It’s no secret that when students make connections between the course content and their own lives, they are much more likely to learn in meaningful ways. 

As a first-year writing instructor, I’m always thinking about and looking for new ways to get students to connect to the topics, themes, and ideas that are being discussed in class. To my delight, I came across an interesting assignment idea on Twitter in December of 2020 by Dr. Gibson. She tweeted the following: 

Essentially, this “Weekly Encounters” has students encounter the course content outside of the classroom space, and they then write about their experiences. In her tweet thread, Dr. Gibson shares some of her reflections and some student examples from that assignment. 

I’ve since adapted and implemented this idea in my own courses, and I’m immensely impressed with the connections the students in my classes have made. 

In this post, I’d like to discuss how I’ve adapted that assignment, share some student examples, and offer some of my own reflections. I hope this post builds on the examples that Dr. Gibson shared. I hope, too, that it gives you some ideas for adapting this assignment in your own courses, so students can further see how the content they are learning matters not only in the classroom, but outside of it as well. 

The way I’ve adapted the “Weekly Encounters” assignment is as follows: 

Sometimes, school can feel distant from your everyday life. In this class, I hope it becomes apparent that the issues we discuss not only matter in the classroom but outside of it as well. This assignment will better help you connect what you learn in the classroom to your life and your lived experiences.  

Over the course of the semester, you need to submit 3 “outside encounters” assignments, one for each unit.

Instructions for submissions: You need to fully describe what you “encountered”—a song, film, tweet, video game, Instagram post, book, conversation with a friend or parent, etc. 

You must, for credit, clearly connect this to some theme in our course—this means linking it to questions or ideas about the “Banking” or “Problem Posing” models of education, examining framing being used, discussing language practices, etc. When applicable, provide a link to whatever you’re discussing.

(Just a quick note on the name change: I call it “Outside Encounters” instead of “Weekly Encounters” because students in my classes only need to complete three throughout the semester, one for each of the first three units.)

In my first-year writing courses, the first unit focuses on education (with discussions centered on Freire’s “Banking Model” and “Problem Posing” model); the second on the politics of languaging (with Young’s “Should Writers Use They Own English” as a key text); and the third on the criminal justice system (with Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” speech as the major text for this unit). 

During unit 1, when students are going to complete their first “Outside Encounter,” I usually receive a few questions around what “counts” for credit. Can we really use a meme or Snapchat or an example from our lives to make a connection to the text or theme, they might ask. It seems, with this type of question, that students might feel like they need to use a traditional academic article or something along those lines for this assignment. But this isn’t the case. They can, and in fact are encouraged to, make parallels between a course theme and their own lives, or an Instagram post, or a movie, or a YouTube video, etc. That’s sort of the main point, that students make connections that are meaningful to them.

Student Examples

I’ll share two student examples here from my second unit, which had a focus on the politics of languaging. (These are shortened examples. For the complete versions, please go to the bottom of this page to access the Google doc.)

The first student made a powerful connection between how her relatives were often seen as less smart because they spoke Cantonese and “broken English.” Here’s part of her “Outside Encounter.”

The unit theme has made me reflect on my own experiences, being raised with relatives who did not speak strictly English. Namely, it made me think about my mother and how her English was the only “acceptable” form of speaking, compared to her parents who spoke with a mix of Cantonese and English. Growing up, I remember how she constantly had to make calls, read their mail, go to appointments, etc for them because of how institutions and businesses here could not “understand” my grandparents. For a long time, this was just normal to me. However, I picked up on how my grandparents relied heavily on my mom/aunt to get basic care. It made me realize that America solely operates on those who conform to their system. There really is no room for speaking/appreciating your own language, no matter how talented or smart you may be. For a country that is built from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds, there is very little tolerance for it in our institutions.

With this assignment, she was able to see that, what first appeared to be “normal,” wasn’t, in fact, normal at all. It was, instead, discrimination that her family was experiencing because of their language practices.  

The second student, with still a focus on languaging, turned turn to Tik-Tok for her “Outside Encounter.”

This unit focused on how language and identity go hand in hand. We’ve examined framing, ideologies, and code-switching affect our perceptions. In America, people that either don’t speak or struggle speaking English are looked down upon. This ideology makes it difficult for those that speak other languages to fit in and be respected. I found an example of a character experiencing this while watching TikTok. I came across a clip from the TV show Modern Family, posted by Prime Video UK. In the video, Gloria (the character speaking) expresses her frustrations with constantly having to speak English, even to her family. She tells her husband, “You should try talking in my shoes for one mile”. He then tries to correct the phrase and leads her to exclaim, “Do you even know how smart I am in Spanish”. Everyday Gloria has to speak in a language that is not her own, a language that she is learning. And she is ridiculed for saying things that aren’t the traditional way of speaking. Her expression “You should try talking in my shoes for one mile” fits perfectly with the situation. It is difficult for anyone to speak a different language, and unfair for others to ridicule them for not speaking perfectly. Gloria knows that others do not view her as intelligent because she struggles to find the right words to say something in English. People perceive her as “less than” simply because of the way she speaks.

What might have at fist gone unnoticed during a social media scroll, now, because of this assignment, becomes an important moment for reflection in conjunction with the course ideas. 

Many other students made interesting connections like these throughout the semester. One student connected the “Banking Model” and “Problem Posing” model to previous courses he took, and he was able to reflect on his past schooling experiences in new ways. Another student took the concept of code-switching and applied it to how she had to code-switch whenever she ate at school because her food was “weird” and different than American food. Most of the “Outside Encounters” were just as insightful. 

Reflections on “Outside Encounters”

This assignment is quickly becoming one of my favorites in my courses. I think, from the student examples I shared above, it might be easy to see why. Students are able to make connections between the course content in ways that truly matter to them. 

Theoretically, this assignment is heavily rooted in John Dewey’s idea that education should be relevant to students’ lives. And as Paulo Freire has written, “Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other” (emphasis mine). Education, then, needs to connect to students’ lived experiences if it’s going to matter at all. This “Outside Encounters” assignment helps students make those important personal, social, and civic connections between school and their own lives. 

  • For the “Outside Encounter” Google doc I share with students, plus the complete versions of the student examples shared in this post, go here.
  • A huge thank you to Dr. Gibson for coming up with this assignment!