What Worked? (A Best Practices Review)


A lot didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Addressing Student Resistance to Discourses of Diversity

**Due to the nature of the topic, we felt that it was important to cite from scholarly work completed within the last 6-8 years. Additionally, it is important to keep in mind that this is a discussion about classroom dynamics, which does not supersede the vital significance of acknowledging resistance within macro-levels of an institution, namely, resistance among faculty, administration, staff, and other stakeholders.


Diversity discourses in college courses have positive benefits for learners (Cabrera et al., 2016), for instance, by providing a space for multiple perspectives to be heard, mitigating bias, and building a critical consciousness so learners are more apt to understand their role in systemic oppression and prejudice and create larger, positive societal change within their communities (Mthethwa-Sommers, 2010). However, in the college classroom, these critically impactful discourses are often stifled due to resistance. Here are some examples of resistant discourse (taken from the literature and faculty experiences):

  • “Your success depends on how much effort you put into things, not your race. If I need money, I go out and get a job – not free handouts.”
  • “Why do we have to keep talking about race? White people also face discrimination in their own way.” 
  • “Why are we focusing on only black people? All lives matter.”
  •  “Oh ya, of course Professor X has to harp on race; he’s black.”
  •  “I don’t really see color. Everyone is the same.”
  •  “Minorities are just too sensitive.”
  • “Maybe they should make better choices and spend more time in the library than on the ball court.”


Resistance is synonymous with the words “battle” or “struggle” or “refusal.” In the context of higher education, resistance can be characterized as the refusal to acknowledge/examine/change dynamics of structures of power, present at the macro-levels of society, that function to oppress and create barriers for marginalized identities within that institution (Cabrera et al., 2016).

How Does Systemic Prejudice Manifest in Higher Education Classrooms?

Throughout its history, the systemic oppression and racist ideologies of the U.S. are closely linked to the exploitation of communities of color by a white majority and the barriers and exclusions of people of color within educational contexts (Museaus et al., 2015). This has been specifically related to adult learning contexts in higher education.

Higher education was originally designed by and for privileged identities, specifically elite white males who would be future leaders of the country (Museaus et al., 2015). Thus, policies that reinforce the preservation of elite interests still remain in higher education in a modern context (Cabrera et al., 2016), particularly since the majority of elites in the U.S. are overwhelmingly white (Museaus et al., 2015). Scholars have outlined historical patterns of effort to preserve such interests through policies that served to prevent barriers to the participation of communities of color in higher education contexts through covert segregation and testing policies. Click here to learn more about these policies.

In contemporary culture, structures of power and oppression manifest in higher education in these ways:

  • The growing neoliberal, market-driven shifts in higher education focus on the individual’s market value versus the development of critical consciousness and value of diversity and sharing multiple voices (Hornig & Sambile, 2019; Guarasci, 2019).
  • A lack of representation of faculty of color in the classroom and particular backlash for faculty of color when teaching discourses of diversity (Delano-Orarian & Parks, 2015; Vianden, 2019).
  • The growing cost of education with financial options that disproportionately impact underrepresented students and their families (Museus et al., 2015).
  • The notion of stereotype threat, where students of color are often made to feel that they are inept in academic endeavors, which is a force that threatens students’ performance in standardized testing (Steele, 2011). Colleges and universities have only recently begun to implement “multiple measures” policies.

Are There Any Other Key Factors That Contribute to Resistance?

Structures of Whiteness

In addition to the historical and contemporary issues of systemic prejudice in higher education, it would be remiss to exclude discourses of whiteness as a silent power structure that is inextricably rooted in its foundations (Cabrera et al., 2016). One way whiteness currently functions in higher education is through what Hornig and Sambile (2019) referred to as “revisionist histories” that decenter oppressed voices in academia and make central the narratives of those in power. One central narrative that has made its way into higher education contexts stems from a national narrative to “Make America Great Again,” (Giroux, 2019). However, scholars questioned at what point America was “great” for marginalized citizens, let alone marginalized students in higher education, where oppression, isolation, invisibility, and stereotypes are well documented as affecting the higher education experience for marginalized and underrepresented students (Cabrera et al., 2016; Giroux, 2019; Guarasci, 2018; Museaus et al., 2015). This mantra is also closely linked with the “All Lives Matter” movement, a backlash to the Black Lives Matter movement, which is meant to highlight systemic brutality towards the Black community in the U.S.

