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
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?
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:
What do you think about the concept of the “obligation gap” as a motivator?
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?
How might you go about expanding your current “data reflection” allies?
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.
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.
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:
Have you been resistant to making changes like this in your classroom, and if so, why do you think that might be?
What sites of struggle do you want to set up in the classroom for your students?
What areas of critical imagination do you want your students to engage with and why?
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.
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?
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.
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:
Is there racism in the educational system?
What is your definition of Anti- racist teaching or abolitionist teaching?
Do you take into consideration students’ race or even your own when you enter a classroom?
Why would educators be resistant to making changes in order to implement culturally relevant texts and pedagogy?
Why are we still talking about race and racism in 2020?
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.
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:
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.
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.
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).
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:
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.
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.
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.
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, FromEquity 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:
Access to resource support (evening and weekend hours)
Curriculum redesign (culturally inclusive content, programs that can be completed solely in the evening or online)
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)
Adult reentry program (bridging the gap from Adult Education, Formerly Incarcerated, Community, and NonCredit Programs)
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:
How often do you take into consideration the feedback that you receive from students to make your classroom more engaging or conducive for learning?
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?
How often do you allow your students to choose the topic that they want to write on?
How often do you allow your students to choose the topics that they engage or dialogue in the classroom?
In what ways do you facilitate the centering of students’ experiences/voices in the classroom, whether through writing or other activities?
What does “faculty validation” mean to you? How does it manifest in your classroom?
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.
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.
We have learned so much together over the course of our community of practice sessions this year. Thank you to all of you! I’ve gotten a wealth of ideas, food for thought, and books to read from this work—and then, of course, oh yeah, Covid and learning to teach online—literally all at once! That you’ve maintained the momentum, the commitment to continuing to learn and to improve our practices is a testament to the passion and genuine care for our students in this department. I am still experimenting—even now—with some of your ideas, with small scale ways to improve the final part of the semester for my students even as I’m already thinking about ways to do it better from the ground up next time.
The simple answer to how can we take everything we have learned (and are learning on the fly) and implement it all at once is—you can’t. And you can’t beat yourself up about that—as the last community of practice session emphasized, the “okay is good enough for now” mantra is essential to keep us functioning and grounded enough to give what we can to our students in this incredibly stressful situation. BUT we can do something(s)—bite sized bits that can have a real impact for our students, and our anchor text for this community of practice, James Lang’s Small Teaching, offers a wealth of terrific, small scale things to try to help our students better learn and retain information, and better apply, connect and understand what they’ve learned. But the bits we take from Lang (and from all the other great material we’ve studied together) need to be chosen strategically and intentionally and they need to be chosen with this question in mind: how will this transform my students’ experience of and in my class? Please notice the focus here on students’ experience—of course we want more of our students to succeed and we want to do everything we can to support them and give them a strong foundation as they move forward. But even if they don’t pass the first time around or even if they withdraw—things happen—what was their experience in your class and how do they come out of that feeling about whether or not they belong in college, whether they have what it takes, their capacity to continue to learn and grow? So the student experience, for me, is my key focus.
“What we believe determines what we’re willing to do, to try.” Lasana Hotep —equity training RCC April 24
I’ve come to think that what is most crucial to being able to create classroom experiences and course designs (virtually as well as F2F) that transform our students’ experience is critical self-reflection or what I try in design and practice and implementing any one of the wonderful suggestions we’ve been given may not truly transform my students’ experience. Let me explain. As Lasana Hotep pointed out in our most recent equity training at RCC, there is no simple, technical response—no silver bullet strategy or activity or technique—that by itself will improve equitable outcomes for our students and our students’ sense that they belong in college—even if there are bumps along the way. First and foremost we have to challenge the assumptions and narratives behind how we’ve designed and conducted our classes. We can’t simply lay strategies—no matter how wonderful—over the same old assumptions about our students—who they are, what they should know, why they do or don’t succeed, what they should be able to do coming in the door, who they should be as students. Without interrogating the assumptions (and the narratives behind those assumptions) that I make (often unconsciously) about my students, any strategy I use will be limited in its efficacy. So with this framing, let me dive in, if we can’t do everything at once, what can we do, what can we try to support our students’ learning in and experience of our classes?
