“smashing scorpions” is not a rock band

I always remind my writing students that they should choose interesting topics based on their own life and experiences. I try to give them examples from my own life that I think might engage them. So when we begin discussing how to write a “process” paragraph, I tell them about how to catch a scorpion.

Let me explain… During the summer, my wife and I regularly find scorpions that wander into our house. I say wander because I know that they’re not doing it maliciously (even if they do have menacing pincers, a poisonous stinger, and armor that always makes me feel that I’m face to face with a creature from one of the Alien movies). They just happen to wander through a crack while looking for water, a cool environment, or a bug to eat. But most of my life, without giving it a second thought, I would smash any six- or eight-legged creatures that wandered into our house.

Then one day, I questioned myself: Why was I automatically defaulting to smash-bug- scrape-remains-off-the-floor mode? I realized that, 99% of the time, I didn’t really have to kill them. So I decided to devise a catch-and-release method. The next time I saw a scorpion in the house, I got a clear plastic cup and covered it, slid a heavy sheet of paper underneath, then flipped it right side up, allowing the confused creature to fall into the cup. I then took it outside and tossed it over the fence into the neighbor’s yard. Just kidding – I tossed it in the farthest corner of our backyard where it could hide in the bushes or under a rock.

So last semester, when I introduced my students to the process paragraph, I began by discussing my scorpion-catching method. To make it engaging, I brought in a real scorpion to class. Just kidding again – I brought a rubber scorpion, a plastic cup, and a heavy piece of paper and then demonstrated the steps of how to do it. I then asked for a couple of volunteers to try it. They were a bit uneasy (a fake rubber scorpion can be almost as scary as a real one) Then, as a class, we worked together to craft an example of a process paragraph outlining the steps.

Not a real scorpion.

For more than a year now, I can proudly say that I have no scorpion blood on my hands. When I told a friend about all this, he commented, “That’s very Buddhist of you.” Yes it is, although I’m not a Buddhist. I’ve just become more conscious of how we treat the creatures among us.

But before you begin complimenting my humane treatment of arachnids and other critters too much, I must also let you know that when it comes to flies, it’s a totally different story. I catch them and pull their wings off, then watch them hop around trying to get airborne. Once again, just… you know.

 

Countdown to Reality

Last evening, a chance of winning the Powerball lottery prompted my unrealistic of dream of “What would I do if…??? 45 minutes was all that stood between me and some unimaginable amount of cash. I told my husband, “Enjoy the next 45 minutes because our life is going to change at 8 o’clock.”

During those 45 minutes, I basked in the dreamy thoughts of my philanthropic calling…starting an organization to fund the charity work of others. I imagined myself sitting at a board room table listening to the enthusiastic ideas of concerned people who want to make the world a better place. Wow…just think of the ripple effect…this is going to be awesome…

45 minutes later, the reality buzzer rang as the winning lottery numbers failed to appear on my ticket. OK. Whatever. It’s fun to dream.

My take away: What we dream today can create our reality tomorrow. Maybe yesterday’s dream is moving me toward explicit action to make a positive difference today and in the future. Maybe the lottery dream was just a warm-up for my real philanthropic future.

 

Pain & Suffering or Just Assessment & Evaluation?

That’s how many instructors and students feel about assessment and evaluation. It’s a lot of needless pain and suffering. It always seems so punitive to students who struggle. But assessment doesn’t have to be that way. Many instructors have found ways to teach and use assessments in a way that encourage students to do better the next time. The key is that there is a next time, and that can be the challenge.

In writing courses, instructors can get overloaded with grading. The more a student writes the better that writing becomes, but who has time to grade all that writing. Apparently writing instructors do. However, there are ways to break down the concepts and skills needed to write well and have students practice those concepts and skills without the need of instructor grading. For instance, much of the bad writing that I see, stems from poor sentence structure. Students love a good run-on sentence, with a few fragments thrown in for good measure. It drive me crazy. “Use a comma or a period somewhere, please,” I beg.

