Getting ALL your students to participate in class

Its’ not so difficult, believe me!

The trick is to make it easy, both for them and for you, to visually check whether each student has participated or not. I use a very simple method: paper cards that are green on one side, and red on the other. Every time a student asks a question or adds a (somewhat substantial) comment, they get to turn their card from red to green.

It’s all explained in this little video:

By the end of class, you can see with just a glimpse which students still have red cards on their desks. If you have a “participation grade”, it will take you no more than a minute to pen down which students got their points, and which didn’t. (That is, when you’ve learned all their names. At the beginning of a course it may take a bit longer.)

The neat thing is that students immediately know whether they are getting their points or not, and will make an extra effort – I normally get about 80% of the students to participate in one form or another without prompting. Which makes it also easier to pay attention to the students that find it more difficult to participate, and to help them out.

This system also helps you to avoid a student “hogging” the discussion without being curt to them: if a student is raising their hand for the tenth time (it’s a good problem; I love those students!) you can simply say, “Let’s hear from the red cards first.” A very easy way to open the discussion.

Let me know if this was any help!



Tools for teachers: Do-it-yourself Snakes & Ladders!

A fun activity for an end-of-the-term class!


Spongebob Business Ethics!

You’ve been there: You’ve taught the whole syllabus, next class you’ll have the test, and you’re afraid that, if you try to fit just one more bit of content into your students’ brains, the whole thing is going to collapse like a Jenga tower. (Not that it matters, since your students’ brains are ready for the break, and have wisely decided to shut down all communications with the teaching world).

What to do then? Cupcakes, music; a course-related movie if you are really dedicated… But in my experience, this approach usually feels flat, as if you had given up, instead of ending with a Bang!

Thus this activity, which, truth be told, won’t probably teach your students anything new, but will have the whole class buzzing and laughing together. Which is good enough for that final class!

You’ll need:

  • one poster board for every 5 students
  • a die or two
  • some goodies (candy bars, etc.) for prizes.

A game of Light and Darkness – Bingo style!

Snakes_and_Ladders Ancient game

Snakes & Ladders: Origins

Snakes and Ladders  (“Chutes and Ladders,” your students will be quick to point out, referring to the famous Mattel version) is an ancient Indian board game. Players, in turn, through a die, and move forward. If they land on a “ladder” square, they move up and skip a number of steps, depending on where the ladder lands. But if they fall on a “snake” (or chute), they move down and have to roll their way up again. The first one to reach the end wins the game.

If Wikipedia is to be trusted, “the historic version had root in morality lessons, where a player’s progression up the board represented a life journey complicated by virtues (ladders) and vices (snakes).” Which makes it a great choice for a final class on Business Ethics.

But how to make it personal? Begin by drawing on poster board various versions of an 80-square track, without adding any ladders or snakes. This is the time-consuming part: you need to have the boards ready ahead of time, one for every 5 students (it takes about 1/2 hour each, depending on skill).


(Tip: Keep the used boards. The next time you want to do this activity, tape the poster board to a window, and use the transparency effect to copy the board design on the other side. You will save money, and it will take you about ten minutes per game board!)

Here are some examples of boards I used in my last class:
(Clicking on them will open a high-res version in a new tab)


Snake style


Tape worm-inspired?


Old-fashioned labyrinth


Ever played “Tron”?

In class, I divided students in groups of 5, each group sharing a board, and asked each student in a group to add both a snake and a ladder to their board. Here’s the teaching part: The “reason” why you go up or down has to be stated on the square, and it has to be related to the course content (e.g. Lied on your Resume will be a “snake”; Helped cover shifts will be a “ladder”).

DSC_1589-001 DSC_1588

Walk among them, help them with ideas, and keep them on track.

Tip: They’ll have even more fun if they select a “theme” for their game board, that connects the various rewards and penalties.

Ask them also to design their “tokens” (the playing pieces), which can also be related to a theme.


Darth Bubble, The Flying Dutchman, and that happy starfish thingy. And a sales graph?

Playing together

It would probably be fun enough to let them play on their own once they are ready. But it’s even more fun if the teacher rolls the dice and announces the results, “bingo style”. To do this:

– Each player in a group should have a number from 1 to 5

– Write those number on the board, and find a way to mark which player is currently rolling. (I have some wonderful magnetic erasers that I simply move around!)


