Hard Conversations and Learning Moments

election_day-flintRegardless of what dot on the ballot you filled in for president, if you are in higher education, you are going to be dealing with discontent at levels not seen in many years. To say that this last presidential election cycle was divisive is an understatement. But if you are an educator in a community college, you may be looking at faces in your classroom that barely contain an underlying current of fear and anger.

Healing is on the horizon. But there is also a valid mistrust of the president-elect based upon the campaign rhetoric that permeated our 24/7 news cycles, Facebook and Twitter feeds, and seeped into daily conversations with colleagues, friends, and neighbors. The conversations, post-election, are no less difficult. In some ways, they are even harder. Mistrust, disbelief, anger, grief, fear…all are understandable responses to the apparent upset of these election results.

The college is a community leader, and we, as educators – often while processing our own emotions – are supposed to be leaders for our students. How do we move forward from here? How do we act as role models for our students, demonstrating the values we espouse – of kindness, caring, tolerance, inclusiveness, encouragement, and love?

Perhaps it will come to some of us sooner than others. If your candidate was the winner, you’re probably feeling pretty stung about the charges of racism and bigotry and hate, wondering why people seem to be “sore losers.” It is important to not invalidate people’s feelings. Just as we do it in the classroom, we should recognize that affect is reality. People’s fears are real, valid, and evidenced by the same hateful rhetoric and even behaviors they’ve seen emboldened. If you are feeling stung, perhaps the work will be yours to explain to co-workers who express their anger and fear how you were able to see past this hateful rhetoric and support this candidate. Or, perhaps you will need to really listen and learn from them.

The college should be a safe place for these kinds of discussion. This is especially true in the classroom where polarizing issues can often derail a lesson plan in seconds. Creating a calm, mindful, respectful atmosphere where learning can thrive is our challenge and our charge, even if the lessons of the day have been shifted from creating conceptual illustrations on the meanings and lessons from specific TedTalks, to more current and urgent conversations on the recent elections and what that may mean to the daily lives of our students.

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Therapy Baby to the rescue!

So I wondered…what were educators doing? In my own classroom, the students led the way by sitting down for the last hour to chat and watch satirical videos from George Carlin and then a more thoughtful commentary from Stephen Colbert. An impromptu visit from my own grown daughter with my 11-month-old grandson helped lighten the mood. As this smiling little guy wandered about the room, moving from student to student, barely hanging onto grandma’s fingertips, it seems that, in the absence of a therapy dog, this therapy baby served us just fine.

But how were these post-election conversations being handled in other classrooms across the country? Here are a few examples from an article in the Chronicle for Higher Education titled “Lesson Plans After the Shock: How Instructors Treated Trump’s Win in the Classroom”:

A planned discussion about Emily Dickinson was scrapped by an instructor at Butte College in California, and replaced with an open and honest conversation about the election results and how people in the room were dealing with that. It became apparent that even though this was an English class, the instructor felt it would become her responsibility to have even more conversations about race and racism.

Yet another instructor was quoted as saying:

“I have to discuss it because it’s the elephant in the room, but it is what teaching is,” Ms. Gueye said. “Talking about things that are uncomfortable.”

In another article found in the Cornell Sun, titled “Professors Cancel Class, Responding to ‘Shocking’ Election Results,” there were a wide range of responses.

In one example, a professor of Asian, Near Eastern and religious studies cancelled her class because she could not trust herself to remain neutral or emotionally steady while giving a lecture on shifts from master narratives to radical ideologies in her Intro to Japan and Religion class. Yet that same instructor was able to utilize the botanical gardens on her campus to provide a space where students could demonstrate care for each other amidst the natural beauty there.

For another Cornell instructor, cancelling his second class of the morning after the election seemed appropriate in order to allow students the opportunity to listen to both Hillary Clinton’s concession speech, and President Obama’s speech about a peaceful transition of power. For future classes, this instructor hopes to “engage in more critical discourse with students.”

And that’s just it. Our challenge as educator is to help put context to events, provide opportunities for safe spaces for discussion, and demonstrate the actions, qualities and values that help shape a civil society.

Even as we help our students cope with the outcomes, self-care becomes vital, as well. That’s challenging when also trying to offer authentic heartfelt support for those around you who are suffering feelings of trauma.

For the educators among us, I would like to ask you this: what strategies are YOU using in your classroom to address the seismic shift that the president-elect’s ideologies have brought?

