All posts by Roxan Alexander-Arntson

Building Relations… from a CDC-Approved distance

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Keep it safe.

It’s pretty ironic that this week’s writing prompt focuses on building relationships as we are all practicing self-quarantine and social distancing. But in these stressful times, relationships become of vital importance.

I’ve heard that you learned who a person really is during traumatic experience. But I would also say that a pandemic is an opportunity to evaluate our relationships. Who are the people you were worried about? Who is the person you go to for support? Where do you seek information?

As a relatively new faculty member (at least new to being full-time… and considering I’ve been away from GCC for 5 years), I feel like this year has been a rebuilding year. I’m becoming reacquainted with my former colleagues, some of whom are my former professors. I’ve also developed new relationships; as a residential faculty member, I’m exposed to groups and committees that I was not a part of as an adjunct or an OYO faculty member.

Building relationships requires exposure. You have to put yourself out there, which can sometimes be an awkward, uncomfortable, and vulnerable experience. I consider myself to be an extroverted introvert. I definitely identify more as an introvert; I recharge my batteries with alone time spent reading or writing or taking a walk. Large groups and parties tend to make me anxious. People are often shocked to hear this. “But you teach Communication!” “But you do speech and debate!”

As an introvert in a very extroverted field, I’ve learned to survive in an extrovert world. I can turn it on as needed. When I’m in the classroom, I have to tap in to my extroverted act: energized, excited to be around people, eager to participate in a group. But it has taken a long time to be able to perfect the art of acting like an extrovert while still feeling like an introvert. Never is this more true than when I have a choice of whether or not to engage socially. The introvert in me says (politely) no, thank you. But the extrovert craves connections with others and sometimes pushes my introvert self into the socialization deep end.

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Yeah… I go both ways.

So here are a few tips that I try to follow to push myself out of my comfort zone and to build or improve relationships with others:

1. Don’t hunker down in your own office. It is so easy to get caught up in grading or answering emails or any of the other many administrative duties required of us as faculty members. On very busy days, I have been known to eat lunch hovering over my keyboard or to microwave some thing to eat as I walk to another building on campus.

I try to schedule at least one lunch per week in the shared break room where I can socialize with colleagues and take a few minutes to disengage from technology and my teacher brain. I also do my best to attend any department celebrations: potlucks, birthdays, etc. We are all busy with our own teaching schedules (not to mention our personal lives), but taking even a little bit of time shows people that you care about them.

2. Do the wedding rounds. Weddings are a great example of social celebrations… as well as social obligations. If you are the person getting married, all of the people who show up to your wedding are there for you, or for your partner, but considering that it’s a wedding they are there for both of you. Your wedding guests want to have an opportunity to interact with you and to celebrate this special day with you. After a ceremony and many rounds of pictures, the opportunity for interaction usually occurs at the reception. The happy couple, either individually or solo, should walk around to each table to greet guests and share a few moments with the people they love best.

I have employed the idea of the wedding rounds in many of my jobs. I used to work as the director of resident relations at a luxury retirement village. (I am so thankful to not be in that industry right now as so many elderly people are at the highest risk of death from Coronavirus.) I used to make the rounds on a regular basis to check in with various groups: the woodworking club, the quilting bee, people who work on jigsaw puzzles, the coffee crew, etc.

I use the wedding rounds even in my current position. As I’m walking to fill up my coffee cup, I try to stop and say hello to co-workers in their offices, if they don’t seem too busy or stressed. If I have a few minutes between classes, I walk to my coworkers’ offices to check in and say hello.

On Valentine’s Day, I bought a package of children’s Valentines Day cards, inserted a fun size package of Skittles into each one, and delivered them to my coworkers’ offices… Or at the very least their office doors. It probablt took 20 minutes of time total: to write names on each card, add candy, and deliver, but I got such positive feedback from the recipients! It was worth the effort.

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3. Just a little note. But you don’t have to wait for the next overly-commercialized holiday to show you care! Another way to build connections is just to write a little note. Sometimes this means sending someone an email or a text message.

