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

wood floor installation

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!

Advertisements

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.

therapy_baby-2016

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!