Enlivening the November Classroom: An Advice Column Activity

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Elizabeth Catanese is an Associate Professor of English and Humanities at Community College of Philadelphia. Trained in mindfulness-based stress reduction, Elizabeth has enjoyed incorporating mindfulness activities into her college classroom for over ten years. Elizabeth works to deepen her mindful awareness through writing children's books, cartooning and parenting her energetic twin toddlers, Dylan and Escher.


For me, and many of my students, this is a hard part of the semester. There is a kind of liminality to it, a neither here nor there. Midterms are over, but finals are not quite in view. It’s almost Thanksgiving, but not quite. Assignments are in full force and fall viruses are too. To keep it real, at this moment, some students may not be seeing much of a distinction between an assignment and a virus. At this time more than ever, I am thinking about how to keep students engaged in the classroom, which means it’s the time of year for some fully in-class, credit-bearing activities that take the place of take-home assignments.

This semester, I stumbled upon an assignment that fits this bill: A fun activity to help students apply the concepts in Lao Tsu’s The Tao Te Ching and The Analects of Confucius. I printed out a Dear Abby advice column (later students told me that no one reads Dear Abby and I should go to Reddit instead…noted!) and we read through a letter that a woman had sent in about her new husband taking his adult child off of his insurance and asking him to pay his own way. I picked this particular advice column topic based on content from a previous class conversation about the role of parents in adult children’s lives. In groups, I had students write advice for this woman using a quotation from The Tao or The Analects. They then read the advice that was actually given to her by the advice columnist. The class discussed if their advice was different or similar to the “professional” advice and analyzed whether her response seemed to come from a more collectivist or individualist model. Students gained many insights about The Analects and The Tao and also about the information missing in the column and how we may shape our stories to try to get the advice we want. I wasn’t anticipating these additional insights, and I will say that it’s the additional insights that keep me going as a professor!

I believe that the advice column assignment could be applied to a variety of content and skills-based courses. Students can be asked to give advice as characters from stories, nurses-in-training, even as numbers (would a fraction want a different outcome than a negative number?); don’t be afraid to get creative. I’ve found this to be an activity that is quite equalizing. A student may have very little knowledge of the texts we are studying, but they may have had an experience similar to one being written in the advice column—their skills and energy pair nicely with those who have deeper insights into the course texts.

This particular assignment also has a quality to it that is helpful right now—it takes very little energy on the part of the professor. Students can even be the ones to search for the advice columns in class on their smart phones if pre-selecting them is too challenging given other demands this time of year. One of the mantras that keeps me going at the end of November is “Keep it simple. Keep it interesting. Make space.” Write some of the in-class activities you have used to enliven your November classrooms in the comments below!