Image: Horror Narrative: A Student-Faculty Collaboration
To illustrate this chapter with Horror Story might seem like an unusual choice. A gothic image that includes a man who has flayed himself arguably does not seem appropriate to highlight a discussion on collaborative learning. Yet, Horror Story shows what can be accomplished when learning is a collaboration among equals.
During a presentation about gothic influences, a student asked us to complete an exercise to help us better understand the concepts he wanted to address. The class was excited to pull out crayons and markers to begin their sketching. I was so thrilled with the work I was doing that I used my sketch as the draft for Horror Story. The photomontage now hangs in my office and I enjoy discussing the collaboration with current students.
If there is any “horror” in treating students as collaboratives and colleagues and peers, it is that so many of them come to us having been battered by the structural inequities of the world and the education system. Some of this is due to their socio-economic status or family situations. Since joining the faculty at my current college 20 years ago, I have witnessed the demographic shift of our student body becoming both more ethnically diverse and also poorer. I need to note that this is a correlation without causation. We do not have a poorer student body because we have a higher percentage of non-white students. Our student body is poorer because of a decline in the job market and the lingering effects of the economic decline of 2008 and following.
Furthermore, almost all of our students are products of an education system that relies too heavily on high stakes testing than it does on promoting creativity. Others live with the stigma and structural barriers associated with being defined as developmental, remedial, disabled, or some other trait. As we establish a classrooms of collaborative equals, we need to simultaneously introduce a spirit of loving kindness into our approach to students.
Loving Kindness is the love of φιλία [Philia], which is the love of friendship between equals. Professors practicing loving kindness view their students as colleagues and learning as a collaboration. Viewing students as friends is a line that ought not be crossed, but the metaphor of friendship is a good one when considering classroom interactions. Friendship takes an investment of time. It also connotes a mutual respect.
In this chapter, I begin with a theoretical essay concerning reaching out to students with loving kindness. I then deal with the need to help students rediscover that they are valuable in their own right as we give them choices and rebuilt their trust. The chapter ends with a reflection that argues that classrooms work best when we realize that all of our students—as well as ourselves—are developmental.
Image: If You Are Without Warmth
“If you are without power and seek warmth…”
One Christmas morning, as I sat in my warm home surrounded by little dogs, I received a text from my cousin, who was still without power since the previous weekend’s storm. Her home had been cold for the past several days. As she and her husband headed out of town to spend the day with family, her Christmas would not be lacking.
I consider myself close to my cousin and I knew that she lost power a few days earlier, but I was unaware that she was still without power. Too often, we do not know the day-to-day details of the lives of the people to whom we are the closest.
As faculty members, we rightly know even less about the students who pass through our classrooms. These are students who—like us—lead complicated lives. Unlike my cousin who has years of experience navigating the joys and difficulties of life, most of our students do not have the same wealth of experience. Therefore, it is important that we provide space where struggling students can develop strategies for success.
The argument that our job as faculty members is to teach our subject matter—and that we cannot consequently be responsible for our students’ lives outside the classroom—does have merit. Yet such a position can be cited to justify a callousness that is unbecoming to members of our profession.
When students make poor decisions, we have colleagues who essentially proclaim, “To hell with them. They’re adults.” In such cases, a bad decision is often taken as a personal affront which can lead to anger toward the student. This is an anger that can lead to pervasive dissatisfaction. Like a person who tries to throw a hot coal, we are the ones burned by our anger; not our students.
Instead of becoming angry with students who become overwhelmed when they are stripped of their power by social, economic, and bureaucratic situations beyond their control, we should attempt to react with understanding and loving kindness. When an online student contacted me that her power was out because of Hurricane Michael, I did not expect her to find an alternative power source. Nor did I expect her to immediately catch up on her assignments once power was restored. Loss of power was only one of the issues she faced as a result of being in the path of a hurricane and her personal situation rightly needed to take precedence over her coursework.
Understanding does not mean that we must accept the student’s position. There are times when it seems clear that students are behaving irresponsibly when that is not the case. I still remember the student in a night class who kept drifting in and out of sleep. His “irresponsibility” was starting his day twelve hours before class began because he worked full time while going to school. At the time, his only realistic choice was to take a night course or to not attend college. During the early 1990s, weekend classes and online courses were not being offered.