How Does Resistance Manifest in the Classroom?

It is important to consider ways that constructs of whiteness both occupy and actively structure and re-structure higher education environments in the classroom. In this context, whiteness and white privilege in higher education is prevalent in the specific ways that white students often interact and react to discourses of diversity. It is well documented that those in white culture often assume America is a post-racial society, and success is achievable through hard work and merit (Delano-Orarian & Parks, 2015). In higher education, as well as a larger American context, white individuals often react to notions of prejudice in ways that dismiss, devalue, or outright reject that prejudice occurs (Cabrera et al., 2016).

Specifically, white students “recreate” white privilege in everyday action or lack thereof (Cabrera et al. 2016). These actions may manifest through silence, anger, invalidation of oppressed voices (Museaus et al., 2015; Tharp, 2015), and body language (Delano-Oriaran & Parks, 2015). Also, microaggressions can be directed at other students (Cabrera et al., 2016) or faculty of color (Museaus et al., 2015; Vianden, 2018), particularly women of color and specifically by white males in the classroom (Cabrera et al., 2016). Resistance is more common among white male students as this demographic is more often associated with inappropriate and disruptive behavior in higher education contexts, such as harassment and discrimination (Harper & Harris, 2010; Vianden, 2018).  Wagner (2015) emphasized that white males are least interested in diversity education because it conflicts with their intense socialization to embody characteristics of hegemonic masculinity that assert power, dominance, and control, preventing them from appearing weak or ignorant (Wagner, 2015; Vianden, 2018). These qualities are often in direct conflict with diversity education, which asks learners to cultivate cultural humility and develop certain degrees of vulnerability (Wagner, 2015).

What Strategies Have Been Successful in Addressing Resistance?

Best Practices – Content & Methodologies

In emphasizing diversity in education, scholars examined various strategies. These are just a few found in the literature:

  • Emphasizing the inclusion of content that asked students to confront their own positionality through hearing experiences from multiple voices and positionalities in society, which is an element of content incorporation that can be effective in mitigating resistance to diversity discourses (Canlas et al., 2015; Delano-Orarian & Parks, 2015).
  • Introducing the concept of white privilege through works from white authors who reflected the students’ own racial positionality.
  • Focusing content on learners with privileged identities through coverage of concepts such as positionality and privilege, particularly white privilege (Delano-Orarian & Parks, 2015). 
  • Decentering whiteness and emphasizing systematic oppression by incorporating content that examined racial constructs and the historical basis for group relations in the United States (Cabrera et al., 2016; Giroux, 2019; Hornig & Sambile, 2019).  
  • Emphasizing content that focused on macro-concepts of oppression (i.e. inequality, unemployment, and economic decline.)
  • Using a constructivist approach to cultivate a critical consciousness in adult learners because it emphasized active engagement and inquiry through examination of multiple contexts of power and privilege (Merriam & Bierema, 2014). Students do not merely accept facts and information in the classroom, but rather, construct knowledge through this active engagement and examination (Dewey, 2011; Swan et al., 2019).
  • Employing inquiry-based learning techniques to encourage ownership of knowledge construction, and facilitate higher order thinking skills (Mthethwa-Sommers, 2010; Swart, 2017). When done through a scaffold approach (Swan et al., 2019), students are provided with a clear, systematic pathway that emphasizes that decision-making processes should be based on rational, evidence-based inquiry rather than mere feeling or baseless opinions (Giroux, 2019). This is particularly vital in higher education, where larger national narratives normalize raw, emotion-based arguments and incentivize decision-making processes, particularly in dealing with social justice issues that affect marginalized communities (Giroux, 2019; Guarasci, 2018).
  • Promoting community building. Bettez and Hytten (2013) discussed social justice inquiry both as a process and a goal that should cause the learner to re-think the concept of democracy in an effort to move towards community-based thinking. This shift from an individual to a more collective-based focus allows learners to consider power structures inherent in society and in their personal lives and contemplate their own power and agency within those structures (Bettez & Hytten, 2013).
  • Emphasizing strategic dialogue. Dewey (2011) emphasized the vital role of critical dialogue in educational contexts in building a critical consciousness through exchanging ideas, listening to multiple perspectives, and building mutual interests. Smele et al. (2017) discussed how dissent during these discourses needed to be met with levels of discomfort. They encouraged situations where course dynamics included “risky” conversations in which privilege and assumptions about knowledge were “checked” or “called out.” Other ways dialogue has been incorporated are through active questioning (Rosen et al., 2017); critical questioning (Bettez & Hytten, 2013); and emotion-based responses connected with radical listening (Hornig & Sambile, 2019).
  • Promoting sharing, particularly in online discussions, which helped change the instructor/student power structure, as well as encourage marginalized voices to convey the lived realities of their experiences in ways that the instructor could not. Sharing also has been found to increase trust and cultivate empathy for others’ experiences, as well as create opportunities for critical thinking (Rosen et al., 2017).