Lang’s book divides the small teaching strategies (and by small teaching he means bite-sized doable things to try in our course design, in our day to day classroom practice) into three categories: Knowledge, Understanding, and Inspiration.
For knowledge, he has chapters on retrieval practice, predicting as a tool for learning, and interleaving—“spacing and mixing learning activities”—so a kind of cumulative learning that keeps returning to earlier material and skills even as new material/ skills are added rather than discrete units which is a hallmark, really of our process oriented composition classes (Lang 68).
His chapters in the section on understanding include connecting, practicing/ applying (this was the primary focus of Carolyn’s Active Learning community of practice—developing learning spaces where students not only get “knowledge and skills” but “get to practice this in relevant ways”). The final chapter in this section is on self-explaining—the work of having students work on explaining what they are doing and how they are doing it to themselves and others to help deepen learning, correct misunderstandings—the kind of practice we encourage when students write self-reflections on essays they turn in or when they do peer review.
The final section of Lang’s book turns to broader based themes of motivation (how do we help students develop and maintain motivation), growth (fostering growth mindset in our students, but in ourselves as well), and expansion (thinking beyond traditional pedagogies to include service learning/ activity or project based learning) but still offers bite-sized strategies.
He concludes with a framework for thinking about and using what he’s presented in the book embodied in these questions:
1) What can I do in my next class session? (and the next, and the next…). This is important for us now as we try to navigate ourselves and our students through the end of this chaotic term. And this question reminds us, that we don’t have to wait for next semester or the next time I teach this class to make changes—I can make small changes—right now! (and tomorrow, next week…) The temptation to sort of write off a semester, gut it out and think, “it will be better next time when I can fix this” is strong! But we still have time and opportunity now, this semester, with these students (and we might learn something that will make our plan for next semester stronger).
2) What can I do as I design/ tweak my classes for next semester (syllabus, assignments, assessment, pacing)? This is crucial for us as we face the reality of a summer term—and a fall term—with entirely online classes. What have I learned? What can I do differently given what I learned this semester? And what have I learned that I’ll keep no matter what? There have been opportunities as well as challenges in this experience!
3) What do I want to work on long term—what is a long term goal for how I’d like to transform my classes?
Small Tweaks, Adjustments, Experiments with Equity in Mind
What I would add to Lang’s framework are six principles from CUE (Center for Urban Excellence) for thinking about these changes with an explicit equity minded lens because we know, as I was reminded in the CUE seminar with Jennifer Ortiz (Chair, English, LA Trade Tech), implicit bias tends to intensify during high intensity, high stress times such as we’re experiencing now. Our stress levels, the rapidity with which we’ve had to make changes without time for a great deal of (or any) planning will be impacting how we respond to students, and without explicit equity focused intentionality, will impact decisions we make about how to structure our online classes, our WRC, etc. Equity outcomes suffer in challenging environments without intentionality. Here are the six principles Jennifer Ortiz presented:
1)Deconstructing—decentering whiteness in our classrooms; engaging in and fostering critical awareness and examination of assumptions, beliefs, dominant social norms in how we develop the content and approach in our class.
One small way I have been trying do this, beyond some basics (inclusivity in course materials, giving students more agency, and other great suggestions covered in earlier posts) is by being willing to be vulnerable, share my own education story, and in particular in this moment, my own very real struggles to learn on the fly and adapt—and admitting when I make a mistake or find a better way. Part of deconstructing is deconstructing my students’ assumptions about me—the assumptions they make about all of us by virtue of our position, how we look, how we sound, etc.
