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My First Year Seminar – Groups & Plans

My First Year Seminar class has 24 students this term. Nine are women; ten have immigrant or minority background. I organized the groups after two weeks on the basis of gender, minority status, academic performance, and personal traits (inferred from an assigned essay). The latter assignment asked students to share something about themselves — background, life history, career-dreams. The assessment of academic performance was based on 2-3 in-class activities and writing assignments.  This term I have a peer leader who is extremely engaged and competent; we discussed the proposed groupings before making final assignments.

I split the class into five groups (five students each, except one group with four students).  I followed the strategy Jack suggested last fall to create groups, placing at least one very good student in each group. To facilitate the task, I assigned colors to students according to their perceived rank and created ‘multi-colored’ groups making sure there were enough academically strong students to support the weaker ones.  

I plan to devote about 4-6 sessions to the IF discussion process, that is, about one third of the semester. My class will meet 14 times, 75 minutes per week. Since I must address topics considered essential for academic success and student retention every week, students will probably spend about 5 hours in discussion.

My greatest challenges at present are to narrow down the discussion topic (problem area) and to structure of discussion sessions. The University has chosen a common reader for freshmen (This I Believe) and I am struggling to build a cohesive framework. Initially I proposed to students discussing beliefs about college success and presenting their insights to younger students, but the plans changed after the “Koran burning” news reports. My class, and 2 other classes, will now be pursuing the topic “What does it mean to be American?”  Students will collaborate to prepare audio/visual presentations on the question and participate in a local competition.  The IF-discussion sessions will be focusing, therefore, on students’ concerns about what it means to be American. This is a fascinating, but very broad subject area, and I wonder how to structure the policy-oriented bent that characterizes IF!