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!

 

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Loving the hustle and bustle of a new academic year!

Info_Channel-02I don’t know about you, but even though classes don’t officially start until next Tuesday, 9/8/15, at Mott, things are really hopping here on campus. It’s Kick-Off Week at the college, and faculty who have been away doing whatever it is faculty do (which – believe it or not – is a lot!) are converging on campus to celebrate the start of the new academic year. Although it has its moments of stress as things gear up, I love all the new energy bubbling around campus!

Our campus has been very busy with a number of initiatives over the summer, many of which have involved faculty in the development of Guided Pathways. If you’re not familiar with this topic, here’s the short version: Guided Pathways involves a multi-faceted approach to helping more students graduate, but beginning with the development of clear, semester-by-semester outlines of how to move through an occupational program or transfer discipline. To support this, other areas of student support are addressed including intake, orientation, advising, etc. It is an effort to use best practices supported by data to lay a strong foundation for success as students enter, progress, and complete their time at the community college, culminating in a degree or certificate. Some background reading can be found here and here, lead by Rob Johnstone and Davis Jenkins who are considered among the leaders in this movement.

Another big project was taken on by myself and a colleague, Jim Shurter, far outside of our regular duties, in the form of a marketing campaign for the college. “Mott. My Path to Excellence.” – The tagline and campaign aimed to reposition our college as a “first choice” in the Greater Flint area and surrounding counties, and not simply a more affordable one. We used the voice of millennials to speak for what they wanted from an education, and how they wanted to shape it for themselves. The inference here is that Mott can not only help make that happen, but by choosing Mott over, say, a “name” university, we have redefined the community college as a truly valuable option that is on par with their other choices. We are empowering these potential students to say that Mott really IS their path to excellence!

Now… for some of you, it may have occurred to you that these two initiatives are at odds with each other. Why would we create Guided Pathways that seem to “remove” choice, and then seemingly try to entice students to Mott as a way of shaping their own choices in education? Believe it or not, it makes sense when you look at how many of our students want those choices in the specific educational program they’re choosing to be determined. Today’s students, according to the research by Jenkins, et al, want a more defined path to get them to their destination. But these pathways are not rigid and inflexible. When it comes to non-CTE programs, they are simply a guide to help make the most of their brief time here before transferring to a university. The other part of the Guided Pathways Initiative depends heavily on advising and a case management system that would involve faculty and others in working with students to help guide them towards their goals. In this way, exploration is still possible for the student who wants to veer off the proscribed path.

As for the campaign itself, it seems to have touched the audience effectively. Rather than the 7% drop in Fall enrollment that was originally anticipated, we are currently hovering at around 3% above last year’s Fall numbers. I’ve run into many new students in the out-county areas where we were especially focused who – once they learned I worked at Mott – have proudly announced to me that they were starting there in the Fall. It was exciting to hear!

Now, as we launch the new academic year, I see our CTL as playing a vital role in helping our college employees help support that message that we are all here to help students make their future possible!

To our Mott employees, alumni, and students, be sure to share your story using our hashtag – #mott4me!

Here’s to a great semester for everyone!

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Good Reads on Community Colleges

Diversifying the student body is on the academic radar when examining the student population at colleges and universities across the nation. But diversity is not just about race. It involves the whole sector of students we see on the campuses of community colleges across the nation.

These students may include ones who are first generation college students, ones who dropped out or were not encouraged to continue their education beyond high school. It includes students who come from poverty, crime-ridden urban areas, or depressed rural spaces. It may include working adults returning to school to try and improve their income potential, a stay-at-home mother who needed to develop job skills to return to the workforce, or the factory worker whose job was outsourced to China. And it also includes students whose parents may be concerned about their child’s ability to stand up on their own far from the family support system. Whatever the reason that brings a student here, community colleges provide educational opportunities for some of the most diverse learners in higher education.

With that in mind, three recent articles are worthy of your attention and are shared with you here.

Why Elite Institutions Need to Welcome Students From Community Colleges

This is an opinion piece written by Laura Huober who made the auspicious transfer from Santa Monica (Community) College to Amherst College, an elite private liberal arts college. Her story demonstrates how, with the right supports, community college transfer students not only can thrive, they can make a valuable contribution to the learning environment.

