Students Rise to the Occasion
By Homeira Foth
February 1, 2013, San Diego, CA — In a hallway of the science building at San Diego Mesa College, community college teachers from across California clustered around large posters covered with colored post-it notes. It was the final gathering of the Community of Practice in Acceleration for 2012-13, and the 50+ participants had been asked to write about their experience teaching new accelerated English, Math, and ESL courses.
What I learned about students was one of several topics California Acceleration Project leaders Katie Hern and Myra Snell asked faculty to write about on the first day of the gathering. Participants noted their individual responses on post-its, placed these on large posters with other faculty’s responses, and then worked in small groups to surface themes and patterns on each topic. Other topics included What I learned about myself as a teacher, What I’m worried about moving forward with acceleration, and What I’m excited about moving forward with acceleration. Their responses provide a rich window into what it’s like to step away from more traditional models of developmental education and teach redesigned, accelerated courses.
What I learned about students
This was one of the most popular topics, and one that elicited the most consistent responses. Faculty repeatedly highlighted how well students performed when given challenging work in their accelerated courses.
“They are more capable than what the older lower-level course outlines & SLOs describe/prescribe.”
“They will rise to meet your expectations, although they will go kicking and screaming all the way.”
“Students will rise to the occasion if they know the class will shoot them through the pipeline more quickly: they will take on an increased workload and they will tackle concepts difficult for them.”
“With the right support, students are capable of doing great academic work! They don’t need to start with a simple paragraph. They can write complex essays from the start.”
Another theme involved the affective domain. Teachers realized that if they reached out to students and had strategies for addressing student fear and motivation, they could increase student success.
“Math brings out a lot of emotions (mostly negative) from students. Those emotions often interfere with their cognitive skills preventing them from being fully engaged. However, once they have positive feelings about math and are challenged, they will work hard to meet the challenge.”
“Students need a lot of engagement with the instructor – eye contact, verbal communication, questioning, validation. They need to be reassured that they have support. They need to feel comfortable asking questions and talking to the instructor. They need to feel safe.”
“Many students are afraid of failure, and students I had thought of, previously, as irresponsible are actually avoiding another failure by not showing up or turning things in.”
A number of responses focused on the importance of picking the right topics. The teachers found that if students are given meaningful topics that force them to think critically, they will be more interested and ultimately do better.
“When asked to do real writing and reading about important and meaningful topics, students’ motivation skyrockets and they rise to the occasion.”
“Students are interested in learning the ‘understanding,’ not just the ‘how.’ I get lots of ‘what if’ questions, more than before.”
“Students’ life experiences often far outweigh their math skills. Therefore, they often have much more to contribute to a ‘thinking’ curriculum as opposed to a ‘skill-based’ curriculum.”
What I learned about myself as a teacher
In this category, some comments focused on the excitement of teaching accelerated classes and what teachers had learned by collaborating with colleagues.
“I learned that I love working with colleagues to share ideas and that I’m willing to work much longer because of the energy I gain from learning from those colleagues.”
“I love teaching this class. It resonates with everything I want out of teaching.”
“I’m still a student.”
Faculty also commented on the need to let go of control and to create more student-centered classrooms. For some teachers, this may have been one of the most difficult shifts from traditional developmental classes to accelerated ones.
“I learned that being open and flexible are key characteristics I need to implement a successful program. Open to try new things and take a risk. Flexible to accept when things don’t work as well. Flexible to make revisions, and not feel incompetent if I make a mistake”
“I am still too in control of the classroom. I am better than I used to be, but I could loosen up a little at least for some students.”
“I can help my students more effectively if I don’t plan ahead but listen to their needs.”
“I have to reorder material and change approaches this semester based on where my students are at instead of giving up.”
“I learned that with the right design, I can reach students I might not have, or in the least, at a deeper level.”
“When I get stuck I go back to my ‘old ways’ without knowing I’m doing it.”
“I unconsciously and unknowingly ‘teach’ in ways that sometimes exacerbate rather than ameliorate ‘affective issues.’”
“I need to have a more ‘growth mindset’ about my students. I need to change my own attitude about constitutes ‘success’ or ‘failure.’ I need to realize that one low grade on a student paper does not mean that student cannot succeed or progress. This was a radical change for me.”
“I learned to be more patient and less prickly. This means modulating my voice and not giving up on certain students. I realized that some of my anxiety is worrying whether I am capable of teaching. I was afraid of ‘failing’ and my students would drop out. But they liked the hard classes. Got a lot of love at the end”
“I learned that I’m a much better teacher when I praise them for what they can do. Also, praising their ideas and effort keeps them in class. They don’t give up.”
“I used to be believe that it wasn’t ‘okay’ to follow up if students missed class or didn’t turn in homework, etc. – like the curiosity/interest wouldn’t be welcomed. Turns out quite the opposite – engaging in these discussions actually helps me to understand [my students] better and, more importantly, seems to get students re-engaged.”
What I’m worried about moving forward with acceleration
Teachers expressed a number of concerns about the future of their work in acceleration, including not being successful as teachers, supporting other faculty to teach accelerated classes, leaving weaker students behind, and UC-CSU transfer obstacles for pre-statistics courses.
The biggest worry, however, was dealing with opposition to change.
“I am worried that it will lose momentum, esp. as certain forces (FACCC, resistant faculty, entropy) take over the concepts. There were certain administrative changes at our college and we lost momentum.”
“What I’m worried about are the ‘old-timers’ who are resistant to change – those who want to block efforts for the sake of blocking of preserving old curriculum.”
“The lack of enthusiasm on the part of my colleagues. My fear that the new accelerated course is taught only by a couple [instructors] who believe in it.”
“I’m worried my department as a whole will not support its concepts. I am worried that we’ll have fewer teachers who are eager to teach accelerated courses.”
“Moving forward with acceleration, I’m worried about the speed of change at my college. I feel very passionate about this program and this way of teaching, and I want to see this class available to more students. But I’m also really unable to do much to make change happen.”
“I am worried that students will continue to fall behind as a result of the traditional path.”
What excites me moving forward with acceleration
Teachers’ responses in this category fell into two themes. The first focused on the excitement about trying new ideas in the classroom.
“I’m excited for the opportunity for students to succeed that might not have otherwise.”
“I’m excited about challenging and changing my assumptions, values, and especially practices as a writing teacher.”
“Helping students reach goals instead of holding students back and away from important ‘college level’ tasks.”
“Bring creativity back into the classroom and the department.”
“I never ever want to introduce a topic by saying ‘I’m sorry, but we have to cover this. I know you will never use it again once you leave college,’ I don’t have to, when I teach pre-statistics.”
Other responses reflected teachers’ excitement about spreading acceleration on their campuses and beyond.
“I’m excited to bring the course to campus for the first time and I’m hopeful it will become a common pathway within the department and school.”
“I’m excited to see the movement grow at my school and to see more colleagues raising the academic bar while providing support for affective issues for basic skills students.”
“Taking the show on the road. Training others at other colleges.”
“I’m excited to help the future teachers of accelerated classes. I am convinced the way I teach is evolving due to involvement with CAP.”
“I’m excited that students are learning about acceleration and the buzz is going around.”
“Spreading the word to state-level organizations. (Country-wide?)”