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).

What Worked? (A Best Practices Review)

Well.

A lot didn’t.

And I hope you have or are making space for venting and perhaps listing and ceremonially burning on a funeral pyre all of those things that did not go well, and that the group chat will take you back in a virtual hug when you’ve sent your eleventy-billionth frustrated, exasperated, desperate gif capturing all that went wrong.

But this is not that space. We are composing what is possible.

We need to focus on some of the wins – you had them. You learned. You tried things. You regrouped. You tried again. Something worked. Our workshop on May 27 is not a workshop so much as a gathering, a potluck. We are going to stack up our collective wins and share what has worked this year to help your students succeed because though at times it may not feel like it, we have been making progress. Between 2016 and 2020, we have made an increase of 67% in the number students passing English 1A (from 1,984 in 2016-2017 to 3,317 in 2019-2020). But perhaps more important than that overall number is that the number of Hispanic/Latinx male students who succeeded in English 1A has increased by a rate of 96%, Hispanic/Latinx female students by 80%, African American men by 84%, and African American women by 161%.   (Thank you to our Director of Institutional Research, Brandon Owashi, for pulling and interpreting this data!)

In our opening post for this academic year, Dr. Kristi Woods charged us with supporting our students and providing “them with all of the valuable tools they need to direct their energy toward melting the ice of tyranny, oppression, violence, racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, classism, misogyny and the soft bigotry of low expectations.” She urged us to “prepare for classes as if [our] future is in the hands of the students in [our] classes—because it is.” She asked, “What will you do to be a partner in their transformation from student to thought leader?” We teach composition – it begins and ends with lifting up student voices. What did you give students the space to speak about? How did you help your students lift their voices, provide them with tools to be heard in and out of the classroom? How did you engage this fire, but also help them to finish successfully? What was your best innovation this year to increase success among your students?

As you consider this and what to bring to our workshop – because that is the ask: BRING WHAT WORKED this year to our May workshop to share – I encourage you to review the work you’ve done rethinking your course as well as some of the conversations we have had here that may have pushed you in positive directions.

Your highest yield changes may have been big, maybe at the level of course theme and design, or small, changing how you organize groups for better engagement; whatever it was, bring it. (Also, please help us organize in advance by thinking about what “category” it goes in: syllabus language, course policy, student engagement and inclusion strategy, accessing campus resources, course reading/themes, assignment, class activity (synchronous), class activity (async), something else?)

I would also encourage you to look back through the posts of the last year and the inspiration and practical suggestions they contain. As Monique Greene, Dr. Dan Hogan, and Dr. Miguel Reid noted in September, emphasizing various principles of validation, engagement, and genuine care, “there is still a need to truly identify which support mechanisms aid in [student] success.” What have you discovered that will, as Dr. Woods said, “allow [students] to revel in their belongingess. Engage their intellects and value them.” As you consider what has worked to engage students, recall also Star Taylor’s October call to “be emboldened and empowered to liberate our students from unclear graduation pathways, unclear and unrealistic assignment/exam requirements, antiquated classroom pedagogy and methodologies, and faculty and staff who make generalizations and tiny racist comments of our colleagues.” If you remain unsure about not how but if or how much to engage in this work down to your individual class, consider again Star’s question: “Why would educators be resistant to making changes in order to implement culturally relevant texts and pedagogy?”

The framework that Rob Hyers suggested in November that he referred to as “critical thinking/critical imagination” will undoubtedly be of assistance. Both Dr. Tammy Kearn and Dr. Audrey Holod returned to this idea in their blogs and workshops. Rob shared this framework as a way to empower students; citing Genevieve Carpio and Juan D. DeLara, he explained Carpio said “’Have your students question why things are the way they are,’ (critical thinking)” and DeLara said “’Ask your students to imagine the way they want things to be’ (critical imagination).” Your colleagues in this community have been imagining the way things need to be for our students to belong and thrive; the critical imagination here has been fired up. In the April workshop, Miguel and Audrey asked us to listen and reflect; I too would encourage you to do that — towards meaningful transformation. Jo Scott-Coe encouraged us in this direction in January, reflecting on our charge and the many times we have been presented with “gaps” in education: “the term [gap] appeared in so many phrases that reflected deficit-minded judgments about students (e.g. ‘achievement gap,’ skills gap,’ ‘readiness gap’). But now, as we look squarely at equity gaps in our classes, we also have to avoid turning that deficit mindset on ourselves.” Emphasizing our capacity to grow, Tammy asked us in March to share “innovative, empowering, meaningful, and memorable assignments that not only make effective use of texts in the classroom, but that act to ‘support Black lives and stand in solidarity to confront anti-Blackness’ as well as to confront all forms of racism, classism, and elitism.” She suggested about text selection that “one way to reimagine possibilities is to ask ourselves what we truly want our students to learn and contemplate—and even act upon” in response to the texts we choose.

This question of texts was one we spent multiple sessions on this year. For some of our students, based on their major, ours may be the only English class they take in college. Knowing that our students may take only one English class, or conversely, that ours might be their first – a gateway course – what authors and texts can we include that will reflect that key feeling of belongingness that Dr. Woods called us to? As Wendy Silva wrote in November about when she first discovered Gloria Anzaldúa: “here was a well-known scholar, telling me … I was allowed to exist in the world as I was. And I have to wonder, how many of my students have had the privilege of feeling this experience of validation? Which have not? And of course, what can I do to make sure that they all do?” Expanding this experience of validation for our students, centering Black, Latinx, indigenous, people of color, and LGBTQ+ authors and validating the experiences of Black and Latinx students may at times be met with resistance. Audrey and Miguel shared strategies with us, rooted in their research, of effective ways to address this resistance, including content that asks “students to confront their own positionality through hearing experiences from multiple voices and positionalities in society,” and that introduces concepts of white privilege and ways to decenter whiteness and emphasiz[e] systematic oppression” through texts and assignments that look at “racial constructs and [their] historical basis.” We have discussed so much this year. Our “umbrella” text has been Tia Brown McNair, Estela Mara Bensimon, and Lindsey Malcolm-Piqueux’s From Equity Talk to Equity Walk: Expanding Practitioner Knowledge for Racial Justice in Higher Education. This community of practice has been central for so many of us in the move from talk to walk, but another refrain I have heard this year is that we are weary with talk and words and no transformation or that even when good change is made, it happens in silos. Indeed, McNair explains that “equity work cannot be done in isolation or with a select few. It needs to engage the entire campus community” (16) – from our classrooms, to committees, to the culture of our institution, and right back into the classroom.

To all this wisdom (and do go back and consider again our authors on the blog from this year) I am adding some practical tools:

For myself, and what I have tried that has worked, I know the changes to how I manage deadlines with students, prompted by the pandemic, will become permanent. My final exams have changed because of ideas shared and sparked in this community. My text selections shift and expand from your input and my students’. My asynchronous discussions expanded and improved in quality immediately after deploying Tammy’s metacognitive discussion technique from the March workshop. I’m in progress still about how to grade differently, and excited to learn more about and incorporate the constructivist activities and teaching framework highlighted by Audrey and Miguel. (And I’m already wondering about our conversation next year about the classroom — How will that space be different upon return because of all we’ve both learned and endured?)

The privilege of being a professor is the duty of forever being a student. I look forward to learning more from and with you on May 27 (and beyond).