The Challenge of the First-Generation Student

In this article, the First Generation student includes many who are also first generation Americans, as well as the first in their families to go to college. The article examines the tension regarding the stories of first-generation students who reach elite institutions, and the majority who are served by community colleges.

When elite institutions like Smith, Amherst College, or Harvard University enroll significant numbers of first-generation students, their stories are often splashed across the news. But regional state universities and community colleges have been identifying and supporting these students for decades, through federal TRIO programs, a collection of outreach and student-services efforts geared toward low-income students.”

Looking Beyond the Data to Help Students Succeed

In this article, Katherine Mangan addresses one of the hottest topics at the American Association of Community Colleges annual convention held this week – predictive analytics and retention strategies. What makes this article a good read is the recognition that numbers alone don’t tell us what to do and are only part of the equation on predicting success. Examining best practices, reinventing success strategies to work with our community college student demographics, and implementing them in a thoughtful way – these all help frame data as a reference tool to inform the choices made on how to support students. Those choices may include mentoring, i.e. creating a social connection to help support the student, addressing grit and other noncognitive traits that can make or break a student’s ability to succeed. Tools such as SuccessNavigator can help identify the characteristics that can undermine a student as they manage the intricate balance of academics and life.

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.

A Matter of Degrees: Practices to Pathways (CCCSE)

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In this third publication from the Matter of Degrees series produced by the Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE), the Practices to Pathways report captures the research, organizational thinking, and challenges facing community colleges. Ultimately, it focuses on best educational practices and communicating them through clearly mapped academic and career pathways.

Sometimes called Roadmaps, pathways represent a guide to the student’s journey through college, hopefully one that is clearer and offers milestones and stronger opportunities to prepare for what comes after college. Faculty, staff and administrators have been charged with creating these pathways and then mentoring students through the process in order to achieve their educational goals.

“Completing college is the result of successfully navigating a multitude of smaller decisions from start to finish. But for many college students, finding a path to completion is the equivalent of navigating a shapeless river on a dark night – and the wider the river, the more difficult it can be to find the way.”
~ Judith Scott-Clayton, Senior Research Associate, CCRC, Columbia University

The report identifies 13 “high-impact practices” that need to be addressed along that pathway:

  • Structured group learning experiences, including:
    • Orientation
    • Accelerated or fast-track developmental education
    • First-year experience
    • Student success course
    • Learning Community
  • Academic goal setting and planning
  • Experiential learning beyond the classroom
  • Tutoring
  • Supplemental Instruction
  • Assessment and placement
  • Registration before classes begin
  • Class attendance
  • Alert and intervention

For example, developmental students in a CCSSE survey who reported participating in any orientation were 1.51 to 1.61 times more likely to successfully complete a developmental math or English course, respectively.

In another example, CCSSE developmental students who participated in a student success course in their first semester were 5.22 times more likely to successfully complete a developmental English course!

Read more about this important report, A Matter of Degrees: Practices to Pathways, and the work that is at hand at Mott and other community colleges around the country.

You may also be interested in the first and second reports that were published as part of this series from CCCSSE:

A Matter of Degrees: Engaging Practices, Engaging Students

A Matter of Degrees: Promising Practices for community College Student Success, A First Look

Boosting the Life Chances of Young Men of Color: Evidence from Promising Programs

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This is a report recently released from MDRC for June 2014 by Christopher Wimer & Dan Bloom. It is no surprise that we as a society have not achieved success in overcoming the challenges young men of color face. This population faces disproportionately high rates of incarcerated, sky-high high school drop-out rates, and seemingly insurmountable unemployment rates. Research, policies, and education can make a difference.

This article begins by asking the questions:

What can be done?
Are there interventions that can provide real hope and real results?
Can the nation’s institutions do a better job of increasing educational and labor market opportunity?

The paper also takes a close look at the results from some randomized trials that examine different interventions including a) Proactive Approaches; and b) Reconnection Approaches.

The authors remind us that “it is critical to harness the current interest…to finally make a lasting difference in the lives and future prospects of this group.”

Read the full article here. Or download the PDF from here.