For example, a colleague mentioned starting a chpater of the Communication Honor Society Lambda Chi Eta for students, which sounded like a great idea! So I told my classes about the opportunity, asked students to email me if they were interested, and forwarded the interest emails to my colleague. It only took a matter of minutes to announce it in class and to click forward, but it showed that I cared about something my colleague is doing.

Also, I am a huge fan of handwritten notes. I keep a box of blank thank you cards in my desk drawer at all times. (Nerd alert!) I use it frequently. When a colleague does something kind or thoughtful for me, I might write a thank you note. When the college president invited all of the FYRE faculty to lunch, I wrote her a thank you note.

I am totally aware that this is somewhat of an antiquated practice. (I have been mocked for it.) Perhaps this is a holdover from being raised by my southern grandmother. But being a little overly formal for me is a worthy compromise as most people seemed delighted to receive a hand written note.

4. Pandemic outreach. All of these ideas would have seemed perfectly normal and sane (well, unless you hate notecards) had I posted this two weeks ago. In our current global health crisis, with schools shut down and online communication as our primary, maybe even sole, mode of communication, how we build relationships must also change.

Reach out to your colleagues. If not for you, then for them. Check on people! Ask how they’re doing. And, importantly, listen to their answers. Respond appropriately using emotional intelligence cues. In harsh times as we deal with stress and anxiety and the general fear of the unknown, we need connections more than ever.

This is crucial, because you may have to decide who you want to join your team should the pandemic get out of hand and become a zombie apocalypse.

Choose wisely.

Until then, stay safe. Stay sane. Take care of yourself physically, emotionally, and mentally. And, in the spirit of building relationships, take care of others as well.

 

My Dream Classroom

As I read the prompt this week, I heard the Barenaked Ladies’ song singing to me, “When you dream, what do you dream about?” (I’ve embedded the song below if you need to get this ear-worm in your head.)

Not actual bare, naked ladies. I’ve taken the Title IV training.

My dream classroom is a little far-fetched, but for the sake of the dreamers who dream big dreams out there, here it is!

I teach Communication, so all of my classes have different components and styles of speaking, including Public Speaking and group presentations. One important lesson is adapting to the environment, in our case, the classroom that we’re assigned. This replicates many “real life” public speaking situations where the speaker may not have control over the room chosen for the speech: the keynote speaker didn’t chose the city, the hotel, or the Gray Cliffs conference room where the opening banquet (and speech) will take place, nor did the speaker get to pick the audio visual equipment provided by, or absent from, the venue.

In these ways, adapting to a classroom situation and speaking with the tools available in the conditions available become an important skill for budding speakers. However, one annoyance for me as a Com teacher is the disclaimers we have to make due to the classroom restrictions. Outside of academia, it is rare to speak to a group of people who are each sitting in a desk… in a room not designed for public speaking… at a specific duration of time. These are the challenges my dream classroom would overcome.

In my dream classroom, the room would be magically adaptable to any speaking situation. The classroom could become an auditorium, with theater style seating (and theater-quality projection systems, just for fun!) This would include a formal, raised stage as many presentations take place in environments such as this. Students would then get to practice filling a large space with projected volume OR how to navigate the complexities of using a microphone (handheld, attached to a podium, ominously clipped to a shirt and worn around prior to the actual speech… begging for a comical pre-speech gaff.) Students would learn how to enter and exit from a stage, literally stepping into the spotlight of the audience’s perception. They may have to navigate speaking while professionally lit, where one often cannot see the audience… yet should still appear to connect with them.

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The Stage in An Auditorium: the first speaking location in my magical classroom

But this classroom is magical. (And sure, theater has it’s own type of magic.) It would not only be a stage, because often times, speeches are not performed in such a formal, professional venue.