I can understand why a student makes a decision without condoning the actions that result from that decision. During most semesters, there are usually one or two students whom I watch fail the course as they compound their bad decisions. I do intervene with these students. However, at a certain point, I must accept that I cannot change their choices. I must also realize that systemic issues outside a student’s control can control their choices regardless of the student’s desire.
Understanding fosters compassion and compassion makes it easier for us to direct students to the help that they require. Sometimes, assistance can take the form of tutoring or providing academic advice. At other times, we can direct students to the Learning Assistance Center or some other campus office. In more serious cases, we can help the student make an appointment with an academic counselor who is trained to deal with the student’s personal issues—something I did at least 10-15 times per semester before my institution eliminated our counseling services.
Acting with loving kindness does not mean that students will not suffer the consequences of their actions. It is not always possible for a student to recover from a bad decision during a particular semester or in a particular course; especially when the college does not offer services such as counseling that would assist the student. However, our compassionate actions, inspired by loving kindness, can lay the groundwork for future success. I remember sitting in my office discussing how a student could salvage his grade in my course while also agreeing with him that dropping his math class seemed like a reasonable decision. It is not that my math colleague had less compassion than I do, but the nature of the course was such that catching up would be impossible.
As a faculty member, I can neither legally nor ethically care too much about the details of my students’ lives. Fortunately, acting with loving kindness does not require knowing personal details about our students. It does, however, require that we be willing to provide opportunities for students to learn skills that can bring equanimity into their lives. For example, in my syllabus I include a Time and Attendance process which provides students with the opportunity to make up missed work if they contact me. I generally require no more explanation than “Life got in the way” when students tell me why they have missed class or need an extension.
On Christmas evening after she returned home from visiting family, my cousin posted a message in Facebook that she had returned home to heat and that the temperature in her house was already 46 degrees. She continued, “If you are without power and seek warmth, you are welcome here.” It is a sentiment that belongs on our office doors.
Image: Growing Dendrites
To Reteach Students Their Loveliness
Many a brisk October day, I am on my hands and knees, covered with dirt, planting flower bulbs: tulips and daffodils and snowdrops and crocuses. Externally, the bulbs appear very bland and uninteresting. Their roots are practically nonexistent and do not seem to hold much promise. Yet, because I have faith in their ability, I tell theses bulbs that they are lovely through my actions.
I delude myself if I think that I can force the bulbs I plant in my garden to grow. Nor can I force my students to learn. Growth and learning can only come from within. They are self-blessings, not blessings that I bestow. Yet, both are assisted in an environment shaped by loving kindness.
One of my cousins has discovered that, by the third grade, her students have already been taught not to express their creativity. I remember attending a Harry Chapin concert in which he sang the refrain for his “Flowers are Red” that repeat the words that a student is told the first day of class:
Flowers are red young man
Green leaves are green
There's no need to see flowers any other way
Than the way they always have been seen
The boy was taught that, if he were to succeed in school, he would not be permitted to express the truth that there are “so many colors in the flower.” In fact, he will likely be punished for seeing every one of the flowers.
Because of this, part of our job as educators is to realize that it is sometimes necessary “to reteach a thing its loveliness,” as Galway Kinnell explains in “St. Francis and the Sow.”1 Sharon Salzberg explains that “‘to reteach a thing its loveliness’ is the nature of metta [loving kindness]. Through loving kindness, everyone and everything can flower again from within.”2
As early as the third grade, my cousin’s students have been taught to view themselves as drably colored lumps that must go through the motions dictated by their teachers. They have learned, as Harry Chapin sings, that “There is no need to see flowers any other way than the way they always have been seen.”3 If they see flowers in any other way, they will receive poor grades. And grades are seen as more valuable than learning.
Approaching students with a spirit of loving kindness can often be met with suspicion by the students we are trying to help. They have been successful in their educational careers because they have internalized the message that creativity is not rewarded and that their own interests are not interesting. To take the risk of putting down roots is too daunting a task. Therefore, we must be patient and repeatedly reteach them their loveliness.
Some of the bulbs I plant in October find the courage to push up through the still frozen earth in late January or early February. Snowdrops have the most courage. While surviving the harsh realities of February in Michigan, they give inspiration to the crocuses that will soon follow them in March. Later the tulips and daffodils will find their flowers within.
