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Activities on the Spot

In 2007 I was an English teacher in a public school in France, teaching a rotation of 8 classes and seeing each class once a week. It was tough to keep them straight, but I enjoyed the classes, ranging from first to third year English, with ages between 11 and 13.

One week, I planned an activity based around World War 1. I knew they were studying the United States and their role in the war, so I dug out one of my favorite poems (Flanders Field), translated it into French, and prepared a list of questions to get discussion going on the impact of war on the country’s youth.

One problem: when I arrived in class, I realized they were studying the American Civil War, not World War 1.

The Civil War re-fought

I came up with an idea on the fly, and to my shock, the students loved it. We divided into two team, I labeled them the South and the North, and I gave them 15 minutes to prepare for war. Each team prepared by making a list of their states’ assets, such as organized militias, or factories that could be converted into weapons manufactures. Then we began.

The South had the first “attack,”¬†and the North responded with an asset that countered. We went back and forth, following each debate through until one side or the other would admit defeat. I tallied points for each skirmish, and the students knew that their assets (and ability to remember how to counter them) would mean winning or losing the game/war.

The students were invested and excited, with everyone participating, and collaborating. By the end of the class everyone had demonstrated a detailed understanding of the factors contributing to the South losing the war (and the South did lose, though narrowly).

From war to tour guide

Yesterday evening, Adam (my co-leader on this educational high school trip and the founder of Atlas Workshops) and I sat down to plan this morning’s activity. Our original plan, to have the students explore Gothenburg with the help of a mobile app, fell through when we found that the mobile app was not particularly user friendly. With roughly eight hours to go until breakfast, when the students would ask about the plan for the day, it was time to get creative.

Just like in France, we found the pressure of a last minute plan gave way to a brilliant idea. At breakfast this morning we gave the students their marching orders: they had one hour to plan a walking tour of Gothenburg. We had already seen the major sites, but their goal was slightly different. We asked them to choose between four and eight sites that they would show to us, the tourists, to help us better understand smart cities. At the end of their one hour to prepare, they would take us on the tour.

To say it was a success is an understatement. The students seem to prefer to work alone (perhaps a result of years of teachers telling them that collaboration is “cheating”) but the tour forced them to collaborate. They immediately began throwing out ideas, discussing the pros and cons of various sites and routes, and looking at maps to develop their plan.

At 9:30 their prep hour was up and the tour began. They greeted us professionally, enjoying the chance to mimic how we often guide them. They prompted one another, and took advantage of any chance they had to show us what they knew. Although we had asked for four to eight stops, they found at least fifteen things to point out, from the way a garbage can was engineered to encourage recycling, to a story about City Hall’s efforts to encourage public discourse. We were able to identify areas they needed encouragement and subjects where they were struggling, but most importantly, they were able to take ownership of their knowledge and hard work from the past week.

It was an incredibly rewarding morning, and an activity I hope to reuse in the future.

Marli Mesibov

Marli is a content strategist with a passion for the user experience. Her work spans websites, web applications, and mobile. Marli is the VP of Content Strategy at the UX design agency Mad*Pow, and she serves as managing editor at UX Booth, a publication about all areas of user experience. Marli is a frequent conference speaker, and has spoken at conferences including Content Strategy Forum and LavaCon. She can also be found on Twitter, where she shares thoughts on content strategy, literature, and Muppets.

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