And incorporating reflective practices into class can help aid in this effort to decenter. Audrey’s dissertation research has underscored the power of reflective practice in the classroom. It Creates transformational learning as learners question problematic perceptions that they have/have had, and restructure perceptions to be more open-minded and empathetic (Caine & Caine, 2006; Canlas et al., 2015; Merriam & Bierema, 2014) . It Motivates learners’ consciousness by giving learners a sense of closure and clarity, allowing them to be aware of the new connections that they have made in learning new concepts and successfully engaging learning (Wolfe, 2006). It Invokes empathy & prompts radical listening (Rosen et al., 2014) It Create collective consciousness, coalition building, compassion (Canlas et al., 2015) Prompts reflection about students’ positionality and privilege and how identity shapes experiences in contrast to others (Bettez & Hytten, 2013 ; Smele et al., 2017 )
2) Welcoming—communicating clearly to our students at every step of the way and every facet of our classes that they are welcome in and belong in our class, that they belong in college
As I know so many of you are doing, I’ve been reaching out even more than normal to my students. I email. I post announcements. Discussion boards include check-in type questions. I start every Zoom session or office hour with a check in before we even start to think about course material or assignments. I include encouraging notes and questions about how they are on every paper I return—I’m eager to hear what else you all are trying! I’m communicating more intrusively and I’m trying to mindful of tone—not where have you been? But are you ok? How are you doing? What do you need? As Alex’s post on Emotions in Learning made clear, acknowledging the very real—and difficult emotions—we’re faced with right now and being transparent about our own struggles, too, can help students feel like they still belong—that they are somehow not suited to college because they aren’t feeling as motivated right now and the like.
Ortiz’s department has also been working on doing more discipline/ department based welcomes that include a lot of basics (details about accessing academic support, getting into Canvas basics, for us it could be details about the WRC and what support services are available) that students as a whole—say all students in English 1A—could really benefit from and they’ve been doing this with video. She still does an individual welcome video of her own for her classes, but the department/discipline level one helps and may be more efficient for some kinds of information. The key, in any event, is humanizing ourselves as instructors as a team ready to work to support students.
3) Validating—consistently communicating our belief that our students are capable of and expected to succeed
Since the 2nd week of our time online (so end of week 6), I’ve been posting (and sending) a wrapping up the week and getting ready for next week message for my students. In the wrap-up I praise—specifically—what went well in the discussion boards or a great zoom conversation and often I praise not even the content of what might have been in a post or reply, but the fact that I can tell they did the reading with care and thoughtfulness or the way in which they responded to a peer—supporting, drawing out, and being specific in what they appreciated in a particular post. I praise their efforts in making this transition, getting the work in despite the fact that I know (because they’ve told me) they are working more hours, or caring for family members, or just plain feeling seriously unmotivated and struggling to manage time without the normal structure of going to school F2F. And I remind them that yes, this is challenging—we are all doing the best we can and I remind them what tools they have to still succeed (I expanded the number of my late slips, for instance, which give students an extra week to get something turned in). And I ask specific questions at the end—the how are you doing, what do you need, kinds of check in questions—and because I email this out as well as just posting it, they are replying—we’re keeping up a dialogue.
4) Representing—yes, being inclusive in our course materials so that students can see themselves and explicitly, people who look like them who have important ideas and perspectives to engage.
Star’s post and the thread on culturally responsive teaching made it clear how crucial this is and gave us several ideas for how to do this better. But her post and all the trainings on equity I’ve been able to be a part of this year have made it clear that simply including (the old model of cultural diversity) is simply not enough by itself. It is crucial but it can’t be the only strategy.
5) Demystifying—providing clearly and accessibly (simple language as well as ease of access!) information students need to succeed
This is some of the work we did on syllabi and prompts in January. In the midst of the current situation, on a week by week basis I’ve been “translating” the sometimes difficult to understand policies and resources being put in place for students in the midst of this crisis and sharing that with them—announcements, email, and the like. And there is work we will need to do individually and, I think, as a discipline/ department to make sure our students –especially students who will be new to RCC this summer and fall–understand all the basics—how to access Canvas, how to come to office hours, how to get into and “do” the lab.
6) Partnership—communicating in all aspects of our class and our communications with students that we are committed to working with them
And I think this also means communicating our own curiosity and willingness to learn from them—and being transparent that we are human, too, and as Jan pointed out in her post, they will need to be patient with us because we need to be flexible, too, as we navigate the current situation
These principles offer a framework for the kinds of strategies—the small tweaks and adjustments (let alone any of the big ones we may be envisioning)—we strategically and intentionally choose to use and how we use them. (These are similar—but not identical—to Darla Cooper’s 6 factors for student success—I’ll include a link to those at the end of the blog—this is another terrific framework and there is a lot of overlap).
