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In addition to using various pop-culture and historical references for his talks, his stories include more personal narratives to help students see a different aspect to the content, providing students a glimpse at “the human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.

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!

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.