Lucky for us at GCC, we’ve found an adaptive learning tool to help us teach students the grammar and mechanics skills, including sentence structure that they struggle with. If you’re not familiar with adaptive learning, it “is an educational method which uses computer algorithms to orchestrate the interaction with the learner and deliver customized resources and learning activities to address the unique needs of each learner” (Wikipedia). The tool we adopted from McGraw-Hill is called Connect, which includes LearnSmart Achieve. LSA provides an adaptive learning system designed to identify students’ areas of weakness. It uses supplementary content, such as videos, interactive activities, additional readings, and even a time management feature, all intended to guide students through content and resources at an appropriate pace. You can see an example below.

The beauty of this type of tool is students are being assessed all through out the process, and the system is adapting to their needs. If they’re struggling with the content they get more resources and more practice. If a student clearly understands, they hit mastery sooner and complete the lesson. So instead of a lot of pain and suffering, students get what they need. Missing a question doesn’t seem like a punishment. It becomes and opportunity to learn why and try again until they get it right. And as an instructor, I don’t have to grade any of that work. That’s the real beauty. My assessment comes when they put those skills to the test on an essay assignment.

Unfortunately, we can’t eliminate all the pain and suffering. At some point students have to write an essay, and instructors have to grade it. Well, more like grade 100+ of them (24 students x 5 classes). And we assign 3-4 essays in each course, so it’s still a lot of grading. But I digress. Once a student submits a finished essay, eager with anticipation of a passing grade, it takes some time to get that feedback back to students. During that span (1-2 weeks on occasion), students forget all about that paper and the effort or lack of effort they put into it. And when the paper is return, the process often ends there. There’s no motivation to do better. We teach that writing is a process, yet we make the process end when we’re ready. I believe with a C paper and especially an F paper, the process is not over yet. The student needs to continue to work on that essay, not the next one, in order to improve his/her writing.

So my assessment technique involves giving students an opportunity of a rewrite. Yep, more pain essays for me to grade. But it works because students have to tell me what it is they did to improve the essay. What skills did they work on? What help did you seek? Did you work in LearnSmart Achieve? Did you visit the Writing Center? Did you schedule a conference with your instructor? So the process doesn’t have to end with an F paper crumpled and thrown in the trashcan as the student walks out the door (clearly that’s an old reference to times gone by). Writing is a process and the only way to get students to write better is to keep the process going for as long as they need.

Example of McGraw-Hill LearnSmart Achieve

Dreams

After reading this week’s suggested writing prompt, I first thought “oh no – I don’t want to analyze my dreams,” but – alas – rather than the subconscious expressions of stress coming to me in sleep, the question asks about goals and wishes for improvement. Maybe one wish should be for positive dreams. But enough silliness.

What’s my dream (at least for work)? I want to be the best teacher I can be and to get to know my students as well as professionally possible. I want to make a difference in the lives of my students that lasts well beyond the time they spend in my classroom. And I think I do that. I appreciate the comments I get personally, on Facebook with the few students I’ve allowed to “friend me” after they were in my class, and on Rate My Professor (see previous post).

But there is always room for improvement. What I feel is lacking right now is the ability and time to innovate and renew my classes and the way I present content. Some of my loss of time and energy is a year of hellish health problems that stole half of last Spring and all of summer from any emotional/energy recuperation but there are also all the stresses and demands of District, Campus and Department issues and my committee commitments. I feel like too much of me is taking care of things outside of the classroom – and the classroom is why I do this job. So my dream is to get back to “being me” health- and energy-wise but also to figure out a better way to manage time so that I’m back to development and my own learning and growth rather than putting out continual fires and just keeping my head above water. The burn out point looms and I want to reroute the train before I reach it.

I know this is more of a personal than professional post, but I thought there might be some broad agreement and/or someone might have suggestions of how they deal with similar emotions/situation. Anyone? And on that note, I hope you’re having a good week (anyway). 🙂

 

Confidence Matters: 3 Tips to Boost Your Confidence

Everyone could use a little more confidence. Imagine a campus where faculty, staff, and students walked around with a little more confidence, it would make a significant difference in the academic environment. When you have more confidence you feel like you are a person of worth and value and you feel like you can take on anything. You feel like what you do matters. Below you will find 3 tips on how to improve your confidence. Hope you enjoy!

