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).

Reconstructing Our Approach to Grades and Grading: Four Places to Begin

by Kathleen Sell

Introduction

Let’s start by acknowledging, right up front, that digging in to our grading practices is hard.  Not just hard work but hard because as Sarah Cavanagh explores in her book, “…the classroom is a highly emotional climate, where students and teachers confront anxiety, hope, confusion, and satisfaction and where there are often high stakes” (191-192).   A huge part of this “emotional climate” has to do with grades; passing or failing, earning this grade or that, matters tremendously given the system within which we operate.  And as Feldman points out,  “a teacher’s grading policies and practices reveal how she defines and envisions her relationship to students, what she predicts best prepares them for success, her beliefs about students, and her self-concept as a teacher” (Feldman 6).  So examining our grading practices is high stakes, hard work. 

But Joe Feldman, in his book Grading for Equity, challenges us to consider this:  “Are we, by using, supporting, and not interrogating traditional grading practices, accessories to the inequities in our schools” and classrooms (7)?  To what extent do “our common grading practices make us active accomplices in perpetuating” equity gaps (Feldman xxii)? 

Here is a premise:  in an effort to be “fair” (and what do we mean by fair?) or “rigorous” many of us have grading policies and schemes that penalize our most vulnerable students and continue to perpetuate an extrinsic reward system that in fact undermines actual learning.  Believe me, I have used virtually every grading practice Feldman takes apart.   I have raised virtually every “but what about” he addresses.  And some of those practices have taken me longer to recognize and rethink than others (I’m looking at you 100-point scale and zeroes)!  But the ongoing effort to make sure that my grades truly reflect what my students have learned—and do so in a way that is as much as possible not infected by my own implicit biases—has been one of the most impactful changes I’ve made to my teaching, and I’m nowhere close to done with the overhaul.       

As we dive in, here are some guiding questions for us:  are my grades accurately reflecting what students have learned and what they can do by the end of my course?  To what degree are my grades reflecting environment (which I may know little to nothing about) and/ or my (subjective) perceptions of student behavior?  To what degree are my grades reflecting students’ ability to perform on a high stakes assessment at a given day/ time rather than their actual learning over time, including learning from mistakes?

I’ll focus on identifying Feldman’s three principles, and then using those principles —in addition to ditching those 100-point scale zeroes as Kirsten’s post makes clear we should do— to target some high impact changes that can make our grading more bias resistant, accurate, motivational, and equitable: 

1) not grading for participation

2) offering retakes and re-dos

3 ) rethinking late work penalties

4) eliminating extra credit

And finally, I’ll include a brief nod towards one that will need a post/ session all its own— cheating and factoring penalties for cheating into our grades.

Principles first

Feldman grounds his approach in three principles:

  1. Kirsten’s post clearly explains Feldman’s first principle: our grading practices should yield accurate grades.  I’ll touch just a bit on the need for grades to accurately reflect student learning (content knowledge and skills rather than behavior and environment) in some of the practices discussed below.
  2. Our grading practices should be bias resistant, and thus should focus on assessing student learning, not a student’s behavior or environment.
  3. Our grading practices should be motivational, promoting learning—including the value of learning from mistakes.

Why Participation Should Not Factor into Grades

An engaged classroom—students active, discussing, sharing ideas, participating in the discourse of the discipline and performing the behaviors we truly believe will help them succeed and be better students.  We teachers LOVE this.  But which behaviors do we typically reward and count as participation and what model student are we imagining as we do so?  There are several problems to unpack here.  The first is simply that it “focuses more on a student’s conduct than what she has learned”, and so is an accuracy and an equity problem (Feldman 121).  Grading participation “is a subjective and therefore bias-infected judgment of a student’s behavior” (121).  Can we really fairly, accurately, and objectively “assign a number to represent the capacity that students [have] developed to participate in an intellectual exchange” in our classes (Bain 156)?  While our intention may be to encourage the kinds of behaviors we hope will help students succeed, doing so “forces students to fit within a set of behaviors anchored to the teacher’s subjective, implicitly biased idea of what a successful student is” (Feldman 122).  And typically these are “behaviors that their teacher has and values, embedded within that teacher’s specific culture, upbringing, and learning styles.”  In so doing, “…we often ignore the diversity of learning styles, contexts, cultures, and needs among our students” (Feldman 122).

This doesn’t mean we don’t value and want to encourage engaged participation in class.  However, it need not be part of the grade.  We can learn to recognize, and foster (as Audrey and Miguel’s session and post showed us so well), varied kinds of participation that more truly include and recognize all of our students and their needs and focus on learning rather than on performing in order to earn points.

Retakes and Redos: Yes, We Should Offer Them

This is a big one.  Most of us know from our own experience that learning requires risk taking and a willingness to make mistakes.  But do our grading practices reflect this? High stakes, single-try assessments (a paper, an exam, a speech, etc.) measure a student’s performance in that moment of time but may not accurately reflect their learning.  We don’t know all that is happening in a student’s environment.  Was he up all night with a sick child?  Did she get called in to do a double shift? Is he hungry?  Do they simply learn at a different rate?  Moreover, the message we send when our courses have no opportunity for retakes, re-dos, rewrites is that mistakes are not welcome.  They are penalized, sometimes catastrophically.  When grades based on high stakes assessments “are a pervasive part of a classroom culture, students with less confidence in their academic knowledge often dare not even try for fear that they will not receive the extrinsic rewards of a passing or high grade and that their inferior performance will be revealed” (Feldman 155).  This emphasis on grades in general, but especially on high stakes one and done assessment to determine grades—“limit[s] learning and [has] huge deleterious effects on lower performing students” (Feldman 158). 

So how do we minimize the impact of this?  We can do so “only when there’s a mechanism to review [mistakes] and an opportunity to correct them.  Students must fix their errors and give it another try until they succeed, which means we have to offer them that next try” (Feldman 165).  Offering retakes and re-dos—opportunities to learn the material they missed on an exam, a skill they didn’t fully master in a  paper—is crucial to making our classrooms, our grading more equitable. 

There are lots of practical questions here—when to offer a retake/ redo? On every assignment or just some? On the whole of an exam, say, or just the part the student missed? How many times? How to encourage/ support learning in the time between the original and the retake/ redo?  How do we determine the final grade on a given assessment?  What if the retake is a lower score?  On these latter two, Feldman suggests that we should use the score that best reflects the student’s learning.  No complicated percentages or math necessary.  Feldman addresses each of these practical concerns in Chapter 13 in depth.  One last question he addresses that I’ll address here, too: should the retakes be optional or mandatory? He argues categorically that “retakes are equitable only when they are mandatory” because students with more confidence are already more likely to attempt retakes/ re-dos than those who most need the support of more time and reassurance that mistakes aren’t catastrophic and can be learned from (172).  So make them mandatory.  Build them in.   By all means, let’s talk about the how to’s in terms of best practices for implementing retakes/ re-dos in our various disciplines.  But bottom line, let’s find out what our students have LEARNED in our classes over the course of a unit, a semester, not just what they can show us they know at a given hour on a given day.

