Share the story of your name

When I started this activity in my hybrid, freshman communication course I had already been doing a lot of activities to build community. Yet, I felt like the initial icebreaker just brushed the surface and left my students (and me!) with wanting to go a little deeper to get to know one another… Hence, the ‘birth’ of Share the Story of Your Name came to be.


My course is hybrid—about 40% is online and 60% is face-to-face. I have taken several semesters to hone a connected experience in this modality, but let’s be honest, a course is always a work in progress right? Particularly as we shift and change to best support the students that we serve.

Teaching a first-time freshman course that is required to graduate from the California State University can be tough, particularly because it is a course focused on public speaking… When I ask my students on the first day of class why the enrolled in the course, no one ever says “because I love to speak in public”, or “I want to learn how to speak in public”. This is the result every semester, year after year. Rather, in my early Getting to Know You Survey, about 95% of students confide that they have some level of fear speaking in public and are nervous/anxious/fearful of taking the course. So, in thinking about this context, my hope as an instructor is to create a brave space for students to practice their skills and make connections with their peers. I have found that these early connections not only help students engage with the course, but with one another that often continues beyond this one class. I have seen this happen many times where my previous students come back and visit and tell me that they made lifelong friends (or minimally, college lifelong friends) having met someone in my comm class.

The Activity

So, let’s get back to the Share the Story of Your Name activity…which by the way I conducted a formal study on this instructional strategy with positive results in terms of student belonging 🙂 On the first day of class (face-to-face), we spend about half of the 50-minute session with part one of our icebreaker that asks students to form a circle (we do this outdoors!) and go around the circle each sharing our name and something that we like that rhymes with or starts with same letter as our name, e.g., my name is Kim and I like kale. The next person then introduces the person before them and their ‘something’ and then introduces themself and the circle goes on. The last person in the circle may have a challenge remembering every person before them, but what is great is we help each other out.

Share the Story of Your Name is part two of the icebreaker that extends the in-class community building exercise to the online environment. Using VoiceThread to empower students’ voices, this activity is aimed at offering reflective time and opportunity to express one’s culture. I make a post about where my name came from and invite students to think about their own name, where it came from, what does it mean, how do they feel about it, and what aspect(s) would they like to share with their peers and instructor. They can choose any way to share, e.g., a personal story about their name, what they like about their name, where a nickname came from, etc. Each story is unique and helps students to connect to one another by listening to these stories.

What has followed is student speeches that will often reference either their own names or the name of a peer, but also speech topics that are deeply meaningful to each student. As we move into semester-long teams to support their learning and the social construction of knowledge, this starter icebreaker has clearly become a pivotal part of the students’ experience in terms of their sense of belonging.

In my study, findings indicated that 89% strongly agreed/agreed sense of belonging helped them learn:

  • Students felt a strong sense of belonging in this class 
  • Some shifts in grade distribution data compared to historical 
  • Student voice was powerful

One of the significant learning outcomes for me is that I feel more connected to my students, understand them more deeply, their lived experiences, and who they are. Every semester I am so fortunate to hear their voices and their stories through their speeches on topics that they are passionate about, particularly in their desire to change the world around them.

VoiceThread slide: “What’s in a Name By Any Other Name”

The Practice and Design of “Humanizing” Learning Experiences

I was honored by an invitation from EdSurge to participate in a panelist discussion on How to Humanize Online Learning and Maximize Student Success (recording of webinar). I believe we had over 200 participants! As I reflect on yesterday’s panel conversation, and incredible participant comments and questions, I would have to say that my biggest takeaway around Humanizing is the word “caring”, as shared by my colleague, Di Xu. The concept of caring and empathy is woven throughout all the practices in Humanizing learning.

Given what the research tells us about the importance of Humanizing, intentionally and authentically humanizing the instruction is critical for students’ success.  In design, we can approach this through a variety of pedagogies, activities, and technologies that cultivate relationships and build community. I rely on many frameworks and theories, but one framework in particular is the Community of Inquiry (CoI) (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000), which looks at the intersection of teaching, cognitive, and social presence. I will speak to each of these through some examples.