Share your thoughts in the comments here. Comments are moderated and foul language or political rants will not be allowed. Thank you!

 

Tension, Misfires, Trigger Warnings & Civil Discourse

 

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It can’t be missed, the challenges of civility in everyday discourse that have been heightened by the current election cycle. But politics alone haven’t brought about the issues of discomfort in verbal exchanges in the classroom. The concept of the “trigger warning” has been around for a few years as a way of alerting students to conversations or course material that may lead to their discomfort, or even re-trigger some painful memories from a prior traumatic life experience. According to a recent article in the Chronicle for Higher Education, some have used it as  “heads up” and a “basic courtesy” to the students in the room. Others claim that it is “political correctness run amok” and could actually inhibit deeper discussions in the classroom, hindering intellectual conversations, and create a shadow of censorship in the academic environment. In a backlash, the University of Chicago went so far as to inform incoming students:

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces,’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

But the topic of trigger warnings is not alone in the conversation on creating spaces where challenging classroom and college discourse can make students uncomfortable. Embracing Tension in the Classroom was the title of a short article by Geniece Crawford Mondé in a recent issue of The Teaching Professor. In that article, Mondé describes the difference between positive and negative tension and how, by embracing the former, one can avoid the latter and create an engaging learning environment. Mondé goes on to use the term “hot moments” to describe the potential for discussions that can go off the rails leading to disrespectful and acrimonious discussions. By contrast, positive tension serves the learning objectives and is carefully guided, often built from reading material that sparks discussion. She suggests that the use of fictitious narratives can help avoid hot moments by “stripping an issue of its real-world status.”

Of course, the alternative challenge to educators is to help build a connection, empathy, and understanding of a subject, something that other educators have described as creating truly deep learning. Transferring that knowledge gained through deeper learning becomes a key 21st Century skill. How does one take their understanding of a pivotal historical moment and transfer that to a modern day situation? That is part of the conversation that happens in the classroom, and sometimes that conversation can be heated, the “hot moment” described by Mondé. The challenge is to identify the difference between a “heated” exchange and a “passionate” one.

But what, then, are misfires? From a pure communications standpoint, misfires can occur when an educator presents a behavior that undermines their own effectiveness in the classroom. We’ve all done it. We’re all human. There are behaviors, however, that we can modify to overcome the likelihood of misfires. Then, when one occurs, its impact is lessened on successful learning. Jennifer Waldeck suggests that our own attitude can project a lack of commitment to teaching that can undermine our effectiveness. Who wants to learn from someone who acts as if they hate being there? Verbal abuse, lazy behavior, and incompetence are just a few of the things she mentions as something we might be guilty of in the classroom. A student may even challenge an educator (or vice versa) with the refrain “you are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” And, of course, many educators are offended by a challenge to what a student may call “an opinion” in regards to course content or even grading and assessment.

So what is an educator to do? First… don’t take it personally. Take a deep breath. Make it a partnership with the student from the very start. You are on an educational journey, one that should be built upon a partnership of trust and respect. Encourage challenges and provide guidance on how to shape conclusions based on discerning research and reliable resources. Review your syllabus and the tone that you take in it. Is the entire document written in terms of a threat? Is everything negative and punitive? Sometimes, just rewriting the content in a way that frames the educational experience as a positive one can make all the difference. Do your projects have rubrics that are fair and understandable? Consider having the students take a stab at grading their own work. In my experience, given this challenge, they are often harder on themselves than I would be. And the end result is they have a renewed appreciation for how difficult your job can be when it comes to assessing a student’s work.

All in all, just put your best foot forward. Show students your passion for the subject, not your disdain for their lack of understanding it. Share your own stories of how you came to understand the material, your “ah-ha!” moments. Learn from your students, from every challenge, awkward experience, and difficult conversation. Remember that, in the end, you are the grown-up who can astutely guide the student as they navigate new knowledge and its impact on their life’s view. And you can do that in a way that helps them make their own discoveries and resolutions.

Remember also that, as you get older, the students get younger – their experiences grow farther and farther away from your own. Listen and learn from them. Ask them to provide the thoughtful insights connecting the material to their own experiences. Show that you are learning from them, too.

Trigger warnings can provide a heads up. Tension can be a useful tool in the classroom. And occasional misfires can happen. But challenging conversations can also provide amazing opportunities to create true connections that make learning more meaningful and longlasting.

