Preparing the Class and Classroom: An Excerpt from Leslie Rapparlie’s new book Writing and Experiential Education

Leslie Rapparlie’s new book Writing and Experiential Eduction: Practical Activities and Lesson Plans to Enrich Learning offers a creative and practical bridge to connect writing and experiential education. The theory, examples, and insights will inspire educators to integrate experiential writing techniques into their  day-to-day teaching practice. Over the next few weeks we will be sharing examples of some of the easy-to-use and engaging activities from Writing and Experiential Education. Here is some great advice for educators looking to use experiential techniques in their classroom:

While projects and metaphors are concrete ways of integrating experiential education into the classroom, there are certain concerns that instructors need to consider before adapting a classroom to include experiential techniques. Students expect a classroom based on lecture and sitting for long period of time. As a result, an activity-centered classroom often presents a learning environment with which many students are unfamiliar or, at least, are not expecting. As a result, it is an instructor’s first priority to prepare students for the kind of classroom/semester/journey the course will require (one helpful resource for educators trying to create a specific type of classroom atmosphere is Tips and Tools: The Art of Experiential Group Facilitation by Jennifer Stanchfield).

In order to prepare a student for what will be asked of him, the instructor must fully understand how she will operate her classroom. If she decides to run a project in the classroom, she must be able to answer questions like the following: Do students have the option to do something other than a project; if so, what is it? Are students all completing the same project, are there options, or is each student’s project unique? Will students work in groups or alone? How much will the instructor be involved in the process? How will projects be assessed? Only with answers to these questions (or questions appropriate to whatever classroom environment that is being cultivated) is curriculum ready to be introduced. Note: Another useful resource to consider reviewing to help determine answers to these questions is Teaching for Experiential Learning: Five Approaches that Work by Scott D. Wurdinger and Julie A. Carlson.)

Once students are presented with course expectations, allow the class a chance to ask questions and voice concerns, perhaps even anonymously. Consider giving note cards to students after explaining the course requirements and ask for questions, concerns, or comments. Then, read the cards aloud and answer the questions or address comments that could say something like: “I don’t want to do this,” or “Am I guaranteed an A”? Students will be expecting tests and papers. If projects, service or internships will be part of the course, it is essential that they know that and be given the opportunity to opt out of the course or to, at minimum, voice anxieties and have questions answered.

Along with preparing a class for unexpected classroom activities, it is important that as the class progresses, every student’s emotional and physical safety should always be paramount. Even lesson plans in this book sometimes ask a student to place herself in an uncomfortable position, maybe by being blindfolded or being physically closer than usual to other classmates. It must be the instructor’s priority to assist students if they are uncomfortable or outside of a personal risk zone. Generally, the activities outlined in this book require little “real” risk, which can be defined, as the adventure education field uses it, as “the true potential for loss… If no loss occurred, then the real risk was zero. If the person dies, then the real risk was extreme” (Priest 113). However, real risks (environmental hazards, for example) always need to be addressed.

For example, do not perform outdoor activities during extreme heat, cold, or severe storms. Minimize all real risk possible. Real risk, though, is not the only type of risk present. Many individuals will feel what is often referred to as “perceived risk,” or risk that a person feels regardless of the actual danger. Perceived risk can often be high when real risk is low or vice a versa. Additionally, students may feel “emotional risk,” which is risk associated with personal fears, anxieties, worries and psychological history. For example, one student may find it extremely risky to share a personal story while another may not think twice about it. But, perceived risk and emotional risk are just as dangerous (or can feel that way) as real risk.

Pushing a student beyond his tolerance for emotional risk, could shut him down and end any chance that the experience will result in meaningful learning. With this in mind, instructors should give students options during activities; for example: provide different roles that are more comfortable (allow a student to referee a situation instead of participate in it), alter parameters to meet needs (allow a student to interview a family member instead of a stranger) and so on. If the goal is to help a student learn, then that student needs to feel safe but also challenged. While certainly some discomfort and uncertainty are always part of the learning process, extreme levels of those feelings are counterproductive. After considering these concerns about integrating experiences into the classroom, the final step is to pick the appropriate activities for the material and type of learning desired (refer again to John Dewey’s criteria for a meaningful educational experience listed on page 8).

Look for more excerpts from Writing and Experiential Education in upcoming Friday Lessons. The book is now available at WNB. Please call 1-800-678-0621 for more information.

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