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 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!


Determining the Completion Arch for Community College Students

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Over 500 sources of data are now being brought together to create a new educational tool to follow the completion of community college students on national and statewide levels. The Chronicle for Higher Education recently reported about this new tool, called The Completion Arch, being offered by RTI International. Asking “What really happens at Community Colleges?” the new tool is intended to track community college students along five stages of their educational progress: Enrollment, Developmental Education Placement, Progress, Transfer and Completion, and Employment Outcomes. To make the tools more useful, the designers have made every attempt to use the latest data sources. For instance, I was able to pull the Fall 2014 data for the state of Michigan on some basic enrollment characteristics.

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In addition, when I pulled up transfer and completion for Michigan, it gave me graduation rates for first-time, full-time students. The data showed that among full-time degree or certificate seeking students in Michigan who started in 2009, about 15% graduated within 150% of normal time (2 yrs for Associates degree).

As an aside from me: 15% is a low rate. But for those who work at community colleges, we know that full-time students who are “first-time” in higher education comprise a fairly low percentage of the overall enrollment. A larger portion are returning adults who stop in and out of higher ed, are attending part-time while balancing families and jobs. Their completion rates would be better considered over a 200 or even 300% of “normal” time (100% = 2 years for an Associates degree).

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The narrative provided beneath each of the charts provides further details in order to understand the data.

Data Challenges

This data tool is an extremely ambitious project and there is strong need for this kind of compilation across the myriad of sources that can influence the direction of community college curriculum, policies and actions. But there are some weaknesses, especially at the state-level information which is either missing all together or incomplete, according to the Chronicle’s author, Max Lewontin, in the article from October 22, 2014.

Although the tool was originally launched in 2012, it has been expanded and the future vision includes possibly allowing community colleges to add their own data to the system. There is a lot of potential to this tool if the data can be compiled with more depth. It is definitely worth looking at, and could even be an interesting tool to discuss with your students on the use of data in decision-making.

You can find The Completion Arch here:

And the Chronicle article here.

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

MDRC Report

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

This article begins by asking the questions:

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

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

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

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

Sowing the Seeds for a More Creative Society

Yes, you heard it here… from me, the art faculty turned faculty director for the CTL at Mott. But I couldn’t resist. There’s a great Webinar from an Adobe series called #CreateEdu which will be held Wednesday, September 17, 2014 at 1 pm PDT (about 4 pm EDT) which blends computer sciences with creative approaches to learning.

Led by MIT’s Mitch Resnick, a computer scientist with the famous MIT Media Lab, this Webinar session explores how new technologies can engage students in creative learning experiences. Resnick, author of several books, won the McGraw prize in Education. His focus in this week’s session will be on “Scratch” described as a “new programming language and online community that enables young people to create their own interactive stories, games, and animations” which can then be shared. Just think of the possibilities for YOUR classroom!

Here’s a link to the webinar description and registration.

And here’s a link to his TED Talk that you may enjoy, as well!


Young people today have lots of experience … interacting with new technologies, but a lot less so of creating [or] expressing themselves with new technologies. It’s almost as if they can read but not write.

~ Mitch Resnick

You can find more webinars from Adobe by visiting their Professional Development section of their website at: https://edex.adobe.com/professional-development/events

Great new article on Students becoming “Flexible Experts”

A recent article in the Carnegie Commons featured the concept of students learning “flexible expertise” in order to become more adaptable to new situations and challenges. Featuring the work of Jim Stigler, he introduces three key learning strategies: Productive Struggle, Explicit Connections, and Deliberate Practice.

The article is well worth the read and you may find the additional links helpful as they demonstrate the application of his theories to mathematics pathways. The study mentioned in the article, Roediger and Karpicke, provides an excellent example of how our assumptions for learning (such as continuous rereading of material vs. recall testing) may be off base when we look at longterm understanding of material taught in our classrooms. For those in non-STEM fields, this article provides food for thought on how we approach teaching and learning in the humanities and the arts.

Here’s a link to the full article called “Creating Opportunities for Students to Become Flexible Experts” by Lillian Kivel, 9/11/14