So, for posterity, here are two little gimmicks that I used this past semester:
Good Night, Tweet Prince: When my students read Shakespeare they struggle with the most basic things like keeping straight who's who and what's actually happening in the story. They also need help with how to cite the text by act, scene and line numbers (the little dears keep citing the page numbers!). So this spring while we were reading Lear I assigned pairs of students a single character and had them Tweet eight status updates from the character over the course of the play. Each update had to summarize what the character was thinking or feeling and cite the act, scene and line numbers on which the summary was based. In-class I had the pairs share their updates with each other and compile the best ones to share with the class.
This little exercise was fun for the students, and I liked that it got them talking about the characters and the story. It also got them putting ideas in their own words and reinforced the formal requirements of citing the play.
You Do the Lecture: In a unit on modernist architecture I gave a day over to letting the students create the lecture. I divided the students up into groups and then emailed the class a very basic five-slide PowerPoint that contained titles and empty spaces. Here's an example of a slide they received from me:
Each group had 30 minutes to complete the presentation (which had to include credible sources and URLs for the info). They used their laptops and smart phones to do some fast and dirty research, sussed out basic info and selected some visual examples to go on the slides. When they finished, I paired up groups and had them do their presentations for each other. Finally the entire class picked one that they thought did a particularly good job.
I'll leave to others the theory for why this worked (or was a waste of time). Here's what I liked: first, both exercises got students actively doing something in class rather than just listening to me. Second, it made them talk over the material with each other and make critical evaluations and decisions about what was accurate, important or relevant. That's always a good thing. Lastly it forced them to put ideas into their own words and language and reinforced some basic skills like source citation.
Both exercises were fun and took up all of a 50-minute period. Gimmicky? Sure, but who cares if they get students actually thinking and talking about the material? Whatever does that is a good thing, right?