Tell Stories, not Lectures

paint_studioFew students will tell you that the lecture they just heard is amazing, exciting, mind-blowing unless… Unless, that lecture really wasn’t one. It was a story, one that had a hook, that engaged with the audience, and made them want to become part of the larger discussion.

Best practices indicate that creating a connection to our student audience is one of the best ways to engage them in the coursework and lead to their successful completion of the semester. We can learn a lot about creating connections through the art of storytelling. As content experts, this means examining the subject by stepping back and looking at it with new eyes, ones through which our students may view it.

In my own graphic design classroom, I find that students are often more engaged when the stories are personal. Why, for instance, would they need to learn points and picas? and what ARE they? I share the simple story that begins with asking them to divide an 11-inch wide page into thirds and tell me what the measurement is – “3.66667 inches!” is shouted by one student who had pulled out their handy dandy very expensive smartphone calculator. Then a challenge from me, the instructor – “Can you find that on a ruler?” Silence. We then engage in a story of my own journey of embracing points and picas, if for no other reason but to plan for creating a simple trifold brochure.

Boring? Perhaps it could be. But this is a design class preparing students to take their work into production. By sharing a personal struggle of trying to divide a piece of paper into easily measurable units that can be readjusted, I was able to connect with my students. (In art and design, the struggle is real!) For the record, math is not a problem for me. I can switch easily between inches, metric, and printing measures. Fractions and decimals are not a problem for me, either. The real struggle was how to explain to my students the value of why I do what I do when I do it.

Several recent articles highlight the value of storytelling in teaching and learning. For instance, in an article by Geraint Osborne, Let Me Tell You a Story: Enhancing Teaching and Learning through Personal Stories (Nov. 12, 2018). A qualitative sociologist who teaching sociology and criminology, Osborne emphasizes that:

[s]torytelling as a form of transferring knowledge has a long and venerable history.”

In addition to using various pop-culture and historical references for his talks, his stories include more personal narratives to help students see a different aspect to the content, providing students a glimpse at “the human side of their professors.” This practice also encourages students to open up about their stories, whether they do it in or out of the classroom.

Another area where I use storytelling is in an assignment I reinterpreted from one I read about a Harvard professor using. A worksheet called “Public Narrative: Self & Us & Now” is available online that describes one version of the project. The authors describe the value of storytelling as follows:

“Because stories speak the language of emotion, the language of the heart, they teach us not only how we “ought to” act, but can inspire us with the “courage to” act.”

In my Communication Design Across Cultures class, I split the narrative story project into two parts. I introduce this project by sharing a short version of my own journey to where I am standing before them. It serves to present myself as human, someone who has had her own challenges and losses to overcome, and successes in spite of them. For Part I – Story of Self, I ask students to introduce themselves, share their story and especially share their values and what they would want me to know. The story is not shared with the rest of the class and sometimes some very personal – sometimes tragic – stories are written about. In addition to encouraging the practice of storytelling as part of a design course, this has also helped me to help my students in a number of ways. It helps me anticipate potentially serious triggers, for instance, in a class where we deal with often difficult social justice topics such as overcoming drug addition, or sexual abuse, when learning about one student had been raped as a child, and another whose mother died of a drug overdose.

At the end of a semester of exploring challenging topics both in the US and abroad, I ask the students to write Part II – The Epilogue where they share their reflections on the semester, if it has impacted their values, their resolve, their thoughts on the role of their potential career choice, or anything else they’d like to share. This serves to provide a bit of a release and reflection on the work they’ve done, while providing me some insights into whether or not the course opened up any new insights for the students.

In another article, Marie K. Norman provides some valuable insights from TED Talks. While admitting that there are some advantages that the TEDTalk speakers may have over already stressed and stretched college lecturers, Norman captures some key take-aways that we can all utilize to make our courses more engaging. Norman shares these five points:

  1. Idea – “Use the discipline imposed by a single, central idea to prioritize the knowledge and skills that students need most at their particular stage of learning.”
  2. Throughline – A line at the beginning of your talk that may sound counter-intuitive. Always stay focused on this throughline as you write your way through the talk. It should make sense to your audience as you reach the end of your talk
  3. Connection – “use questions, stories, and vulnerability to draw us in and disarm our natural skepticism.”
  4. Story – “When giving a lecture, think about how to bring sensory information and detail to the story.” Utilize the five C’s:
  5. Structure – An example includes Ken Robinson’s “introduction, context, main concepts, practical implications, and conclusions,” or Markus Fisher’s “teaser, background, demonstration, implications.” (Norman, November 1, 2018)

From the Chronicle for Higher Education, in the article titled “What Podcasts Can Teach Us About Teaching,” the authors suggest that podcasts can tell stories that are authentic and compelling, providing yet another mode of sharing content that can connect with our students.

In the end, it is the stories we share that helps us connect the passion we have for the material we teach, to help our students understand the value of learning not just the “what” by why the content is important to know.

