Learning Curve

Wednesday Morning Live

Elizabeth Z. Stillman

Associate Professor of Academic Support
Suffolk University Law School

Originally Published in The Learning Curve, Winter/Spring 2021

Citation: Elizabeth Z. Stillman, Wednesday Morning Live, The Learning Curve (Winter/Spring 2021)


“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players…” Shakespeare, William, As You Like it, Act II, Scene VII, Line 139 (1599).

Teaching and learning remotely are difficult even in the best of times. When we do not share a physical space or get to see how we all move in that space, it is hard to say we know each other. It is hard to read confusion or agreement without more cues, especially if you have to scroll up or down or side to side to see everyone’s face. In this pandemic, I have been teaching all my classes remotely and it is both entirely less and entirely more intimate than teaching in person. I cannot really get a sense of my students when they are mere two-inch squares on a screen, and yet, I can see their relatives, living spaces, and, if I am very lucky, their pets. They, in turn, cannot sense my height (or weight, fortunately), but they know my kitchen and that my mail gets delivered during our class because of the barking. While the strange circumstance does build its own camaraderie, it is not always conducive to building community.

One of the classes I am teaching in remote format is a required class for students who, as I put it, “find themselves on Academic Warning,” (intentional use of the somewhat passive voice). Energy can be very low during this class even during a normal semester. While I honestly do not miss the first class that is often a room full of students with tightly crossed arms who have given up another class to be there, I do long for the in-person enthusiasm that might be generated on any given class day. Normally, I would employ a host of in-class group activities that require movement, collaboration, and sometimes even competitiveness to spur this enthusiasm. The prizes are simple: candy and the choice to dictate what I will bake for them for the last class of the semester. By the end of the semester, we are a somewhat dysfunctional, but loving, family. We bicker, remind people of silly things that have happened in class (kindly!), and have some brownies (they always choose brownies). 

But I can’t do all that online. I can break students into breakout rooms to work in teams using a lot of the same exercises, and I do, but nothing really beats the whole class together in a room competing for a bunch of Tootsie pops. This class does not work well without buy-in from students and a shared sense of purpose in being there. Did I mention it meets in the morning? Sigh.

Recently, though, I tried something different. I have three children who have all done some kind of theater. Two of them have attended “Comedy Camp” at a local Improv theater. Theater helped all of my children become more confident, and their theater groups were always a safe space. One child went from never speaking in class to participating every day. Theater, in short, is magical. So, I thought that maybe knocking down the walls that divide our Zoom cells might bring us closer to being the family I imagined. 

I started with some research. I googled “theater games you can play on Zoom.” Then I googled “theater games you can play on Zoom for adults.” And finally, “theater games for adults on Zoom with more than 3 people.” I have fourteen students in this class. Then the spotlight shined upon a video from the New York Improv Theater that explained and showed an example of a game called “Objection1.” I thought it sounded perfect for law students just from the name alone, but watching the video convinced me.  Objection is a game where you start with a ridiculous premise and then debate it. One person starts and then anyone can object and take the floor. One person acts as the judge (I played this role). The judge issues the ridiculous topic to the players, and one person begins to speak about it. At some point, another person will yell, “Objection!” There is no ruling on the objection per se, but the objector then needs to continue making their point until someone else objects. You can set a timer to limit the game and see where your silly premise will take you. 

I asked my students to debate the idea that cereal with milk is a soup. One student volunteered to start and off we went. We spent a good seven minutes attempting to either prove or disprove this idea. We did not veer crazily off-topic, but we did discuss many other liquids and foods that are eaten with spoons from bowls. We laughed, learned about each other’s food preferences, and built community. However, there was a special bonus: this game was, in fact, educational. At the end of the exercise, I pointed out to my law students that they had actually engaged in rules-based legal analysis and explained how:

First, the speakers tried to come up with a rule defining soup. Then they applied this rule to milk with cereal. The next steps involved applying this new rule to a variety of other substances to test its merit. When speakers pointed out unacceptable inclusions or exclusions, the group modified the rule by amending parts and rejecting provisions which weren’t working. Then, they reapplied the newly amended rule to cereal with milk to see if it worked. Finally, we concluded (well, everyone believed that they were right despite the conclusions differing) and, best of all, we had fun, laughed together, and learned new things about each other.

Theater worked its magic. When asked, my students agreed that we should do this again, and those students who did not speak up during the game said they would be willing to try it next time.  One student who is particularly anxious about speaking in class asked if they could be the judge in round two. This sense of togetherness made the next exercise (working on a practice MEE question in smaller groups) go more smoothly. The energy from this exercise carried over into the rest of the class. When I visited the breakout rooms to see if anyone had ducked out to Starbucks, I found students engaged and collaborative. Everyone had their video on, and there was lively conversation. I concluded that it was well worth the class time. Priming the energy pump for remote class is time well spent. Next time, I won’t have to explain the game, so it will be even more efficient. I wouldn’t hesitate to play this game in person as well. The one downside is that I doubt this would work with a much larger class, but I do believe it would work with a somewhat smaller one. As an added bonus, after our debate about soup, the  class started swapping recipes for all kinds of dishes. By the end semester, we had shared enough that we could have published one of those self-published spiral bound fundraising cookbooks you see at yard sales.

For a few moments, our little Zoom world was full of players, and while Shakespeare was absolutely right about the world being a stage, remember that he also said, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Shakespeare, William, Henry VI, Part II, Act IV, Scene II (1598).

Endnotes

1https://newyorkimprovtheater.com/2020/04/14/online-improv-games-how-to-play-objections-online/

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