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A happy hour in the classroom?

photo by beyrouth on Flickr

photo by beyrouth on Flickr

“Happy hour” is generally something that instructors do after class, long after we have left the classroom. However, these two words have more to do with my courses than you could imagine. Consider this – just as the first impressions made during a social happy hour set the tone for the interaction, the precedent that an instructor sets in the first few minutes has the power to affect the remainder of a class. This is especially true when teaching foreign languages or other classes that require active participation from students, as it can be especially challenging to keep motivation high during various points in the semester. Is there an activity that could harness students’ attention from the moment they walk through the door? This short piece will discuss an activity created by Dr. Michelle Leigh Farrell (Fairfield University) that helps with creating an engaging environment. Specifically, it will discuss the origins of the happy hour, its benefits, and how it can be implemented in the classroom.

My first happy hour

It was during a new instructor orientation where I was first able to participate in a classroom happy hour. At the conclusion of our orientation week, each new instructor presented a microteaching (a short videotaped lesson) to our colleagues and superiors. One of the great aspects about these types of exercises is that you can see what the instructor does to prepare for their class. When it was Michelle’s turn to present a lesson for intermediate-level Spanish, she began by searching for an upbeat song to play in the background on YouTube.  She also wrote a couple of questions on the board, which, she explained, contained grammar structures that mocked what our class would have previously seen. As I marveled on what we were going to be asked to do with these questions and music, she invited us to stand up and push our desks to the side to form a large space for us to talk to a partner.

Like the typical student, I at first felt anxious talking to a random colleague (especially one that I had just met earlier that week through the orientation), but the questions readily displayed on the board became a point of reference to get us on task. Almost immediately, I went from completing an exercise to engaging in a conversation, and I also felt myself able to relax because of the music that Michelle had in the background. Although it was an energetic song, it gave the classroom environment a feeling of intimacy as it drowned out the other conversations. Others must have felt the same because the whole class was buzzing with lively conversation. In that brief amount of time, I had forgotten about Michelle and the class and was completely focused on the moment.

However, after a couple of minutes, she flicked the lights and yelled “cambie,” meaning to change partners, so I moved on and talked with another peer. Since we all switched at the same time, it wasn’t awkward to strike up another conversation and we continued getting to know each other until she flicked the lights again, and we took our seats. I remember feeling energized and motivated to begin class – something that I later experienced time and again with my own students after implementing the happy hour warm-up. All it took was about five minutes of class time.

The activity is very simple and effective, but Michelle later disclosed to me that it took a lot of trial and error to get it to where it is now. Prior to her time at our institution, she had spent years at Georgetown University trying to “get students out of their seats and communicating,” which eventually led to the development of the happy hour warm-up.

Because of my comfort level in the intimate space created, I felt safe and relatively anonymous. I could envision my students being adventurous with this ambiance, taking risks with the language. If all happy hours started with questions that were recycling previously seen structures and topics, then I could envision their anxiety-level at an all time low as they could speak confidently using language that they already knew. Further, if they switched partners and had another opportunity to answer the questions posted on the board, it would lead to improved fluency since they already had the opportunity to rehearse their answers.

Implementing happy hour in my classroom

Although I was absorbed in my conversation and did not take notice of her presence, Michelle was  constantly circulating between the pairs of students. As I began to employ the happy hour in my classes, I too adopted this role of floating around, only offering my input when it was needed. It seemed natural to me, as this was already in line with my teaching philosophy of allowing students a high degree of autonomy in their learning. Once the students realized that I was not ‘grading’ or ‘interrupting to correct’ them, I would join and converse in an effort to get to know them better. Not only were they building a better rapport with each other, but with me as well.

This activity has certainly contributed to building a sense of community in my classroom. In the past, I noticed that students tended to get stuck with just talking to their immediate neighbors without really getting to know the other students in the class. This activity encouraged students to switch partners, allowing for the opportunity to make a connection and become invested with their class as a whole. The happy hour allowed students to interact with each other not just as conversation partners, but also as people, and later as friends.

Finally, because they are standing (think about it, how many opportunities do they have in a classroom to stand up?), students are facing each other and have to apply the skills used in real conversations. We take these skills for granted, but waiting for one’s turn to speak, the register used (which is critical in Spanish since one must decide to either use the formal and informal second-person), and body language are all important unspoken rules that govern dialogue in our society. It is just as important that the students negotiate the rules of the target culture, and what better place to do this then in the classroom? The happy hour activity offers a venue for the students to rehearse these socio-cultural practices.

So how does one organize a happy hour?

Before class begins, ask your students to move their desks into a semicircle so they can have the space inside to mingle. Post the questions somewhere (on the board, on a PowerPoint slide, a handout, etc). Have some music playing at a medium volume in the background, preferably a song that has lyrics in the target language and that is energetic. Then, encourage your students to stand, to mingle, and to get to know their peers. When they are a quarter or a third of the way through answering the questions, consider switching partners so that the conversation does not die down. This could be as long or as short as you’d like. In the past, I have had happy hours last almost a quarter of the class time!

Since being exposed to the happy hour, I cannot imagine conducting a class without it and apparently, neither could our students and instructors. As a course coordinator, I shared Michelle’s happy hour activity with my instructors, and soon an entire multi-section course was utilizing this as a warm-up. The students embraced it so much that when they moved on to the subsequent course, they requested that their new instructors allow them to have a “happy hour” in class. I was flooded with inquiries from these curious instructors on what a classroom happy hour entailed. This activity has given “happy hour” a whole new meaning for our classes.

Do you have a unique warm-up that you use in your classes? Let us know in the comments!

© HigherEdgy, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to www.higheredgy.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. Photo license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en

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