Wow, I’ve been slacking…NOT!

Like my colleagues who often wish to attend CTL sessions but find it difficult to fit “one more thing” into their busy weeks, I, too, have found it a challenge to keep up with certain tasks. And one of them is this blog. But I promise, just like my students tell me when they’re late turning something in, I really have been working on stuff that relates to Teaching & Learning! There has been the usual: teaching, grading, facilitating, developing, meeting, writing (other stuff than here), organizing, and designing (yes, I still do that – it’s part of my DNA and helps me “see” things better). Which is why I probably was so engaged in a special project that I thought I could share with you here.

Non-Astonishing Teaching Tips

This is a project I had in the back of my mind for years. It’s one of those ideas that was inspired by the question – “What happens to all those ideas people write down on post-its at such-and-such a meeting about teaching?” At Mott, we’ve held four years of the Great Teachers Retreat, and gathering these Non-Astonishing Teaching Tips was sort of a subtle activity that would go on throughout the 3-day event held on the snowy shores of Higgins Lake “up north” in Michigan. Along with other opportunities where faculty shared through similar activities, combined with research, editing, and adding of more tips, I was ready to begin the next step… determining how these could be shared.

In the end, I went with a card deck. The final design includes 55 teaching tips with room on the back to write your own variations or notes, 10 blank cards (for writing your own tips), and 12 stickers (just because stickers are fun!).  Four common categories were identified and include: Learning, Engage, Attitude, and Prepare. They come in a nifty slide-open box and I ask the new owner to share with us any feedback on how they might come about using these! Funding for printing these came through a generous grant from the college president’s office.

Some feedback that has come in already include creating card games, posting “tip of the week” or month in our college communications portal, having a contest for new tips, creating a jeopardy-style game, and more! I think what is most satisfying to me is knowing that I work with a group of creative, thoughtful, and dedicated educators, many of whom contributed to this deck of tips without even knowing it. But even more so, that even the most seasoned educator has something to learn, and the most green educator has something to share about teaching in a way that helps support student success. And that, my dear colleagues, is what it is really all about!

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Side note: I loved having the opportunity to lead a lively roundtable discussion on the topic of Non-Astonishing Teaching Tips and sharing these cards during the May 2018 NISOD conference in Austin, Texas.

This summer – Focus, Reflect, Learn!

Students sitting outside on campus

Students settle into campus, enjoying the last warm Fall days, September 2017.

It’s the start of a new semester and I realize that I’ve been a bit lax in keeping up a blog on new ideas in teaching and learning. Like the resolutions we make at the start of a new calendar year, I’m vowing to be a bit more active with my entries here. So, as is appropriate, I thought this first round would involve some reflections on how I spent my summer in and out of the Center for Teaching & Learning since May

By way of disclaimer, I am fulltime faculty who is beginning my fourth year being reassigned to the CTL as the Faculty Director. And I’ve come to enjoy some of the previously unknown gems of this experience. First and foremost, it has given me an opportunity to meet more of my colleagues – both faculty and staff – outside of my department or division. This may seem like a ho-hum concept. But in reality, we’re all on the same team, helping our students at this community college reach their educational goals. It’s all about student success. We do this (mostly) selflessly, with the main reward being the knowledge that you “might” have made a positive difference in someone’s life. So when I say that that this has allowed me to meet more of my co-workers around campus, I’m really saying that I’m getting to know more of my teammates on this big educational mission we’ve all signed on for.

These encounters with my colleagues occur in a variety of ways. Their attendance in our wide range of CTL sessions, serving on committees in and outside of the CTL, emails inquiring about or recommending new session ideas, or just dropping in to visit. When I’m wandering around campus I’m always thrilled to realize that – hey! I know you! And I’m getting better at names, too!

Summer Learning Moments

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Part of my summer apprenticeship building a house.

As the summer began in earnest for me in May, I scheduled myself to split time between CTL and apprenticing to my husband on our major building project – finishing our new home. In the spirit of being a lifelong learner, I took on fulfilling a personal goal to learn more hands-on skills in carpentry and finish work. On the days and many evenings when I wasn’t in the CTL, I was learning how to use a chop saw, impact driver, drill, installing cabinetry, creating a jig to install the many door/drawer handles, getting an introduction to installing light fixtures, electrical plates, and finally, installing flooring. Did I make mistakes? Of course! And, like we hope happens with our students, I learned from them. Most recently, after spending two days installing flooring in a couple of bedrooms, I stood there puzzled by my (very precision-driven) husband’s distress. Apparently, in a tired state of mind, I had not trimmed a starting piece in a row of the wood floor, throwing off the pattern for the next three rows that followed. Learning moment here: I learned how to carefully remove pieces of a wood floor so that they could still be reused once I corrected the errant board. The entire summer experience gave me much food for thought when applying it to my own classroom.