– Move the marker, roll a die, and announce the result. Each player with that number moves, in every team. They are all playing simultaneously; but because the distribution of snakes and ladders in each board is different, results will vary.

– Move to the next player. Repeat.

(Tip: I bring two or three and a cup. Even if I roll one die at a time, this helps move things faster. You want to keep this moving!)

Pay attention to your students’ reactions. If they laugh out loud or scream in frustration, ask them what happened. This will allow the rest of the class to participate on each teams’ game.

The first player in each board to reach the end gets a goodie (runner-ups too, if you want).

What have you learned?

The actual learning/reviewing done in this activity is thin at best (though, if I taught math, I’ll ask students to do probability analyses for each board, that kind of thing). It is mostly aimed at having a good last day together with them.

There is an important indirect lesson though, which you can discuss with those cooler-than-thou students that insist on keeping their distance: The more you put of yourself in an activity, the more you’ll enjoy it! This is strikingly visible in this activity: the groups that select a theme and try to produce very elaborate boards have a total blast while playing it; those that start reticently will eventually warm up to it, but not with the same level of enjoyment.


Eels & Ladders

In one class, I could see the diminishing degrees as the desks got further away from the board. Those sitting in the front desks, by far the most enthusiastic players, celebrated every play: they had designed a very detailed Spongebob Business Ethics theme, down to downloading the show’s theme song into one of their phones. Those on the back row had one team member move the pieces for everyone else, while the rest stole glances into their computer screens. Something else to think about…

Alf the Red

Tools for Philosophers: Fun with Ethical Dilemmas!

…Or how to make your students create their own dilemmas to use in the classroom.

Real ethical dilemmas, of course, are never fun. You have to choose between conflicting values–sometimes the lesser of two evils–and it is always a tough decision that leaves you somewhat dissatisfied, when not thoroughly depressed…

Bring them to the classroom, though, and things lighten up! Even the most disaffected student cannot resist voicing their opinion when one of these turns up.

They work greatly when you need to “change the air” in  the class; that is, if you’ve been lecturing for too long and feel that if you don’t do something else your students will die in their desks. It’s good to keep a couple of these handy.

Selecting dilemmas to use in class

Where can you get a good ethical dilemma? Most textbooks will have a good selection, but you should always read them in advance and look for such things as these, and possibly modify the case:

  • A case that provides a lot of detail is more fun to analyze than a very vague one (and thus, dilemmas based on real cases are usually more interesting)
  • A case that makes you decide from the point of view of one of the characters is more engaging than the general question, “what should be done”?
  • Some cases end up telling you what was done, and ask you to judge on those actions. If that is the case, it is better to cut the last paragraph out, and let the students develop their own solutions to the problem

There are many ways of using cases in a class discussion. I’ll discuss them in a future post. Stay tuned! (I.e., press the “Follow” button! 😉

A classroom activity: Dilemma “skits”

Download this activity

While I normally bring to class (that is, to Ethics class) some handouts with good “standalone” cases, I’ve recently had the opportunity of showing my students some flash presentations onscreen presenting short, everyday ethical dilemmas. These immediately capture the full attention of the most tired and distracted students, and are excellent for bite-sized discussions. Even if the acting is crummy, this adds an element of fun to the presentation!

The problem, however, is that there aren’t that many available. I quickly ran out of them.

So I thought: Why don’t I make my students come up with some?

That is how I came up with this activity, which you can download here. In a class with 22 students, we got five skits ready in just 45 minutes! You should allow about an hour for performing & discussing.

 This is how it works:

  • The activity guides students in creating “skits,” 2-3 minutes-long
  • The creation process is broken down so that it is very easy to keep students on track. The time assigned for each step worked perfectly in a 20+ students class…
  • …but you should walk around the groups and nudge them in the right direction if they are having trouble deciding on a topic
  • Groups can be of 3-5 students each, and every student should choose a speaking role. (One role can be the Narrator, introducing the characters and the situation)
  • The skit should not end with a decision, but instead should stop at the point in which a decision needs to be made.
  • When a skit ends, congratulate the students, and then use the opportunity to discuss the case with the whole class. In this way you pace them, and give each one the attention they deserve

* For a nice “extra credit” project, you can challenge your students to make a video of their skit. Eventually you may end with a small collection that you can use in future classes! (If you happen to do this and decide to make them public, let me know!)

