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!

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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Some good reflections on the Flipped classroom

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.

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!