With pedagogies, which is really about teaching presence, instructors can apply strategies that develop empathy and human connections. Essentially, this is about being authentic. A couple of examples that support this are:

  • Creating a welcome video where the instructor tells their story of who they are and perhaps their own experience as a student and how that has shaped their path.
  • Providing regular ‘touches’ or interactions with students. A personal example is in my online doctoral program where my instructor used video feedback. As a student, watching and listening to him, I truly felt like he was invested in my work, my growth in the course, and overall success. This was also conveyed in his non-verbals that can often be missed online

Along with pedagogies, we also humanize through the design of social learning activities. This emphasizes both social and cognitive presence. Creating opportunities where learners can collaborate with one another can connect them with one another and advance the learning outcomes because as construct meaning through shared purpose. This is also where instructors have opportunity to discover who their learners are, which is essential in connecting that cognitive element. Extending this to how they can inspire and reach them. An example of asocial learning activity is something I use in my blended, first year freshman course where humanizing is ever so important in creating a sense of belonging as these students transition into college life. In the first week, students participate in an online, asynchronous activity where they each “Share the Story of Their Name” supported by VoiceThread technology. Through video or audio they each share some aspect of their name, (e.g., where it comes from, what it means, background, nicknames, etc.) and reply to another another. I also share the story of my name as a way to connect to each of them. This is not only an early opportunity to bring themselves into the learning experience and share a bit of who they are, but it is also about celebrating and acknowledging the unique backgrounds and experiences that they each bring to the shared environment.

Finally, through the intersection of the pedagogy and the activities/content, we can leverage technologies to support the learning and connections. This is about how can we use digital tools to create opportunities where students feel like they belong in a community. One example is using digital technologies such as Issuu and Canvas to create an online, asynchronous “virtual conference”. (Remember the feeling you had at that great face-to-face conference where you networked others, shared your work, and walked away feeling inspired?) This is the premise behind the virtual conference where students present their culminating course experience/knowledge/skills by bringing in opportunity for peer-to-peer connections, insightful feedback, and a real-world interaction that shares their work more broadly.

Moving forward with Humanizing are these many opportunities to intentionally and authentically engage with our students. What are some of the things you do in your courses?


Another nugget that Dr. Xu shared from her research, were the five things that students want from their online instructor:

  1. Clear expectations and instructions
  2. Timely responses
  3. Feedback to keep them on track
  4. Rubrics and checklists
  5. Weekly communication

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based
environment: Computer conferencing in higher education model. The Internet and
Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.


Creating Equitable and Inclusive Learning Environments

One of the challenges (and opportunities!) of a Center for Teaching and Learning is to find its place within the landscape of various efforts and initiatives at their institution, their system, and within broader education communities. Last week, our Center joined other campus teams from each of the California State University (CSU) campuses for the CSU Institute for Teaching and Learning on Equitable Learning Environments. One of the most significant takeaways for me was the inspiration and deep sense of commitment from colleagues across our large system. This is the kind of inspiration and commitment that leads toward significant change. The outcomes of the retreat were to share Center programming and resources that focus on inclusive, equity-minded teaching through various approaches, frameworks and theories of change; and create capacity at each campus through strategic partnerships.

Our goal as a team was to engage in conversations and activities around Center programming from across the system in order to re-think and re-imagine the work within our own campus contexts. Each team created a “Dream Team Plan” that highlighted significant takeaways informing an action plan that would move this deep work forward.  We focused on our Center’s role within the campus equity landscape and how HSU can continue to move toward equitable outcomes that shift the learning paradigm in substantive ways. Given our goal of meeting educators where they are, we are taking a multi-faceted approach that respects their time and autonomy, while maximizing authentic opportunities to engage and reflect on their practice. We look to align Center programming with existing efforts through new and/or reconfigured approaches with the goal of creating systemic change within our campus learning environments.