Tools for Philosophy Teachers: A Guide for Student Presentations

How do I get my students to read the material before class?

This is perhaps the greatest challenge college teachers face today! (Ideas? Post a comment!)

This will have to wait, though. What I have here [Download!] is a very simple way of getting at least ONE student to read the material before class. It is as simple as assigning them a presentation on the readings for the day.

The basic format of the presentation:

  • The student introduces him/herself and the topic
  • The student summarizes each unit assigned (a section, a paragraph, etc.) in two to three sentences, written beforehand.
  • The student provides a “reaction” to the reading (likes, dislikes, things that left him/her thinking…)
  • The student proposes one or two questions to the class. These are not rhetorical: Only after the questions have generated a few minutes of discussion is the student allowed to go back to their seat.
The format itself is not my creation (though this guide is). I think it’s pretty standard. I picked it up from Prof. William George, at Dominican University.
It’s a great way of reviewing the material too; and the most rudimentary feelings of empathy for the presenting student will have the others paying attention and trying to participate!
How to use it:
  • Write in the header the name of the student and the assignment. In this way, there’ll be no excuses.
  • It is better to assign short sections to many students. In that way, you get more students to actually focus on the reading!
  • A good presentation will take 10-15 mins. of class. Of course, I am counting on reasonably smart, motivated students. Results may vary.
  • Don’t let a student get away with a question that doesn’t elicit a good follow-up discussion. If they made the mistake of asking a question that can be simply answered with a “yes,” let them suffer the *uncomfortable silence* that follows for a few minutes. This will motivate the following students to prepare better questions!
Download A Guide for Student Presentations [in old Word format. Document will open in a new window.]

Tools for Philosophy Teachers: A Logic Inventory

So you’ve started your philosophy course with high hopes of getting your students to analyze the intricacies of Aristotle’s potency and act, Aquinas’ being and essence, and Kant’s Critique of something or other. And already you find your expectations stumped by the fact that your students–fresh from high school–are having trouble figuring the difference between a definition and an example!

Don’t worry, we’ve all been there.

This activity [Download!] can come in very handy at the beginning of a course that will be heavy in the use of various basic conceptual operations. Through it, students get to exercise the following:

  • Definitions (etymological, semantic, explanatory and classical, i.e., genus + specific difference)
  • Describing
  • Characterizing
  • Enumerating properties
  • Exemplifying
  • Formulating
  • Stating vs. Explaining
  • Paraphrasing
Each of these operations is given a brief explanation, after which students are asked to define/characterize, etc. such words as “whisky,” “to run” and “New Yorker.” (Feel free to modify it to your taste).
Recommended use: 
Use it in one of your first classes, and ask students to work in groups first. This will get them talking to each other. Then share with the class. This will get them talking to you!
The document is in old Word format, 5 pages long. It works better if each student has their own copy. 
You can find it here.  [Document will open in a new window.]
Alf the Red

Coaching Children to Read in Church


Once a month in our parish we celebrate a “Family Mass.” What is different about this one is that the parish children take care of most of the roles. This includes reading in front of the whole congregation!

I’m proud of our young readers. They put a bold front, and do an outstanding job. In many cases, their enthusiasm makes you listen anew to readings that had become trite and uninteresting from being read always in the same monotone. And even when they don’t quite pull it off, they still get the whole congregation to smile and feel that things aren’t so bad after all!

Through mysterious ways, I’ve somehow ended up as the “reading coach.” This means that every month I have to help a group of children and teenagers, ranging from ages 7 to 16, to prepare some really challenging readings. Sometimes with only a few minutes before showtime, since we don’t have formal practices set up. In the process, I have come upon a few tips & tricks that I’m passing on to you. (They may be helpful for other occasions too.)

1) What readings you need to cover:

In a Sunday Catholic Mass, readings go like this:

 The first reading is taken from the Old Testament, the Acts of the Apostles, or the Book of Revelations. Most of these readings will be either a narrative passage, or a passage from one of the prophets.
The greatest challenge with the former are the long, unfamiliar names of places and people. With the books of the Prophets, the challenge is to make the words “sound” prophetic.

 Between readings, the Psalms are normally sung, but if they aren’t, you may need a reader for this too.