My magic classroom would also become a Board Room. In the fashion of many Board Rooms, this one would be long and narrow and have artful (yet totally distracting) windows. A Board Room creates new challenges. First, it is an awkward set-up. The long, skinny format means that people in the back are craning around people in the front. If the focus is not the center of the table (and let’s hope you’re not here to table dance), then everyone in the audience, except perhaps the chairperson sitting at the head of the table, must turn their chairs or heads to see the speaker. Board Rooms usually have some sort of audio and maybe even a visual outlet, but for most meetings, these go unused. Therefore, when tasked with turning on this state-of-the-art equipment, most attendees will be pretty helpless, and technical difficulties will arise.

The speaker/student would be tasked with navigating these challenges of a real-life speaking situation. Did the student contact the venue prior to the speech to ask about equipment and set-up? Did the student arrive early to get their presentation loaded (and to allow time for the receptionist to call Duane from IT to come in and figure out how to get this speaker’s portable projector linked to the network and turned on)? Once this technical portion of the speech is running, the speaker must then find ways to connect with an audience in a much more intimate space while also maintaining professionalism and likability. Oh, and landing that client with superb persuasive skills.

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The fist hit on a Google search for “Board Room”: fully equipped with a ridiculously long table, windows to weird portraits, and (probably rarely used) electronics

But my magic classroom wouldn’t be complete without being able to transform into a Banquet Hall. Many speeches occur at special occasions such as weddings, graduations, retirements, and a multitude of awards ceremonies. Usually there is food served at these events. Speaker are tasked with presenting the oral tribute while the audience is tasked with orally ingesting banquet-quality food.

Banquets are usually arranged around the meal. Therefore, tables are usually circular, pre-set with dinnerware, and large enough to accommodate 4-12 diners. Speakers are usually on a stage or dance floor. This set up forces some members of the audience to move their seats or their heads/mouths away from their meal to face the speaker while others are forced to chose between their meal and the speaker while others try to manage eating while listening/watching. Add in formal clothing, and you can see the recipe for potential disaster.

Speakers are competing over multiple distractions and must plan their speeches accordingly. Good speakers manage the distractions by being captivating, epic presenters but also by being aware of timing and appropriateness of the occasion.

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Speaking at a Banquet: usually a task less appetizing than the day-old rolls and generic baked chicken being served

My magic classroom would be able to transition seamlessly from one set-up to another. We could replicate any type of speaking situation students might be preparing for from presenting a sales pitch to a group of investors to leading military training at Boot Camp to being a guest reader at Dr. Seuss Week at your child’s elementary school. My classroom would magically change shape, location, accessibility of equipment, all with the push of a button… or a swish of the wand. Accio, magic classroom. (I had to try.)

But until my magic classroom manifests itself, I will continue to do my best to prepare students for the many challenges of “real-life” speaking situations to hopefully create more aware, diligent, and ready students.

So maybe… the magic of the classroom lies within those of us lucky enough to teach.

I’ve got the magic in me…. and so do you! 🙂
 

Choose Your Own AssessMent Adventure!

I have a confession to make. I am a super giant nerd. In case this hasn’t been obvious in previous posts, read on to confirm. I think it started back in my undergrad when I learned that I would have to take a statistics class for my psychology degree. I was dreading the class because I struggled with math for my entire school life.

PSSSSST! Hey, you! The busy professional! Want to skip past my personal narrative and reflections and just hear about ideas for assessment? Skip to the bottom; find the Skip to End image and read from there! Otherwise, enjoy my rambling below!

However, something miraculous happened. Statistics just clicked for me. Suddenly, math made sense! When the numbers I was calculating actually connected to something tangible and meaningful, my brain could compute. And right there, my love for an early research was born.

Choose your team! (More evidence of my nerdiness)

My first year of grad school, we had to take a basic Communication Research classes: one course in quantitative studies and one course in qualitative studies. It quickly became evident that the “side” you chose predicted your personality: “Quantoids” were deemed the nerdy number-crunchers whereas “Qaullies” were the philosophers of thought. (I wish I had made up these labels as a joke. Alas, kids are cruel even as adults.) I was a “Quantoid” yet I rejected the nerdy implications of the label… to the extend that I re-designed my thesis dissertation as a qualitative study just to prove I wasn’t only a statistics nerd. But even in the early onset of my academic career, I loved numbers. I loved seeing the statistics as useful metrics for how my students performed, thus helping me assess how well I was succeeding as a teacher.