Late Policies Redux

We’ve talked a lot—even before but especially since the pandemic—about offering more grace and flexibility for our students.  And a big part of this has been looking at policies for late work, so I’ll be brief here and simply put it in the context of which kinds of grading practices do—and which don’t—promote equity.  If we look at Feldman’s principles, one issue with late work penalties is that they make grades inaccurate because it offers “an inaccurate description of [a student’s] level of performance” (115).  Instead, late penalties “[capture] the degree to which students have internalized a sense of timeliness…often suggesting that the ability to be timely counts as much as—or sometimes even more than—the capacity to do the discipline” (Bain 152-153). 

Moreover, students, as we’ve learned for ourselves over the last year and a half,  “turn in assignments late for all sorts of reasons” and “may not have been able to entirely control all the circumstances that caused the assignment to be late [but] our implicit biases influence the assumptions we make” about why something is late and how we feel about that and about the student (115).  Not issuing late penalties, in other words grading the performance without deducting for lateness, does not mean having no deadlines whatsoever.  We can be creative, offer grace, and still set boundaries around how long deadlines extend.  In terms of the grade, though, Feldman argues that late work should be graded on its performance alone without factoring in deductions for the lateness itself. We should grade performance, not environment or behavior.

Extra Credit & Why It Needs to Go Away

So what on earth is wrong with extra credit, right?  Feldman offers four problems with it.  To begin with, extra credit treats grades “and the points that comprise them, as a commodity” and so teaches that “points are fungible” (Feldman 13).  No matter that you didn’t learn concept x or y, you can make up the points associated with an assessment on that concept by doing this extra credit assignment.  Moreover, this has the effect of undermining “a teacher’s own curriculum and instruction” if it can be used to “backfill” or “supplant” earlier instruction (Feldman 114).  This reinforces extrinsic motivation rather than supporting learning.  Beyond that, extra credit is often used as a way of encouraging certain behaviors—e.g. coming to office hours, attending a campus event and the like.  But does it? Is the behavior that we see as valuable to being a good student actually learned or is what is learned more about the marketplace of points and the number of those points needed to get a certain grade? And how does this impact the accuracy of a grade meant to reflect students’ learning of course content, not behavior?

Extra credit is also problematic from an equity perspective.  It can all too easily “reflect a student’s environment over which she has not control” (e.g. purchasing tickets to see an event related to course content requires disposable income; giving extra credit for voting makes all kinds of assumptions about students’ citizenship status).  Finally, extra credit often appeals most to those students who have the time and energy to do the extra credit (they may not have the same work and care-giving responsibilities) and who perhaps least “need” it.  They go for it because they’ve been trained to go for the points to earn the best grade possible.

So bottom line… “If the work is important, require it; if it’s not, don’t include it in the grade” and be mindful that whatever you require doesn’t inadvertently penalize students whose environments may make it difficult to meet those requirements (Feldman 114). 

Cheating and Plagiarism–Retribution vs. Rehabilitation

This one is tough.  And it certainly warrants an entire session all to itself—so I’ll be brief and encourage you to look at Feldman’s discussion of this in Chapter 9.  What penalty do most of issue for cheating?  A zero (see Kirsten’s post on the flaws of the zero!).  Sometimes if we deem it inadvertent, we treat, say, failing to accurately cite sources in a paper as a teaching moment and distinguish this from cheating.  But when in fact it is cheating, what do we do?  Zero on assignment? Fail the course? Report? All of the above?  So here is a thought:  perhaps better than a retributive form of justice for cheating would be one that is “rehabilitative” (Feldman 119).  What does this mean and why might we find this especially challenging?  Feldman articulates how many of us feel when cheating happens. We often see it, he argues, “…not simply as a lapse in a student’s judgment, but as a personal affront to the teacher’s dedication” and we often “feel hurt and undermined and want to teach these students a harsh lesson” (117).  These feelings absolutely should be acknowledged.  But here’s the thing.  A zero for cheating is an inaccurate reflection of what the student knows, of their performance, because we don’t have data to actually assess what they know.  AND the “real irony of assigning a zero for cheating is that it lets the student off too easy; she never is held accountable for the content in the assignment or assessment” (118).  So maybe rehabilitative, actually get the student to do the work, demonstrate knowledge, rather than retribution.  Some food for thought.

Conclusion

Stephen Brookfield’s insistence that good teaching must be grounded in sustained critical reflection is so important to this consideration of our grading practices in particular because “implicit assumptions soak into consciousness from the professional and cultural air around” us, and grades/ grading practices are a prime example of this (Brookfield 3). All too often our grading practices, replicated from our own experiences and perpetuated uncritically from semester to semester, year to year,  “inadvertently [pull] students (and their teachers) farther away from a focus on learning.  Rather than teach students to be curious about the academic content, to care about their progress as a learner to invest in the health of the classroom community, and to co-construct productive relationships with their peers or teacher, we teach [students]to care about points” or grades, and we perpetuate inequities (Feldman 35). 

We need to acknowledge that when it comes to grades, no matter how friendly and welcoming our syllabus and our other classroom practices, the simple truth is this: “Because the teacher essentially ‘owns’ all the points and determines how many points students receive or are withheld from them, she holds all the power in the classroom” (Feldman 36).  Thus, the work to really examine our grading practices—to make them equity minded—is not optional but a central issue if we’re serious about making our classrooms more student-centered, more inclusive, more nurturing, more compassionate, more equitable.

Questions for Reflection

  1. What is your vision for grading? What do you wish grading could be for students, particularly for the most vulnerable populations? What do you wish grading could be for you? In which ways do current grading practices meet those expectations, and which ways do they not?
  2. What do your final grades ultimately reflect? Student performance, the skills/ knowledge outlined in the course outcomes? Effort? Behavior? Environment? A mixture? 
  3. How do our implicit biases operate when we incorporate students’ nonacademic behaviors and performance into their grades?
  4. What are some specific ways you could make your grades more bias-resistant?

Works Cited

Bain, Ken.  What the Best College Teachers Do. Harvard UP, 2004.

Brookfield, Stephen.  Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. 2nd ed. Jossey-Bass, 2017.

Cavanagh, Sara Rose. The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion. West Virginia UP, 2016.

Feldman, Joe.  Grading for Equity: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How It Can Transform Schools and Classrooms. Corwin, 2019.

For Further Study

Blum, Susan D..  Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead). West Virginia UP, 2020.

Inoue, Asao B..  Anti-Racist Assessment Ecologies:  Teaching and Assessing Writing for a Socially Just Future. The WAC Clearinghouse, 2015.

Nilson, Linda B..  Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time. Stylus, 2015.

Conferencing and Conversation: Talking to Students

I. Office Hours: “Can we talk?”

Trepidation—a likely descriptor for our students’ emotional response to the prospect of making an office hours visit. What leads me to this assumption is, in part, my own undergrad experience. I was an above-average student with a subdued affect and a solid record of attendance. I was also, in several significant ways, a traditional college student. So why would I still feel anxious about a one-on-one interaction with a professor? I suppose it was ultimately about knowledge and power (I felt I had little of both). The few times I did attend office hours, it was to collect a book left behind in class or to ask for a signature on an add/drop petition. Without exception, my professors were affable and courteous, even self-effacing. They did their level best, I think, to consciously disrupt the power dynamic and allay what must have been my obvious unease. Still, I did not seek counsel when it would have benefitted me to do so. Rather, I just tried to figure things out on my own.