Simple Avatars for Visual Learners

What do Casper the Friendly Ghost, Ben Affleck, and Miranda Priestly (the fashion guru portrayed brilliantly by Meryl Streep in the Devil Wears Prada) all have in common? Not much until you step into my financial accounting class during a discussion on internal controls. I’ll admit financial accounting can be a bit dry. It is a highly technical course and most students take it because it is required for their degree. I always look for ways to spark interest in the topic. For our discussion on internal controls, I always diagram a scenario on the whiteboard which involves a boss, an employee, and an accountant. Then I ask for volunteers to assume each role. The student who selects the boss role is assigned the Miranda Priestly avatar. The student who selects the accountant role is assigned the Ben Affleck avatar. For those you who don’t know, Ben Affleck played the badass accountant in the movie of the same name. The student who selects the employee role is assigned the Casper the Ghost avatar. Then I explain the roles of each in a scenario in which the employee is hired by the boss and paid by the accountant. Then I pause and ask each student to think like a crook. Be deceitful. Do what they can to circumvent the controls and steal from the company. Critical-thinking skills? I say yes. The goal for the students is to determine a way to steal from the company so that we can identify the controls that are missing that would prevent this kind of theft. In the end, the problem with the scenario is that the employee was hired by the boss, had time approved by the boss, and had a paycheck delivered by the boss. There was no evidence that the employee really existed. Employees who are on the payroll but not working for the company are called… Anybody want to guess?  You got it! … ghost employees.     

When I ask the students the term for non-working employees who are on the payroll, they usually make the connection between the Casper avatar and the ghost employee terminology. “I see what you did there” is a typical response. The use of pop culture avatars is a simple addition to a class that captures the students’ attention and appeals to visual learners. Visual learners prefer pictures and other forms of visual presentations (charts, graphs, diagrams) versus words.  Visual stories help them understand material that is not easy to comprehend. By adding a few avatars and a diagrammed scenario I was able to add interest to a topic that could be dry and appeal to those learners who prefer visual learning.                

Image result for casper

Casper the Friendly Ghost image retrieved from
http://cartoon-image.blogspot.com/2010/12/casper-friendly-ghost.html                                                          

 

Aspen Road Trip to Broward College

Hello again! I am late posting my second college on the Aspen Top Ten Finalists, but better late than never. I am learning a lot in the short bits and pieces of time I am carving out to finish my posts.

This post is about Broward College (BC) in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Part of the Florida College System, it was established in 1959 and is now a state college offering selected four-year bachelor’s degree programs as well as numerous certificates and associate’s degrees.

  • 52% PT/48% FT
  • 34% Hispanic/33% African American
  • Median age 21
  • 47% First Generation
  • 63,000 student in the District – 13 locations colleges/centers
  • $82 In State Tuition per Credit Hour with fees $118 (online $123)
  • Little to no textbook costs

This year Broward College was named as a top ten Aspen Finalist for the third time. That’s epic.

Broward College serves 63,000 students from more than 184 countries with a strong culture of collaboration and commitment to continuous improvement. The College ensures that students are on the right track to graduation and have what’s needed to transfer to a four-year university by creating clear, career-oriented pathways and mandatory academic advising when students reach certain credit-accumulation milestones.

Joshua Wyner, who is also the author of “What Excellent Community Colleges Do,” commented on the College’s clear, career-oriented pathways and excellent student transfer success as well. “Broward College excels at creating clear pathways for students to complete their associate’s degrees and then transfer to a four-year college and get a bachelor’s degree. Transfer students at Broward are about 50 percent more successful than at the average community college. This success is even more amazing given its diverse student population. Broward College is busting a myth by proving that all students can succeed at high levels.”

http://www.broward.edu/news/Pages/Broward-College-Named-Among-Top-Ten-Finalists-for-2019-Aspen-Prize.aspx

You may imagine my surprise when at first look, I wasn’t impressed with what I was finding online, especially the lack of information about Advising. Thanks to spring break and the extra week, I’ve been able to dig deeper and found some wonderful things to share with you.

I wish I had time to write more, but I don’t so I’ll keep it simple. The top three good things about Broward College I learned and believe are what contribute to their success are leadership, culture, and customer service.

A History of Experienced Leadership

Seriously, who gets these kind of experienced, super-qualified college presidents?

