Video by Cleavon Smith.
Article by Hannah Douglas.
January 27-28, 2012, Universal City, CA — Math and English instructors sit in groups around the room, a big sheet of poster paper and markers on the table in front of them. Each group is discussing a case study of a challenging classroom situation from the previous semester – a student who withdrew, or had difficulty with particular course concepts, someone the teacher didn’t quite reach. What did they think was going on for this student? And what could an instructor do to help this student stay engaged and learn?
Gavilan College English Instructor Scott Sandler reads a case study about a student named Robert. The student has been late, both to class and in his assignments, and although the teacher allows Robert to re-write a paper, he still avoids the work and subsequently the teacher. But the teacher discovers Robert is capable of writing a passing paper when he completes an in-class essay.
“It reminds me of my students,” Sandler says after reading the case. “One thing I’ll do when a student isn’t showing up — I’ll call them. And they get really surprised and maybe a little taken aback. But they will at least come into your office and talk, and you’re sending the message that you care about them.”
College of the Canyons Math Instructor Ambika Silva nods. She says reaching out to students sparks them to feel like they need to respond, and once they succeed, they then want to keep going further.
These faculty were part of the California Acceleration Project’s first Community of Practice in Acceleration – or, as one instructor calls it, “community of shared ideas.” They came together at the end of January for the third and final in-person workshop on curriculum and pedagogy. Many of them had just finished teaching their first accelerated English and Math classes that fall, and the rest were getting ready to pilot in the spring.
A total of 19 colleges participated in the community of practice this year, part of the California Community Colleges’ Success Network (3CSN). In addition to participating in workshops, the group received ongoing coaching from Chabot College English Instructor Katie Hern and Los Medanos Math Instructor Myra Snell.
“We had our first accelerated classes in the fall, and it’s hard to imagine having done it without the Community of Practice,” says Nicole LaGrave, an instructor at Butte College.
Leslie Henson, Chair of the English Department at Butte, agrees. “Without the Community of Practice, I think we would have ended up trying it and then just doing the version of the same old same old that we always do, and not understanding why it didn’t work.”
For much of the two-day event in January, English and Math instructors worked together on shared concerns — how to support students, how to recruit and train faculty to teach accelerated courses, how to navigate tricky political situations that acceleration can raise on campus. The workshop also featured English and Math break-out sessions on nitty-gritty lesson planning. The math folks analyzed classroom video footage from City College of San Francisco. The English folks shared successful activities and assignments they’d used in the fall – from academic speed dating (Yuba College), to a handout that helped students keep track of competing viewpoints on a topic (Solano College), to an alternative approach to the classic research paper (San Diego Mesa).
Kim Orlijan, a Fullerton College English instructor, appreciated the collaborative spirit of the community of practice. “The willingness on everyone’s part to open up, to share their best practices, their failures — it makes me feel less alone in my little classroom environment,” Orlijan says. “I’ve been to conferences, I’ve been to workshops, this has been completely different, eye-opening and completely rejuvenating.”
Matt Teachout, a College of the Canyons Math instructor, says the Community of Practice helped him and his colleagues get out of their “comfort zones” as teachers. One of the biggest changes he is making is to move away from “frontloading – basically giving them the answers” and to focus instead on helping students become better thinkers. “That’s what our students are lacking in our math classes today,” says Teachout. “So much of our instruction is based on the students just mimicking the teachers. They mimic what I do.”
Teachout says that this has been one of the most powerful parts of his experience with the California Acceleration Project. He explains that acceleration is certainly about curricular change — shortening the path for students, helping more of them “get from point A to point B” and complete college-level Math. But, he says, the big “ah-ha moment” for him was about pedagogy: “I don’t need to tell the students, I need to have them think and discover it for themselves.”
Kathy Kubo, Math Instructor at College of the Canyons, talks about the changes to pedagogy she and her colleagues are implementing after participating in the Community of Practice.
Applications now available for the 2012-13 Community of Practice
Deadline: March 30