel. Her book, the KISS Guide to Fitness, was published in 2002 by Dorling Kindersley. She has an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. She teaches writing at the Fashion Institute of Technology, the Pratt Institute, and through the Teachers & Writers Collaborative.

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Thursday September 16th 2010, 7:36 AM
Comment by: nannywoo (Wilmington, NC)
I've seen something similar done in a freshman comp class studying narrative. Students free write with the freedom to write fiction or nonfiction. They read each others' work in groups of three (one of those wonderfully rowdy class activities), then groups choose narratives to share with the class and the writers then confess one way or the other. But I like this idea for the first day of class and will use it! I agree that the sooner students hear their own voices in the classroom the more likely they are to contribute to discussions. And this gives everyone a reason to pay attention to their peers.

Another first day activity that works is to have each student come to the front of the class and write their full name on the board then talk about it. (So far, no one has refused.) I start because I have a maiden name that got me much ridicule as a child (Tingle)and a funny story about a daughter-in-law whose Spanish-speaking grandfather thought her new husband's name was hilarious (Bill sounds like vile [vil], and the first syllable of our last name sounds like the Spanish word for soot [hollin].) Could be a way to combine these two by incorporating a lie into the introduction. By the way, for several years the introductions served as great icebreakers. One semester the chemistry of the class was such that a few students who already had class clown tendencies seemed to draw permission from the hilarity of the first day to turn every class meeting thereafter into a circus. We still had some great discussions, but it was hard work for me to orchestrate and make sure the quieter voices were heard. And this is college! Ideally, I like an ebb and flow, some quiet times, some times of energetic dialogue with chaos swirling into light.
Thursday September 16th 2010, 11:56 AM
Comment by: Donna F.
It is wonderful to read your take on this wonderful ice-breaker. I have been using this activity successfully for four years. I appreciate your love for a noisy classroom-- not all feel the same way, however. I find that the students’ energy is a fountain of youth for me. May I offer few suggestions that you might want to consider?

Add a plot twist. I give the learning experience a reality show twist by telling by making the interview the basis of their first writing assignment. This act signals to students that everything they do in the class counts, even the fun encounters. It also makes them feel that they know something about me as a teacher. They love surprises.

This twist heightens student’s engagement. When the scholars are assigned to transform their interview experience into a narrative profile essay they approach interviewing skills quite differently. I allow students to reflect on the interesting truths and lies and then regroup with their partner briefly near the end of class to collect more details about their partner. The assignment requires them to submit a standard essay of at least five paragraphs.

Extend. I extend the memory of that fun experience by generating related mini-assignments. Across the subsequent class periods we work together to generate interesting sensory descriptions of the room, the parking lot, sidewalk chatter, the walk across the hall to get to the classroom, and more to get at the notion of atmosphere that first day of class. We talk about the elements that distinquish a collge classroom from others. We then easily cross the bridge to cover course expectations. Frankly, I can usually build an entire first two weeks' lessons around recollecting and putting into words our shared memory of the events that first made us a writing community.

Provide a model. After taking roll, I play a lovely essay about the importance of good greeting skills with This I Believe's "The Power of Hello" by Howard White (NPR). ESL students love this lesson in American culture. Urban youth are stunned and pleased to see and hear this basketball great. further, this essay allows me liberty to walk up to a scholar arbitrarily and sing “H-e-ll-o!” (especially when they dare to come late to class).

Build their knowledge base. Students can be asked to bring a poem or favorite set of quotes to read to their interview partners to generate more data to assess their partner’s personality or preferences.

In sum, teachers and students can benefit from this classic ice breaker. Thanks for reminding me how powerful an instrument it can be!
Thursday September 16th 2010, 12:40 PM
Comment by: Margaret P. (Brooklyn, NY)
Great suggestions! Dr. Woo: love the name activity.

Donna: I also love the idea of getting them to write an essay based on the interview, so that like you said, they know that everything they do in class counts. I'm not sure I understand the plot twist part—can you explain more? Sounds like fun.
Thursday September 16th 2010, 3:12 PM
Comment by: Donna F.
Come to think of it, there are two twists. For one, the students must introduce their partner to the class and explain what she has just learned about them by contemplating what they would lie about. I don't tell them that they will need to recall statements about their partners up front. They go into the activity with the idea that they are going to introduce themselves to the class by reading their own TTL statements.

The second twist is the notion that all the while they have been preparing for an assignment. That assignment will feature their thoughts, their conduct, impressions, and their deeply held beliefs about the ice-breaking process. wwwf (works well with freshman)

Generally, it seems the scholars react positively to shifts in expectations, roles, and kinetic activity. Note: they have to come before the class in pairs to read/perform their introductions.

I think they take the shifts or twists as a clue that the class will be interesting and, at times, unpredictable.
Thursday September 16th 2010, 6:55 PM
Comment by: Teresa G. (Los Lunas, NM)
I use this method, too. It really works!

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