Fish Bowl Class Activity

Last week I decided to try a new discussion activity in my Introduction to LGBT Studies course. It is called “The Fishbowl” and was suggested to me years ago by Maria Velazquez at the NWSA conference. The idea is to have a small circle of students sitting in the middle having a discussion, with a larger circle of students on the outside listening.

I decided to use this activity for discussion on Thursday, following Be Steadwell‘s visit to campus, which included a screening of her film “Vow of Silence” and a musical performance.  (The last few semesters she has come to my class–and this semester I was able to get funding through the Women’s Studies Department for a campus-wide event). It was, as one student commented, “magical.” My students enjoyed the film, and were enamored of her talent with the loop pedal, and her ability to layer so many vocals.


For class discussion about the film and music, I had 7 desks circled in the middle of the classroom, facing each other, and then the rest of the desks in a circle around the rest of the room. As students came in, they all avoided the desks in the middle, and sat on the outside ring, which was amusing to watch. No-one knew what was going on, and avoided that inner circle!

I had them all write down a discussion question for their peers based on the film or Be’s music, and explained the concept of the activity (Inner circle–conversation, outer circle, observing) and then asked for volunteers to sit in the middle. I told the students in the inner circle that someone from the outer circle would supply a discussion question, and they should answer that, but that they could also let the conversation flow where-ever they wanted it to go. They were all encouraged to say something but it would not be required. Those on the outer circle were asked to listen and observe.

The activity was a fantastic success! The first group was the most vocal, and had a lively discussion about the magical-realism of the film, which some students liked, and others did not, and what defines a fairy-tale, and whether “Vow of Silence” counts as a fairy-tale. I gave each group about 10 minutes to talk. The second and third groups were a bit quieter, and needed an additional discussion question halfway through to keep conversation going, but still had interesting conversations about the role of self-care in the film, the intimate and soft representation of queer black women (compared to the aggressive/violent images often seen in the media of black folks), the use of lighting, sound and camera angles in the film, Be’s skill with a loop pedal and lyricism. They also had a discussion about how the pacing, lighting, and dream-like qualities of certain scenes reflected what it means to struggle with depression, mental-illness and heartbreak. It was lovely to see how deep their conversations were, and they had clearly paid attention to the details of the movie, and loved Be’s music.

When we came back together as an entire class I asked for their feed-back about the activity, and overall they enjoyed it, and remarked in particular that it was nice to have a conversation with a small group. For some, sitting on the outside was enjoyable because it took the pressure off–they could just sit back and listen. For others, sitting and listening and not being part of the discussion was difficult. One student commented that it was nice that the conversation wasn’t moderated, so I proposed that I would not moderate the rest of the class discussion–meaning I would not call on folks raising their hands as I usually do but would let them just talk to each other like they had in the inner circle. This caused some concern from a few students who worried that it would be chaos and everyone would speak over each other. But we went ahead with it, and it went really well. They had another lively discussion about queer representation and how to support the work of queer artists of color and how to encourage other students on campus to attend events like this.

Ultimately, I feel as though the fish-bowl activity changed the dynamic of the classroom completely—they started speaking to each other, rather than speaking to me. It helped too that we were in a circle (which was possible because a lot of students were absent on Thursday), and it felt like an engaged conversation which flowed more naturally than discussion does when folks are waiting for me to call on them. I definitely want to try this type of classroom dynamic more, although I am also aware that with 40 students the practice of raising hands can also prevent quieter/shyer students from getting lost in the shuffle.

It always feels great when a teaching activity goes well, and this is one that I will definitely be trying again. I would love to do it in my upper-level course, but the classroom is so packed with desks that it will be hard to do so. I may endeavor to do it anyway.

Teaching is a lot of hard work, but it also brings me much joy! This week I learned that there is no teaching for me at UMD next semester (which was never a guarantee), which means I am going to enjoy the last few weeks of the semester as much as I can.


Glass Bowl Image: “Failed Experiment” Credit to Joe Plocki, Flickr.  (My experiment with my class wasn’t a failure, but this image is what I found searching for “fish bowl” and I liked it).

Vow of Silence Poster artwork created by Elizabeth Pham for my LGBT 200 Fall 2016 class.

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