  1. Considering the problem of resistance, in what ways might you still have room to grow, learn, and adapt in order to address issues of resistance?
  2. Choose a strategy of addressing resistance that is listed from the bullet points above that you have never used or considered before. Describe how you could potentially implement that strategy specifically in order to address student resistance to diversity discourse.
  3. In what specific ways might resistance to change manifest outside of the classroom in higher education?


Bettez, S., & Hytten, K. (2013). Community building in social justice work: A critical approach. Educational Studies49(1), 45–66.

Cabrera, N. L., Franklin, J. D., & Watson, J. S. (2016). Whiteness in higher education: The invisible missing link in diversity and racial analyses. ASHE Higher Education Report42(6), 7–125.

Canlas, M., Argenal, A., & Bajaj, M. (2015). Teaching human rights from below: Towards solidarity, resistance and social justice. Radical Teacher, (103), 38–46.

Delano-Oriaran, O. O., & Parks, M. W. (2015). One black, one white. Multicultural Education22(3/4), 15-19.

Dewey, J. (2011). Democracy and education. Digireads.com Publishing.

Guarasci, R. (2018). Anchoring democracy: The civic imperative for higher education. Liberal Education, 104(1), 26-33.

Giroux, H. A. (2019). Authoritarianism and the challenge of higher education in the age of Trump. Action, Criticism & Theory for Music Education, 18(1), 6–25.

Harper, S. R., & Harris, F., III. (2010). College men and masculinities: Theory, research, and implications for practice. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Hornig, B. L., & Sambile, A. F. (2019). Addressing hxstorical amnesia: Proactively combating hxstorical amnesia as a means of healing in higher education. Vermont Connection40(1), 98–104.

Merriam, S. B., & Bierema, L. L. (2014). Adult learning: Linking theory and practice. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Mthethwa-Sommers, S. (2010). Inquiry based method: A case study to reduce levels of resistance. International Journal of Teaching & Learning in Higher Education22(1), 55–63.

Museus, S. D., Ledesma, M. C., & Parker, T. L. (2015). Introduction. ASHE Higher Education Report, 42(1), 1–112.

Rosen, D., McCall, J., & Goodkind, S. (2017). Teaching critical self-reflection through the lens of cultural humility: An assignment in a social work diversity course. Social Work Education36(3), 289–298.

Smele, S., Siew-Sarju, R., Chou, E., Breton, P., & Bernhardt, N. (2017). Doing feminist difference differently: Intersectional pedagogical practices in the context of the neoliberal diversity regime. Teaching in Higher Education22(6), 690–704.

Steele, C. (2011). Whistling Vivaldi: How stereotypes affect us and what we can do. New York, NY: Norton & Company.

