TTU's first integrated learning community teaches freshmen more than just writing, theater

Two Tennessee Tech University instructors are giving their students a learning experience this semester that transcends both traditional teaching methods and classroom boundaries.

The diverse group of 25 freshmen simultaneously enrolled in Andrew Smith’s writing and Mark Creter’s introduction to theater courses have found that the professors’ integrated ‘learning community’ approach to the material means they’re learning more than just rote terms and concepts.

They’re applying their knowledge to the real-world experience of writing and producing an original play, titled “Single Bell, Single Belle,” that will be presented to the campus and community at 8 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 20, at the Backdoor Playhouse.

And in the process, the students say, they’ve learned more than they ever thought possible about organizational skills, teamwork, friendship, relationship building and leadership.

“This experience has been different from our other classes because we’ve been able to get to know our classmates and our professors on a much more personal level,” said Cortney Kleindienst, one of the students in the learning community.

Classmate Lindsey Katherine Jarratt agreed. “In spite of our different backgrounds and beliefs, we’ve learned how to find common ground and appreciate another’s point of view,” she said.

That unusual level of unity serves as a benefit when they offer scholarly criticism of each other’s writing or performing.

“Because of the closeness we’ve developed over the semester, the input we get from each other and our instructors about our writing or performance skills is more meaningful,” said student Rachel Cannon.

Simone O’Dell, who wrote and is directing and acting in the play, said the course has been physically, mentally and emotionally challenging, yet is one of the best experiences she’s ever had.

“I never dreamed that I’d have the opportunity when I came to college to experience something like this,” she said.

TTU’s College of Arts and Sciences has been participating for some time in the learning community concept — assigning the same set of freshmen simultaneously to two classes in an effort to build teamwork and unity. But Creter’s and Smith’s courses this semester are the first to actually integrate curricula.

“Traditional classroom settings compartmentalize learning, but life is not compartmentalized. Life is interdisciplinary, and that’s really how we developed our philosophy for these courses,” said Smith.

Creter agreed. “One of the advantages of this learning community partnership is that it gives us the ability to expand out of the boundaries of a classroom, and in doing so, it becomes obvious how learning impacts life and vice versa.”

The course addressed complex, real-world problems applicable to the students’ age group, requiring the students to think critically about how individuals and society address these problems and to communicate their own thoughts and ideas effectively through various stages, including original prose and dramatic performance.

The culmination of the courses is the public performance of “Single Bell, Single Belle,” the original play based on the account of O’Dell’s break-up with her high school boyfriend on Christmas Day after she realized that the two were growing apart.

“I’m impressed by how Mark and Andy bring their respective disciplines to life through this mutually reinforcing approach to teaching, and I’m certain that the students have gained important skills in writing, teamwork and critical self-expression, along with the kind of confidence that may be gained through guided public performance,” said Kurt Eisen, associate dean of TTU’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Real-world problem solving through active learning, such as Creter’s and Smith’s students have been doing in their learning communities courses this semester, is a priority of TTU, as expressed through its Quality Enhancement Plan.

The university’s QEP provided funding to help Creter and Smith implement their integrated learning community concept, and the two instructors have also been nominated for a QEP Award for Excellence in Innovative Instruction.

The university honor provides recognition to professors whose courses employ real-world problem solving and active learning strategies, requiring award-winning professors to share their successful strategies with other faculty.

“English composition and introduction to theater really lent themselves to such a productive collapsing of disciplinary boundaries, but introductory writing courses could be effectively paired with numerous other disciplines — especially in the humanities and social sciences — and theme-based courses with real-world applications could be designed by collaborating instructors,” Smith said.

“In particular, we hope to encourage other paired courses in the learning communities project to attempt activities of a similar spirit,” he concluded.

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