Many colleges and universities around the country offer First-Year Seminars (FYS) or First-Year Experiences (FYE). These courses are geared towards supporting freshmen in their transition to college by introducing them to academic discourse and college-level writing and research, among other skills. Additionally, “squishier” objectives like sparking curiosity, considering one’s place in the world, and meeting new friends are arguably even more important components to an effective FYE/FYS. My recent opportunity to teach a First-Year Seminar was educational for both me and my students.
As an instructor of teacher education, I pitched a FYS related to teaching, but also hoping to engage students who weren’t necessarily interested in becoming a certified teacher. A hugely present issue when I proposed the course in spring of 2022 was the resurgence of book bans occurring in schools and libraries around the country. I thought this topic was ripe for discussion, had its roots in many different disciplines, and would interest a variety of students. Below are some lessons I learned in the creation and execution of a First-Year Experience.
Choose an interdisciplinary topic for broader appeal
Freshmen often have not yet decided what their major would be, nor should they! Having an opportunity to explore interests without yet being pigeonholed into one discipline can be an important and sometimes life-altering experience. Our class, “Banned Books and School Policy,” related to education, of course, but also touched on sociology, political science, history, English literature, religion, and public policy. This allowed students with varied interests to hear each other interact in a way they might not again get the chance to. When a history major and a religious studies major read the same homework assignment, they bring different perspectives to the reading, and therefore illuminate the subsequent class discussions that benefit from heterogeneous viewpoints.
Offer choice and connections
One of the beneficial experiences in our First-Year Seminar was the book clubs. Students chose a book that had been recently banned and read it with a small group of classmates who were also interested in the same book. A lot of students’ educational careers are dictated by preexisting syllabi; allowing students to take the course in a direction of their choosing empowered and engaged everyone. Their choices allowed a diversity of perspectives to flourish. They met in class several times throughout the semester, forging friendships and connections with people of similar interests.
Due to a weather event, one of our Friday classes was canceled and I asked students to meet on their own in their book clubs over the following weekend. The students snapped a photo of their book club meeting in the student center, on the quad, or at the nearby beautiful public park, and shared it on our Learning Management System for class credit. The students loved the chance to get together on their own and discuss the book in a different location than the normal classroom. In reflections, they communicated that being situated outside the four walls of the classroom empowered them to feel freer to express themselves. Including a culminating presentation on each of the banned books in the syllabus can help communicate the importance of these book clubs while continuing to strengthen student communication, presentation skills, and cooperative skills.
Include raucous and hands-on learning experiences
One of the culminating assignments for the class was an in-class, highly structured debate. After preparing for several classes, students presented alternating sides of an issue in three-minute speeches.
Students could offer “Points of Information” to their opponents during the unprotected, middle two-minutes of the speeches; these comments could be accepted or ignored. While the first speaker could pretty much prepare wholly, the second and third team members had to be better at thinking-on-the-fly in order to refute points brought up by the opposing team. This allowed students with different strengths to gravitate toward different roles in the groups.
All students participated in one debate, but when their team was not presenting, the non-debating students took notes—tracing the argument and evaluating the strength of the evidence and refutations, then using those notes to discuss and judge who won the debate. The topics of the debate were student-generated. Students helped come up with statements that were more complex, to go beyond the simple argument of whether or not a particular book should be banned, and to get to the more substantive and complex issues behind the bans. For example, a few statements we chose to debate were:
- To protect students, it is necessary to modify some of their rights.
- Focusing on the negative aspects of history and historical figures can be damaging to our sense of patriotism and civic duty.
- Enabling parental input and control in classroom matters benefits children.
These broad statements that students had to argue for or against allowed them to grasp the complexity of issues at play while rising above the typical debates that were/are occurring at school boards across the country.
Imbue a sense of importance
The issue of banned books throughout our semester together grew from a curious news topic to a near constant and urgent battle, as evidenced by the uptick in bans and laws meant to stifle what students can learn and what teachers can teach in the classroom. While one cannot plan for this perfect storm of timing, choosing an issue for a First-Year Seminar that allows students to see urgent issues in the forefront of our shared experience enables them to be engaged on an authentic level.
As an introduction to life after high school, students should be given the opportunity to see why their studies truly matter. Students consistently asked hard, and oftentimes, unanswerable questions:
- Are teachers going to risk their jobs to teach a well-rounded curriculum?
- Will half the country be miseducated? What can we do?
- What will happen to our nation if laws like the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill continue to proliferate?
Seeing that their well-researched responses had value allowed them to see that as college students, they are truly in the driver’s seat.
Encourage self-directed research
A large component of the course was the completion of a research paper. This was very instructive to my students, who of course, had almost no experience with college-level research. Students developed a research question and thesis statement that put their own spin on the course content.
For example, some psychology students wanted to learn about how children are affected psychologically by censorship; a few international studies students researched censorship in other countries and how that correlated with revolutions or wars; a gender studies student delved into how book bannings relates to girls’ feelings about their own sexuality; and many of my arts students looked at censorship trends in the art world.
All 70 students chose a different focus that they felt a strong, personal connection to. This was a way to help them learn in a way that was meaningful to them personally, and an explanation on how to use the library and its databases to access peer-reviewed articles from scholarly journals and cite them appropriately. It also helped students see that the content of the course related to them even if they were placed in the course by default and had no intention of teaching.
Students get only one first semester at college. We can make sure they feel connected, heard, seen, prepared, supported, challenged, and impassioned by designing activities thoughtfully. By exploring banned books as my First-Year Seminar topic, my students looked forward to class and were eager to research, read, and debate relevant topics. Class never felt like a chore but was something we looked forward to. By creating opportunities for students to connect with the materials and show their gifts in different ways, we can truly see what they can accomplish.
Julia Miller began her teaching career in 2007 in New Orleans where she taught middle school English for the next 14 years. She received her masters in curriculum and instruction from Xavier University of Louisiana and her doctorate in curriculum, teaching, learning, and leadership from Northeastern University in 2021. She joined the faculty in the Office of Teacher Education at Loyola University New Orleans in 2021.