Swan, A. K., Sleeter, N. M., & Schrum, K. (2019). Teaching hidden history: A case study of dialogic scaffolding in a hybrid graduate course. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching & Learning13(1), 1–28.

Swart, R. (2017). Critical thinking instruction and technology enhanced learning from the student perspective: A mixed methods research study. Nurse Education in Practice, 23, 30-39. doi:10.1016/j.nepr.2017.02.003

Vianden, J. (2018). “In all honesty, you don’t learn much”: White college men’s perceptions of diversity courses and instructors. International Journal of Teaching & Learning in Higher Education30(3), 465–476.

Wagner, R. (2015). College Men and Masculinity: Implications for Diversity Education. Equity & Excellence in Education, 48(3), 473–488.

Making Effective Use of Texts in the Class

What an amazing resource those who have preceded us have compiled for our Community of Practice! We’ve been privileged to have been introduced (or reintroduced) to a range of voices propelling the discussion of important and timely topics such as culturally responsive teaching, anti-racist teaching practices, selecting representative and inclusive texts, and making data-informed decisions. We’re humbled by thought-provoking, insightful, engaging, and at times, disarming, blog posts that have preceded ours, and this month we have the exciting task of moving on to the practical application of theory:  We’ll be discussing how to effectively use our culturally responsive, anti-racist, socially responsible texts into our course schedules, our assignments, and our discussions.   

Critically Reimagining our Assignments

This year-long immersion into theory has been invaluable as we struggle to better know and understand not only our students but ourselves, and to reimagine a better present and a better future for all. We are reminded of Rob’s November Community of Practice post in which he discusses Latinx professors, Genvieve Carpio and Juan D. DeLara’s “critical thinking/critical imagination” framework. One of the most lasting insights we gained from Rob’s post was Carpio and DeLara’s response to Rob’s question about how to empower his 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).

This month, we invite our community of practitioners to pose the same questions to ourselves, to be both critical thinkers and critical imaginers, not only with the texts we assign but with the order and sequence in which we assign them, the kinds of discussions we imagine for them, and the intentionality behind the assignments we create for our students to critically and imaginatively engage with them.  One way to reimagine possibilities is to ask ourselves what we truly want our students to learn and contemplate—and even act upon—given these particular texts. Another possibility is to ask what role students should have not only in the selection of texts but in the creation of assignments.

Questions to consider (again, reflecting on Rob’s November post):

  1. Reimagining where and why we address particular texts at a particular time within the chronology of the course.
  2. Rethinking thematic units within the course and how each of our texts inform and build upon one another. 
    • Thinking back to Rob’s post, we might think of assignments as following the pattern of
      • investigating the site of struggle and examining the issues and context of that struggle;
      • investigating how the past affects the present and how both the past and present might shape the future;
      • reimagining a different, more evolved, and/or more equitable future.
  3. Reconsidering our approaches to choosing our texts (as November’s blog captured so well) including inviting students to reimagine their role in the selection of texts and creation of assignments.  If they are creating the future, then they need to have a hand in creating the present.
  4. Reassessing what a “text” is, and reimagining the kinds of “texts” that students encounter on a daily basis and the various multimedia modalities which might be considered “texts.”
  5. Reexamining how we discuss texts, striving always for a metacognitive awareness of how others’ viewpoints influence and impact our own understanding of the world, of the issues, and of ourselves. We might do a better job of empowering students themselves to create the discussion topics and to be the central voices of those discussions.
  6. Reminding ourselves continually that the best assignments provide opportunities to amplify student voices, not to silence them.

Coconspirators for Change

In We Want to Do More Than Survive, Bettina Love argues, “In many intersectional social justice groups, the language is shifting from needing allies to coconspirators” (117). Love explains that in many cases, ally-ship is often “performative or self-glorifying . . . [and] still centers Whiteness in dark spaces” (117).  Instead of Ally-ship, Love argues that we need coconspirators for real and lasting change because coconspirators are willing to use their “intersections of privilege, leverage their power,   . . . and stand in solidarity to confront anti-Blackness” (117). Using Love’s descriptors, we might reimagine ourselves not (only) as a community of educators but as coconspirators for dramatic and permanent change.

