Asking a Simple Question: What a Common Classroom Activity Revealed about Economic Inequality

On my first day of teaching freshman composition at a Denver area community college, I began the class with an icebreaker activity that I’d developed during my time as a graduate teaching assistant at a four-year university in Virginia. Though at the time, I thought this was a fairly innocuous first-day exercise, the disparities between the student population at the community college where I currently teach versus the ones at the four-year university where I taught for three years were made immediately apparent to me. As an instructor, you have many formative experiences that guide your pedagogy, and that afternoon I was struck by how such a simple in-class assignment could highlight how economic situations, as well as personal traumas, affect my students’ educational outcomes in such powerful ways.

This getting-to-know-you exercise is common to many teaching environments and involved students interviewing each other about their current college standing as well as their personal lives. They would record their partner’s answer and then introduce them to the rest of the class. Over the years, I’ve found that this activity encourages students to get to know each other, builds confidence in their abilities to speak in front of the class, and can often result in shared life experiences that help build an inclusive academic atmosphere.

At the university where I used to teach, the student undergraduate population is a fairly homogenized group. It is 65% white, a little less than 57% male, and most of the undergraduates come from upper-middle-class families in Northern Virginia. Also, the majority of them matriculated to the university the year following their graduation.

In 2016, the population at the community college where I now teach is much different. 74% of our students are part-time, with a fair amount of them holding down full-time jobs while they attend school. Our students are 31% Hispanic, 33% white, and 10% African American. Also, over 70% of our students qualify for Federal Pell Grants because of their low-income status, and many of them have taken off at least one year between high school and college, though over a decade isn’t abnormal either.

Getting back to the first-day activity, the questions I had created during my time in graduate school were simple ones. Every once and a while I might substitute a question or two to keep things fresh, but they were always close to something like:

(1) What is your name?

(2) Where are you from?

(3) What is your major?

(4) Tell the class one interesting fact about yourself.

Nothing terribly fancy, I know. But, as I said before, it helped address a number of important and fundamental first-week-of-the-semester issues as well as encourage the students to become less timid with each other.

While I was teaching at the four-year university, the last question on this list often produced similar answers. The students would share with the class about the time they’d traveled out of the country, or what sport they excelled at in high school, or some other endearing tidbit that gave the rest of the students and me a quick peek into their lives outside of the classroom.

Fast-forward a few years later, and I try the same exercise at the community college where I am currently an adjunct instructor. During my first class of the day, after we went over the syllabus, I explained the activity and then passed out the index cards for the students to collect their peers’ answers. Though I’d always thought of it as a relatively painless task, there are usually a few muffled groans when I introduce the exercise, maybe some eye-rolls, and this time it was no different. I encouraged the class not to be nervous and to have fun getting know to know each other as they yawned and stretched. Soon the students dug in and started chatting.

When the class finished their interviews, I started the sharing-out portion with two young men sitting in the front of the classroom. They both seemed a little nervous about talking in front of their peers, but that isn’t terribly unusual; many students are shy on the first day of class. The first young man introduced his partner who was an engineering major and whose interesting fact about himself was that he was a musician. So far, not much unusual; the student’s response was one I regularly received at the four-year university. Then the musician introduced his partner, who was from Denver and wasn’t certain about his major yet. When he got to the interesting fact question, the student cleared his throat and stared at the card. “And one interesting fact about [my partner],” he said, kind of quiet, “is that he watched his father get murdered when he was six years old.”

A hush went over the class.

Now, anyone who has taught for any length of time has had an experience where a student says or does something that leaves them, the teacher, speechless. Unfortunately, on that day, this was my reaction. Most of the time, when students would finish their introductions, I’d make some kind of encouraging or humorous remark about the information that they’d presented to the class, trying to keep things light for the first day. But on that afternoon, I couldn’t think of anything intelligible to say in the face of such a devastating experience; my brain and mouth wouldn’t coordinate All I could muster was something like: “I’m sorry to hear that. Thank you for sharing,” and then moved on to the next pair.

While the rest of the students didn’t offer up anything as personal as this young man on that day, over the preceding two semesters, many students have shared with me or the class a life-altering experience that made it abundantly clear how vast the inequalities were between students who grew up in economically deprived households when compared to students who come from upper-middle-class homes and communities.

Over the past couple of semesters, while teaching at the community college, students have shared dozens of stories with me that illuminate these painful experiences. I’ve had students whose parents are lifelong drug addicts, students whose siblings were sentenced to life in prison for murder, students who birthed their first child at fifteen, and students who spent the majority of their lives in orphanages or juvenile detention centers. I’ve had two students, over the course of exactly as many semesters, tell me they are temporarily homeless because of family or money issues.

As you can imagine, these hardships create quite a challenge for community college instructors because our students often have issues outside of the classroom, whether they are current or in their past, that can unconsciously affect how they perform in college. It seems obvious that economic and racial inequalities in this country often correlate with traumatic experiences, but sometimes it takes a tangible example to make this association obvious to instructors or other college administrators. I count myself lucky to have had these two diametrically opposed experiences with student bodies because it has allowed me to understand how growing up in poverty isn’t just about the material dispossession that many of my students have faced. It’s also about the commonplace but nonetheless harrowing experiences that often go hand-in-hand with economic instability. Since that influential afternoon, I’ve realized that it is my job as an educator to understand the unique issues facing this student demographic and to help them find ways to navigate through the trying incidents in their past in order to secure the bright future that they deserve.

Travis McDonald

I am a professional and passionate freelance writer who is excited to work with you on any writing project you have available. I have over 3 years of experience teaching professional, academic, and creative writing at the college-level and am a published author with articles and stories in major American publications. I have a BA in English from the University of Texas at Austin and an MFA in Creative Writing from Virginia Tech.

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