Discussion Clouds

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ow that I am in the position of teaching assistant for “Introduction to Ethnic Studies” I am having to think critically about how students engage with the material in meaningful ways. Some of my most memorable learning experiences happened when professors brought in activities as a  method for students to engage with the text. I am attempting to do the same by trying out different activities with the two sections I lead once a week. I have tried intro and exit cards (a free-write exercise) and individual presentations. While these worked well, I still wanted something more interactive. After seeking out multiple methods, I decided to create my own and call it “Discussion Clouds” because of its uneven, yet cohesive formation once complete.

Both my participation in the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning certificate one program and my required American Studies 2520 “Professional Issues in American Studies” course with Professor Leticia Alvarado are exposing me to new pedagogical strategies to use in class. “Gallery Walk” was the first strategy I was exposed to that required students to move around the class in groups answering pre-written questions by the teacher. “Rose, Thorn, Bud” was introduced to me by my colleague Kara Noto in another one of our classes. From the framework of a non-profit idea generator, “Rose, Thorn, Bud” requires critical or active listening to a presentation or lecture. On post-it notes, students write about what they feel were the Roses = strengths, Thorns = problems, or Buds = opportunities (color-coded red, blue, green if accessible). This method is paired with and leads to the last, which is Affinity Mapping.” This allows students to post their ideas in one large conglomeration on the wall and then sort into themes, categories, and similarities. The idea behind this exercise is that students need to be creative and continuously shift into different themes to show how their ideas can be used in different ways. None of these seemed to strike me as effective in my college classroom where our largest issue is getting students to speak to each other.


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“Intro to Ethnic Studies” discussion section students answering questions.


After researching other methods, I decided to create my own. I am calling this “Discussion Clouds”. This exercise was planned for a 50 minute discussion section where students have two lectures during the week and Friday’s are used as an extension of these lectures. This week I decided our discussion was to take on the broad question of “What is activism?” This is on the heels of Brown University’s contentious name change from “columbus day” to “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” but also the specific moment in which the U.S. finds itself and the resistance that continues be employed.

I started out the class by setting up the section and showing media/popular culture sent in by students, we had a quick discussion to help us think about how they related to activism. This introduction look roughly 10 minutes. I then started to introduce “Discussion Clouds” in pieces. I passed out large sticky notes and asked the student to write one question they had that was under the umbrella of “What is activism?” For this they had 5 minutes to write and put the sticky on the wall spaced out from each other.  While they wrote, I passed out stacks of smaller sticky notes and directed them to answer each other’s questions, referring to texts, lectures, or discussions that could help contextualize their answers. They should write only one answer per sticky but can use multiple stickies per question. This is where spacing becomes really important as the sticky notes can become cluttered. I allowed roughly 7-10 minutes for this portion. I then asked students to choose one “Discussion Cloud” to which they did not write the original question. The students needed to read the original question and the surrounding answers, synthesize the discussion, and then present to the class the discussion happening on this specific cloud. 15-17 minutes, roughly 45 seconds-1 minute per student was necessary. The last  8 minutes were used for me to wrap-up the class and attempt to find and relay, per the clouds, a cohesive understanding to “What is activism?”


How can those with privilege and power within activist groups make it more accessible to those who don’t have access to critical race theories (ex: low income, PoC who don’t go to college)?
-Hold workshops
-Co-teach w/non-privileged folx and feature their voice
-Translate CRT (critical race theory) to vernacular accessible language
-Hold workshops
-Educate those in their social sphere, Use their access to power for the cause
-Teach oneself to be accessible and patient

Example of a “Discussion Cloud”


The “Discussion Clouds” strategy was incredibly successful. I ended up saving and typing up the stickies as notes for my students. This allowed students to speak to each other, if even through stickies and allowed some level of anonymity. Also, this activity showed just how complex these questions could be and how crowdsourcing answers was helpful for students to arrive at a better understanding; or perhaps they found themselves at an even more complex impasse, which I believe is also a valuable journey. I also found “Discussion Cloud” to be helpful for students to increase their paraphrasing skills. This will hopefully help the students when they have to clearly paraphrase and carry over ideas while writing papers.


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“Intro to Ethnic Studies” discussion section students answering questions and the final results of both classes.


After my sections were over I was ecstatic at how well this exercise worked. However, as I continued to think through improvement I found myself thinking through its failures. I found it to be potentially ableist in the sense that, while no one in my class has any physical disabilities, I can see wheelchair-bound individuals having a difficult time maneuvering through the crowds to read the questions and also how high or low the stickies are placed. In this same vein I found myself thinking about individuals with body-related issues or issues with being in tight/crowded spaces. While I think these are important failures of the activity, I believe the activity was well-received and I will need to make adjustment on an individual class basis.  

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