This blog, perhaps more than any previous blog post, invites members of our Community of Practice to be coconspirators for change:  to contribute ideas for innovative, empowering, meaningful, and memorable assignments that not only make effective use of texts in the classroom, but that act to “support Black lives and stand in solidarity to confront anti-Blackness” as well as to confront all forms of racism, classism, and elitism.  As Love reminds us, “A coconspirator functions as a verb, not a noun” (117).  Heeding Love’s implicit call to action: Let’s co-conspire!

Invitation to Submit Your Most Effective Assignments

The parameters are vast:  You might post an especially effective thematic unit that brings together multiple voices or perspectives on a particularly salient social issue and that allows students to think both critically and creatively; or you might want to explain particularly effective online discussion techniques that encourage students to think critically and creatively—or more importantly, that amplify their voices and prompt them to engage authentically with one another in the online discussion environment; or you might have especially effective and creative assignments that prompt students to engage with their community in making meaningful change.  In whatever ways that you are currently engaging students with the texts you’ve selected for your classes, we invite you take this opportunity to share them on this blog prior to our meeting at month’s end. (Don’t worry if you don’t think they’re innovative. If they’re new to us, or even being reintroduced to us, they’re innovative.)

Some prompts to get you started (but feel free to send in any other contributions!):

  1. Tell us about a themed unit you’ve used that has been particularly effective in engaging students and exposing them to inclusive, representative, anti-racist voices.
  2. Post an assignment that you think best illustrates one of the “reimaginings” listed above.
  3. Describe any difficulties or concerns you’ve have reimagining your assignments and/or effectively using inclusive texts in the class.  (Note:  Next month’s Community of Practice will cover the topic “Addressing Student Resistance to Discourses of Difference,” for anyone who is currently experiencing that resistance.)

Take Care and Pace Yourself: This Is the Long Game

Thanks to everyone for doing such a great job in the transition to Canvas. The past few days have demanded extra professional lifting from all of us under stressful and uncertain conditions. It’s been no small thing to get going. Great job!

An extra special shout-out of appreciation for those of you who were already using the platform and who have been helping so generously, assisting colleagues with questions, troubleshooting, and other concerns.

Let’s also remember to pace ourselves as we transition with these new tools, to avoid burnout on many fronts. If you’re already using Zoom or loading videos into Canvas or having synchronous workshops right now (or whenever), go for it. BUT if you’re taking it slower, that is fine, too.

Our collective safety, physical health, and mental well-being are top priority right now. As we wait to see how this crisis will play out, it is OK to ramp up your courses slowly to maintain educational continuity. Many, many of our students will need extra time to get plugged in and to feel “fluent” with all of their class experiences changing modalities.

Going forward, as we find new ways to show up for each other and for our students, it’s also important to consider how you will set friendly and firm boundaries for your “available” time online.

You don’t have to solve everything today. Stay steady. Stay well, everyone. We will get through this.

Working in the ZPD: Supporting Students Through a Writing Project

When I was asked to lead a Community of Practice event, I enthusiastically accepted.  Having the chance to reflect on this topic and lead a workshop as an adjunct is something that I take seriously because I know the commitment we make to our students and the desire we have to continue improving our own instruction.  As the date approached, however, the familiar anxiety started to creep in.  (Anxiety compounded with the sea of papers and midterms!  We all know the struggle…  We can do this, my friends.)  Anyway, as I was saying, when I was a student, I always felt an *almost* debilitating anxiety when I had to write even though I have always excelled in academics.  My friends and classmates would shrug it off because they *knew* I would receive high marks, but I never had that confidence, so I worked hard and tried to control my anxiety.  I didn’t have a clear understanding of what every professor wanted in my writing, but I wrote to the best of my ability, often in a rushed late-night session.  Luckily, it turned out well.  (Shhh… Don’t tell my students!)  This personal struggle with anxiety and without explicit guidance is something that I discuss with my students, and it is one of the reasons that I spend so much time attending to the affective needs of students while also organizing and developing activities that address critical thinking, personal growth, and the writing process. 

