Building an Inclusive Classroom: Knowing Your Students

This is the third installment of the six-part series on inclusivity in the classroom.  The other installments include: Building an Inclusive Classroom: A Starting Place and Building an Inclusive Classroom: Reflecting on Privileges. You can also read more about the ways our faculty use inclusivity practices in their own classrooms in Inclusivity in Practice.

Let’s talk about Maria.  If you talk to Maria’s professor, he will tell you that she is an excellent student: she comes to class early, turns in her homework, and participates in class discussion.  He’ll talk about her essay where she compared different models of masculinity in Gilgamesh and her oral presentation on “bad boys” in Greek mythology.  He might also say that he encouraged Maria to take his class on reading poetry in the spring.   Hi!  My name in Melissa, and I once spent a semester during my undergraduate career as Maria.  I’m not sure why this professor called me Maria (despite initial attempts to correct him): did he misread my name on the roster, did I not pronounce it clearly on the first day, or did I just “look” like a Maria?  I’ll never know.

Inclusivity Blog

I bring up this minor (and now humorous) interlude of my undergraduate career because it illustrates a few important point about “knowing” your students.  First, the professor was not really interested in knowing me as a student or a person, since the first way you demonstrate that interest is by knowing and using someone’s correct name.  Second, the professor did not listen to me when I tried to correct him further demonstrating that our relationship was merely about my course output.  And finally, this moment clarified for me that he didn’t really know any of his students.  At all.  We were all “Maria” in that course.   If “Maria” had been a student who needed additional support and relationship-building in the classroom, she probably wouldn’t have succeed in this course.  If “Maria” was an easily embarrassed student, an introverted student, or an at-risk student, she probably would have dropped the course or stopped coming entirely after a few weeks of being called the wrong name.

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A Quick Technique for Making Your Lectures More Active

While reading a recent interview with Christine Harrington, executive director of the New Jersey Center for Student Success, I was reminded of how some practitioner-scholars in the more technical academic fields experience discomfort with the pedagogy of active learning, although they needn’t. In these instances, faculty feel obliged to present very specific information to students, usually in response to precise disciplinary/workplace expectations or to satisfy accreditation standards that mandate specialized knowledge objectives.

Practitioner scholars

This obligation, whether philosophical or prescribed, can exacerbate the friendly tension that may exist in faculties between “those liberal arts types” and “we practitioner-scholars.” In my experience, practitioner-scholars feel obligated to define instruction as delivering information to students, even while accepting the premise that active learning almost always facilitates stronger outcomes.

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Week One: Silence

By Judith Dutill, Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence

Excitement. Anticipation. Enthusiasm. These are all words I would use to describe how I feel in the weeks and days leading up to a new term. Yet, despite my eagerness, even my widest smile, best jokes, and most engaging team building icebreakers are sometimes met with silence so great, the only thing that can be heard is the sound of my proverbial bubble bursting.

I know that if I hunker down and weather the first few days or weeks of awkward silences, things might pick up once we all get to know one another. But what if it doesn’t? (And, sometimes it doesn’t.) I have found that it is better to work on getting my quiet classes talking earlier in the term than if I let the inactivity persist to the point that silence is what ultimately defines our time together.

Now that a new term is underway, if you feel like you are the only one in the classroom with something to say, try one (or several) of these techniques to get your quiet classes talking…

On-ground classes

  • Keep students moving; try setting up learning/activity stations around the classroom, have students work in small groups before reporting out to the larger class, let students share ideas by writing on the board or creating a post-it wall.
  • Ask students what they need to get more engaged in the class. Use an anonymous survey or poll at the end of class to capture feedback.
  • Use positive reinforcement; notice and acknowledge when class is going well, thank students for their participation and responses.
  • Begin class with a discussion icebreaker such as a current event or a provocative image or news story.
  • Assign student discussion leaders; allow students to create the prompts and facilitate the discussion.
  • Create homework assignments that will connect with the next class meeting’s discussions so students are more likely to arrive prepared to discuss the day’s topics.
  • Use classroom games such as Jeopardy, Bingo, or poling games such as Kahoot.

 

Online classes

Quiet classes can occur in any modality. If you have a quiet online class (which I currently do), you may need to think creatively to get them talking.

  • Reach out to students via email as a reminder that the discussion board needs attention from the class.
  • Ask students what they need to get more engaged in the class. Use an anonymous survey or poll at the end of class to capture feedback.
  • Model a post by creating a starter thread for student reply.
  • Post a mid-week discussion or deploy a mid-week poll (use a polling tool such as Poll Everywhere) on a current event/relevant controversy.
  • Assign student discussion leaders; allow students to create the prompts and facilitate the discussion.
  • Provide multiple discussion prompts so students can find their way to the discussion topics they are most interested in.
  • Use the Groups tool in Blackboard to create small group discussions. Students may be more willing to open up at the beginning of the term with a small group versus the larger group.
  • Encourage students to end their discussion post replies with a lingering question. This will provide other students with a springboard for their replies.
  • Encourage students to share relevant examples by posting multimedia in their discussion posts.
  • Engage students with activities other than discussion boards; try using a VoiceThread asynchronous video discussion, building a class Wiki, or deploying a PlayPosit interactive video (tip: students can also create PlayPosit videos for their peers).