 

Community College – flipping the notion of second chances and self-worth

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Matt Reed, who blogs for Inside Higher Ed under the moniker “Confessions of a Community College Dean,” hit the nail on the head when he commented on the distinction between community colleges and four-year institutions. In “Standing Calvin on His Head” (Reed, 2/12/15), he discusses how community colleges provide opportunities for students who have often seen little respect (both external and internal) for their educational merit and personal value.

They [Community Colleges] assume that all students are worthy of respect, and that there’s enough success to go around.  They assume that you can’t tell who’s capable just by looking at them, so you have to give everyone a shot. You do that because the students are worth it. They’re worth it before they even get here. If anything, the burden is on the institution to prove itself worthy of the students.

Read the full article here.

Reed was responding to an editorial by Kristin O’Keefe (The Community College/’Real College’ Divide, 2/11/15, New York Times. O’Keefe’s editorial posed a sensitive response to an educator speaking about high school graduation criteria to parents and incoming high school freshman. She then went on to say that these were the minimums if your child would “go to real college – you know, not community college.”

Besides the absolute insensitivity to the real possibility that there were community college graduates in the room, her comments spoke to a divide that persists among attitudes towards those who make community college their choice for higher education. And a myriad of reasons – apart from being prepped for higher ed – may exist in making that choice. O’Keefe explains that community college students who succeed, or at least persist over long periods of time, have characteristics worthy of our respect.

To all those who had a college experience like mine: Imagine adding a full-time job, financial worries and family obligations to your mix of classes? Imagine if your bus is late or your babysitter didn’t show up? I know this: Any student who is able to juggle a multitude of responsibilities and earn a degree is impressive. Wouldn’t that be a person you’d want to hire?

Read the article in the New York Times by O’Keefe that precipitated Reed’s blog.

New Additions to the Offsite Conferences & Opportunities

Staff and Faculty should take advantage of local, regional and national opportunities to participate in conference and training that are of importance to their careers and the college.

Take a look at the updated list shared here.

In the meantime, hope the semester is going well for all our educators out there!

Some useful reflections on the Flipped classroom

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Math professor and Chronicle blogger (Casting Out Nines) Robert Talbert had some great reflections on the concept of the Flipped Classroom in his post –Three evolving thoughts about flipped learning – from January 22, 2015. He reflects on how his thinking has changed from a more structured approach, to a more thoughtful one that doesn’t abandon lectures, doesn’t abandon assessment, but he has modified it to meet his students where they are, rather than create stress that doesn’t improve learning.

I wish more of us would … transcend the shopworn “lecture sucks” narrative and instead try to craft the best pedagogy that combines the most effective uses of several modalities.

Read the full article here.

Liberal Education, Effective Citizenry and “Democracy’s College” Graduate

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You can’t be involved in Community College education without running into the external scrutiny that often comes with a new proposed solution to the challenges of teaching such a diverse group of students crossing the thresholds of our campuses. No sooner have we developed our latest version of General Education requirements when a new approach is before us, one that promises to move more of our students from struggling receptors of knowledge to gleaming graduates.

Whether it is a focus on General Education, Disruptive Advising, Learning Outcomes, or Guided Pathways, the elements of creating a successful graduate are complex and highly variable. All of them contain merit and are worthy of our attention and consideration, especially when blended together in a thoughtful way, with input from all stakeholders and implemented in a balanced approach that still allows for flexible applications within individual student circumstances. The goal, after all, is not to eliminate variability. And it is not to eliminate the liberal arts in favor of more vocational work-preparation skills. The goal, at least as described by one college, was to create a series of outcomes that “modeled the core values of communication, critical thinking, and respect for diverse opinions” (Rodicio, 2014) which are hallmarks of good citizenship. Rodicio, who is provost for Academic and Student affairs at Miami Dade College (MDC), and president of the Association for General and Liberal Studies, shares the story of their college’s transition in an article titled Modeling Democratic Practices through General Education Reform: A Developmental Journey.

At MDC, the nation’s largest community college, faculty, staff and leadership have taken on this challenge. They’ve applied a  very democratically designed approach in reexamining their general education requirements into a series of College Learning Outcomes. Responding to pressures to be more accountable for learning results, they began by defining the question: “What learning outcomes must our students achieve in order to become effective citizens an lifelong learners?” Their resulting goal as “democracy’s college” is both admirable and achievable.