Unfortunately, I cannot expect all of the bulbs I plant to flourish. Some will be so damaged on their trip to me that there will be nothing I can do to revive them. Others will be dug up and eaten by squirrels. Others will take too long to send down their roots and will not survive the winter. And when I am honest, I realize that sometimes I will not properly prepare the soil or I will overlook a bulb and forget to plant it. Sometimes, I will even harm one bulb while nourishing others around it.
While gardening in the spirit of loving kindness, I am able to reteach the bulbs that they are lovely and to help them find their flowers within. Approaching students with loving kindness gives them the same ability, a self blessing.
Image: The Scholar Athlete as Artist
Trimming the Yuzu Tree #2:
Reflection on Giving Students Choices
After watching Dominic trim the Yuzu tree in my cousin’s yard, I heard him express his concern that the tree will likely not bear much fruit because the area in which it was planted does not provide enough light. As Dominic explained, “It is not where you want it to be. It’s where it wants to be.”
Dominic’s words are not meant to imply that the tree should get anything it wants. After all, he had just pruned it.
I often argue that “the less I teach the more my students learn.” I also emphasize the importance of giving students choices, and I have gone so far as to turn major sections of my courses over to students.
My goal in the classroom is to produce quality educational experiences for my students by allowing them to be shareholders in their educational endeavors. I have learned the art of the vague syllabus that includes the required components for a class without going into too much detail about how those components will be realized. For example, I might say that there will be an assignment that needs a student to “to demonstrate your ability to cognitively integrate and analyze the various dimensions of the humanities;” a departmental requirement of the history courses I teach. However, I do not spell out what constitutes the project. As a class we decide how to meet this requirement. Because I believe that students need to do equivalent work rather than identical work, there might be different ways in which students meet this requirement.4
If they can choose topics and take responsibility to teach sections of the course, they are more invested in their education and learn more. As an added benefit, the class becomes more interesting for all of us.
I am sure that some people would argue that students in an introductory course are not qualified to take responsibility for ensuring that course competencies are covered—that allowing students to be where they want to be would not lead to academic success. These individuals are correct. However, allowing students to be where they want to be instead of where I want them to be each day does not mean that I give up my responsibilities as a professor.
Plotting out a course plan with a specific schedule which ensures that course competencies are met, is much easier than allowing students to stand in their own light. Generally, I prepare multiple lessons for the same day so that I can both accommodate student interests while insuring necessary concepts are covered. Often, I am modifying course plans while the class is in session.
Because I know the course material and realize that there are multiple ways to communicate course content, modifying my plans on the fly is not as difficult as it may seem. For example, while revising this chapter, I had just taught a class in which a student wondered out loud how the French thought of the French and Indian war. I used the opportunity to show students how to use Google to translate “Seven Years War” to “Guerre de sept ans.” I then showed how they could translate the websites they found after doing a Google search in French. This was not a lesson I had planned to teach until a few weeks later. But it is better to teach material when students are asking for it. Teaching material “out of order” is easy because I have designed a flexible syllabus.
Although this is a simple example, I do the same thing for larger assignments. For example, a student screened a short film at the beginning of a film class I was teaching. I then decided not to screen the film on which I had planned to base my lesson and, instead, used her film to teach the lesson I had planned for the following week. Because I was planning to cover the material anyway, it was really not much work to make this transition.
A too strong rigidity can actually impede student learning. I think of the time when Fred Krager, the first openly gay Presidental candidate made an unexpected stop at Schoolcraft College. When I contacted some colleagues about whether they would like candidate Krager to discuss the election with their students, a political science professor told me that they didn’t have time in their syllabus to have Krager spend 15 minutes in their classroom. It was an opportunity missed.
Especially on days when students are presenting, I have no idea idea what I might be covering. During student presentations, I take copious notes not only about the topic being presented but also about what I might be able to contribute to the discussion following the presentation. For example, while a student is giving a presentation on the French Revolution or the Reign of Terror, I might include “mandate from Heaven,” “Marat/Sade,” or “potatoes” in my notes, even if they are not mentioned by the student.