Simply including culturally diverse texts or picking techniques from the rich menu of strategies our series and work together has offered will not fundamentally, deeply transform the experience of my students—especially minoritized students—if I am not also willing to interrogate my own assumptions, to fearlessly look at my data—again and again—to cultivate curiosity and growth mindset for myself and a willingness to truly know my students, believe in them, meet them where they are (which sometimes means going more than half way to meet them)
Reflective teaching is “the sustained and intentional process of identifying and checking the validity of our teaching assumptions and the habit of constantly trying to identify, and check, the assumptions that form our actions as teachers…[in order] to help us take more informed actions so that when we do something that’s intended to help students learn it actually has that effect” (Brookfield, qtd. In Neuhaus 92-93).
Our work together and the equity work I’ve been able to be part of this year have challenged me to keep asking: What profile do I have in mind of my students when I build my syllabus, design my class, construct my policies, offer an “analogy” in class to help explain an idea (what are the analogies I reach for saying about the assumptions I make?)? Is this who my students really are? What am I assuming? What don’t I know? As Tina pointed out in her post “Whether we know about each individual student’s story or not, we need to be aware of how past learning experiences and financial and familial burdens affect the success of our students.” I recommend Jessamyn Neuhaus’s chapter on Reflection in Geeky Pedagogy (chapter 3) and Stephen Brookfield’s Book Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher for a good discussion of the value, the necessity of self-reflection for our teaching practice.
In the April installment of RCC’s equity training series with Lasana Hotep, he offered this take on being self-reflective as educators: being reflective means that I accept that there are some things I am doing that aren’t working (or that aren’t working for some of my students—your data will help you see this). These things are often grounded in assumptions and narratives I have absorbed/ inherited (narratives about wealth and poverty, about education, about race, among others). I have to reconstruct—starting with my own attitudes. And this takes us back to Star’s emphasis in her post that we need to stop, observe, detach, and awaken—SODA—often, and courageously interrogate our efforts. Star, like Tina, reminds us that “We need to see our students as people who need our guidance, understanding, and sometimes, dare I say, mercy…they are people who deserve to be seen, heard, and acknowledged” people with whom we are in a messy, dynamic partnership of teaching and learning.
So What Next?
As we move forward and tweak, adjust based on what we’ve learned this semester, can we approach our choices with a willingness to think through assumptions we may be making about our students that bear no relationship to the reality our students are actually living? My point is that we need to be strategic and intentional in the practices we choose to adopt. And to be strategic and intentional, we have to engage in self-reflection and examination. We don’t have to change everything all at once—we can’t. But we can continue the journey, continue the progress, continue to find small ways day to day—even right now, and semester to semester to transform the experience of students in our classes.
We have a lot of amazing strategies, tips, techniques to try out and experiment with; we’ve all learned a lot this year and a lot this semester that will inform how we construct our online classes for summer and fall—and we’ll be sharing some of this at the upcoming institute on May 14th!
But I would reiterate, that perhaps the most important change—and it isn’t so small—is a willingness to work on myself, to question my assumptions, to focus on intentional principles to inform and prioritize our choices, to err on the side of giving students the benefit of the doubt, and to keep being gentle with ourselves—small changes are okay. They accumulate if we keep at it! And right now, okay is good enough.
What is the most important thing you’ve learned this semester about who your students are that you hadn’t realized/ been aware of before?
What is one small change you made this semester once we went online (not the big one of going online—but a tweak you’ve made since then)? Why did you make it—what were you hoping to address? How did it go? What did you learn?
What is one change you know you want to make next semester? Why—what do you hope it will accomplish?
What ways do you think self-reflection (of you, the instructor) can be used to examine your own positionality in the classroom in order make positive changes?
How do you avoid the trap of turning critical self-reflection into everything that is going wrong/ beating yourself up over challenges in your teaching and in your students’ learning/ success?
What kinds of self-reflection activities do you use to get students to consider the narratives of others in the classroom?
What do you think is the biggest barrier to making changes in our teaching practice? What gets in the way?
Community of Practice Session
Pedagogy in Practice Spring Institute: May 14 11-1 Zoom
How Do I Do This All at Once Community of Practice Session May 29 1-2 pm Zoom
Resources/ Works Cited
Lang, James M. Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons for the Science of Learning. Jossey-Bass, 2016.