 The second reading is taken from the Apostolic Letters. The style, the long sentences, and the fact that these are normally selections from a longer, ongoing argument, make these readings a challenge even for adult readers.

 The Gospel is read by the priest, so you don’t need to worry about that one.

 After the Offertory (when the gifts are brought forward to the priest), the Prayers of the Faithful are read. These are normally between five and six short prayers, written specifically for that Mass, each followed by the congregation answering “Lord, Hear our Prayer,” or a similar invocation. When read by children, these are usually split among them.
Practice especially the last one, where the “intention of this Mass” is read. This will have the name of the person/s for whom this particular Mass is prayed. It has to be heard well, and proper names can be tricky.
If you have more than one reader for these, and they are reading many prayers each, it is better not to alternate them (Reader 1, prayer 1, reader 2, prayer 2, reader 1, prayer 3 and so forth).
Group them instead (e.g. Reader 1, prayers 1, 2 and 3; Reader 2, prayers 4, 5 and 6). This is because readers may be of varying heights, and stand differently, and then you’ll be needing to adjust the microphone for each over and over.

 Lastly, you will need a vivacious reader for the Announcements. These are read at the end of the Mass, right before the final blessing. By then the congregation’s attention may be faltering, and you need to convey these announcements in a way that reaches your audience!

 Sometimes, you will also have the person reading the announcements (or a different one) read a short welcoming phrase at the beginning of the Mass. Make sure that everyone involved knows this will be read, and that the priest has a clear signal to indicate that the Mass will begin (since he will usually stand by the main door and process in).

A good rule of thumb is to get five readers: Welcome/Announcements; Reading One; Reading Two; and two readers for the Prayers of the Faithful.

2) What to do during practice time:

So those are the readings, and here are some tips that have helped my readers come through loud and clear.

 Have at least three copies of each reading available. One goes to the reader, so they can practice before Mass (and review during Mass, if they are nervous). One goes to the lectern (the reading stand), so the reader doesn’t need to bring their copy, and one stays with you, for emergencies.

 Determine who will be reading what, at least a week before, and e-mail the readings to the designated readers or their parents. Ask them to practice at home many times. That will make an enormous difference!

 Ask all the readers to arrive early. (20 to 15 minutes before Mass works for me, but you may need more time if you are just beginning to work with them.)

 Ask each reader to read their part once. Take mental notes of the places they have trouble with, and make them read those again until they get them right. This will usually involve strange names of people and places; long, unusual words; and long sentences with complex structures.

 Strange and unusual names and words: Pronounce them slowly, and ask the reader to say them a few times. Then ask them to read the whole sentence. (If you are not quite sure how a name is pronounced, don’t sweat it. Just give an authoritative best guess. The important thing is that they feel confident about it.)
A curious effect is that these difficult words sometimes come out even clearer than the rest of the reading, because the reader slows down in order to get them right!

 Long, complex sentences: Tell the reader where to stop for breath, and give them a pen to mark it in their copy.

 After you have sorted out these details, ask the reader to read the whole thing once more, “from the top.”

3) Some common difficulties, and how to deal with them:

Some readers (especially younger readers) tend to read “inwards”; that is, they seem to be reading to themselves, rather than to the congregation.
When practicing with them, a good trick is to stand at about ten feet away from the reader. Tell them that you have to read to you, where you are standing. This will hopefully get them to start projecting outwards.
It also helps to tell them that they are reading to the people standing at the back of the church, though it will be normally the older children who can use this trick to their advantage.
This is a challenge that can rarely be resolved in one day. Your readers will need time to grow in their reading skills and become more confident. For this reason, it is usually a good idea to assign the younger readers to the Prayers of the Faithful, since there isn’t such a dire need to hear these loud and clear.

Many readers tend to rush. This is either because they are really nervous, or because they think that Reading Well is Reading Fast. As a result, their reading lacks power and clarity, and they end up without breath in the middle of the reading.
In my experience, telling them to “read more slowly” doesn’t quite work. They will slow down for a sentence or two and then start rushing again.
Instead, tell them to take a full breath at the end of each sentence. When they see a period, breath. Do this with them during their practice (tell them: stop! Breathe). Even exaggerate it, if needed.
Kids take well to this kind of very specific instructions. The result is that they will slow down significantly, relax, and they will have time in between to start processing the next sentence.
Think it will go too slow? It won’t: If they are using a microphone, this is just the time needed for the echoes of the last phrase to die away.
As an added bonus, if the reading is from one of the prophets, it will sound very powerful!