Later, when I build on the student’s presentation, I might contrast the European concept of Divine Right of Kings to the Chinese Mandate of Heaven. If students ask questions about the negative attitudes toward the First Estate (the clergy), I will screen “Marat’s Liturgy” from Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade. And the subject of potatoes as a way to understand socio-economic issues and culture is fascinating—even to my students who give me odd looks when I tell them about my interest in the history of potatoes.
In order to help prepare students to approach course material from the perspective of their interests, I take them to the library and ask them to spend an hour reading anything that interests them. With each student, I then discuss their interests and suggest ways in which they can use their interests—and the background that comes from those interests—to approach course materials.
Unfortunately, more and more students are finding this assignment difficult because they don’t know the correct answer to the question, “What interests you?” They need reassurance that I am not asking a trick question.
Some will ask: “Do you mean that we should read something that interests us in the historical period we are studying?”
“No,” I answer, “you can read about anything that interests you.”
The will ask: “Can I read about [fill in the blank]? ”
“Does [fill in the blank] interest you?” I respond.
“Then you can read about it.”
It is a sad commentary that the results of high-stakes testing and parents who micromanage their children’s activities and free time produce students who are frequently baffled by this assignment because they don’t know how to answer the question, “What interests you?”
It has become harder to convince students that they can take responsibility for their educations; that they do not need to be content to stay within the lines their previous experiences have drawn for them. But it is worth the effort.
Image: Little Dogs Riding Fish
When Abuela entered our home, she was a fragile teacup chihuahua who had come from an abusive situation. She would lay silently in my husband’s lap with her eyes closed. When not in his lap, Abuela would tentatively creep around the house cowering in fear when either of us approached her. Two weeks later, Abuela still moved awkwardly because of her past injuries, but she had gained weight and would run to the door, tail wagging, when she saw her Papi.
Abuela was the twelfth dog that my husband has rescued from a bad situation and joined two other rescue dogs in our home: Snooki and Lil Mama. Other dogs have entered our home since Abuela first made her appearance. Before I met him, my husband had rescued and rehabilitated dogs who went to live in safe homes where they are loved. According to my husband, “There is nothing that a little love can’t fix.”
It is amazing to watch the new dogs respond to the loving kindness they encounter in our home. Six months before Abuela joined our household, Snooki suffered from a very similar disposition. He cowered when anyone approached him, was skinny from lack of food, and so on. He is now a confident little man who explores the yard and takes care of Lil Mama who entered our home a month before Abuela.
Lil Mama, too, grew in confidence and has developed her unique personality. And, with time, Abuela reached Lil Mama’s level of confidence. Eventually, both became as sure of themselves as Snooki. What we assumed would be less than six months of hospice care for Abuela ended up being a three year relationship.
The world has changed since I was a youth. Technological advances have given rise to problems of over exposure. People no longer fall into obscurity after experiencing Andy Warhol’s ‘15 minutes of fame.’ Instead, they launch their own reality shows or simply become famous for being famous. They are not the best role models for today’s youth. The divorce rate is higher as is the accessibility of drugs. The economic situation, lack of jobs, and political extremism make living in today’s America much scarier than the one in which I grew up.
Referencing the world in which I grew up is both natural and problematic. Our personal experiences can be both a source of knowledge as well as a limitation as to how we respond to students. While I believe that the world in general is scarier, I do not want to discount that the parents and grandparents of many of my students--especially students of color--grew up experiencing fears I cannot imagine.
Especially when I see students who are struggling with an uncertain future, I am grateful that I am not a teenager today. Many of our students have been damaged because they come from or remain in difficult situations. Because the educational system with the backing of socio-political realities in modern America has so brutalized students, many students are convinced that they cannot succeed.
When I was still a graduate student, I read an article by a professor concerning traumatized students. He asked questions such as, “What am I supposed to do with a student from [insert type of traumatizing situation]? Teach them how to write a paragraph?”5 My response at that time was, “Of course. That’s our job.” And while I still believe that this is our job, my attitude has been tempered. Now, I believe that if we hope to teach our subject matters, it is more important than ever to prioritize creating a safe classroom environment.
According to my husband, it takes “love, a lot of patience, and time,” to rebuild trust in one who has been traumatized. How many of our students have heard a professor or someone else in their lives say, “Trust me,” only to be treated with abuse?