• From 1987 – 2004, College President, Dr. Will Holcombe, set a vision and worked to connect with the local community and workforce by developing community partnerships.  Holcombe was a protégée of Dr. James L. Wattenbarger, the architect of Florida’s community college system. He left Broward to become Chancellor of the Florida College System.
• An expert in strategic planning and former President of Ventura College, Dr. Larry Calderon was appointed President in 2004.
• In July 2007, the Chancellor of the Florida College System, J. David Armstrong, Jr., somehow left his position and stepped down to take the reins at Broward College until December 2017. I think Armstrong is the key leader who shaped Broward’s success.

With a strong commitment to the community, a business owner’s understanding of the evolving workforce landscape and the changing role of higher education, President Armstrong has led a redesign of the College to focus on new programs that better address skills gaps for students and employers. Several workforce bachelor’s degrees, for example, have been added in the fields of information technology, nursing, supply chain management, education, and aerospace science.

In a challenging financial environment where colleges face state budget reductions, President Armstrong managed to balance the budget while prioritizing initiatives for student success. This includes spearheading programs that focus on the entire student experience from prospects to post-graduation. While most colleges and universities implemented significant cost increases to students, Broward College under his leadership increased tuition only once in the last five years, maintaining an affordable value and increasing number of programs with no textbook costs.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._David_Armstrong_Jr.

A Powerful Culture

Broward celebrates students and beyond. Faculty play an important role and the institution is committed to small classes to give each student more individual attention. The student-faculty ratio at Broward College is 25:1, and the school has 35.3 percent of its classes with fewer than 20 students. 100% of students were identified with a Pathway and assigned to an academic advisor.

A Place for Everyone

Broward College is committed to fostering a learning-centered community that celebrates diversity and inclusion by empowering and engaging students, faculty and staff.

Student Success is Our Passion

Our mission at Broward College is Transforming students’ lives and enriching our diverse community through academic excellence, innovation, and meaningful career opportunities.

We approach every day and every student with this in mind. Whether you’re new to college, a lifelong learner or somewhere in between, we are committed to providing the highest quality education that’s affordable and accessible coupled with the support you need to succeed.

http://www.broward.edu/discover/Pages/default.aspx

One of the pieces of the Guided Pathways model they have down is the link to careers. Check this out!

Broward College Graduates Highest Earners in the State

According to the Florida Department of Education’s recent economic study, Broward College graduates not only meet the demands of the job market, but also make more money their first year of employment, than those completing the same degrees at other schools. The report, which is a result of the partnership between the State of Florida and College Measures, documents the variations in median first-year wages of graduates from two-year and four-year higher education institutions.

The report, which is broken down by specific degree program, documents Broward College associate degree holders as making more money than the statewide averages. The median first-year earnings of associate in arts (A.A.) graduates is $27,712, which is higher than the statewide average of $26,504. For associate in science degrees (A.S.), 84 percent of Broward College graduates are employed and rank number one in income, making $49,970, which is considerably more than the statewide average of $45,060. Associate in applied science (AAS) degree holders, especially those with an A.A.S. in Business Administration, earned approximately $10,000 more than graduates of other colleges.

http://www.broward.edu/news/Pages/BrowardCollegeGraduatesHighestEarnersintheState.aspx

Old-fashioned Customer Service

As it turns out, I am referring a student to Broward College after learning about their online degrees. I’ve called several times in the past week. The service is genuine and has exceeded anything I’ve ever experienced at any institution of higher education! No kidding! It’s great.

At Broward College, each employee is primarily focused on students’ success and committed to the college’s strategic imperative of Transforming Students’ Lives by Connecting, Challenging, Completing.

Broward College has in place a strategic plan that guides every action of the institution, allowing us all to connect with students, challenge them to succeed and help students complete their academic goals.

All of these elements tie into a motto that has been used at the
college for many years — Finish What You Start.

http://www.broward.edu/news/Pages/Transforming-Lives.aspx

In case you want to know more, here are some videos and links to keep learning!

