Best Practices for Teachers with Students with a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)

I started my college journey six months after brain surgery and my subsequent release from the hospital and retirement from the military.  I was apprehensive and nervous going back to school as I realized I was not able to function at the same level I performed at even six short months before.  It took me four times longer to read a passage or text, my recall wasn’t nearly as immediate or robust as it was previously, I had difficulty sustaining focus on a single task, I was constantly searching for words and my speech was slowed, and I had to relearn how to learn.  The remnants of the incident had since healed, but the mental scars still lingered and manifested themselves on a near daily basis.  Unfortunately, my story is a fairly common tale.  As a student veteran who suffered from a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and treated for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), I know first-hand the struggles many individuals, especially veterans, face when entering a higher education setting after an injury.  However, as we are each unique in our own way, the specific manifestation of a TBI or PTSD is also unique to each individual.  As my exact condition might not be identical to another’s, the basic tenets of what I learned as both a student, and since then as an educator, have given me an invaluable perspective which I hope to share in this post.

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Definition of a TBI

For background, a TBI is a specific type of brain injury resultant of an external force via a bump, blow, jolt, or barometric wave of energy to the head causing either an open or closed injury that disrupts the function of the brain (Faul, 2010).  A TBI can occur when a head hits a windshield during a car accident, shrapnel enters the brain after a blast, or even from the pressure of a nearby explosive event.  Conversely, not all head injuries result in a TBI, and the severity can range from mild (brief loss of consciousness) to severe (extended period of unconsciousness and memory loss) (CDC, 2011).

The recent rise in instances of TBI over the past decade can be attributed to the growth of knowledge in the subject and the attention it is receiving from the media and sports industry.  Although TBIs are often undiagnosed and not reported, it is more prevalent than multiple sclerosis, breast cancer, and HIV combined (Leibson et al., 2011).  Unfortunately, there is a dichotomy in perception with TBI.  It is becoming more apparent and stressed upon by the medical community that TBIs need be to seen and treated as a disability, but the majority of the population still do not see the critical nature of having these injuries examined.  This creates the larger problem of individuals going undiagnosed, which is especially difficult in higher education as the most common age range for a TBI is 15-26, and these individuals are less likely to seek medical attention on their own (Novak & Bushnik, 2008).

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Building an Inclusive Classroom: Collaborating in the Classroom

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

An inclusive classroom must be built on the foundations of collaboration.  When faculty members collaborate with students, they demonstrate their respect for the student experience by giving them a proverbial seat at the table.  In theory, many educators would agree that collaborative classrooms are ideal learning spaces.

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In practice, however, faculty members (and some students) find relinquishing even some control over the course to be at best uncomfortable and at worst unfathomable.  For these faculty members, collaboration might mean starting small:

  • polling students on what is / isn’t working in the classroom
  • giving students a choice on the format or medium for an assignment
  • asking students to be the discussion leader
  • providing different options for questions types on an exam

Such gestures demonstrate that the faculty member explicitly respects the students’ learning experiences and understands their unique needs.  By establishing this conduit for communication, the faculty member works to bridge the divide between themselves and the students in the traditional classroom hierarchy.

For collaboration to work, it must be woven into the fabric of the course.  Collaboration and inclusivity cannot be merely an afterthought or an attempt at ‘good will’ between faculty and students.  Instead, it should be communicated to the students as an integral part of the course on par with the learning objectives.  There are many ways to communicate this commitment to inclusion:

  • include a collaboration statement in your syllabus and assignment prompts
  • create an weekly collaboration learning objective
  • link assessments to the collaboration learning objective
  • build in reflective moments or assignments that ask student to critique their own collaboration

While there are many methods to forefront collaboration in the classroom, I am particularly fond of the co-authoring model wherein the students and faculty member write the course’s foundational documents together.  I have found that such methods not only produce a shared learning environment that promotes inclusivity, but also increases student buy-in and accountability in ways that the top-down teaching method does not. Some examples of co-authoring include:

  • course policies and course schedule
  • classroom ‘bill of rights’ and ‘bill of responsibilities’
  • rubrics (or grading criteria) for major projects or exams
  • assignment prompts, including requirements

Collaboration in the classroom puts into practice many of the aims of inclusivity: establishing mutual respect, including multiple perspectives, demonstrating awareness of differences, and questioning inherited structures.  When we value collaboration, we model inclusivity for our students, and perhaps more importantly, they model it for us.