Neuhaus, Jessamyn. Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to Be Effective Teachers. West Virginia, UP, 2019.
Ortiz, Jennifer. Webinar II – Equity-Minded Online Teaching: Using Canvas as a Model – Thursday, 4.30.2020The recording for webinar 2 is available at: bit.ly/cuewebinar2recordingThe transcript for webinar 2 is available at: bit.ly/cuewebinar2transcript Follow CUE on twitter: @Center4UrbanEd
“The Consciousness Gap in Education—An Equity Imperative” March 10, 2014. Lasana Hotep shared a key portion of this talk in one of the equity trainings this spring—it is a powerful call to action to examine our own assumptions and narratives. It is worth watching the whole talk.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche 2009 Oct 16. Many of you know this well and even use it in your classes—but if you don’t know it, take a listen! It comes at this idea of the narratives that drive how we interpret the world in a really powerful way.
Here are some resources from Audrey on the power of self-reflective practice in the classroom and for the self-care we and our students can really benefit from:
When we think of the classroom, we often think of it as a space for logic to thrive, ideas to flourish, and critical thinking to expand. But how often do we consider the classroom as a space for emotional processing and connection? Connecting with students in the classroom can be both a rewarding and frustrating endeavor. It takes intentional effort to plan out how you want students to build community with each other and with you. And even after we’ve planned, it doesn’t always turn out the way we intended, which can be a good thing!
I recently received an email from a student after our latest winter course ended. It was probably day two of the spring semester, and I had already buckled down into the beginning of a new course with all new students. After a few follow-up questions, the student wrote:
Withdrawal. I was pleasantly shocked at this response. Withdrawal is a powerful emotion. And I think this tells us that students walk away from our classrooms with much more than new knowledge about writing. They walk away with an emotional experience, one that hopefully remains meaningful long after the semester has ended.
Sarah Cavanaugh makes a case for emotion-based pedagogy with her text, The Spark of Learning. When we engage student emotions in the classroom, there is a higher likelihood they will retain knowledge, enhance memory, and increase the value of their learning. If you’re looking for some heavy-lifting research on this, I recommend the first eighty pages or so of Sparkof Learning. There are also further resources included below. The conversation I’d like to focus on is how these emotions are embedded in the connections we build in the classroom. By creating communities in our classes, we give students the opportunities to grow as learners.
Perhaps the most important day of the semester is day one, first impressions. It’s the day students make micro decisions about us and about their capacities in the course. This day comes with a whole host of emotions. I ask students to reflect on their first-day emotions and several come back with ideas of self-doubt, lack of motivation, and uncertainty in their abilities to make it all the way through. Fear. Rebecca Cox addresses this fear in her text, The College Fear Factor, where she says: “[t]he fear of failure – rather than the actual failure or evidence of unsuitability – prevents full commitment and engagement” (41). On day one students’ emotions decide their levels of commitment, engagement, and the value of the course to their lives. By creating a strong connection with students, we have the opportunity to lessen this fear and anxiety.
Fear and anxiety are disengaging emotions, and their presence in the classroom is why Cavanaugh spends quite of bit of time discussing the first day. It’s the most important day. Several semesters ago I made a decision to focus intently on connections on the first day rather than the syllabus. Hold on – we still cover the syllabus. But the emphasis for the first day is quite clear: I’m interested in each of you as people, not just as students or waitlist additions. Cavanaugh suggests that this emphasis on instructor-student connection is one of the markers of student persistence and motivation.
Emphasizing connection means making ourselves human in students’ eyes. They are curious to know why we love teaching, why we love learning, and why we’re excited to be there. Ask them similar questions. The first day sets the groundwork for the rest of the semester. When we are able to make micro moves like using student names or asking intentional questions, we make meaningful connections with students on the first day, which opens the door to stronger instructor-student relationships throughout the semester (Cavanaugh 62). When students feel they can trust us, it increases the likelihood that they’ll reach out for help, seek guidance, and listen to feedback about their writing development.