What techniques do you use to get students talking? Tell us about it in the comments section!

Ending the Term on a High Note: Punctuate, Synthesize, and Reflect

By Judith Dutill, Instructional Design Technologist

Joshua Eyler, Director of Rice University’s Center for Teaching Excellence, recently shared his blog post, The Final Class of Semester, emphasizing the importance of meaningfully punctuating the time we have spent with our students.

This made me think about my own classroom tradition of ending the term by asking students to write and share haiku style poems that encapsulate their biggest takeaways; I typically use this activity in introductory-level courses. Many students bring humor to the table and it is a great reminder, before we part ways, that we enjoyed the time we spent learning together.

My favorite haiku from ENG 110:

Public speaking is

Not as scary as it seems

If you breathe and smile

Memorable to me not just for its optimism, but also the affectionate debate over the number of syllables in the word smile that ensued.

Share your favorite end of term traditions in the comments section!

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Teaching with Current Events

By Judith Dutill, Instructional Design Technologist

On September 11, 2001 I was a junior in college studying communication and working as the program director for our campus FM radio station. It was a frantic and confusing day on campus and I spent most of the day working at the radio station, making sure we stayed on the air. September 12, 2001 was just as frantic and confusing; I remember feeling especially homesick and scared. I wanted to be with people (and going home was not an option for me), so I made sure I went to class, Survey of Mass Media.

My professor walked into the room waving a copy of The Wall Street Journal. The headline read: “Terrorists Destroy World Trade Center, Hit Pentagon in Raid with Hijacked Jets.” My strongest and most vivid memory of this time is from that day when the professor shared with us that this was the first six-column headline The Wall Street Journal had run since Pearl Harbor. The professor explained why this was significant and for the remainder of the class we engaged in dialogue about the events of 9/11, all framed around the role of media during times of national crisis and tragedy. It was not lost on me that we were living history (and my professor emphasized this), but more importantly there was comfort for me in this dialogue. The conversation the professor facilitated brought order to chaos; everyone in the classroom that day shared the same fear and confusion but theory and knowledge became our flashlight to see through the darkness.

The events of the past month remind me of this time. There is confusion and fear, misinformation and disinformation – but we can bring order to the chaos and comfort to our students by inviting current events into the classroom and structuring our discourse, to the extent that it is possible, around the unprecedented events of the day.

Noliwe M. Rooks wrote an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled Knowing When to Teach Current Events which offers faculty five questions to ask ourselves when determining whether or not a current event should be brought into the classroom:

  1. Does including the topic allow me to teach students something that, within the context of the overall aims of the course, I think is important for them to learn?
  2. Am I familiar with enough scholarly sources to contextualize the moment or event beyond what is readily available in newspapers and social media?
  3. Is more gained by my teaching this topic than by my leading a town-hall meeting, urging students to organize a panel, or allowing them to discuss the issue during the first few minutes of class?
  4. Is this my “lane”?
  5. If I introduce a new topic into the course, am I prepared to teach students what they don’t know but may need to know in order to fully understand it?

Current events can bring life to your classroom discussions and may even light a spark that creates moments of learning so significant that fifteen years later (or more) your students will still remember them. What more could an educator ask for?

Do you bring current events into the classroom? Tell us about it in the comments section!

 

We are having a paper fight! Ready. Set. Go!

By Benjamin Lipschutz, Business and Accounting Instructor

How do your students learn? How is it that they take their prior knowledge and experiences, combine that with what they are currently being asked to intake, and create real and meaningful knowledge? Experiential learning theory explores this process by breaking into steps how individuals learn. According to researcher David Kolb, experiential learning starts with learners having a concrete experience. They do, see, feel, read, or hear something that passes all their filters and actually leaves an impression. They then require a reflective observation period to mull over what has just occurred. When they have internalized what has happened, they can go through abstract conceptualization and truly learn from the experience. Finally, through active experimentation, they can test what they have learned. This cycle repeats, leading to growth.

A question remains: What does this really mean, and how can/do we apply this in our classrooms?

Let’s start at the beginning. We often ask our students to read text, watch a video, or review presentations to gain a scaffolding of understanding, and then we fill the spaces through our instruction. However, Kolb theorizes that “learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” (Kolb, 1984), and that the acquisition of abstract concepts that can be applied flexibly in a range of situations is most readily imparted through new experiences.

One classroom activity that truly encapsulates this learning model is the “paper fight.”  I ask for eight volunteers from my class of 30 students. I split them in groups of 4, place them on opposite sides of the room and give each a small stack of paper. I then declare that we are having a paper fight. Go!