Considering my undergrad history of limited interpersonal exchanges with faculty, one would think that I should have a clear view as to why I am typically alone during my own office hours, but I don’t. I feel that I have gone above and beyond to be engaging, accessible, and—often to my students’ chagrin—“entertaining.” But does all of this seeming self-awareness equate to a line of students outside my door? Sadly, no. I consistently offer up invitations during class; I write positively-framed solicitations on homework and essays; I email specific students and encourage them to drop by for a chat. However, unless I make it mandatory, I will have but few visitors. Meanwhile, my colleague in an adjoining office consistently has a que of students snaking down the hall. So how can I (and those in a like situation) get more participation? How do we convince those reticent students that a one-on-one meeting with a professor will be something other than a Kafkaesque experience?

A recent piece by Elissa Nadworny, Higher Education Correspondent for NPR, suggests that students, despite our explanations and exhortations, don’t really understand what office hours are for:

They’re part of what some students say is a hidden curriculum—the set of rules on a college campus that no one ever tells you about. And then what students do know is that you have to meet one-on-one with your professor, which in some cases means talking to the smartest, most powerful person you know (remember, professors are the ones giving our the grades!).

Clearly, this obstacle exists on any college or university campus. Indeed, it is endemic and systemic. There are, however, some simple ways to begin disrupting our perceived authoritarian role in hopes of getting more participation. Recent literature on the topic of office hours tends to identify common strategies for getting more buy-in from students. Some of these are becoming common practice at our own college, for example, serving one’s hours at a more neutral site—the library, student engagement centers, a table in an outdoor common area. And, of course, online office hours have become second nature thanks to the pandemic. Taking the “office” out of the equation could pay real dividends when it comes to easing students’ anxieties about engaging faculty.

I think most of us would agree with Anthony Abraham Jack, Harvard professor and author of The Privileged Poor, that “[t]he students who are least likely to go to office hours are the students who would benefit from them the most.” Is this not the crux of the matter? Our students with developed social and academic skill sets will frequent office hours to discourse on a variety of topics while those who are in most need of intervention (i.e. our care and support) will go to great lengths to avoid what they can only anticipate as being a moment of negative judgement in which an inherent lack in their intellect or character will be exposed and dissected. As Jack rightly asserts, those most apt to avoid contact are those we are striving to reach. Our non-traditional, underrepresented, historically-marginalized populations have a fraught relationship with formal education. We must acknowledge that our students’ previous experiences with/at schools may well have involved stereotyping, discrimination—veiled or overt, and/or a culture of low expectations and reduced opportunities. Inequality with respect to access, retention, and success results from overlapping systemic barriers that disadvantage these groups. How can we convince all of our students, and especially the aforementioned at-risk populations, that the faculty office is a space in which their agency and cultural capital can be enhanced and advanced? One way is to require they come. And, to make certain they do, we can tie it to their grade in some way. This brings us to the second issue of focus.

II. The Grading Conference: “If you grade it, they will come.”

So if encouraging participation in office hours doesn’t produce the contact we are seeking with students, how about the one-on-one grading conference? We have all certainly heard of this strategy (and its varying forms), and a few of us have been practicing it for some time. For those who have not yet given it a try and may be curious about the practical methodology and pedagogical benefits of the in-person grading conference, we can offer a few ideas.

First, it is important to note that when the rationale and manner of the conference are explained to students up front, there is no resistance. Students understand that this is the way their formal writing will be evaluated in the class, and they get it. Obviously, the trepidation mentioned at the top of this post can sometimes follow them into the first grading session, and I consciously work to ameliorate any anxiety they may be experiencing. However, because they have a clear understanding of the agenda and what will occur in the conference, there is very little of the disconcerting ambiguity that hangs about the office hours visit. Moreover, after that first conference, student buy-in is typically at or near 100%. Some anecdotal evidence to support my assertion seems appropriate here. Late in the term, when we get to the fourth essay, I offer the option of a face-to-face grading conference or a traditional response in which I mark the paper with corrections, comments, and an end note. Unfailingly, all of the students (with a rare exception) choose the conference. This has been my experience, class after class, semester after semester.  

Now, why should students so overwhelmingly prefer the grading conference over traditional marking? There are a couple key reasons. One, the interpersonal exchange eliminates the anonymity and distance (both psychic and physical) that students and professors can experience in the classroom. In brief, the conference humanizes each to the other. The power dynamic shifts—though, granted, it is still present—and association replaces alienation. According to Alexandra Gold, who teaches in Harvard’s College Writing Program, “the conference is, in fact, a space for collaboration, not an inquisition. Perhaps the defining aspect of the student conference is the sheer humanity of the interaction, including intangibles like the configuration of physical space, tone, and body language.” We become real for our students when we can demonstrate our investment in a shared cause: their ability to think critically and express themselves clearly in written academic discourse.

Another reason the grading conference may trump traditional evaluation is the way it compels students to process our critique. When returning graded papers in class, I used to ponder the percentage of students who would look through my feedback, let along give it genuine consideration. The in-person grading session ensures that my comments are understood, that follow-up questions can be asked and answered, that we are having a meaningful dialog about the student’s experience with the material and how they developed the ideas in their essay.

 Michael Millner, associate professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, shares his takeaway on the grading conference: “What was most important—and most rewarding—for me and for my students, I think, was that I stopped pointing at things and they stopped expecting me to point. Instead, they were able to see their papers as part of an interesting and continuing collaboration with me and ultimately with themselves.” The conference encourages students to see their work in a different light, one that enables metacognition and meaningful reflection. I also honestly believe it improves the quality of the writing I receive. Simply, students take more pride in their work because they know they will be sitting next to me, going over it together.

A final benefit of the conference is that it proves fertile ground for fostering relationships of understanding and empathy. Students who will politely ignore an invitation to office hours but show up for a mandatory grading session may find themselves returning, under their own volition, to discuss academic options, personal dilemmas, or recent successes. The conference becomes an avenue for making those critical connections with our at-risk, underserved, underrepresented students. It can be one more implement in our arsenal as we prosecute the war against inequity.

–Christine Sandoval and Jason Spangler

Is It Worth It?

Last spring, one of my high performing students protested the “extreme workload” in my English 1B class. We were already several terms into pandemic teaching, and I had assiduously scaled down, lowered stakes, and increased flexibility. Taken aback, I tried explaining the purpose of the assignments, their sequencing, and their relative weight, but he was more concerned about numbers than about pedagogy. “Bottom line, is it worth it for me to do these assignments?” he asked pointedly.

As teaching professionals, our answer to this type of question is likely to be an automatic “Of course it is!” Every activity has a purpose. Every assignment and every assessment is part of a larger plan.