All this is precursor to explain and justify my affinity for assessment. For many of my colleagues, assessment draws one of several negative reactions: ambivalence, annoyance, confusion, or a general feeling that it is a waste of our precious teaching time.

For me, assessment is the opportunity to collect valuable data and to use that data for the noble purpose of improving education for students, whether that means improving students’ comprehension or grades or helping me to deliver my content more effectively.

When I hear “assessment,” my brain immediately goes to formal, mandated assessment required in colleges to obtain and keep accreditation credentials. I first think of identifying a specific college or district student learning outcome and finding a quantitative way to calculate students results in that particular category.

For me (and fellow nerds), this is exciting and fun, while for other people, this is the workplace equivalent of having a root canal. However, the more I have studied the formal side of assessment (as a department assessment coordinator and currently a course co- lead), I realize that assessment does not have to be a huge, formal, quantitative research undertaking.

We assess in our classes every single day formally and informally, directly and indirectly, with grades and without. We are all familiar with the traditional forms of assessment like exams and papers. Most of my classes have a heavy emphasis on public speaking. In my COM 225 class, which is Public Speaking, a whopping 75% of their grade comes from speeches. These are the formal assessments of the class.

But to help students build the necessary skills needed to deliver great presentations, I administer many practice activities and skill building activities throughout the semester. These are rarely graded, but are required as part of the students participation. I realized that these are an excellent source of formative assessment; they assess the students’ current strengths and weaknesses so I can provide more direct feedback. This results in improved scores on the students graded tests, but even more than that, it provides a place where students can practice their skills and gain more confidence, and helps to foster a more friendly and knowledgeable audience, which decreases students’ nervousness.

The rest of the post describes two in-class assessment activities.

One such activity is something I call the Actor’s Studio. A group of students will be assigned a particular concept from the lesson of the day. The students create a skit where they demonstrate the concept for the rest of the class, then the audience (the other students) try to guess the concept being demonstrated.

I love this activity because it requires creativity from the presenters as well as collaboration with their fellow group members. It also uses higher level thinking along Bloom’s Taxonomy. Rather than simply defining the concept, performing a skit requires deeper understanding to be able to apply the content to a scenario. In addition, it helps the rest of the students practice good audience behavior with active listening and critical thinking. This helps me identify areas where students clearly “get” a concept and areas where students could be confused.

Another activity I use for assessment is the Great Debate. In this activity, I put a resolution on the board that clearly has at least two sides. I start with a lighter, pop culture prompt such as “Joaquin Phoenix was the best Joker.”(We move on to more serious issues based on the class and their interests.) Upon initial reading of the resolution, students have to place themselves against one of three walls in the room: the right side if they agree with the resolution, the left side of the room if they disagree with the resolution, and the back wall of the room if they are undecided or ambivalent.

Next, I asked for a volunteer from the “pro wall” to explain why they support this particular resolution. The speaker has one minute to attempt to persuade the rest of the audience. At the end of the one minute I ask if anyone has been persuaded? If so, they can move to a different wall. Then, I ask for a volunteer from the con side to explain why they are against the resolution. Again, the speaker has one minute to attempt to persuade us. And students are allowed to relocate should they be persuaded. This activity engages students and encourages them to analyze information as well as their decision-making.

In the debrief to this activity, we discuss which speeches persuaded us and why. Regarless of the actual topic, the stratgies we use to convince others to change their mind (or feelings or attitudes or beleifs or behaviors) are the concepts of Persuaive speaking fromt he textbook. This activity assesses understanding of the concepts while also challenging students to apply the concepts in real life.

These two activities hopefully help to demonstrate the variation Assessment can take, from formal and traditional to playful and, dare-I-say fun.