What happens? Usually, the students hesitate, but then organize themselves and start throwing paper at one another. Some crumple and launch the paper, others throw the entire stack, some throw at their own group, and others throw at the opposite group. In general – it’s chaos. However, it is a CONCRETE experience. I capitalize on this experience the students just had and lead an in-depth discussion about what just transpired. Too often, this time for reflection, understanding, and convergence of ideas is cut short, and students are left floundering with partially formed ideas that fall by the wayside. There must be facilitation to point out and smooth over any inconsistencies between the experience and their understanding and we have to provide adequate time to allow this to happen.

Some probing questions I use to help students come to a conclusion about the previous fight are: Who won? Why did they win? What was the goal? What was the purpose? What were the objectives? The abstract conceptualization comes into play by allowing them time to reflect on the experience and then come up with a novel idea or concept — in this case, a new mission, vision, strategy, or objective.

I then allow for a round of active experimentation. I run a second round with another 8 students, but allow them 30 seconds to strategize. The process begins again. This activity continues with me slowly incorporating more information and details and highlighting the various aspects of management I am teaching in the unit’s lesson.

Key Takeaways 

  1. Experiences are the basis for learning
  2. Allow enough time for true reflection and understanding before moving on
  3. Encourage and give theopportunity to create their own opinions
  4. Create an activity where they can test out their idea.

References:

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development (Vol. 1). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Benjamin Lipschutz is an instructor in the School of Business at Central Penn College. He holds degrees in Accounting, Business, Business Education, and Special Education with PA State certifications in Business Education and Special Education Pre K-8 and 7-12. His focus is in student centered learning and engagement and he enjoys teaching at all levels, from students here at Central Penn College to kindergartners with Junior Achievement.

Bringing the “Back Row Student” to the Front of the Class

By Dr. Melissa Wehler, Dean of Humanities and Sciences

The under-engaged student is perhaps the most elusive types of students you will encounter during your teaching career.  More often than not, they are the disembodied names on your roster, the ghostly presence of a student that you might begin to think was never real at all.  When they come to class, they are usually late, sit in the back row, put their headphones in, and their head down.  In an online class, they tend to vanish suddenly and quietly, reemerging to take an exam or submit an assignment.  These “back row” students present some interesting challenges, but also some of the most rewarding teaching experiences.

Here are some quick techniques on bringing the “back row student” to the front of the class:

  • It starts on the first day. Setting the right tone of the first day is crucial to engaging the under-engaged student.  Ask them to weigh-in on the “rights” and “responsibilities” for the class.  Allow them to vote on any negotiables such as assignments, readings, and topics.  By doing so, they have a hand in their learning experience and feel more responsible for its outcome.
  • Give it a personal touch. Whether you are online or face-to-face, find ways to engage students in the learning process.  Send a personal email.  Respond to every student at least once on a discussion board.  Come to class early.  Stay late.  Even the smallest gesture can make a big impression.
  • But don’t take it personally. Too often we don’t engage the ‘back row student’ because we take their non-participation personally.  We see their texting, yawning, or ignoring as an indictment of who we are as educators and human beings.  Rather than put ourselves out there (even as we ask them to), we shut down.  Instead, take a quick survey (I like the “Keep doing, Quit doing, and Start doing” survey) to refocus on the classroom experience from the student’s perspective.
  • Move it! When you stand at the front of the class, you are going to engage the students in your direct sphere of influence.  Walking around the rooms and through the aisles helps you communicate to students that you are targeting each one of them with your message.  In an online class, this might mean doing a weekly ‘check-in’ post to let students know that distance doesn’t mean distant.
  • Move them! If possible, on the first day, ask students to move into the empty seats in the front rows by using a “light touch”: a joke, an anecdote, or a simple “I’d appreciate it.”  If they try to move back to the last row, ask again (and again) until they realize that there is no “back row student” in your classroom.  Moving online students can be difficult, but there are ways to do it.  Create a quick video response to a discussion board post, ask a follow-up question, and write on students by name if they are being too quiet.
  • Round robin. Have students complete a quick feedback assessment and go around the room to ask for their responses.  Make it clear that you can’t “opt out” of participation even if you have to “come back to them”—demonstrating that students can’t hide from engagement. For online students, you can rotate a discussion leader position for each week, so that everyone has the chance to share in the responsibility.

When we can engage an under-engaged student, we may make a positive, lasting impression. As faculty members, we play a crucial role in the acculturation of a student to college and eventually to the world beyond it.

Melissa Wehler, Ph.D. serves as the Dean of Humanities and Sciences and Professor of English at Central Penn College.  Her academic writing has been published in several essay collections including Demons of the Body and Mind,  Transnational Gothic,  and A Quest of Her Own: Essays on the Female Hero in Modern Fantasy where she discusses topics including the gothic, feminism, performance, and culture.  She enjoys teaching classes about writing, literature, culture, and film and has won two teaching awards for her student-centered approach.

 

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