On Turtles and Teaching

Our theme this year was to move from planning to practice. Perhaps that was a false or inaccurate way of saying what we meant, and what it seems many of you are doing. We have been practicing at this – indeed we have. We started having workshops to support shifts in teaching and student support in English 1A specifically in 2017; this was connected to AB705 and first our accelerated pre-requisite course, and then we removed all pre-requisites and continued working on what kinds of support might be most helpful to ensure students would succeed in English 1A in their first attempt. In 2019-2020, we had our first community of practice annual workshop series, and we were very focused on the changes in our discipline and implementing those new placement policies and just rethinking how we support student learning. Finally, over the last two years, we have widened the discussion to learn from and share with partners across disciplines to think about equitable student success across the college.

All this is to say that we have been in practice all along. Our process hasn’t been a linear one in which we planned, then put into practice. We are thinking, exploring, considering, while simultaneously trying out, practicing, doing. This can be, admittedly, exhausting. It also can be disorienting in our community in the sense that a problem we have solved may be an area of problem-awareness a colleague is just arriving at, or we may have an epiphany about something that we should change that a colleague figured out three semesters ago. Even more so, we may not see the same sticking points at all. What appears as a grave concern in one discipline or course may not even be on the radar in another discipline. Despite that lack of linear movement or even synchronous movement among all of us, the shift in emphasis from planning to practice in part comes from the urgency to address the alarming data in front of us that too many students are not succeeding, and the sense that we’ve done a lot of talking, but what are we doing?

The reality is that like other experts in fields that are not static, we will likely continue to plan, practice, and do simultaneously because that is what teaching as an expert profession requires of us. As community college educators, our emphasis is on teaching, not research. We arrived and got the job as discipline experts, and part of our ongoing charge is to remain so in our chosen fields, but we also have an obligation to serve our other area of expertise, by training or by practice: teaching. As medical doctors must be up to date on the latest treatments, we also need to stay thoughtful, open, and interested in what we can learn about how adults learn and in what data and student experience shows us.

If all the thinking, planning, practicing, doing, and re-doing, has you feeling like a turtle flipped onto its back and unable to move anywhere or get anything done, I fully understand that feeling. But turtles live in water (or at least hang out there sometimes), so moving all those legs at the same time actually means moving better and thriving in their environment. They also, to extend the metaphor for my exhausted colleagues, come up to the surface for air. If we understand this is the deal, and perhaps rethink where we spend our energy, and devote and protect space in our working lives for this planning and practicing, then maybe we don’t see it as an optional exercise we don’t have time for or that is on top of other things (and are those other things contributing to your teaching mission?) and maybe it can just be how we do this, and hopefully do it better, and still come up for air.

But to the task at hand. This blog is our wrap-up for the year, and an invitation to join us on May 19 for our Best Practices Review session. Just as there are so many reasons why students disappear from our classes or don’t succeed, some of which are within an individual instructor’s locus of control and some of which aren’t but that we may able to provide or direct resources, and some of which are out of our scope entirely — but few to none of which we actually know for sure or gather data on — so it is with many of the positive efforts we make. As we experiment in our courses, it may be a while before we can gather usable data on specific changes and what impact they had or on what change made the difference. Nonetheless, there are narrower ways we can track success.

  • Did you shift your grading methods? Can you determine whether using your old methods would have resulted in more students not succeeding?
  • Did you shift course policies? Can you determine whether using your old policies would have resulted in more students not succeeding?
  • Have you changed an assignment? What was your rate of success or passing or even just students completing it compared to the old version of that assignment?
  • Are you hearing from students about what is working for them?
  • What change to a course did you make this year? Does it seem like it is working? Why do you think that?

For our final workshop this year, please join us to share and hear about changes you and your colleagues are making that seem to be having a positive effect. For this session, we really want to focus on something you have actually put into practice (not something read about or plan for the future). What is a change you made this academic year that appears to be going well and that you plan to repeat or tinker with and repeat? We want to keep listening to and learning from and sharing with you! 

Please join us Thursday, May 19, 12:50-1:50 via Zoom for a “Planning to Practice: Best Practices Review” discussion. (Link will be in an email invite).

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