Transformative Teaching: The Swedish Fish Strategy

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A former student emailed me recently, excited to share the latest developments in her life. Wanda (pseudonym) transferred to a much larger campus and, despite a difficult adjustment, took the bold, unlikely step to get involved. She joined two clubs related to her major, sought out a professor for research experience, and started planning a summer internship. Wanda wrote,

 “I am very excited that a lot of doors are beginning to open for me. I honestly would not have gotten this far without your encouragement. The meetings that we had in your office have  had a huge impact on me and I can not begin to thank you enough.”

Students come to my office often, in search of direction, encouragement – and candy. Over Swedish Fish we talk about their interests and imagine the possibilities for their lives. Few know what they want to be when they grow up, or realize their awesomeness, but most are willing to kindle the inkling of potential that brought them to my door in the first place. In class I shamelessly bribe them to attend office hours with the promise of food, coffee, a rocking chair, and the opportunity to talk about themselves. Transformative teaching extends far beyond the classroom.

My goal is to help students identify their passions, create a strategic plan for their career path, and get excited about their abilities and options. I joke with them that it’s always easier to figure out someone else’s life rather than your own. It can also be downright fun to engage in intentional self-reflection. Who doesn’t love to talk about themselves, especially when there are snacks?

We start by discussing their interests and strengths. I ask them to describe the perfect job and work-life balance. If they imagine themselves 15 years post-graduation, what does the day-to-day look like? What is living the dream? We then plot out short- and long-term goals and an action plan. Together we create a “to do” list of simple Google searches they can conduct about certain careers, graduate programs, or causes to pursue. I refer them to inspiring books, TED Talks, and people they should meet. No one leaves without this homework, a hug, and a promise to meet again.

It was a joy to hear from Wanda. I’ve had hundreds of these conversations with students over 19 years of teaching but I don’t often know the outcome. Her note is a reminder of how simple it can be to touch a life. Sometimes all it takes is a little encouragement and some Swedish Fish.


About Lee Ann De Reus

Executive Director, DV LEAP; Co-founder, Panzi Foundation USA
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