Propaganda Pitches: More Adventures in Student-Centered Pedagogy

Last week I tried out another student-centered activity in my Roots class. All semester I have been attempting to transform many of my mini-lectures into activities where the students present the information to each other instead of me simply giving it to them. We have recently begun a unit on Greek and Roman government and political vocabulary and so I devised an activity called “propaganda pitches” in order to combine the topics of history, government, and language.

Below are what I consider the goals of this activity:

1) allow students some choice in their education

2) as the instructor/facilitator define clear boundaries for the activity in which the students have “free rein” to some extent to explore, try, and fail safely. I call this my “sandbox mode” of teaching, both referring to an actual sandbox and also to the experimental platform used in website design and/or the lightly controlled test-programs used in computer security.

To explain the more concrete example: I create the box (guidelines/instructions) and fill it with sand (suggestions/prompts) and then the students can freely workshop within the sandbox with no fear of failure. Sandbox activities are always low-risk and never graded.

3) create group roles which demand that everyone participate in the activity but at the level they feel most comfortable (also again, student choice since they pick their own roles)

Here are the instructions I gave them:

Today each group will be doing some research on a different type of ancient government and presenting a ‘propaganda pitch’ to the class. [I explained the Latin etymology of the word propaganda – things that much be extended forward/sent out/propagated].

1. Student Choice 1 – Please form yourself into 7 groups. [I let the students pick their own groups and have never had a problem with this. I have 55 students but about 45 that day. This meant some groups had one less presenter but still every student had a role to perform in their group.]

2. Student Choice 2 – [I then let the groups select one type of government, asking if anyone had a preference.]

Greek tyranny, Greek democracy, Greek oligarchy, Pan-Hellenism, Roman monarchy, Roman republicanism, Roman imperialism

3. Clear Time Limits and Requirements – each group will have 15 mins. to prepare for a 2 min. pitch. In your presentation, please include the following: 1) why is your type of government the best? what are some of its benefits? 2) what are some of the flaws of the other types? why would we the audience be fools to choose any other type of government? 3) you must use 5 words in your presentation that are related to government or politics and have Latin or Greek roots.

4. Group Roles – select within your group 1) one historian in charge of taking notes and turning them in to me at the end of the activity 2) one researcher in charge of looking things up online or in the textbook 3) three presenters and 4) one vocabulary leader who is in charge of writing up the group’s 5 words on the board and explaining them to the class.

During their 15 minutes of planning I wandered around the room not only answering questions but asking them, prompting the students to consider a new or different angle or to investigate a new word or line of argumentation but then backing off and letting them do it themselves. I’m still working on giving up control in the classroom but the benefits I see when I do are worth that fear.

When the students came up to do their pitches we went in chronological order and I stood to the side with a timer (2 minutes means 2 minutes!). Timing wasn’t an issue individually but overall the activity went over the time I had allotted during that class – which is a problem when it’s the last activity of the day and you don’t want to keep students over the “bell.”

As always, when the students are given the opportunity to research vocabulary on their own (instead of remaining limited to what the book provides) they come up with Latin and Greek derivatives that sometimes I don’t even think of! It’s great to see that they can put the “tools” the textbook teaches and then go off on their own and apply them to “real life.” This is important because most of my class is made up of pre-law, -med, or -nursing  or psychology students and they will need to used “applied etymology” to succeed not only in admission to their chosen graduate programs but in their overall careers as well.

Some of their words included:

taxes (from taxare – to value, assess)

caput mundi (meaning “head of the word” aka ROME)

education (from e- “out of” and ducere “to lead”)

economy (from the Greek oikos “home” and nomos “rule of “)

regulation (related to regere “to rule”)




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