Tactile Learning in the College Classroom

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I’ve learned a great deal from Kahdeidra Monét Martin, a Graduate Center and Humanities Alliance Fellow I’ve had the pleasure of meeting at Futures Initiative events and a recent Hunter College ACERT luncheon. Kahdeidra reminded me, on our recent panel together, that just because we grow older doesn’t mean that the learning methods we associate with grade school stop working. For example, we are accustomed to seeing movement and touch integrated into grade school, including games and interactive learning tools like those little base ten blocks from our first math classes. In contrast, a college classroom is usually stationary, limited to aural and visual interactions only.

We are missing out on valuable learning methods as adults. Tactile learning is something I’ve tried to integrate into my classroom since I met Kahdeidra. This semester I came up with a few ways to bring tactile learning into my American Literature class.

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I. Journaling

My class elected to read Walden by Henry David Thoreau, which Thoreau developed from his journals. I would normally teach this like any other text, but to try and bring more tactile learning into my classroom, I brought pencils and blue books this time. With blue books on the front desk (the only free “journals” I could find), I kindly informed my students that there was no exam or pop quiz, and to relax and get settled into their seats. I showed them some of my journals from the Appalachian Trail and talked about my daily notes and observations, and then I handed out the blue books.

Students started writing their own journal/diary entries either about their days or anything they felt like writing about. I gave them 5-7 minutes for this free write, then I broke them up into groups of 5-6 to answer the question, “Who do we write to when we write in journals?” Having a few moments to write their own entries in physical journals helped them start the discussion. We came together to list a diverse range of imaginary witnesses to our thoughts, from an omniscient being to the physical journal itself. We talked about how Thoreau’s journal writing may have impacted the writing of Walden, and what about journaling makes Walden so different from other texts we’ve read so far. At the end of class, I allowed students to keep the blue books and pencils, hoping that this positive experience might help to quell some of their future anxieties about blue books.

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II. Archival Materials

I have the special honor of owning an early edition of Fanny Fern’s Ruth Hall. On the first day we set out to discuss Ruth Hall, I walked in and asked all my students to wash their hands without telling them why. I suppose I could have told them why but building in some mystery and anticipation felt appropriate for the experience of touching an early edition. Once everyone washed their hands, I unwrapped the book and told students how to handle it properly, explaining what the protocols are for handling archival materials, and why it’s important to keep your hands clean. Then we carefully passed the book around, talked about its decorative cover and the important role that nature plays in Fern’s writing.

I imagine that a trip to local archives could accomplish something very similar. Alternatively, sharing photos of marginalia from your own trips to archives could do if you incorporated an activity that involves doodling in the margins of their own notes or books.

IMG_20181114_100320III. Index Card Bundles

I’ve been using index cards as entry tickets to class. In the first five minutes of each class, students write down a comment or question they have about the text we read for the day. I collected their cards and kept them until just before the Thanksgiving break, when I bundled them together and gave them back to the students (pictured on the left). I hoped that seeing records of their own ideas developing throughout the semester as well as my engagement with their ideas in the margins would help them write their final paper proposals. In a way, these index cards make up their own individual archives. The idea was to show them how proud they should feel: being able to hold one’s work in one’s hands makes one’s accomplishment tangible.

IV. Drawing 

Coming up, we’re reading Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl as well as a graphic novel about Nat Turner’s rebellion and Octavia Butler’s Kindred, which has been adapted to a graphic novel as well. On our last day on Kindred, I’ll bring colored pencils and markers and paper and ask students to draw frames depicting alternate endings for the characters who leave the plantation after the fire. I’ve done this once before with another class and it gives us another way to talk about Roxane Gay’s argument in a New York Times article that she doesn’t want to watch (or read) any more slavery fan fiction.

Tactile learning brought a liveliness into my classroom that it didn’t have before. It made our moments and discussions more memorable to me and hopefully also to the students. After all, I remember very few things from grade school but I do remember the base ten blocks because they were one of my favorite things to play with. Come to think of it, playing with base ten blocks is the only way I remember enjoying math at all. Imagine if I had had more math teachers who incorporated interactive learning into their classrooms? I might have become a physicist.

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