What’s your animal?

Some people hate icebreakers – if you’re one of them, maybe pass on this post – but I’ve got one that I learned from my undergrad adviser* that I swear by. The central gist of it is that each student comes up with an animal that starts with the same sound as their name. For example, my name is Sam so I could go with Serpent, Salamander, Snuffleupagus, Socially Awkward Penguin … you get the picture**. Not everyone can think of their own animal, at which point you can invite the rest of the class to make suggestions that the undecided student can choose from.

“Icebreaker” kind of implies “activity designed to make people comfortable,” but without other goals that’s a waste of everyone’s time. In this case, however, the activity serves two more important functions:

  1. It’s a mnemonic device that helps me remember everyone’s name. I often can remember every student’s name after the very first class with this, but if I forget, I just ask them what their animal was and the sound prompt narrows the options enough that I can almost always get it. Since I highly value learning all my students names (and helping them learn each others’ names), this matters to me.
  2. Students can organize themselves into groups based off of similarities between their animals. It’s best if you can tie this to the course material somehow. For example, in the bioanth class I’m TAing, each group had to identify itself based off of a shared “morphological, physiological, or behavioral trait,” which got them using new course terminology. I’m a big believer in small group work, so it takes care of that for me, but for students it gets them actively participating in course content in a low pressure situation and thus doesn’t feel like a waste of their time.

The activity takes about 30 minutes (including group formation) for a class of 25.

* The amazing Kirk Ormand, whose awesomeness cannot be summed up in a footnote.
** Oddly, however, it is not uncommon for at least one student NOT to get it. Halfway through the class, I’ll get someone who announces they are “Doug the Horse.” But it’s pretty easy to redirect this without shaming the student.

Note Taker HD in school and the field

I am a software evangelist. I admit it. I get super excited when I find something that works for me and become convinced that the life of almost everyone I know could be improved if they adopted the same thing. For that reason, I expect that this post on software will be only the third of many.
Sam with iPad and dog
Like many of us with the privilege to be in school, I take a lot of notes. For years, I have debated the merits of paper notetaking and computer notetaking with myself. Despite my love of tech solutions, I got a tactual pleasure out of writing by hand and appreciated the superior flexibility and organization of a blank sheet of paper. Sadly, once the semester was over, my notes formed indistinguishable piles where nothing could ever hope to be found again. So, by my second year, I had transitioned to taking all my notes on my computer, first in Journler then in Evernote (because Evernote syncs between devices). Magically, amazingly, I could find all my notes! I could search them! I could use tags to navigate them! It was wonderful!

But I missed handwritten notes.

notes taken in Note Taker HD

notes taken in Note Taker HD

This came to a head when I returned from some scoping work in Ecuador with a pile of notebooks and the boring task of transcribing them somewhere I could search through them (and maybe code them later). Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, if I could just take the notes electronically? Typing on a tablet seemed like a good route*, but the fact of its tablet-ness made drawing on the screen a more logical option.

Then the spectacular Tracie Mayfield introduced me to Note Taker HD for iPad. It had the best of my worlds: 1) handwritten notes organized like my brain and 2) PDFs I can sync between devices (via Dropbox or Evernote). It’s not perfect – I wish it automatically synced my handwritten notes as tagged PDFs rather than the intermediary step of Dropbox. And, of course, real paper doesn’t have a battery that needs charging. But its folder organization works well within the program and tagging it again on my computer is, for me, a small price to pay. One of the best unlooked for (in my case) features is the ability to annotate PDFs by drawing on them – something that I would continue to use even if I ultimately decided I like typing my notes better after all.

* And I’m still looking into this, I’ll let you know if I find something awesome