MTA issues lead to unexpected opportunity for student-orientated learning

I wanted to share a story from my Hunter Greek and Latin Roots of English course from this morning in which I was given the unexpected opportunity to try a new student-orientated activity.

Today, I hit a few snags commuting to Hunter; there was an issue along the six line that caused some delays — I’m talking from the train to a bus to racing ten blocks down Lexington Avenue to make my class on time delays.

And I was still late — about ten minutes so. Fortunately, my wonderful students were all patiently waiting in their seats and ready to begin class  — but boy did I need a breather (did I mention I ran several blocks?).

Much of teaching is learning to think on your feet in the classroom with a certain level of grace and professionalism. I needed about ten minutes to catch my breathe before jumping into lecture but it wasn’t like I could just tell my students to give me a few minutes to recover — then it hit me: what a perfect opportunity for me NOT to lecture, for me not to be the one up front but have the students become the teachers instead!

I am a proponent of what I like to call “horizontal” classrooms. In a “vertical” classroom, a teacher lectures from the front and knowledge is one directional, from teacher to student. In a “horizontal” course, the students learn from each other, with the teacher acting as facilitator. My students had been assigned a small homework project to look up some of the etymologies or Classical origins of famous brand names like “Verizon” or “Nike” or “Panera.” Usually I read their homework answers before class and give them a short lecture on marketing and Classics based branding using examples from what I read in their homework — but why should I be the only one in charge of the channeling of information when all my students had done the research — they were already experts on the topic. Why not have them teach each other then?

What I ended up executing in my class this morning  — completely unplanned — was to break my 55 students into groups of five. Each group was in charge of a marketing pitch — yes, Classics 110 became Marketing 101 for twenty minutes. My students loved it. They had to use the research skills and etymologic tools they’d mastered in their homework assignment and take it to the next level by creating their own products or services and branding them with a Classical name they created themselves. This was an activity I created on the fly and I was blown away by how well they rose to meet this spontaneous challenge.

Each group had a “historian” in charge of taking notes and a “presenter” who would come up to the front of the room and deliver their marketing pitch. I am always amazed by the energy in the room during group projects of this sort and I strongly believe the catalysts of that enthusiasm are creativity and choice. Allowing your students to synthesize their own imagination with the information they are learning generates a level of internalization and interaction with the material that is hard to match in “vertical” oriented classrooms.

One group came up with a touring company that can take you to any point in the past for your next vacation; it was called Chromak from the Greek “chronos” meaning “time” and “machina” meaning “machine.” The entire class thus learned two new Greek words and got a huge kick out of their peer’s energetic and engaging presentation. I was amazed that the students looked up words in their textbooks or from the internet we hadn’t even gotten to yet in class (or were never going to due to limitations of time). One group marketed to us the Velox3000, the fastest shoe in the world. “Velox” is the Latin for “swift” as in “velocity.” Another group solved the annoyed problem of tangled earphones with their product the “Explexi” from the Latin “explicare” to “unfold.”

The amount of knowledge they were teaching each other in this experiment was inspirational. I am definitely going to insert more of these class-orientated activities into my upcoming lessons — planned out in advance of course! But — and I never thought I’d say this — thank you, MTA, for giving me the unexpected opportunity this morning to learn something new from my students.

1. Have you ever had to make the most of a challenging experience in your classroom? How so and what was the result?

2. How have you inserted creativity into your assignments or classroom activities? Were you (and your students) pleased with the results?

3. Feel free to suggest any improvements I could make if I chose to run this activity or a similar one in the future. Can’t wait to hear your thoughts.








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