Teenage and pre-teen readers (especially girls) tend to pitch their voice through their nose, and to blur and dissolve together groups of words, especially those with the sound “M” on them. Even excellent readers start doing this when they reach this age.
And good luck telling them that! You can have them read those clusters of words a few times, insisting that they separate the words more, and it may work. But their resistance to direct criticism being quite low at this age, you could have your practice run backfiring badly.
What I’ve done, to rather surprising effect, is blame it on the microphones. I tell teenage readers that the microphones are creating a lot of echo, and that it is important that they wait until the echoes have died out before they read the next sentence, or it will all get blurred together. (Which is true!)
This seems to create in them (at least in the most conscientious ones) an additional degree of awareness about the need to separate the sounds. The times I’ve done this, there was not a word that could not be heard clearly!

So that’s what I’ve got for now. I’ll keep updating this post as tips and techniques come up my way.

Alf the Red

Using Props in the Classroom

Trying to figure out these three guys
developed into a discussion in which
Lonergan’s “four levels of conscious operations”
were identified, no less.

Hands-on philosophy, you say?

Philosophy teachers don’t usually get many chances to teach “hands-on.” We learn by reading heavy texts, we improve our understanding of subtle points through long discussions, and our teaching is most often very discursive, with nothing for our students to hang on but words, arguments, the records of past experiences, and–if we are feeling generous–flat images on a flat screen.

That’s why I love the look in the face of my students when I bring an actual object to class. What I call a “prop.”
I discovered this when trying to explain Aristotle’s Theory of Abstraction in an introductory class. I was fascinated then by how my kids–barely toddlers at that point–would recognize a basket for bathtub toys (a thing made of yellow fabric, hanging from the wall with suckers) as a “fish,” which is what it was shaped like. This they did without any prompting from the grownups, showing a capacity for relating abstracted images to a “model” at surprisingly early age!
Since I was going to talk about this in class, I borrowed one of my kids’ toys–a very cute squeaky shark.
When I took it off my bag, planning to pass it around while asking the question, “Is this a shark, or is this not a shark?” a girl sitting at the front spontaneously exclaimed:
“That is so cool!!!”
Man, were they starving to hold something in their hands! They passed it around twice.
Since then, I’ve been looking for ways to break the monotony by bringing other objects to class.

My favorite is a mate (pronounced “mah-teh.” Not “maté,” as you’ll find it spelled out by most tea companies. That accent is made-up) with its stand, and its bombilla. (Picture above). I use them to make students discover by themselves the “four level of conscious operations,” described by Bernard Lonergan in his work Insight.

If you’ve been to Argentina or its neighboring countries, then you’ll know that mate is a type of tea (different family, probably; I’m not being technical here) served in a recipient made from hollowed gourd, called, also, mate. This is stuffed with the leaves, hot water is poured in it, and you drink it through a metal straw called “bombilla” (also pictured above). It’s a social drink: once you’ve drunk, the host fills it up again, and passes it to the next guest (drinking, yes, from the same bombilla).
My students (I teach in Chicago) normally don’t know this. So when I pass around these objects, they look immediately puzzled. It’s an almost complete unknown at first. They touch, tap, examine, smell, use almost all their senses. They note their observations out loud. (First level: experience.) They formulate theories about their use (“is this a musical instrument”?) They try to put the different objects together in a meaningful manner, finding sometimes that the mate fits perfectly on the stand. Test names, relate them to things they know. (Second level: understanding.) They discuss their theories, weigh them, criticize them, look at me for a hint. (Third level: judgment.) They look with interest when I tell them that mate is really good if you want to pull an all-nighter, and squirm when I tell them that they’d have to drink from the same bombilla, or make up a really good excuse if they don’t want to offend their host. (Fourth level: value judgment.)

Most importantly, they look unanimously awake.

Trust me: It’s really worth a try.
Alfredo Mac Laughlin
* Have you used an unusual prop in one of your classes? Tell us of the context, the reactions you got. When I collect enough of these, I’ll cast them into another post. *