I understand this student’s concern, though, and he is not the only one expressing it. Dr. Betsy Barre, Executive Director of the Center for Advancement of Teaching at Wake Forest University, addresses students’ perceptions of workload in a recent podcast: “…This is a pandemic; our students are struggling; let’s lower the stakes on things; let’s be understanding. And so one way to do that is by having smaller low-stakes assignments, so instead of a big midterm, you have multiple weekly check-ins. But of course, our students can interpret that as, ‘more work,’ because if you’re just counting work by counting the number of assignments, then it is, by definition, more work.” According to Barre, a “too much busywork” perception has surfaced in survey results across her institution, from the law school to the divinity college to the general education classes.

At Riverside City College, we have all likely witnessed similar student perceptions of excessive workload expressed anecdotally, in student surveys, and during IOIs, especially recently. I know I have.

And it is easy to see why. Watching today’s college students navigate through their classes reminds me of the way I used to approach short-answer exams. If there were a lot of questions and a strict time-limit, I would answer the ones worth the most points first and save the ones worth the fewest points for last. That way, if the clock ran out, only the questions with the lowest stakes would remain unanswered. With so much competing for our students’ time and attention, we should acknowledge that no matter how beneficial low-stakes assignments and assessments might be, many of our students will prioritize the activities they perceive as having the highest stakes.

Am I suggesting, then, that students are too busy to benefit from frequent low-stakes activities, so we should move away from this approach? Of course not. Decades of research have shown positive correlations between low-stakes activities and faculty-student interaction, student attention and motivation, student self-efficacy, and deep learning. Frequent low-stakes activities might even make our classes more inclusive. In chapter 7 of his book Small Teaching, James M. Lang, Director of the D ’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College, argues that such activities—especially when they are highly structured—offer affirmation to those students who already feel adequately prepared and reassurance to those students who do not: “[T]hat extra work ensures that fewer students are left behind in the classroom, and more students feel like they belong” (183). The merit of frequent low-stakes activities is clear—at least to us.  

What I am suggesting is that we assist our students in shifting their emphasis from stakes to value. As Lang points out, “If we really want to inspire students to learn in our courses, we need to focus more of our attention on building up intrinsic motivators, leading them to learning with the same wellsprings of desire and interest that drove us into our disciplines and teaching careers” (196).

Of course, proselyting the merits of low-stakes activities is probably not going to change student perception of their relative worth, as I learned last spring. Small pedagogical changes, however, could make a difference, and if they are strategic, students might stop counting the number of assignments they are being asked to complete and look instead at what those assignments accomplish.

Lang’s book houses these small changes within a larger framework of cognitive activities that foster student knowledge, understanding, and inspiration. He asserts that students place more value on activities that repeatedly tap into prior and recently acquired knowledge because they feel that the work of gaining that knowledge has been acknowledged and appreciated. He suggests making small adjustments to our predicting, retrieving, and interleaving (reinforcement) activities accordingly. “Such activities, leveraged into the first and final minutes of a class session, can provide a powerful boost to student mastery of knowledge; so, too, can simple tweaks to the organization of your course and the order in which you introduce new material and review older material” (18).

Lang also claims that in order for students to value their understanding of subject matter, they have to form “meaningful and effective” connections to it themselves: “Your task [as an instructor] is to create an environment that facilitates the formation of those connections rather than simply lecturing them about connections” (98). He proposes that making small changes to—and allowing more time for—connecting, practicing, and explaining activities will make the class concepts more relevant, practical, and applicable for students, thereby making them more worthwhile.              

Finally, Lang points out that students tend to place a higher value on activities that inspire them: “Classrooms are thoroughly social settings, and our connection to the people around us—or lack of connection—can have a significant impact on the quality of our learning” (159), and making small adjustments to activities that foster belonging, are motivating, and help students understand their own learning process will lead to inspiration. If we are bonded with our students, they might react more positively to the enthusiasm we have for our subject matter and trust our teaching expertise, which in turn could make those frequent low-stakes assignments more acceptable.

Lang’s book lists dozens of specific teaching strategies that I am not sharing here for two reasons, the most obvious one being the current length of this blog. The other reason is applicability: not every strategy works in every situation, for example, classroom vs. online or English 1A vs. English 1B. Furthermore, a strategy that works for one class might not work for another, for example an 8 AM class vs. a 6 PM class or a multi-day lecture vs. a once-a-week flipped format.

What I want to share instead is a suggestion and some thought-starters: If we would like our students to benefit from frequent low-stakes activities, we should look closely at our own classes and ensure these activities are truly worthwhile.

For instance, Barre brings up how much more labor intensive discussion board postings are than the in-class conversations they are intended to mimic because students will worry more about wording and grammar both in their initial post and in their replies to peers. So is it really necessary to have multiple discussions each week? (This is a question I am asking myself right now.) Or, as Barre suggests, could students record their spoken answers instead of writing them down?

What about the way we approach assessment? For example, is there a way to make reading quizzes more about retrieving learned information and less about demonstrating that they have read the assigned literature? Could students take turns writing and administering their own quizzes instead and then have those quizzes lead the discussion of that day’s stories?

And on the subject of grading, are we indeed differentiating between low-stakes and high-stakes activities in our syllabi and gradebooks? Evaluating our assignments’ relative worth might help us better explain that worth to our students the next time they express concern about workload.

—Brit Osgood-Treston, Ed.D., Associate Professor of English, Riverside City College Department of English and Media Studies     

Minding the Gap

In preparations for the January workshop, I have been thinking about the word “gap” in educational discourse. As we have discussed many times over the past decade, particularly moving through acceleration to answer the call of AB705, the term 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. We are up to this challenge. It can feel daunting, though, closing the space between what we think we did, what we envisioned or intended, and how that may not match our students’ experiences.

What’s our “why”? As educators, we are often invited to overstate or hyper-perform our altruism, which can perpetuate an impossible “superperson” or “savior” narrative that is unsustainable, nevermind deeply isolating—especially in a culture that feminizes and racializes stories of self-sacrifice or effacement. Crediting Jennifer Taylor-Mendoza for the phrase, Leigh Ann Shaw and Jeramy Wallace suggest that an “obligation gap” offers us a much more student-centered view of our responsibilities. On the one hand, they write, “[A]n obligation-centered framework requires practitioners and educators to continually reflect on their interactions with students and their pedagogies.” I also appreciate how the “obligation gap” calls us beyond our individual classrooms, to improve our networks of collaboration across all the systems we navigate, benefit from, have been hurt by, and seek to change.

Information: Enthusiasm, good intentions, and even a sense of obligation to our students alone is not enough without a focus point, a tool to start with. Reflecting on our data on a regular basis holds us accountable for racial/ethnic and gender equity. But this also has to be collective labor. After I “zoom in” on my own data to ask what I can do to eliminate any disparate impacts on Native American and African American students, I also have to “zoom out” to look at broader trends across the department, division, college, and district. That’s where our networks, or coalitions, of obligation can come in, to advance questions together and follow-up to ensure against complacency. As we support our students’ success, what resources sustain that effort? Who do we need to be listening to?