Plan for Creating Equitable Outcomes and Shifting the Learning Paradigm

Our Plan for Creating Equitable Outcomes and Shifting the Learning Paradigm

Inspiration Everywhere

Last week, I was inspired by many people and ideas at CSU Fresno! The faculty are engaged in transformative practice and the Center for Faculty Excellence team is engaged in faculty partnerships that both ultimately impact students’ learning.

This was a day of exciting energy around their Canvas launch, but more importantly around the exploration of opportunities that highlight what the new technology can be through a re-thinking of one’s teaching, sharing with colleagues, and possibilities to connect students with the world.

Table Mountain Rancheria Reading Room, Henry Madden Library

I was honored by the invitation to provide the Keynote Presentation, “Canvas and the World: Inspire, Innovate, Impact” for their annual Technology, Innovations, and Pedagogy Conference. The emphasis was on how we can use technology to open up student learning to the world. We looked through the lenses of inspire, innovate, and example to dive into examples of how Canvas and related technologies opened these doors to the world.  One example included an activity in my blended public speaking course where students use VoiceThread to “Share the Story of Your Name”. This one activity has created opportunity for students to practice their speaking skills in the digital environment, acknowledged the diverse perspectives and backgrounds in the course, and created long-term connections between students. Fresno faculty shared what Canvas Panda at Fresno Stateinspired them as teachers; what innovations they are engaged in/planning; and ultimately how their practice impacts students in meaningful ways. One faculty member shared their inspiration in the work that their students are doing. Another shared how they are using ePortfolios for students to curate content related to their learning. They are engaged in amazing work!

After the keynote, three faculty lightning talks focused on community and humanizing the learning experience. These faculty members shared their research on the their teaching, the innovative use of technologies, and the impactful ways in which their students were connecting to one another through learning. Dr. Tayeb shared how he used Canvas discussions for study guides and exam wrappers as a way to find out what students were focusing on before the exam and reflecting after the exam. He also shared his strategy using anonymous Canvas quizzing to find out where students are struggling, e.g., muddiest points. Dr. Anzoleaga discussed a variety of technology uses to engage her students, including her use of Canva for students to create a bio at the beginning of the term. Dr. Aguilera shared how he uses digital tools and pedagogies to support the “humanized” experience of his students.

I am inspired to try new things this coming semester! I feel fortunate to work with so many amazing colleagues who are engaged in findings ways to reach their students in meaningful ways.  In terms of Canvas, my brain is going every which way about the many ways in which it can be used as an opening to the world.

Disrupting Learning Through Mobile Exploration

Excited to be facilitating a workshop on mobile learning at the CSU Symposium on University Teaching this month @CalPolyPomona! Get ready to go mobile in this session!

Here’s a sneak peek: How can we disrupt learning through discovery and exploration in ways that allows learners to engage with the world around them?

student using iPad and iPod for studying on a car road trip

Mobile Learner by kvlayton, 2015

Mobile technology allows this reach beyond the four walls of a physical classroom. In the Mobile Learning Scavenger Hunt activity, learners work together to discover and capture a variety of objects/visuals that represent motivational appeals closely tied to the emotions, needs, and values of their audience in persuasive speaking and writing.  Find out the results of students’ learning performance, as well as what they walked away with ‘beyond the grade’.


Rock Your First Day of Class!

In writing this tip, I kept reflecting on various ‘first’ days that I experienced, both as an educator and a student. So much is happening on this first day! Everything from excitement, to fear, to curiosity.  As I leave my office and head to the first day of class in a new semester, I often have emotions that feel just like the first time that I taught the class. I am nervous but excited. As a student, I get these very same feelings.

How can we tap into these feelings and really set the stage for the learning experience? Check out some brief tips: Rock Your First Day of Class!