For our conversation this month, I chose Raymond Wlodkowski’s Enhancing Adult Motivation to Learn: A Comprehensive Guide for Teaching All Adults.  The text resonated with me because it takes adult learners seriously and navigates the overlap between pedagogy and andragogy in a way that makes sense. Malcolm Knowles, the educator who named and popularized andragogy in the United States in the 1950s, talks about adults wanting to be “seen and treated by others as capable of self-direction” (qtd. in Wlodkowski 97).  Our students are adults; they want and have agency, but they also need direction.  Most plead, “Just tell me what to do!” at the beginning of the semester.  There is a delicate balance between their need for agency and their desire for strict requirements, and we look forward to hearing how each of you navigate this balance and what has worked and what hasn’t always worked.  When thinking about writing projects, my team and I considered the larger 1A research paper but also the smaller writing projects that require research and the in-class writing projects.  We also considered how “support” is woven into this academic conversation.

We all understand the demands that our community college students carry.  Whether we know about each student’s individual story or not, we need to be aware of how past learning experiences and financial and familial burdens affect the success of our students.  Most of our students are underserved, and it is our responsibility to recognize and honor their commitment and choice to attend our institution.  As Luke Woods, Co-Director of the Community College Equity Assessment Lab (CCEAL), discussed at the RCCD Student Equity Summit last year, “every registration is an act of trust.”  For this reason, we need to understand what motivates our students, what they want from us, and how we can get what we and the college want from them. 

The skills that we need to hone, according to Wlodkowski, are expertise, empathy, enthusiasm, clarity, and cultural responsiveness.  Fundamentally, we need to honor our students’ perspectives and experiences, and we need to be organized and enthusiastic about our field.  If we cannot inspire the students and clearly articulate the concepts we need them to learn, they will lose interest.  We need to help them see how that particular essay will help in their life outside of the classroom; sometimes the content is what might apply to the outside world, while other times it is the writing skill or critical thinking itself.  For myself, I organize my class around a larger umbrella term of social justice and identity, and each paper includes key learning outcomes and writing strategies that slowly build on one another.  While I let my students vote on topics at least two times in the semester, I always have a vision of what writing and rhetorical strategies I will ask them to engage with for every larger writing assignment.  This helps me address all the skills listed above to the best of my ability. 

A point that I think is particularly relevant to our discussions around AB 705 is one of the hazards Wlodkowski links to lack of enthusiasm: “You are having an attack of the good-old-days bug.  The learners aren’t as good as they used to be.  The instructional conditions have deteriorated.  You see things as they once were.  You feel depressed.  You tell yourself things will not get better” (76- 77).  While we all have debated about AB705 and what this means in our classroom, his warning should be heeded.  If we begin romanticizing the mythical good ol’ days, we will project that same distress and frustration to our students.  Just as we need to address their own negative self-doubts and attitudes, we need to look inward and do the same with ourselves.  These are our students, and this is our task.  We must continue growing and encouraging our students to do the same.

Students need four motivational conditions in the college setting: inclusion, attitude, meaning, and competence (102).  Basically, our students need to feel that the classroom is a safe zone for them to express their positions without being attacked.  Related to this idea is the relationship not simply between the instructor and the students, but also between the students themselves.  In their journals, students in my classes talk about the friendships they formed in the classroom and about the peers who helped them understand topics when they were struggling.  (I integrate peer reviews and discussions from the first week of class to foster the academic and personal growth of every student in that room.) In addition to often fearing the professor in the classroom, many of our students are also fighting loneliness and isolation.  This is not separate from our teaching in my eyes.  We need to attend to the affective needs because if students are struggling emotionally, they will struggle to prioritize or find meaning in attending college and taking our English classes. 