Hope: Data has been exploited as such cudgel against publicly funded education, like code for a self-fulfilling prophecy. The federal policies of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top used high-stakes standardized test results for almost twenty years to “measure” student achievement in elementary and secondary education—ultimately re-inscribing patterns of racism and economic injustice. While the impact of teachers on student success has been acknowledged for years now in K-12 teacher effectiveness research, reductive accountability methods in the context of federal policies were highly demoralizing and did little to create meaningful change.

We do not need to repeat those mistakes. I am grateful that the Center for Urban Education (CUE) cautions about the fundamental differences between a “culture of evidence,” which can dangerously oversimplify, and a “culture of inquiry,” which asks us to engage in a recurring practice.

CUE identifies five specific strategies for working with data, with the purpose of achieving racial equity. Consider how these strategies may be useful as you “zoom in” and “zoom out” to mind the gaps you (and we) discover and reflect upon: 1. Diagnose inequities; 2. Locate data close to the work you do on a daily basis; 3. Ask equity-minded questions about the data; 4. Translate equity gaps into numbers of students; 5. Set equity goals.

Cited: The Center for Urban Education (2019). Equity-Minded Teaching Institute Workbook. Los Angeles CA: Rossier School of Education, University of Southern California, pp. 58-59.

Here are a few questions I’ll offer as we keep the dialogue going:

  1. What do you think about the concept of the “obligation gap” as a motivator?
  2. Other than in your own classroom, where do you think you can best participate to advance equity-minded questions, conversations, and follow-up at RCC?
  3. How might you go about expanding your current “data reflection” allies?
  4. What is one area over the past two years where you have concentrated on helping minoritized students in your course planning, activities, assignments, or other practices? Where do you see effects? What are your new goals, based on your latest data?

This is Part I of a post on reflective data analysis and responsive teaching tools. To read Part II, click here.

Choosing Inclusive and Empowering Texts — Part I

In thinking about antiracist practices, as a white professor, before I work through my thoughts on choosing antiracist texts (which I hope will be helpful to you), I first need to acknowledge and credit the Black and Latinx thinkers who have informed this process for me. 

First, I need to talk about the framework I use. I call the framework “critical thinking/critical imagination.” It comes from a talk I attended given by two Latinx professors, Genvieve Carpio and Juan D. DeLara. Both professors had written recent Marxist histories of the Inland Empire. I am relatively new to the Inland Empire. During the Q&A, I asked what I as a 1A professor could do to empower my students. 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). 

With that being said, I also need to back up in time a little bit. I’ve been practicing antiracist andragogy for 10 years now. This antiracist practice has recently, in the last 5 or so years, also become anticapitalist. This is due, in part, to Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (1983). One of its arguments builds on the idea of racial capitalism, and argues that capitalism needs racism to function. Capitalism needs groups of workers to be utilized for, as Angela Davis argues, “super-exploitation,” and we construct race to figure out which workers meet that criteria. And as Robin D. G. Kelley explains, “There is no such thing as non-racist capitalism.” 

Over the years, when I review my antiracist/anticapitalist text selections and the units in which they exist (and by text I am referring both to written articles and multimedia) one thing I have noticed is that some units speak to something universal and unchanging about racial capitalism, while others speak to specific moments and therefore need to be changed out when that specific moment changes. This is because, as Robinson argues in Forgeries of Memory and Meaning (2007),  “racial regimes are unrelentingly hostile to their exhibition,” and

are subsequently unstable truth systems. Like Ptolemaic astronomy, they may “collapse” under the weight of their own artifices, practices, and apparatuses; they may fragment, desiccated by new realities, which discard some fragments wholly while appropriating others into newer regimes. Indeed, the possibilities are the stuff of history.

And I realized, as I moved from my Spring to Summer classes this year, that we were moving into a new historical moment after the public execution of George Floyd. As Angela Davis argues: “This particular historical conjuncture holds possibilities for change that we’ve never before experienced in this country.”  This change includes demands not only for the police who murder to be brought to justice, but for things like police defunding and prison abolition, for a re-imagining of social relations which would empower workers, especially Black and Latinx workers. 

But if we look at the current bourgeois sanctioned political landscape there is very little for our Black and Latinx students to feel invested in. They are forced to watch, powerless, as one political party is determined to march us into a fascism crafted onto an existing structure of white supremacy, and the only other viable political party is unable to ultimately stop that march because they have been forged inside a tradition which refuses to understand the racialization of the liberalism they desperately want to save, caused by a cognitive dissonance regarding race identified by Charles W. Mills in The Racial Contract (1997), which produces “the ironic outcome that whites will in general be unable to understand the world they themselves have made.” So, as instructors, how do we begin to change that? How do we select texts which will create a site of struggle for our students which will leave them empowered rather than defeated? 

To begin this journey for myself at this particular historical moment, I returned to one of the many texts I’ve been reading over the past few years to familiarize myself with California, Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (2007) which charts the whys and hows involved in California becoming the largest carceral state in the largest carceral nation on the planet. And while this text is too advanced to use in class, it is a place to start in thinking about my criteria for new 1A selections because its arguments are related to this particular historical moment.

One argument stood out to me: Gilmore’s argument regarding how labor functions within the spaces of the prison industrial complex. She argues that the super-exploited under racial capitalism have suffered “organized abandonment” as their jobs have been displaced or replaced by forces like globalized capitalism and technological change. This abandonment stems from the government at all levels who, in this current iteration of neoliberal capitalism, see their role, as Reagan so famously put it, as getting “out of the way of business” so that money can be made. (We can see this in the two major political parties today: Republicans see it as the state’s sole purpose while Democrats see it as the primary purpose). Of course, because surplus value can only be derived from labor, this then is at the cost of the worker. 

And as more workers’ livelihoods evaporated in the name of increasing profits for less owners, there are two groups of workers who emerge and fuel the rise of prisons: those excess workers who have been convicted of “crime” engaged in to survive and are now being housed in prison, and those workers who, desperate for any job that will provide them with something close to a middle class existence, are in charge of transporting, housing, monitoring, and disciplining those caged excess workers. I then thought of my relationship to this second group of workers, as the first stop in college, or in the human capital development they need to ultimately find employment within one of the many and overlapping areas of the prison industrial complex, which include policing and healthcare. I had found my starting point. 

Once identified, the first step for me is to problematize the issue. I try as much as I can to put as many of the things “on the ground” for students using texts which contain narrative elements and, whenever possible, are local. I came across “Somebody’s Gotta Help Me,” a ProPublica investigation into the 2017 death of a Latinx man from Indio while in Riverside Police Department’s custody and in the care of the Riverside University Health System. All of the boxes are checked here: it presents the problem, it is local,  and it uses narrative elements. 

Once the issue has been problematized, I move onto critical thinking. One place I like to go for this is NPR, especially its “Hidden Brain” podcast. And in looking through them, I found one, “In the Air We Breathe” which deals with implicit bias within the framework of policing. One thing I like about “Hidden Brain” is that it shows students how to work through critical thinking; it shows them that exploring different angles on an issue, and even questioning your own thesis, is not only okay, but should be encouraged. But while it is good for critical thinking, it is not good for critical imagination. And now we are at the point where our Black and Latinx students may feel ultimately defeated within a framework that offers no viable solutions for them other than “reform,” which can at its best only aspire to a performative version of actual change. 