Strategic Plan

http://www.broward.edu/leadership/strategicplan/Pages/default.aspx

https://www.sun-sentinel.com/opinion/fl-xpm-2012-09-14-fl-editorial-bcc-dl-20120914-story.html

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCVFPhl_uuxVuh3Vesi7ZwOA

 

The Mark of an Educated Mind

The ability to think critically is the most important tool education can provide. It is a universal skill that is advantageous regardless of experience, background, or future ambitions. It should not be a surprise that one of the few common themes between my three years of writing for Write6x6 is critical thinking.

Since I transitioned to online teaching, there has been one series of assignments that I have continued to incorporate into all my courses. It starts as an entry-level writing assignment where I first give students carte blanche to defend a personally held belief. Next, the students summarize their defense into a discussion post and then play devil’s advocate with other students’ submissions. The final stage is writing a defense of the opposing viewpoint to their original work.  The overall goal is to introduce students to the concept of understanding, without adopting, differing opinions.

A favorite quote of mine comes from Aristotle, “It is the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it”. I felt, and still feel, these assignments put that wisdom into action.

The assignment originated from a journal prompt I gave before doing a lecture on critical thinking in my face to face courses.  In those courses, the students were able to get a full lecture of context before they were challenged to “put on someone else’s shoes”. The online assignments evolved into a background to a larger module of materials.

Without the face to face lecture to provide specific context, I received some impassioned pushback when I first started using the series of assignments. I still have an e-mail archived away from a student who accused me of pushing my personal political bias on them for making them write an opposing viewpoint on the issue of abortion. This was, of course, the topic the student had chosen to defend in their first assignment.  I will say it was one of the more heated and accusatory letters I have ever received from a student.

The letter probably had the opposite impact the student hoped for. It serves as a continual reminder to me that critical thinking skills are the true definition of “educated”. I have since added more context to the assignments, but I have every intention of keeping a similar assignment early on in every course I teach for the rest of my career.

I plan on elaborating more on the need for critical thinking in politics in my final Write6x6 post, but the need expands well beyond politics and permeates the fabric of our society. The first and last lines of defense for critical thinking are educators, so find your battlefield and dig in.

 

Assessment

I’m a bit late for last week’s post, but I laughed right out loud when I read the suggested topic for last week as I tried to clear my creativity block.

As many of you know, I’m the campus lead for course-level assessment. I’ve been involved with assessment to various degrees, seeing all the changes that have transpired, for the last 15+ years. What a ride it’s been!

I think our campus has made enormous strides in guiding assessment to a place where it is more relevant and inclusive over the last 2 years, under the direction of Julie Morrison, but there is so much more to do!

Last week, I ran into another example of a faculty member who doesn’t see the merit of documented assessment. I have fought long and hard against the mindset of “it doesn’t matter anyway,” and yet it persists.

The thing is, I *know* that we all assess, practically 100% of the time, with every passing moment of class. The problem is that we have to prove it to “higher powers.” The only way to do this is to document the progress being made. I understand the viewpoint of those who fund colleges (etc) wanting to see progress. Yes, I know it’s nearly insulting to have to prove that we’re helping our students learn and grow as individuals, and that’s the frustrating part. But it is what it is. The sad part is that apparently it won’t “matter” to some people until money gets tied into the equation. And that is where I’ll be most unhappy – if we literally have to prove our “worth.”

I actually find joy in assessing my students, both qualitatively and formally. The reason I teach is to get the “a-ha” or “lightbulb” moments from my students. I just want to show others the joy of that too and to show those “others” out there how AWESOME we really are!!

 

Student Learning and Finances

As I sat thinking about this weeks topic on student learning and assessment, my mind went to my 141 class and the experiences that I have had this semester and last.

In my MAT 14X class, we cover a variety of topics. The students that enroll in this course are usually in their last semester of math and we discuss many topics that are useful to them in their everyday life. One of my favorite chapters to teach is the financial chapter. We discuss buying a house and the interest associated with it along with saving up for retirement. These are areas that I have found students to be most interested in and I end up getting a lot of questions from them in this chapter.

Many have expressed their appreciation for this chapter because they are in the process of buying a house and have a better understanding of what they could do to save money. While some will tell me that they have started saving for their retirement. I have even had some of my returning adults discuss the importance of retirement with the students right out of high school.

Student learning not only comes from the material we discuss in class, but from the questions and answers from their peers. This, to me, is the most valuable type of student learning because it directly relates to their lives and they can connect to it.