Students need help with that in whatever form we feel comfortable providing, but they also need to see that what they are doing is relevant and meaningful.  For me, this means repeating the rationale behind my prewriting activities and reminding them that they can succeed in this course.  (It also means allowing conversations that deviate from the assigned task for a few minutes at the end of class.)  I don’t expect the students to understand why I am having them write a reflection when we first begin writing metacognitive reflections.  I make that link for all of them the first couple of times, and they slowly start doing that without much guidance with subsequent papers.  Wlodkowski says, “New learning often asks them [students] to become temporarily dependent, to open their minds to new ideas, to rethink certain beliefs, and to try different ways of doing things.  This may be threatening or difficult for them, and their attitudes can easily lock in to support their resistance” (176).  We honor that dependence and trust by being aware of *how* learning happens and what stumbling blocks might appear along the way and modifying our instruction accordingly.

Visual representation of Vygotsky’s zones of development

According to Lev Vygotsky, a leading theorist in social constructivism, there are three zones of learning, and providing scaffolding and support during our writing projects is how we can tap into and strengthen this learning.  The zone of actual development (ZAD) is where students have mastered the required skills and are then in their comfort zone.  This is where some of our independent students are found, and this is where we want all of our students to be by the end of our classes.  We want them comfortable with research, MLA, thesis statements, essay construction, etc.  Their mastery of the skills makes up our learning outcomes.  Most of our students are fluctuating between the zone of eventual development (ZED) and the zone of proximal development (ZPD).  In the ZED, or anxiety zone, students are unable to understand our lessons even with our scaffolding and support.  As Wlodkowski asserts, “If the learning tasks are well beyond their current skills or prior knowledge, people will not be able to accomplish them, no matter how motivated they are” (6).  What we will focus on is the ZPD, or the reach zone.  Working in the ZPD entails using a variety of scaffolding techniques.  This includes the following:

  • Modeling
  • Anticipating difficulties
  • Providing prompts and cues
  • Using dialogue and discussion
  • Regulating the difficulty
  • Providing a checklist
  • Using reciprocal teaching and practice. ( Wlodkowski 184- 86)

In order to scaffold learning effectively, we need to distribute responsibility increasingly on the student.  In my own classes, I limit the choices and structure of the first two essays, and then I invite students to take initiative.  I have explicit and somewhat rigid guidelines in order to help them feel prepared to take on the writing task.  I don’t want them to struggle with the writing assignment because they have unclear learning objectives and requirements.  Pre-writing activities combined with a writing checklist and outline template let them know exactly what I want them to focus on for each essay.  Later in the semester, while I am covering important rhetorical and writing skills in class, I let them take more initiative with the writing. Finally, I link all my writing assignments to the assigned essay and the future research project that culminates the class.

While we consider our scaffolding techniques, we also need to be aware of students’ own emotional states.  The anxiety that I—and I assume many of you—struggled with is something I see mirrored in most of my students.  It is why I actively and intentionally explain my rationale for activities in the classroom and the WRC, and why I talk to students directly when I see them expressing frustration or confusion in class or in their writing.  Taking the academic and affective dimensions into account, we can begin to discuss how to support our students through writing projects.

Questions to consider:

  • Where do you draw the line or how do you distinguish between coddling and scaffolding for our college students?
  • Where do your students struggle most with writing assignments?  What steps do you take for the class as a whole?  How do you direct students to address their own writing issues on an individual level?
  • How do you scaffold each writing project that you assign? How do you deconstruct the prompt? Do you slowly provide more freedom for students or is creativity something that you highlight from day one?
  • How much agency do you give your students with writing projects?
  • How do you ensure that students are understanding what is required in their writing and that they are improving on those skills?

Additional texts that I read in conjunction with Wlodkowski’s work:

  • Felicia Darling, Teachin’ It!  Breakout Moves that Breakdown Barriers for Community College Students.
  • Elizabeth Barkley, Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty.
  • Advancing Black Male Student Success from Preschool to Ph.D.  Edited by Shaun R. Harper and J. Luke Wood.