Classroom Innovation with “The Hunger Games”

Bruce Martin, PhD, New Mexico State University Alamogordo, md@nmsu.edu

After nearly 15 years working as administrative staff in our college’s Office of Institutional Research and Assessment, I retired in spring 2013, but agreed to teach a class on “American Political Issues” during the fall 2013 semester. I had taught the course as an adjunct many times before, but I wanted to use the results from years of research and assessment activities to address various student needs previously identified in our research in support of grant proposals. During the last ten years, the college had received multiple multi-­‐million dollar grants as an Hispanic-­‐Serving Institution (HSI), as well as grants focused on career-­‐technical programs. Like most comprehensive community colleges, many of our students need significant “developmental” work in reading, writing and mathematics before they are able to be successful in the general education courses, like my class, that they must take for their degrees. In order to address these needs, multiple innovations were simultaneously introduced into the fall 2013 course, including use of the university’s online learning management system to supplement traditional face-­‐to-­‐face classroom experiences; the presence of an “embedded tutor” to assist students who were still enrolled in “developmental” or “remedial” reading and writing courses; and use of the pedagogical technique of “flipping” the classroom away from the traditional lecture format.

Course design also incorporated insights gained from discussions with colleagues teaching developmental writing courses and those offering the “College 101” (College/Life Success) course. This introduction helped me understand the college’s expectations for incoming students, the skills that would be introduced or reinforced for these students, and the timeline the students would encounter during the semester. I adapted my own class structure and timeline to reinforce the student learning that was expected of the incoming students that fall semester.

Prior to the semester, a tutor was requested from our Academic Support Center, who could routinely attend class to offer support (on a daily basis if necessary), for students needing help with reading and writing. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, was used as the course text to facilitate access to political discussion by students having a broad spectrum of reading abilities. This “young adult” novel has a vocabulary and reading level accessible to nearly all incoming freshmen, even those at some of the lowest reading levels. Students viewed the “Hunger Games” movie in class as well as

This essay is part of the Political Science Educator: Editor’s Reading List

The Big Lebowski, which was included as a result of J. Wesley Lecrone’s piece in PS of January 2013 “Hippies, Feminists, and Neocons: Using The Big Lebowski to Find the Political in the Nonpolitical.” The class also viewed A Place at the Table, a 2012 documentary on hunger in the United States. The decision to emphasize issues related to hunger and poverty was not only due to the centrality of these themes to The Hunger Games, but also because the star of Lebowski, Jeff Bridges, is a long time advocate on hunger issues, founding the “End Hunger Network” in 1983. He was extensively interviewed in the documentary as well.

Detailed course planning proved to be of only limited relevance as the actual classroom experience mirrored both the research findings from my previous work and the limitations imposed by institutional bureaucracy and habits. For example, there were a limited number of computer classrooms available for general education courses. The classroom ultimately used for the course had limited space: virtually no space for small group discussions or one-­‐on-­‐one tutoring -­‐-­‐both essential to the success of the course’s basic plan for student learning. Another major stumbling block was the assignment of a “peer tutor” to the course rather than a “professional tutor.” Peer tutors are fellow students who are at an accelerated level relative to the students in the class and so are available to help others with reading and writing difficulties. However, mostly because of potential liability issues, these peer tutors are not allowed to meet with the students in the class without a regular staff supervisor in the same room. This severely limited the potential for providing support for students having low reading and writing skills, support they would need on an almost daily basis.

One additional problem that could not be anticipated was the government shutdown in October. Much of the data for the examination of hunger and poverty issues became inaccessible or very difficult to access during the shutdown. The basic course design included the idea of the “flipped classroom,” which de-­‐ emphasizes or eliminates class lectures in favor of in-­‐class research done by the students using active learning or project-­‐based learning strategies. Much of the reason for locating the course in the computer classroom was nullified as limited access to federal government data ensued. Although the actual disruption lasted about three weeks, it was not clear how long it would continue as the shutdown unfolded. This resulted in the need for a mid-­‐course redesign. I scrambled to get local officials and activists to talk to the class in-­‐person instead of relying on the students’ in-­‐class, computer-­‐based research. The guest speakers also proved to be good contacts for the students who needed to find an organization they could volunteer to help as part of their “community service” requirement for the course.

Together, the students and I learned a great deal about the issues of hunger and poverty in our rural county setting. The concerns I had heard from faculty over the years about problems with classrooms, instructional support, and student motivation and perseverance were substantiated as well. Many students in the course had personally encountered the consequences of poverty in their own lives and educations. In fact, several faced those same problems and consequences in their college studies that fall semester. Although the course did not meet my hopes for addressing the variety of student learning issues that my research had previously identified, the actual experience in the classroom reinforced the research findings. The course also highlighted poverty’s impacts on student learning at both the institutional and the personal levels, and their ongoing relevance for the day-­‐to-­‐day college classroom experience.

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