Building an Inclusive Classroom: Challenging the Status Quo

This is the fifth installment of the six-part series on inclusivity in the classroom.  Other installments are: A Starting Place, Reflecting on Privileges, Knowing Your Students, and Questioning Your Assumptions. You can also read more about the ways our faculty use inclusivity practices in their own classrooms in Inclusivity in Practice.

The history of admissions processes and policies in higher education is a study of economic, social, and cultural gatekeeping with all the trappings of racism, classism, and misogyny you would expect to find in such a milieu. Even as higher education strives for inclusivity, the gatekeepers and the gatekeeping inherent in higher education continue to uphold this status quo.  Against this backdrop, inclusivity in the classroom represents a paradigm shift from the exclusionary gatekeeping devices of the teacher-centric model (sage on the stage) towards a learning-centric model (guide on the side).

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First Day Activity: What Do Employers Look for in College Grads?

In the weeks preceding the start of a new term, I am often asked by colleagues about my teaching strategies for the first day of class. With the recent spate of articles from pedagogy-themed websites like this one or this one, if they weren’t before, faculty today are acutely aware of the significance of the first day impression. While contending with their own first-day jitters, instructors are advised to tackle a myriad of logistical issues (e.g., the syllabus, enrollment, classroom policies, learning management procedures); establish a safe, welcoming, and stimulating classroom environment; and, as if instructors were not already short on time, deliver an inspiring lesson that establishes instructor credibility while kindling student interest.

Ellsworth Blog

In my situation, as a professor who exclusively teaches general education courses, I also face a classroom with some students who have elected to take my course, not because it represents a field they are genuinely interested in or are pursuing professionally, but because it is require for graduation. Some students, questioning the very relevance of general education, may utter the all-too-familiar question, “When will I ever need to know this?” For these students, I have adapted the following activity for my first-day classes to help them think critically about the course’s role in their educational goals and answer this question for themselves.

Activity Instructions

I welcome students to the class, introduce myself, and then ask, “Why are you here? Why are you in this class?” After the nervous giggles dissipate and my continued silence affirms my interest in a response, students volunteer the same types of answers: to get a degree, to fulfill the graduation requirements, or to be better qualified for a job. Occasionally, I may even get a student who expresses interest in the course topic or theme. I follow-up by asking: “If you are here in order to qualify for a future job, I imagine you know what employers in your field are looking for in college graduates, right?” Some students may offer up an idea or two but, in my experience, most students have never considered this question. What do employers want in their new college graduate hires?

At this point, I invite the class to divide into groups of four or five students. I hand each group some markers and a sheet of large paper from a flipchart. I explain how I would like each group to introduce themselves and then use the internet to find a credible source (legitimate website, news report, scholarly journal article, etc.) that describes the qualifications employers are seeking in college graduates. Students can look at this question broadly as applicable to all college graduates or look specifically at their major field of study. After reading the source material, students are invited to share their findings with their group and compile a list of their top seven qualifications on their flipchart. Once completed, each groups hangs their chart up on the wall. After each group has finished, I invite the students to roam the room and read each of the charts while looking for common themes.

When the students have returned to their seats, I ask students to share their findings: What were some common themes among the groups? What surprised you? Depending on the sources, the qualifications will differ. However, if students seek out credible sources on Google, the top two listings include this report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers and this report from the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Both of these reports stress the importance of skills and attributes such as the ability to write and speak clearly, solve problems, be creative, think critically, and cooperate on a team. Students, especially first-year students, are often surprised that these reports rarely mention grades or G.P.A. After making this realization, I ask my students to share why this information matters. How should it impact their approach to the course?

I explain my belief that the course theme is of secondary importance to the skills and attributes the assignments, readings, and activities will help them develop. I invite students to pull out their course syllabus. I ask them to read through it looking for ways the course will help them develop the attributes they identified as being important to employers. Through this lens, students may look at a writing assignment as a way to develop critical thinking and writing skills and not as “mere busy work.” Reading assignments are recast as opportunities to hone analytical skills; a group project is an opportunity to work as team and to develop oral communication skills. Through this activity, students are able to think critically about their general education courses and understand its’ value in preparing them for the workforce. While this activity is especially useful for faculty teaching general education courses, it could easily be adapted for use in introductory major courses as well.

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Brant Ellsworth is an Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Humanities and the faculty liaison to the Center for Teaching Excellence at Central Penn College. He is the editor of the Children’s Folklore Review, which publishes articles on all aspects of children’s traditions, and past winner of the W. W. Newell Award from the American Folklore Society.

 

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.

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