Instructor Emotions & Transparency
We know that students’ emotions run high in the classroom, especially on the first day. But what about us? Cavanaugh really challenges us to consider: What are our emotions in the classroom? It is no unfortunate surprise that we run from classes to meetings to professional development activities. And when we finally sit, we slog through emails and projects and planning. And then when we have some glorious free time…oh yeah.. grading. We’d be remiss to think that our jobs do not impact our emotional states and that this emotional state does not cross over to the classroom. If we’re tired, moody, or overtaxed with uncharted amounts of caffeine and cortisol coursing through our system, how effective are we as instructors (or humans)? There isn’t an easy solution, but Cavanaugh makes a few suggestions. Most of these we’ve probably heard before: sleep, eat healthy, practice mindfulness, get that Vitamin D in (it’s the sunlight), go for a walk, exercise, spend time with loved ones.
We can be more intentional, though, by increasing awareness of our emotions that spill over into the classroom. Are you frustrated or overwhelmed or bored? How is that going to impact the way you deliver instructions or connect with students? Instead of finding ways to eliminate these emotions, the better suggestion is to embrace them with awareness and honesty. Again, become a human in your classroom and be honest. If you are grumpy and you do end up creating a disconnect, try apologizing. Be polite and recognize there are humans sitting in those seats. This type of behavior is what Cavanaugh considers immediacy, which “[r]elated to being mindfully in the moment and connected with your students, immediacy pertains to behaviors that are both spoken and unspoken and convey to students that you are interested in them, the material, and the process of learning” (100). By practicing this idea of immediacy, we’re also reinforcing a cycle of healthy connection: rupture and repair. Demonstrating transparency and honesty models this behavior for students. It lets students know that mistakes happen, and the point is to keep going.
Cavanaugh suggests that this type of transparency may be our most powerful policy. Being humans in front of students also extends into course policy. Our transparency policies can look like sharing rubrics and grading methods from the very start of the semester, vocalizing expectations on assignments, vocalizing reasoning for why we are doing activities and assessments, and how we expect students to perform, especially when they’re falling behind. The varying levels of honesty and transparency of our roles as instructors and how we’re organizing the classroom will extend the connections we make on day one into the rest of the semester.
The Power of Choice
After the first day, how do we keep students connected? If we first do the work to create a strong instructor-student connection, then we can reinforce this trust in the classroom by organizing course materials and activities around the idea of emotional connection. One of the most helpful ways to do this is through high value and high control assignments and activities. If students have a choice in their learning, if we give them the opportunity to make decisions, the work they do and activities they engage in will hold more value. Cavanaugh notes that students make several appraisals in the classroom: “The first appraisal is that of control: to what degree students feel in control of the activities and outcomes that are important to them” (148). Wherever you can, embed choices into your course. Some good ideas are to practice active learning and give students options within that framework (see our first post in the series!). Other ideas are to select an agenda for the day, give students the opportunity to elect due dates together, or practice setting class norms for the semester (an idea from the Reading Apprenticeship model). For assessments, consider multi-question writing prompts and using book clubs as a way to give students a choice in the texts they are reading. Creating a community of choice helps students see value in their work. Further, we can reinforce this value for students by representing their experiences in the class. Relating course material to real-life scenarios and choosing texts that reflect students’ experiences helps to create value for the work you are asking them to do. When students feel valued in this way, that positive emotion goes right back into the community.
Sometimes we don’t always connect with students, especially if there are negative emotions in the student’s experience. A few years back, I was consistently challenged by a duo that liked to sit in the back and whisper. Except it wasn’t whispering – it was talking. And they happened to be talking about me. I’d like to report here that I handled it well, drew excellent boundaries, and didn’t react at all. Not exactly.
While I did eventually pull in a colleague to strategize solutions, the impact of those students’ loud talking about me held a significant impact on my ability to manage discussion and deliver instructions for the day. I was distracted, my face turned red at some point, and I definitely called on them (twice) to answer questions I knew they weren’t paying attention to at all. Yikes.
This type of passive aggressive behavior is a huge impediment to the classroom as a safe space for learning and building community. Cavanaugh writes “They may flout your requests, refuse to participate in class discussions, engage in academic dishonesty, or actively or passively demonstrate disrespect. Reactance can be particularly problematic if students begin to share their disgruntlement with each other and encourage each other to greater heights of rebellion” (192). When we’re working with large groups of people in vulnerable environments like a classroom, reactance and defensive behaviors are bound to occur. These moments though are, again, a great opportunity for awareness of what else might be going on.