To move on to critical imagination, I turned to the thinkers who are engaged with these issues and returned to Gilmore who, because of this new historical moment in which our conceptions of race are being reworked, has been doing interviews on prison abolition, something she and others like Angela Davis have been arguing for since at least the 1990s. One podcast in particular “Ruth Wilson Gilmore Makes the Case for Abolition” stood out to me for three reasons. First, you have two African American scholars, Chenjerai Kumanyika and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, in conversation. This is very important. Not only should our Black and Latinx students consume texts by and about people like them, they should see people like them in the academy, especially if we as instructors are serious about diversifying our own ranks. Second, they talk about issues already talked about in the last two texts, so connections can be made by the students. Third, Gilmore not only critically imagines a new future but also discusses different areas we can work on right now to move towards that future. 

To finish out the unit, I am using the concluding chapter “Abolitionist Alternatives” of Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete? (2003). I like to use concluding chapters of works in my 1A, especially towards the end of the semester, because it shows students that a conclusion can be complex and that it can span more than one paragraph. Davis’ work here, like Gilmore’s interview, frees itself from the confines of what is to imagine what could be and offers some concrete first steps to get there.  Both this work and Gilmore’s interview model critical imagination for our students; and while some may reject it, others will be empowered by the model to build their own solutions from the first steps outlined by Gilmore and Davis, free of the confines of racial capitalism, which we are taught to regard as inescapable. 

When the two were collaborating on the original Rainbow Coalition in Chicago, Hy Thurman of the Young Patriots, a white street gang, was given the following advice on organizing by Bobby Lee of the Black Panthers, a radical organization which had evolved into multiple chapters across the country and was administering different types of mutual aid programs for its communities, including free breakfast for children to maximize their education: “If you don’t know where to start organizing, you walk to your front door and you look in front of you, you look behind you, you look to the left, you look to the right, and then you pick a direction.” This is, ultimately, the kind of empowerment I want my students to have when they leave my classroom at the end of the semester. And one of the first steps towards that empowerment is my selection of antiracist/anticapitalist texts. 

Below are a few questions to get you thinking about your own practice:

Questions

  1. Have you been resistant to making changes like this in your classroom, and if so, why do you think that might be?
  2. What sites of struggle do you want to set up in the classroom for your students?
  3. What areas of critical imagination do you want your students to engage with and why?
  4. Looking at your current text selections, are there any that could be used for critical imagination?

This is Part I of a post on choosing inclusive and empowering texts. To read Part II, click here.

Anti-Racist Teaching Practices – Part 2

This is Part 2 of a post on anti-racist teaching practices. See the first post here.

My three friends and colleagues Dr. Kelly Douglass, Dr. Jan Andres, and Carolyn Rosales were gracious and brave enough to partner with me on this important venture. Here are their wonderful and powerful contributions to the blog.

Dr. Kelly Douglass, Ph.D

“We have come across faculty who resist examining the quality of classroom interactions between themselves and students who are not white by claiming that it is not their prerogative to assign identities to students” (McNair et al. 33).

Anti-racist and culturally responsive pedagogy teaches us that we must build trust with our students. If I am not considering the racial dynamics of my classroom interactions, then I am already not being trustworthy about what is happening in my classroom. Doing this is not “assigning identities to students;” it is acknowledging identities, those assigned and those claimed.

McNair et al.’s From Equity Talk to Equity Walk has me asking where I have been an obstacle to equity-minded solutions. To paraphrase Chana Joffe-Walt in the podcast, Nice White Parents, white parents in school systems aren’t asked to explain their behavior as a group in the way that parents and students of color are; they are allowed to make choices assumed to be individual and separate from systems. What choices, what policies, what attitudes have I, a nice white professor, adopted from educational systems that for too long have simply tolerated inequitable outcomes for Black and Latinx students?

Undoing this means that is not a rhetorical question. It means looking for what actually is getting in the way of students succeeding — reading about student needs, looking at college data and surveys, reading and talking about how to teach and grade differently, listening to MY students right now. I am the subject matter expert, but I am not the expert on the lives of students. What are my students telling me about how they need me to show up for them? What can I do to answer them? What could I do? What am I still tolerating if I don’t hear them and act?

Carolyn Rosales

In, How to Be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi recalls witnessing various examples of racist abuse as a child, and describes one incident when a Black girl in his class was once again ignored by the teacher in favor of a White student. Kendi writes about how his fury and sadness welled up within his young body. With no other outlet for his emotions, he acted out, refusing direct orders from his teachers, and choosing instead to sit still and process the racist abuse he had just witnessed. In retrospect, Kendi wonders how the teachers would have responded if he had been a White student. Would they have sat with him and talked through his feelings rather than “chalked up [his] resistance to [his] Blackness and therefore categorized it as misbehavior, not distress” (48)

I had to pause here as a reader and ask myself: What would I have done in that same situation? But perhaps a better question that we can ask ourselves, is: What have I actually done in similar situations? After pondering this question and taking a very painful inventory of my successes and failures, I couldn’t help but wonder: if we don’t take the time to really look at our own shortcomings in our efforts to develop antiracist pedagogy, will we ever really get there?

We can talk all we want to about being equitable and antiracist, but until we are actually being antiracist, then we are not moving forward. And by not moving forward, we are damaging the voices and spirits of our students through our non-actions.

Dr. Jan Andres, Ph.D

“[T]here is no neutrality in the racism struggle, writes Kendi. “One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist” (9). As teachers, this means that doing nothing is not an option, not when our students of color are fighting for their humanity. One cannot be antiracist without action.

For antiracist educators, action is not just about classroom practice but, crucially, how it translates outside the institution and into our communities. Kendi himself concludes that “educating for the sake of changing minds” is not enough – changing policy becomes his aim (230-31). In teaching, we can “channel… students’ energy against the very social conditions that undermine their existence” (Camangian 30). Encouraging our students to act – that’s the goal. And it’s not just about helping our students succeed academically or helping them develop the tools to recognize and fight injustices that threaten their survival and wellbeing – part of our work needs to be fighting alongside them, too. 

Here’s a small action that’s helped me remember the work that needs to be done outside my classroom. I’m teaching American literature, and partly because it’s a new class but also because these works, written by and about BIPOC and immigrants, are so relevant to our present, I’ve asked my students to write how the literature informs their day-to-day as citizens and humans. My students recognize their world through this literature; they are disappointed, angry, and scared that we are seeing these same injustices today. But they are also, it turns out, committed to change. Asking them to reflect is not enough on its own, but it’s a reminder that my students and I are fighting the same fights, and a reminder to keep working towards policy change while building mutual aid and collective care at RCC and beyond.

How are you fighting for your students in and out of the classroom? What are you doing in the classroom to prepare your students to change the world around them into a place they can thrive? 

As you continue to engage with us over these next few weeks, please take the time to read over both part 1 and 2 of the blog and really internalize what we are saying and what we are asking you to do. We are asking you to transform and not simply change.