Whether we call it agape or metta or being decent human beings, we need to create classrooms where students can feel safe. We must do this before we can hope to effectively teach English or history or math or science or whatever academic discipline we profess. Love, a lot of patience, and time can rebuild the trust of our damaged students and give all students a firm basis for success.
Image: Underprepared → Prepared → Advanced → Excel
Working with “Developmental” Students
Sometimes professors ask, “What do we do when we have both developmental and regular students in our classroom?” Unfortunately, this question is problematic. We should not make a distinction between “developmental” and “regular” students. We need to realize that all of our students are developmental; at least in the classic meaning of the word as reflected in the motto of the former National Association of Developmental Education: “Helping underprepared students prepare, prepared students advance, advanced students excel.”
Unfortunately, in contemporary American education, developmental has become equated with remedial. Although I would like to continue to discuss developmental education as a process of transforming students, I am a realist who realizes that the conversation has changed and those of us interested in developing our students must change with the times. This reality was acknowledged when, in March 2019, the National Association of Developmental Education changed its name to the National Organization for Student Success. However, they did not change their motto which can remain an important roadmap for our work with students.
Instead of talking about developmental or remedial students, a better question for us to ask is “What do we do when we have students at different stages on the underprepared-prepared-advanced continuum in the same classroom?” However, an even better approach is to not worry about distinctions and instead focusing on universal design.
I focus on universal designs that allow me to appropriately challenge all students during the semester. I have found that if I first spent the time creating my course so that it will meet the basic needs of remedial students as well as those who require ADA accommodations, I make life easier for all students as well as for myself.
Whenever possible, I provide students with my teaching notes and PowerPoint presentations in advance. I make students aware in advance of readings that we will do during class time or videos that I plan to screen. While such reasonable accommodations are required for certain students under the Americans with Disabilities Act, there is no harm in making them available to everyone. In the same way that curb cuts make life easier for people in wheelchairs, they are also an advantage for someone pushing a stroller, on a bicycle, or who has trouble walking. Last year, I began converting all of my classes so that videos are ADA compliant; something that proved very helpful when I had a deaf student enroll in one of my classes last semester. Universal design before the semester begins, allows me to spend more time during the semester working directly with students because I don’t have to remember—or care about—which students require accommodations. Nor do I have to spend time converting course materials in the middle of the semester.
When students walk in on the first day of class, they see that I change the classroom geography to facilitate conversations. Tables are turned into what I call “islands” around which four to six students sit. On the first day, students have to move multiple times to meet as many of their colleagues as possible. After the first day, they settle into the seats that will be theirs for the rest of the semester; not because I assign them but because that is how human nature works. These random groups of students then grow into strong teams whose members support each other.
It is not uncommon for me to get emails such as these two:
Dr. Berg, I won't be in class today. I’m not feeling great. My classmates will fill me in on what needs to be done with editing our paper. I apologize. Thank you, [name redacted]
Dr. Berg, for the last few days I haven’t been feeling well [so have missed a week of class.]...Everyone in my group has discussed with me what I need to do for the project so I’m still caught up….
In both of these cases, I don’t need to do anything to catch these students up in the course except to send them a two sentence reply thanking them for letting me know and wishing them a quick recovery.
Because students get to know each other, they become peer mentors. As the skills being taught change, so do the roles of the students. Not everyone excels at everything and the student who would be considered underprepared one week might be excelling during the next. This process is facilitated by having a variety of pedagogical strategies: art, presentations, readings, videos, lectures, projects, and more.
Often, students are asked to teach all or part of a class with their teammates. Among other pedagogical benefits of team work, students on the underprepared-prepared-advanced continuum work together to assist each other move to the next level. Although the course and classroom geography is designed so that students will rely on each other, I work with the teams to master a concept and then they teach it—in their own ways—to their colleagues. I will help them polish their ideas, but I won’t come up with the ideas for them. When a student or team asks if I would approach a presentation or assignment in a certain way, I almost always answer, “No.” I then continue, “But you have a very good approach that I would not have considered.”
