A Snowball’s Chance In…

By the time that students reach our college classrooms, they are already veterans of the same education system that has shaped us as instructors. Although we may not always think of the students in our classroom in this way, it can be helpful to remind ourselves as instructors that each student is already an old hand at learning—their roughly two decades of experience as learners means that they have likely seen some iteration of every pedagogical trick in our repertoire. One of the central principles of the pedagogical movement known as Writing Across the Curriculum is to always strive to maintain the classroom as a space of dynamic hybridity where teaching cannot “go stale.”  In WAC parlance, this is known as fostering “an interactive multimodal learning environment,” but the meaning of pedagogical buzzwords such as “hybridity,” “interactive,” and “multimodal learning” can remain frustratingly vague in practice. How can an instructor create a classroom that is dynamic, interactive, and what does “multimodal learning” actually entail? The purpose of this article will be to seek answers to these questions by sketching out one approach in detail called “Snowball.”

The start of each class is always a somewhat fraught moment: instructors have about 5-10 minutes to project themselves and the organization and purpose of that day’s learning activity. This can take the form of outlining the overarching themes of in-class close reading or getting important content from homework problems to students. Research shows that lectures or lessons often “go stale,” as it were, during these vital opening moments of each class when students are liable to tune out and remain that way for the remainder of the class. “Snowball” is a novel kinaesthetic learning technique that takes inspiration from WAC’s imperative to creatively innovate and rethink how instructors teach and how students learn. It can be a highly effective tool for maintaining an engaged, dynamic classroom environment. A brief scenario will follow, but in a nutshell, “Snowball” contributes towards students becoming active learners through sharing and responding to each other’s concerns and ideas. Oh, and they are able to get out of their seats and throw things (at the instructor!).

At the start of class, instead of launching into the preordained script of a lecture or lesson plan, an instructor encourages all students to tear out a piece of loose-leaf and write down a question or problem that they had about the reading or homework without putting their name on the paper.

Each student then crumples up their paper into a ball and throws it to the front of the classroom in the direction of the instructor (extra points optionally awarded for targeting the instructor).

The instructor then shuffles around the mass of “snowballs” thrown by students, and all students come to the front of the class to retrieve one “snowball” to bring back to their desks.

The class then begins in earnest as each student opens up the snowball that they have retrieved and anonymously responds to the concern(s), question(s), or problem(s) raised by their fellow (anonymous) classmate. Students can then lead the classroom discussion by sharing their snowball and response with the rest of the class.

Snowball can be a great way to break the ice at the start of class. This technique is similar to a flipped classroom in that it is a participant and cooperative teaching and learning activity that empowers students as the agents of their own learning. It also has the advantage of removing the sense of shame from class participation (what the education reformer John Holt refers to as “the cat on a hot stove” phenomenon) since each snowball is anonymous and students are actually sharing and exchanging each other’s ideas. Snowball facilitates students’ dynamic engagement with course material by giving them opportunities to participate without worrying or second-guessing themselves. At the same time, each snowball becomes a meaningful vehicle for instructors to deliver course content that is truly tailored to the unique needs of their students. And, of course, it allows students to throw things at their professors—what’s not to like? I’m thankful to our co-coordinator, Rebecca Mazumdar, for initially demonstrating this novel learning technique to us.