Anti-Racist Teaching Practices – Blog Part 1

My grandparents were both born in the 1920’s South where racism ran and currently still runs rampant in the streets and institutions of what is falsely called “The land of the free and the home of the brave.” And yet here we are, in 2020, still talking about racism in America. 

I do not have to tell you nor remind you of what ails America, nor do I have to remind you of the protests, the verdicts, the unrest. But what I do want to point out is that all of the aforementioned occurrences are sheer reactions to a broken justice system. Now our system, the educational system is just as broken. It may not be causing bodily harm to our students, but we, the educators, the leaders of this campus have said something, assigned an assignment or exam, or implemented a process/procedure that has created institutional barriers which prohibit our students from being their magnificent selves in the classroom, therefore truncating their growth and development as young men and women. We need to fix that; we need to fix us; we need to fix our classrooms. We need to fight for educational freedom. We need to change!

Bettina Love in her book, We Want to do More than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom defines abolitionist teaching as “choosing to engage in the struggle for educational justice knowing that you have the ability and human right to refuse oppression and refuse to oppress others, mainly your student” (11). She goes even further as to claim “Abolitionist teaching asks educators to acknowledge and accept America and its politics as anti-Black, racist, discriminatory, and unjust and to be in solidarity with dark folx and poor folx fighting for their humanity and fighting to move beyond surviving” (12). I want to point out that Love is calling all of us as educators to become abolitionists and set the minds of our students free in order to thrive and not merely survive. This will in turn set their bodies free – free to bring their full authentic selves to the classroom and to discussions in class. The great abolitionists both recognized and not put their lives on the line to ensure that those who were enslaved both mentally and physically were freed from a system that sought to hold them captive for the rest of their lives and the rest of the lives of generations after them. And we need 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. We can make the change!

It is quite evident from the verdicts in the courts, the protests in the streets, the bodies in the streets that we have not been freed from the institution of racism that has plagued this country from its founding. It is evident when we continue to teach material in class that is not representative of our minority majority serving campus. It is evident when we facilitate discussions in class that empower and embolden the oppressive viewpoints of a few while harming the many. I know some of you who are reading this belong to ally groups both visible and invisible, and I thank you because we need your voices, support, and love. I know some of you belong to task forces, working groups, councils, and other leadership positions that are trying to work to see some of these systems dismantled and replaced with good meaning policies and procedures. So please, keep working, keep pushing, keep fighting. But have we seen anything change? Any real change? Any long lasting change? Love puts it best when she says “[We] must move beyond feel-good language and gimmicks to help educators understand and recognize America and its schools as spaces of Whiteness, White rage, and White supremacy, all of which function to terrorize students of color” (13). If you disagree with that sentence, I beg you to really listen to the responses of our colleagues as they respond to discussions of racism and students of color in meetings and FLEX sessions. Read between the lines of what is not written in email threads. Read what is on their syllabi. Look at the work that has not been done. 

As a campus, department, discipline, and district, now is our time to show our students and the students after them, and the students after them that they matter. We have the people in place, the money in place, the training in place to really transform RCC in the name of Educational Social Justice. We can do it, so lets do it!

I leave you with these questions as we start thinking about Ant-Racist Practices and Pedagogy:

  1. Is there racism in the educational system? 
  2. What is your definition of Anti- racist teaching or abolitionist teaching?
  3. Do you take into consideration students’ race or even your own when you enter a classroom?
  4. Why would educators be resistant to making changes in order to implement culturally relevant texts and pedagogy?
  5. Why are we still talking about race and racism in 2020?
  6. Bonus question (do not respond in blog). What are some biases, prejudices,  preferences, fears that you’ve had to admit you have as you’ve worked with faculty,  staff,  and students? 

This is Part 1 of a post on anti-racist teaching practices. To read Part 2, click here.

Student Voices Impacting Change

By: Professors Dan Hogan, Miguel Reid, and Monique Greene

The community college system has played a monumental role over the last century in helping students in higher education to bridge their education to future career choices. Although there are foundational structures that support the students’ experiences, there is still a need to truly identify which support mechanisms aid in their success. As an institution, it is our duty to better understand the complexities of the students’ lives as well as the wealth that they bring so that we can respond to their needs, strengths and ambitions in a timely and effective manner.  

The student experience should be at the core of our decision-making process as we work to redesign our institution in a just and equitable manner.  The three of us have spent the last three years researching various topics on how to better serve students at our college.

Dan Hogan – Doctoral Candidate, Educational Leadership, Cal State San Bernardino 

In my research, I wanted to study how the big structural changes in English associated with AB 705 might affect the ways students and faculty interact in the classroom. Barhoum (2017) notes that while structural and curricular changes in education are easier to assess and change, the andragogical and relational elements of education (i.e. how professors actually interact with students) are often equally important; research confirms that addressing these non-traditional success measures correlates highly with traditional success markers like course grade and transfer (Cuellar, 2015; Garcia, 2019). One such non-traditional measure is Rendon’s (1994) concept of faculty validation, which consists of actions initiated by the faculty member, including but not limited to affirming student abilities, celebrating a student’s culture, maintaining high expectations, initiating personal connections, and demonstrating genuine care – all of which have been shown to mitigate equity gaps (Barnett, 2011; Gardenhire-Crooks, et. al, 2010; Newman, et al., 2015; Rendon, 1994).

In fall 2019 I surveyed 1,044 English students about faculty validation; then in spring-summer 2020 I interviewed nine Black and Latino men to ask them about their experiences taking English. Here were my major findings:

  1. The average male Black or Latino student reported feeling “somewhat” validated by their professor, but faculty validation was significantly predictive of course grade: the higher the validation, the higher the course grade. 
  2. Male Black and Latino students in co-requisite English classes reported higher levels of validation than those in standalone English courses, partially because they spent more time in the classroom developing skills and relationships.
  3. While professors validate students in a variety of ways, the most salient ways reported by the Black and Latino men I interviewed were individualizing instruction (i.e. offering freedom for project topic choice); providing clear feedback and support (i.e. comments on an essay that clearly explain how to improve); having high expectations (i.e. assigning rigorous projects and encouraging students that they could complete them); and demonstrating genuine care (i.e. taking time to provide individual feedback; slowing down to answer questions or re-explain concepts; inviting students to office hours; or checking in on how students were doing both emotionally and academically).
  4. While cultural identity was important to the students, the identity of the professor was not a significant determining factor for whether students experienced validation; this supports Noguera’s (2008) claim that “Differences in race, gender, or sexual orientation need not limit a teacher’s ability to make a connection with a young person… They tend to respond well to caring adults regardless of what they look like.” While Noguera referred to K-12 students, the adult men I interviewed felt similarly about their professors.

Dr. Miguel Reid 

My research was prompted by my experience as a Black student. Although I failed almost every class throughout high school, I do remember reading two books: The Color Purple and The Autobiography of Malcolm X – nothing else. Despite being a young man who didn’t care about school, I somehow found interest in those two texts that highlighted the African-American experience. These experiences inspired my research, which focused on bolstering the success of African-American students, especially Black males.  

