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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Inclusivity in Practice

During our lunch and learn discussion, “Building a Inclusive Classroom,” faculty members provided their best practices for building inclusive learning spaces.  In the spirit of inclusivity, they have offered to share them with us and the college community.

Many of the faculty focused on the way they set an inclusive tone during their first day and first weeks, including sharing the responsibilities of syllabus creation, policies, and schedule.  Some of the faculty also talked about how to maintain this spirit of collaboration throughout the course by “checking in” with students and providing methods of on-going discussion and conversation.

Building the Environment for Learning

  • Establishing shared responsibilities and classroom rights on the first day
  • Collaborating on due dates and the course schedule
  • Co-creating student-paced class/unit “guides” that serve as checklists and enable students to envision learning outcomes for the week
  • Doing a “check-in” at the beginning of class: where are they with the material? what are the “ah-ha!” moments? the muddiest moments?
  • Asking students to choose the discussion topic and/or choosing “discussion leaders”
  • Helping students to develop their own classroom policies, i.e., late work, attendance, rubric and assignments
  • Using discussion boards for ongoing course discussion

In addition the classroom environment, faculty members provided their best practices for creating inclusive assessments of student learning.  As one faculty member noted, “it’s important that assignment provide students with an opportunity to ‘show off’ what they know.”

Building the Tools for Assessment

  • Giving students the opportunity to propose an alternate assignment or project if they feel it will benefit them
  • Having students complete a “group test” where they provide evidence and justifications for their answers
  • Encouraging and facilitating peer review sessions for final papers
  • Voting on the structure of projects and the types of exams

Look for more about inclusivity in the classroom in our upcoming professional development and our continuing blog series on the topic.  Thank you to all the faculty who provided these best practices.

Counseling Services and Student Referrals

By Megan Cline, Counselor at Central Penn College

Lunch & Learn on Classroom Management & Student Referrals
Image from the Winter Lunch & Learn
Presented by CPC’s counselors,
Candace Johnson & Megan Cline

After completing our first ever Lunch & Learn presentation, Candace and I would like to share a brief recap of important information from the faculty training session! First, let me start by introducing Candace and I, as well as inform you of what services are available through our counseling offices. Candace Johnson, MS, is our part-time counselor and her office hours are Wednesdays 5-8pm and Fridays 12:30-3:30pm. I, Megan Cline, LSW, am the full-time counselor, and my office hours can range from 9am-5pm or 10am-6pm, but both Candace and I are flexible with our appointment times. We are located upstairs in Bollinger Hall, rooms 52B and 52C, beside the Cultural Diversity Office.

As far as our services go, appointments with a counselor can be done in person, via phone, or virtually by email or webcam. The maximum number of sessions students can have is 11 per term (i.e. one session per week). If it is believed by the counselor that the student needs more intensive care, the counselor will make a referral for the student to another local outpatient office. Not only are counseling services free, but they are confidential as well; however, in the event that a student voices harm to self or others, confidentiality is broken and reported to the appropriate party. Further, as employees of the college, we are unable to provide similar services to faculty and staff. So while working at Central Penn, if you would like to access support services for yourself, those are available to you through Human Resources.

Finally, as a faculty member, you will come into contact with a variety of student personalities. One thing that we at the counseling office ask of you is to please report any concerning student behaviors that you might observe. Throughout the term weeks, you will get to know your students well and be able to identify if a student is displaying concerning or unusual behavior. If it is troubling to you, chances are it is something that should be investigated further. If you do not feel comfortable checking in with the student yourself, please don’t hesitate to reach out to the counseling staff or your supervisor to discuss the student further.

For more information about our services, please visit our web page at http://www.centralpenn.edu/college-services/counseling-services/

Email Megan Cline or Candace Johnson

Building an Inclusive Classroom: A Starting Place

By Dr. Melissa Wehler, Dean of Humanities and Sciences

In recent years, conversations about diversity in the college classroom have necessarily focused on the inclusive learning space.  For many in higher education, inclusivity is the natural progression for colleges who are working towards practical applications of diversity initiatives, some of which have come under criticism for being well-intentioned but not concrete.  The rise of campus ‘safe spaces’—itself not without critique— has extended into the classroom, prompting further discussions about the definition, role, and best practices of inclusivity in higher education.

Inclusivity, in its academic methodology, means building a classroom (and campus) environment wherein faculty members and students share in the creation of a learning space in a way that respects all of the constituents, their lived experiences, and learning needs.  The constituents of the classroom (and again, we can extend to this to the campus) are encouraged to engage in constructive, challenging dialogue and to support others who are sharing their lived experiences.

The role of the faculty in an inclusive classroom is to act as a model for the types of behavior, engagement, and collaboration required of the space.  Faculty members should be transparent about their processes and policies and establish guidelines for engagement.  The course content, moreover, should reflect a variety of experiences and perspectives and mirror those of the students in the course.  The challenge for the faculty member is not to shy away from academic rigor in such environments, but rather to communicate the parameters of that rigor.

Throughout this series, when talking about inclusivity in the classroom, I will use the word ‘build’ rather than ‘create.’ Inclusivity is a creative process, certainly, but to use the word ‘create’ elides the work—by students, faculty members, and the even the institution—it takes to establish an inclusive learning space.  It also suggests that such learning spaces are mysteriously self-generating and that some students, faculty, courses ‘have it’ and that others ‘don’t.’ The idea of ‘creating,’ moreover, implies that students and faculty members are somehow inherently inclusive, which ignores the realities of different lived experiences.

‘Building,’ on the other hand, accounts for the time and effort of students and faculty, connotes the necessary collaborative efforts, and forefronts the conversation of inclusivity as one that requires deep engagement.  Students and faculty members must confront privileges and assumptions, they must learn (but not co-opt) the lived experiences of others, and they must work collaboratively towards a shared, mutual goal.

Throughout this series, we will be working on ‘building’ a definition of the inclusive classroom, its elements, and its practices.  The other parts of the series will cover the following:

  • Reflecting on privileges.
  • Knowing your students.
  • Questioning your assumptions.
  • Challenging the status quo.
  • Collaborating in the classroom.

As we continue with this series, we hope that you will ‘build’ along with us in the comments.  Please share your thoughts, fears, and hopes about inclusivity in the classroom as well as your own experiences and best practices.

References

Bart, M. (2012). Strategies for creating a more inclusive classroom. Faculty focus. http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-and-learning/strategies-for-creating-a-more-inclusive-classroom/ Retrieved: 2/10/17

Busteed, B. (2016). Inclusivity means opinions count. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2016/12/06/colleges-must-move-simply-asking-peoples-opinions-making-them-count-essay Retrieved: 2/10/17

Hammond, R. (2016). Setting the Tone for Inclusion on Campus Joanne Berger-Sweeney, president, Trinity College. The chronicle of higher education. http://www.chronicle.com/article/Video-Setting-the-Tone-for/238304 Retrieved: 2/1/17

Turner, S. (2016). Dear higher education – This is why your diversity initiatives are failing. Advancing diversity. http://www.advancingdiversity.com/dear-higher-education-this-is-why-your-diversity-initiatives-are-failing/ Retrieved: 2/10/17

Zhang, Y. and K. Mansouri. (2016). Point/Counterpoint: Do safe spaces belong on college campuses? USA Today College. http://college.usatoday.com/2016/11/22/viewpoint-point-counterpoint-do-safe-spaces-belong-on-college-campuses/ Retrieved: 2/1/17

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.

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!

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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