“…for every graduate to become a well-informed citizen who can effectively – and actively – participate in civic and economic life within a diverse and globally connected environment.”

As they moved through a multi-year process that began with college-wide conversations across seven campuses and outreach centers, a series of events were held in such a way as to ensure involvement with faculty, staff, and students. They moved from developing a set of General Education Outcomes, eventually renamed College Learning Outcomes, and developing Learning Outcomes Assessments. Annual campus dialogues are held by faculty to review results and examine the implications they may have on student learning. In 2007, the college community “reaffirmed the importance of liberal learning in developing a well-informed citizenry in a global community” through a covenant which was signed by members of the college community, including representatives from students, faculty, college leaders, and the local community (Rodicio, 2014, Padron, 2008).

Recognizing that different initiatives can be interconnected, Miami Dade College has more recently begun to implement guided pathways which they called a “Roadmap to Completion” in a pilot program that involved bringing together some existing resources into a more comprehensive support system. They believe that the framework that a more defined pathway not only may lead to more graduates, but it can also improve attainment of the broader college learning outcomes.

Read the complete article that tells the full story, and find the full list of Miami Dade’s Learning Outcomes here.

Reflecting on the Continuing Challenges of Teaching at Community Colleges

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As we take this time to look back upon 2014, those of us who teach and work at community colleges may consider how much our work has reached the attention of the nation. The challenges posed in educating our students are not completely lost on observers and critics. But when focusing upon the statistics often featured at the center of official reports and white papers, it is easy to miss the narratives of the main stakeholders, the students and educators.

A recent New York Times article highlights some of these challenges as told through the story of Dr. Eduardo Vianna, a psychology professor at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, arguably one of the most diverse community colleges in the nation. The article, “Raising Ambitions: The Challenge in Teaching at Community Colleges” by Ginia Bellafante and published December 19, 2014, reminds us of the important role our institutions play in educating nearly half of all undergraduates nationally. Even more so, community colleges see the majority of our students coming from the “lower half of the income distribution.” Along with this come many challenges in terms of the lack of preparation for college, including poor analytical and critical thinking skills. Yet those skills are vital to meeting the demands of economic mobility and growth.

To create a world of young people skilled at analysis, you first need to create a world of young people receptive to complexity, and many of Dr. Vianna’s students, he said ‘cringe at complexity.’
– G. Bellafante, NY Times, 12/19/14

Many of us who teach at these institutions will recognize elements of the story from our own classroom experiences. Vianna shares how his students found it difficult to assess evidence from data posed to them that conflicted with their own assumptions. By way of example, he shares how he gave his students an assignment based on the work of psychologist Edward C. Tolman. The graph they were reviewing showed that rats could learn to navigate a maze without extrinsic rewards, yet the students could not see this and came to the opposite conclusions.

“Often learning requires changing one’s position toward some issue and they resist this.”
– Dr. Eduardo Vianna

To help prepare incoming students to meet the expectations of critical and conceptual thinking, many community colleges have begun requiring students to take a first year seminar course. The courses also connect students to faculty in their majors, another important aspect in student engagement, according to much of the published research. Community college educators are also leading the way towards facilitating learning rather than simply lecturing facts, involving students in more active learning and collaboration, and offering continuous forms of low-stakes assessment. These are all parts of the arsenal of techniques meant to improve student engagement. These and other pedagogical approaches are addressed in a forthcoming book “Taking Teaching Seriously: Why Pedagogy Matters! that includes contributions by Dr. Gail O. Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College.

At Columbia’s Community College Research Center, assistant director Melinda Karp suggests that in order to engage our students in academic discourse, a more constructivist approach may be necessary, one that involves more active and collaborative learning. These techniques have already been embraced by many community college educators. Bringing it mainstream requires sharing it college-wide.

As we reflect upon the needs of our students, at the Center for Teaching & Learning at Mott Community College, as with similar centers at community colleges around the country, we understand the role of professional development opportunities in addressing the issues raised in the NY Times article. Just as with the students we teach, sharing among our colleagues about successes gained, while working through the challenges, can help community college educators – faculty and staff alike – meet the challenges of raising the ambitions – and ultimately the success – of the students we serve.

With warm wishes for the holidays and beyond!