How old are you? An activity for the first and last day of class

When I teach cultural anthropology, the goal is nothing less than a total epistemological shift. I want them to see themselves, and the world around them, in context. I want them to end the class knowing how to go about answering questions they couldn’t have even imagined the first day.

First and last days of class are special in course design, because they frame the course. You are supposed to start as you mean to go on, and finish strong. Better yet if you can tie them both together in one big bow. This semester, I let my icebreaker do a lot of that work for me.

On the first day of class – which happened to be on “Aging and Culture” – I asked students to introduce themselves by answering the question “how old are you?” without using a number. On the first day of class, we followed that activity up with an analysis. How were they defining age? Were we talking about kinship? Institutional identities? Experiences of our own bodies? How were those things shaped by particular circumstances? What did they think might be universal? It set the tone for the questions we would ask throughout the course.

On the last day of class, after students finished their presentations and a Gallery Walk, and after I did my best to articulate where I hoped they would go next with what they had learned, we did the icebreaker again. I changed it a little. This time, since we had talked about chronology and how it was related to sociocultural infrastructures from disciplinary time to (post)colonial inheritance law, they could also use numbers. But, I added, the context of the age identity they shared should be meaningful to them.

Just like the first day, I took a turn first to confirm my expectations with a clear example. But what followed was a totally different experience. Everyone knew how to answer and so they could turn their attention to appreciating their peers’ reflections instead of worrying if they got it right. It brought home how much more thoroughly they could appreciate the context of their own answers. Even though the theory and methods they learned were necessarily incomplete – don’t we deepen our analytical skills with every project we undertake? – the icebreaker offered an ending to our semester long journey. A signpost where we could stop, and rest, and look around together at the horizon we had made together.

It was a good icebreaker. Good enough that I might use it in a cultural class that has little to do with aging and the life course. But it was also a special – a truly wonderful – group of students, and I will carry them and this semester with me as a touchstone of how transformative a good class can be for a teacher.

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