Learning is Teaching at Mott

During one of the college-wide conversation days, a group of faculty and staff came up with the idea of meeting and greeting students during the first week of classes. This idea was inspired by the stories shared by students about their own “first week” experiences not knowing their way around, feeling lost and abandoned. We were a bit stunned by the realization that this most basic of experiences – the experience of feeling welcome on campus – had somehow fallen through the cracks for many of our students, especially those who were the first in their families to go to college.

Mara in front of Mott Library

Meetin’ and greetin’ new students on campus this Fall 2017.

So at the start of this semester, after a dry (chilly) run last winter, we launched a college-wide initiative to sign up faculty and staff to wander the campus – inside and out – to meet and greet students, asking if they needed anything, if they needed help finding a building, or an office, or whatever. I think we all had a blast. It was wonderful to be able to bring a smile to the face of a nervous student, to brighten their day with the message “Welcome!” And it wasn’t something that took a lot of time out of our day. Everyone has a few minutes here and there. For me, it was an excellent way to get off my chair and step away from the computer, get some fresh air, and actually meet our students!

Another event we held last May, and one that will be repeated again this October, is a “free college day” on campus. Held on a Saturday, faculty volunteers provide an introduction to a topic of interest, usually something related to their area of teaching, while many staff are running around guiding groups of students, or manning tables stacked with information. For me, as professor in Graphic Design and Art, I love the blending of the creative and structural that happens when creating simple handmade books. The open-studio workshop that I ran last May had a steady stream of people of all ages from the community who sat down with me and learned to make, write, and illustrate a simple book with covers, a project that captured the applications of a variety of skill-sets across disciplines. My colleagues in other areas across campus enjoyed sharing their subject areas in fun ways with a new (and sometimes familiar) audience. Yes, even current students would drop in to see what it was all about, gaining insights into the passion of their current or potentially future instructors.

Design Thinking Applied

The path that led to these two events – free college day, and first week meet and greet – came from these college conversation days. But the process to discovery and idea generation was in many ways similar to the design thinking process that has been adopted from the design fields and is finding new applications in business and higher education. We began by asking the students about their stories, their experiences! And then we brainstormed! And then… over the months that followed, we implemented the ideas! You can read more about how Stanford’s d.school has taken the lead in helping educators apply design thinking in new ways.

Make it Happen!

In the meantime, I hope your semester is off to a great start! And I hope you’ll consider making a more concerted effort to meet and greet more of your colleagues and students across campus. You never know what a real difference it makes until you try!

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.

 

Mott CTL Tech, Paula Harris, and the Multigenerational Classroom

Community Colleges are known for enrolling a wide range of demographics within their student body. This creates further challenges to faculty as we try to engage learners with a broader range of experiences in technology. In an article titled “Video: The Answer to Your Multigenerational Classroom,” Paula Harris, Mott’s CTL Technology Consultant and Associate Professor of Nursing, begins to address this question.

Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 3.07.13 PMRead the full article here in the special technology supplement to the March 21st issue of Community College Week.

Technology and its Softer side to Learning

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Much has been written on the topic of incorporating technology into the classroom, all in the name of increasing student success through increased engagement. Technology has been an important factor in the concept of the flipped classroom and “teaching naked” (José Bowen) where the students are responsible for viewing lectures and doing the readings beforehand so that the classroom can become more activity-focused and engaging.

It has been an established part of online learning where both access to, and preparation for, the use of technology is critical to learning and participation in this digital environment, especially as a way of reducing the distance between students – each other or between them and the faculty. The results are mixed with many claiming that MOOCs are the new egalitarian education. But the results are mixed, especially when applying this to credit-bearing courses. The engagement of both learner and educator become critical and results often depend upon the increased fortitude from highly prepared students and faculty who are both committed to successful completion.

But technology can also play an important pedagogical role in the area of personal narratives as a tool for increased student engagement. Digital storytelling is the subject of a brief guide published by Educause that provides some food for thought on how to incorporate the digital medium effectively and accessibly without requiring a high mastery of advanced digital tools. Today, students and faculty have access to a digital movie studio in their telephones, and can easily edit on mobile devices or their desktop and save it in a format that can be viewed for free online.

The goal, however, is not just to create another way to utilize technology in the classroom. The real objective is to instill passion in the topic leading to the successful achievement in the learning outcome. Humans are natural storytellers. We can ask students to incorporate research and resources into their projects. But by also allowing them to make it personal, they become more engaged. This becomes not just something they have to study, but something they are immediately making relevant to their own worlds.

Ken Bain, author of What the Best College Teachers Do, would call this deeper learning, something that may be achieved through a series of “goal-based scenarios.” His follow-up book What the Best College Students do addresses the passion that students can find within to motivate their own learning. Hear Ken Bain in this recent NPR interview from May 2015.

What does all this have in common? It is the combination of inspiring student passion and the ability to express a personal connection to the material that creates passion for learning. This makes digital storytelling a powerful tool for student engagement that can be applied within any discipline we teach. To learn more, follow some of the links provided above and discover more ways to be inspired to apply this in your own classroom!