In a separate semester than the talking duo from above, I decided to engage a reactive student. I was sensing some resistance, so after class I asked how she was feeling about the class. After some back and forth, she expressed fear and anxiety and was honestly just really confused about what the expectations were. She was afraid she was failing. We set up a time to meet in office hours and there we talked through the confusion and helped her feel more grounded. Cavanaugh suggests that we can disrupt negative emotions, or potentially disengaging behaviors, by practicing empathy and using politeness in our language (195-196). Again, the idea here is to consider students’ whole experiences as humans and not just students in a 2-hour class. These relational connections, however brief or extensive, can go a long way in supporting students to persist through the semester.
The Impact of a Community–Based Classroom
When students feel connected to the course material, are challenged to critically think about ideas, and are given support, their lives can be changed. And I think a lot of us come into teaching for this reason. We want to develop and impact students’ lives for the better.
Below are two examples of writing reflections that I ask students to submit on their last day of class. There are three responses included. After, reflect on how decisions about first-day activities, learning activities, course policies, and course material can help students create a stronger connection in the classroom. We’ll also get the discussion going below with some questions to think about.
A Note on The Spark of Learning
Cavanaugh has a lot of suggestions and strategies for engaging students and using emotions-based thinking to influence decisions about course material and learning activities. There are several concepts that haven’t been covered here, so if you haven’t read her book, I recommend it!
Join us on Friday, March 27th from 11a-12pm in QD119 for a one-hour workshop. We’ll test some ideas and think more about how we can create stronger communities in our classrooms.
Food For Thought: Let’s Get a Dialogue Going!
Take a few minutes to reflect on the questions below and leave your thoughts and ideas in the comments. Feel free to add further resources, strategies, and ideas you are currently practicing or using.
Which of your own emotions impact the learning and teaching in your classroom?
How can we create more opportunities for high-value and high-control in our classroom activities? With assessments? With policies and practices?
Which student emotions are you reluctant to acknowledge and/or address? Why?
How can we be more transparent in our practice?
When students go wayward with some of their emotions, how can we bring them back into the community? Strategies?
Resources mentioned from the workshop today are listed below! We have the session recorded (a few minutes late – sorry!), but you can download the full session below! There are also articles to read, discussion questions from the session, and some assignments templates that you can import directly into your course. Browse and have fun!
“Connecting with Students” Workshop Recording & PPT
Assignment Templates for Download from Canvas Commons
I’ve created a module with 5 assignment templates you can download directly into your course. Download from Commons can be done in a few easy steps. You can also just view the templates as well in the Commons to see if you want to download them into your courses.
Type in the module name: “Connecting with Students” – Assignment Templates
You’ll see my name (Alexandria Gilbert) come up as the author
Click on the title of the Module
On the far right select the blue “Import/Download” option
Select the course you want to import it to
Workshop Discussion Questions
Think about the stuff you have accumulated so far in your life. How did you acquire them? How much of it took hard work? How much of it was luck? How much help did you have from others? Considering what was said regarding the causes for student anxiety, how might the narratives you have created for yourself be helping or hurting your students?
Consider the COP which focused on Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT) and SODA (Stop, Observe, Detach, Awaken). What techniques do you already have in place in your classroom to address CRT issues? How might those techniques be modified to also include the treatment of your students in poverty?
What are emotions that instructors are feeling during this transition? How might those emotions impact the way we interact with students? What are some strategies we can use to address our own emotions?
What are some of the ways in which we are allowing students to run the learning and feedback portion of our courses or might adapt those things to allow students to be more closely at the center of the power?
What are some of the ways in which we might de-center ourselves from the power of that learning and feedback loop in our classes or in feedback loop? Or ways in which we might adapt things we are doing to provide a more collaborative approach?
In what ways may students feel out of control right now? What areas of your course have “choice” built into them already? Is there another area where choice can be added? What opportunities for student-student interaction do you have in your online environment? How can you add 1 more opportunity for students to connect in the next week or unit?