Rather than spending energy and time on practices that may impact only a handful of Black students in one class in any given semester, my research suggested the importance of developing larger-scale support systems, such as a culturally-focused, first-year English composition learning community within a student success programs such as Umoja. My research yielded findings such as these:

  1. Programs with culturally-responsive learning communities have proven success in raising the self-esteem in African-American students and a sense of purpose in society.
  2. The success of first-year experience initiative/mentor programs, such as Umoja, demonstrated the importance of promoting engagement, meaningful connections, and self-empowerment as a means of navigating school more successfully.
  3. Studies recommend networking and connecting among Black males in support programs and the development of groups that highlight rites of passage programs emphasizing an Afrocentric model with mentoring from older African-American male models and proximal peer mentors.
  4. Through support-affiliated classes such as Umoja, Black men focus more and apply more effort to academics when encouraged by Black staff and faculty through validation, accessible services, and promotion of help-seeking behavior.

Equity-minded discourses in academia often fail to acknowledge the data-supported impact that culturally-focused initiatives such as Umoja can have on Black student success. This kind of resistance is addressed in the anchor text that we have all been asked to read for this year, From Equity Talk to Equity Walk: Expanding Practitioner Knowledge for Racial Justice in Higher Education. On pages 21-51, the authors point out ten obstacles blocking the path toward racial equity:

1. Claiming to Not See Race

2. Not Being Able or Willing to Notice Racialized Consequences

3. Skirting Around Race

4. Resisting Calls to Disaggregate Data by Race and Ethnicity

5. Substituting Race Talk with Poverty Talk

6. The Pervasiveness of White Privilege and Institutionalized Racism

7. Evasive Reactions to Racist Incidents

8. The Incapacity to See Institutional Racism in Familiar Routines

9. The Myth of Universalism

10. Seeing Racial Inequities as a Reflection of Academic Deficiencies

In what ways might your well-intended, equity-minded efforts reflect these obstacles?

In what ways can you understand/support/promote a culturally-focused program such as Umoja? 

Dr. Monique Greene 

My research was on the Career Exploration Process for Non-Traditional Students in the California Community College System undergirded by the theoretical framework of Donald Super’s Career Development and Life Span Theory (1984).  I was curious to understand how life roles shaped or influenced the career decisions of our older student population.  Through this research, I found that enrollment in the community college system is a huge part of the career development process for many students.  Our student’s expect to gain valuable knowledge,  transferable, and career skills needed to secure employment in the workforce.  

However, many CCC students have various life roles and responsibilities that they juggle in addition to their education.  On top of their roles and responsibilities, the CCC system has designed barriers (whether intentional or not) that they have to hurdle through in order to be successful in completion.  Key findings from my research include the need to address the following: 

  1. Access to resource support (evening and weekend hours)
  2. Curriculum redesign (culturally inclusive content, programs that can be completed solely in the evening or online)
  3. Building a Sense of Belonging (Andragogy vs. Pedagogy teaching practices, building on previous life experiences in the classroom, social engagement opportunities for older students on campus)
  4. Adult reentry program (bridging the gap from Adult Education, Formerly Incarcerated, Community, and NonCredit Programs)
  5. Career Center Services (direct connection to employment, internships and networking opportunities)

Based on these key findings, we have discovered the meaningful impact of student voices in guiding the change that is needed inside of our classrooms and across our campus.  

Incorporating the Student Voice

We will hear throughout this series from different faculty members, but using students’ voices to frame the discussion is critical.  Many of us use assessment measures throughout the semester that allows for students to provide critical feedback of the course.  Here are a few questions about the student voice to consider:

  1. How often do you take into consideration the feedback that you receive from students to make your classroom more engaging or conducive for learning?  
  2. How often do you stop and chat with a student outside of class who may have questioned or challenged the content or the relevance of an assignment? 
  3. How often do you allow your students to choose the topic that they want to write on?
  4. How often do you allow your students to choose the topics that they engage or dialogue in the classroom?  
  5. In what ways do you facilitate the centering of students’ experiences/voices in the classroom, whether through writing or other activities?
  6. What does “faculty validation” mean to you? How does it manifest in your classroom?
  7. In what ways do you gather and examine student feedback in order to improve practices?

Through these meaningful interactions and dialogue with students you begin to gain insight into their lives, their passions, and their minds.  Open discussion and intentional conversations about how to relate your content to real life experiences in which they see themselves could make the difference between increased success rates or drop rates for your class.

A Message from Dean Woods

Greetings Everyone,

It is an honor to have been asked to write the first post of the 2020/2021 post for your Community of Practice Blog.  Nevertheless, at this particular time, this request has weighed heavily on me as I am not inclined to say something uplifting, motivational and cheery.  Coupled with writing for an audience of composition faculty—I must pay attention to clarity, and to carefully consider the all-important modes of persuasion:  ethos, logos and pathos.  So, I ask myself—from what perspective do I want to write to you and what message do I most want to convey in these pandemic-enveloped times?

I will begin with two quotes that came immediately to mind as I sat to write this blog post.  The first is a statement that the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison said to his friend and fellow abolitionist Samuel May: “I have a need to be all on fire for I have mountains of ice about me to melt.”  The second quote is a simple statement taken from the speech that Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King gave to a packed church in Memphis on the stormy night before his assassination: “We’ve got some difficult days ahead . . . .”   As an historian, I have been consistently asked by students whether or not our democracy could ever fall victim to tyranny and full-blown authoritarianism.  As these two quotes attest, there are those in this country who have felt that weight of oppression throughout our history.  So, when asked this question by my students, I have always responded unhesitatingly with, “Yes, indeed it can.”  In my lived experience and in my understanding of the history, there is still nothing, though, that compares to seeing that democracy being eroded so swiftly, blatantly, capriciously and effectively than what we are witnessing today.  But I am not writing to take us down a rabbit hole of despair.  I do actually write this post for you today in order to lift you up!

I encourage you to bring every ounce of passion, dedication and commitment to your chosen profession with you each and every day as you engage in the work of liberation and transformation through education in these difficult days. Our students are fire-breathers!  Please support them and provide 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.  I urge you to prepare for classes as if your future is in the hands of the students in your classes—because it is.  What will you do to be a partner in their transformation from student to thought leader?  I am excited to see the possibilities as we envision ourselves as not only faculty but lighthouses, tunnels, bridges, escape hatches, guides, sages, nurturers and friendly, welcoming accomplices to our students.  We need to be who and what they need for us to be as they learn to navigate these difficult times.  We have to model effective fire-breathing and ice-melting techniques.  We must realize that our students will be the ones envisioning, designing and creating a future for all of us.  We have a hand in that.  It is an awesome responsibility. Please provide your students with the best possible opportunities to cultivate their own insights; to take the leaps of imagination which will result in their abilities to strengthen their communities.  Allow them to revel in their belongingess.  Engage their intellects and value them.  Most importantly, let them know that we trust them to ultimately lead, by allowing them to see that we are so confident in who they will become that we will be willing to follow.

Peace,

Kristi