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ENG 1004: Adding social networking and community building to a First-Year Experiences course


By Javeria Zulfqar, ‘24

The first year of college comes with the difficulties of adjusting to new academic demands and finding community. For her First-Year Experiences students during the fall, Rebecca Weaver-Hightower wanted to create something that would address some of those challenges and pitched them a trip to the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia to see “Much Ado About Nothing.”

Weaver-Hightower, who is a professor in the Department of English, hoped the students would not only engage with the course material but to make long-lasting connections with their peers.

“They're going to be English majors together for the next four years,” said Weaver-Hightower. “Every class and every group project is going to be better if they know the people who are in their program.”

Plus, she didn’t want cost to be a barrier to participation, so she needed to find a way to make the trip free for everyone.

Planning the trip

Coordinating the trip took significant planning. Transportation, meals, and time for students to socialize with one another all needed to be considered.

Weaver-Hightower used a bus company, Abbott Tours, to organize the two-hour drive from Blacksburg to Staunton. Additionally, she made lunch and dinner reservations to accommodate a group of 55 people. She was able to fund the trip with support from the First-Year Experiences office. In a matter of a few weeks, it all came together.

The students were in for a real treat, with the playhouse built as a replica of Shakespeare’s original Blackfriars theater. As was traditional with most Shakespeare’s plays of the period, the lights stayed on throughout the performance, exposing the laughing faces of audience members as performers interacted with the audience.

“It’s very intimate and there's not a bad seat in the house,” said Weaver-Hightower.

The trip also happened to coincide with a Harry Potter-themed festival, Queen City Mischief and Magic, which students were able to explore during free time in the morning and afternoon.

Weaver-Hightower notes that while she was hesitant at first, the two events coinciding was great as it kept the students busy and engaged all day, which was one of the main goals that she has set forth when pitching it to both students and faculty.

Incorporating an assignment

The students were assigned a project where they had to conduct a site analysis and write an argumentative paper about something that happened that day.

“Students had to use evidence from what they saw and heard, and they could also take pictures to use as evidence,” said Weaver-Hightower. “It was a learning experience for them to write up a kind of a paper that wasn't text-based, where their source was the building, the performance, and what they saw out on the street.”

The benefits for students

Weaver-Hightower observed many of her students began the day with very low expectations of how the trip was going to go.

“Many of them said they didn't think they were going to like it,” she said. “However, by the end of the trip, they had certainly changed their minds. They told me things like, ‘I had bad experiences with Shakespeare before in high school where it was really boring, but this was really awesome.’”

This trip created the opportunity for students to get to know each other early on in their education, as well as mingling across both sections of the class. Weaver-Hightower plans on repeating the trip in the future and will reflect on the lessons she learned from last year.

“For anyone considering creating a similar trip, find something that is going to be fun for the students and something where there are actual learning objectives and they're going to be held responsible for it in some way,” said Weaver-Hightower. “First-year students also just need support at this stage and need a community.”