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About the Author

Wehler 2Melissa Wehler, Ph.D. serves as the Dean of Humanities and Sciences at Central Penn College.  Her publications include book chapters in a variety of edited collections where she discusses topics including the gothic, feminism, performance, and culture. She also has a forthcoming article on the television adaptation of Jessica Jones and is the co-editor for an upcoming collection on Supergirl.  She has published on topics of teaching, pedagogy, and student success and has recently launched an open access resource, The Online Lecture Toolkit, developed to support the needs of educators who want to create effective online video content with co-creator, Judith Dutill. She enjoys teaching classes about writing, literature, culture, and film and has won two teaching awards for her student-centered approach.

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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Building an Inclusive Classroom: Questioning Your Assumptions

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

Reading the news, you will learn one thing for certain: millennials are dangerous.  They seem to destroy, ruin, or kill everything, even things that I didn’t realize were so very precious to our existence.  Of course, these accusations are not anything new.  Older generations have long maligned the youth with indictments of bringing the end to civil society.  What they do reveal, however, is the persistence of the generational divide and the lines on which such divides are drawn.  They intimate the presumed values of an older generation giving way to the equally presumed values of a younger generation.  They provide a context for understanding, explaining, justifying, and defending a changing cultural landscape.

Millennials

In the classroom, these debates often serve as an obstacle to building inclusivity in the classroom.  First, their seeming frivolousness belies a more serious conversation about changing social mores. It’s easy to scoff at the death of cereal, but less so when it comes to paradigm shifts in the workplace.  The classroom is not immune to such changes, and in fact, is often the incubator of them.  Second, these debates consciously and unconsciously create and reinforce assumptions we have about our students.  They presume to tell us about who are students are: their values, beliefs, goals, habits, and attitudes.  And, if we do not get to know our students, we may rely on these external narratives to influence our classrooms and the relationships with them.

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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.

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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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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.

Building an Inclusive Classroom: Reflecting on Privileges

By Dr. Melissa Wehler, Dean of Humanities and Sciences

This is the second installment of the six-part series on inclusivity in the classroom.  The first installment, Building an Inclusive Classroom: A Starting Place, provides an introduction to the topics covered in the series.

Building an inclusive classroom begins well before the first student registers for the class or a textbook is selected for the reading list.  In the classroom, a faculty’s identity—privileges and disadvantages—is represented in explicit and implicit ways.  Explicitly, our identities are represented by our bodies, our language, and our appearance (yes, even if we teach online).  For instance, whether or not I choose to confront my gender or race in the classroom, my body still signifies them.  Implicitly, the knowledge, belief, values, and skills that inform our actions, behaviors, and attitudes have come from our lived experiences.  The course materials I select, test questions I write, and syllabus policies I create are the culmination of my experience—positive and negative.

To create an inclusive classroom, therefore, we should recognize and acknowledge our socially conferred privileges (and disadvantages) and how they influence our pedagogy. When we talk about socially conferred privilege, we are referring to the social systems that provide certain persons or groups special advantages or rights on the basis of an unearned status.  Commonly, we talk about privilege through the lens of race, gender, ability, religion, age, and class, though it’s important to recognize that these are far from the only privileges that faculty confront personally and pedagogically.

In the classroom, inclusivity begins with the faculty member who establishes the basic parameters of the class, which are based on their own unique circumstances: their training, experiences, and philosophies.  Because courses begin in the personal, we must acknowledge our own socially conferred privileges as part of our pedagogy.