In order to make it easier to work with students from where they are at, I create a vague syllabus. This strategy allows me maximum flexibility during the semester to work with students on an individual level. In my classes, we talk about “equivalent” rather than “identical” work. As a result, I shy away from strict rubrics that tend to be prescriptive rather than serve as a path toward excelling. Just because one can tick off that they have completed certain tasks does not mean that they are learning or producing quality work. Instead, I talk about what makes up good writing based on a variety of audiences and then have students ask certain questions such as “Why should my intended audience care?” and “How does what I am writing contribute to the larger dialogue that is taking place on this topic?”
Answering these questions serve in lieu of a rubric and is more effective than the standard check off rubric.
✓ Specific audience identified
Question as Rubric
My intended audience should care because ….
Before the students can answer the question, they need to identify their intended audience which would get them a ✓on the rubric. But answering the question provides a richer writing experience.
Finally, I spent time working individually or with small groups of students. The geography of the classroom facilitates such discussions. For example, I will ask students to work together in their teams on a certain task. Then I will go from island to island discussing issues with students. Often, the issues that come up are not directly related to the task at hand. However, this proves beneficial because it gives me a window into what students don’t understand.
I also meet individually with students. Especially in my Composition II course and other courses that have a research component, we spend class time meeting in the library. All students are expected to talk to me during the class about their research and I coach them on the next steps each individually has to take. I will also schedule some classes where I meet with students in my office. I plan these days when most students are prepared or advanced and, therefore, can work on their own. I then meet with students who are underprepared or who think they are underprepared. I don’t require that any specific student come to these conferences, but students who need the individual support generally show up.
Best teaching practices require that we adopt the principles of universal design. Fortunately, by adopting these principles, we free up time for us to use our advanced skills to do targeted coaching in the classroom, the library, and—for those of us fortunate to have one—our offices. When we don’t have to worry about the barriers that separate us, adopting universal design allows us to facilitate collaborations of equals.
Image: Tips and Tricks #03
Everyday Tips and Tricks for Learning as Collaboration
There is no way to get around the fact that the professor is the most powerful person in the classroom. Yet we can take steps so that we can interact with students as valued colleagues. By providing flexibility and encouraging students to participate in decision making, we become collaborators. One of the added benefits of this is that we--like our students--will learn new things during the semester. My students are always amused at how excited I get when they present information I didn’t know or a point I had not considered before.
Remember that we are burned by our anger; not our students.
Adopt universal design in the classroom.
Provide flexibility in your syllabus.
Give sections of the course over to students.
Allow students to help decide how course requirements will be met.
Allow students to build on their interests.
Avoid rigid rubrics.
Write a vague syllabus. This allows for greater flexibility throughout the semester.
Include a time and attendance section in which you acknowledge that sometimes “Life gets in the way.”
We need to realize that all of our students are experts in their own respects. Let the syllabus reflect that their expertise will be part of the course.
Allow students to become peer mentors.
Do not spell out what constitutes the project. Whenever possible, allow students to discuss ways to meet course competencies.
Include the location and telephone numbers for campus support offices.
Include art in your syllabus.
We need to create classrooms where students feel safe.
We need to be conscious of the assumptions we make about the world when they are based on our personal experience.
What appears to be irresponsibility might have its roots in systemic issues over which the student have no control.
If you give quizzes or exams, assure students that you will not ask trick questions. And tell them that if they find any to let you know because such questions are unacceptable and you will want to revise them.
We do not need to know the details of student’s situation in order to help them.
Remember that our students have been brutalized by an education system that forces them to abandon creativity.
Change the seating in the classroom from lecture style into a way that promotes discussion.
Talk to students individually about their research.
Whenever possible, I provide students with my teaching notes and PowerPoint presentations in advance.
Adopt a variety of pedagogical strategies.
Practice universal design.
Wilson, Anthony. “Loving Poems: Galway Kinnell’s ‘St. Francis and the Sow.’” Anthony WIlson: Poetry, Education, Research. 5 February 2013.↩
Salzberg, Sharon. Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness. Shambhala, 2002.↩
Harry Chapin’s “Flowers are Red” was recorded for his 1978 Living Room Suite.↩
When students are doing equivalent work instead of identical work, transparency is especially important. Various approaches to assignments need to be discussed during class.↩
Although this essay made an impact on me, after more than 30 years, I cannot remember the author’s name, the essay, or where it was published.↩