By no means an exhaustive list, here are some ways to help start this process:

Take a personal inventory.  A personal inventory will help you recognize (perhaps for the first time) your socially conferred privileges. A personal inventory can focus around a specific set of privileges such as race, gender, or ability or it can be a mixture of different types of privilege.  You can use a pre-created inventory (such as this one from Routledge or the lists provided by Barnett).  You can also generate a personal inventory by listing out privileges you experienced in the span of a week or a month.

Seek out resources.  Start locally.  Campus resources such as the Center for Teaching Excellence and the Diversity Office provide training and materials specific to your campus life and culture.  Then, think globally.  Professional organizations, such as the American Association of University Professors, also have resources for faculty about diversity, inclusion, and privilege.

Invite conversations.  Conversations about privilege are happening informally on college campuses all of the time, but faculty can also find ways to ‘invite’ these conversations: create a brown bag series, invite guest speakers, or organize a book reading.  Faculty might also organize a viewing of a documentary or webinar followed by a moderated discussion. Remember, if you invite conversation, it’s important you listen to learn and not listen to respond.

Acknowledging and understanding more about our personal privileges helps us to recognize where these privileges manifest in our pedagogy.  Once we are able to see ourselves more clearly, we are also able to see where our personal privileges have created gaps in our teaching approach.

Here are just a few areas to consider:

Challenge privilege.  For instance, avoid normalizing certain behaviors in the classroom that privilege one student or student group over another, especially with ‘good’ and ‘bad’ labels.  For more, see Goodman’s lists about ways to challenge privilege identity in the classroom.

Representation matters.  Course materials should be representative not only of the subject being taught but of the subjects being taught.  Course materials (textbooks, articles, studies, tests, examples) should incorporate a range of experiences and identities that reflect the students in the class.

Vary approaches.  Part of ‘unpacking the invisible knapsack’ means that just because it worked for you as a student or that it worked/works for some students, doesn’t mean that it worked/works for others.  By varying your approach to teaching (lecture, small group, discussion, flipped), you build opportunities for different students and different strengths.

Appeal to the experts. When a difficult situation, conversation, or topic comes up in class, give the students the scholarship and allow them to do the deep digging.  Not only is it a great exercise in critical thinking and problem-solving, but it demonstrates that this conversation is historical, robust, and on-going.

Listen actively.  Listening doesn’t just refer to answering questions or responding to a point during discussion.  It includes reading body language, word choice, and tone.  It can also mean ‘listening’ to the silences: the emails not returned or the questions left blank.  Responding to these moments validate students’ experiences whether through positive feedback or an acknowledgment of their concerns.

Conversations about privilege inside and outside of the classroom can be cloaked in feelings of shame, guilt, and blame; however, personal discomfort with confronting privilege is no excuse to shy away from the topic—just as students, peers, and even ourselves cannot ‘opt-out’ of systems of privilege.  Instead, by recognizing, understanding, and challenging privilege personally and pedagogically, we, as educators, make the first concrete step in creating an inclusive classroom.

References

Adams, M., L. A. Bell, and P. Griffin, eds. (2007).Teaching for diversity and social justice: A sourcebook. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.

Barnett, P. E. (2013). Unpacking teachers’ invisible knapsacks: Social identity and privilege in higher education. Liberal Education. vol. 99, no. 3. https://www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/unpacking-teachers-invisible-knapsacks-social-identity-and

Goodman, D. J. (2010). Helping Students Explore Their Privileged Identities. Diversity and Democracy.  American Association of Colleges and Universities. Spring 2010. vol. 13. no. 2. https://www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/helping-students-explore-their-privileged-identities

Flaherty, C. (2016). Racial literacy as a professor’s responsibility. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/06/20/aaup-sessions-center-professors-role-and-responsibilities-regarding-classroom

Maher, F. A. & M. K. Tetreault. Diversity and privilege: We need to understand how privilege works before we can make diversity work. Academe. AAUP. January-February 2009. https://www.aaup.org/article/diversity-and-privilege#.WLcMB2_yuUk

McIntosh, P. (1989) White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack. The National SEED Project. https://nationalseedproject.org/white-privilege-unpacking-the-invisible-knapsack

 

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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