 

Speech & Debate & INCLUSIVITY

One area where I have repeatedly witnessed inclusivity on campus is with in the Forensics team, sometimes known as the Speech & Debate Team. Since this is an academic team compared to athletic team, the skills required are more mental and social versus physical. (Although some competitions are quite physically demanding!) Because of this, anyone can join.

I have encountered the most diverse group of people in my years of participation within Forensics. I have been a competitor as well as a coach. My teammates and my students run the gamut of representation including people of a variety of races and ethnicities, sexual orientation and gender identities, religious beliefs, mental and physical abilities and disabilities, different geographical regions and nationalities, and all types of political and social beliefs.

People often ask me why Speech and Debate is called Forensics. In Latin, forensics means “public forum” or better translated as something “suitable for courts of law.” So when people refer to forensic science, they are discussing the study of science within a public courtroom (usually as it is applied to gruesome crimes on CSI). In competitive Speech and Debate, this definition extends to a variety of topics and competitive events delivered in a setting structured like a forum. All events are judged, similar to a courtroom.

There are events that focus on different styles of performance: speeches, acting, debate, etc. But regardless of the type of event, Forensics values learning. Even watching a poetry round, which is very artistic and linguistic in nature, the performer still makes an argument to teach the audience something new or show them a new perspective.

Forensics gives students a voice, literally and figuratively. Forensics provides a platform for students to discuss issues that affect them both directly and indirectly. One way students can demonstrate ethos or credibility is to show how a topic relates to them. Coaches frequently ask students, “Why is this meaningful to you? How do you relate to this topic? How can you show the audience your passion!”

Therefore, competitive topics are as diverse as the students. I have coached a Muslim student giving a speech about Islam a phobia. I have coached a psychology major giving a speech about under diagnosis of ADHD in women. I have coached a white male student in a speech about white fragility. The possibilities are vast. If there is a way a student is marginalized, we can discuss that issue in a performance. If there is a social issue that needs to be addressed, we can address it.

Clearly, my bias is showing. I am a communication professor, a coach on the Maricopa Forensics team, and a former competitor on the GCC Forensics team . There are definitely skills required to be successful in speech and debate. But, in my experience, the competition is only one aspect. The opportunity to to speak about important events and information as well as the camaraderie of a team provides an amazing and inclusive opportunity for our students. While the point of this post wasn’t to give a plug to the team… if you happen to have a student who is a dynamic speaker and a solid student, we’d love to see more students experience the inclusivity and the opportunity of being part of the team.

 

Epiphany and a Latte

After working all day at a retirement complex, I stopped by a local Dutch Bros for a caffeinated pick-me-up. In the traditional fashion of a Dutch Bro, the barista wanted to know my life history. He causally leaned out the window and asked, “What are you up to today? Going home from work or on your way to work?”

“No,” I replied. “I just got done with work. Now I’m going to school.”

“Cool! What class are you taking?” He asked in enthusiastic Dutch Bro fashion.

“Oh,” I corrected, gently. “I’m actually teaching class. Public Speaking.”

He furrowed his brow. “Wait. So, you left work… and now you’re going back to work?”

I laughed at his confusion. “Yeah, I guess so,” I answered. “Although teaching never really feels like work.”

And that’s when I had a career-changing epiphany. I worked full-time as the Director of Resident Relations at a luxury retirement complex. I enjoyed my job, being a liaison to residents and managing a department of 28 people, but it definitely felt like work. Whereas, my “part-time job” of being an evening adjunct instructor and assistant coach for the Speech & Debate (or Forensics) Team was fun and invigorating.

I had the realization right there in the Dutch Bros line (perhaps one more reason it always takes so long.) Maybe, just maybe, I should be spending 40 hours a week doing what I love instead of only squeezing in a few classes after “work.”

By this time, my oldest son was not quite one. Having a baby had changed my priorities, but it had not, yet, significantly changed my work schedule. I was still working my normal 8am-4pm job, then teaching 2-3 evening and online classes per week, then traveling to California (and elsewhere) about twice a month for speech tournaments… now with a baby in tow. Something had to give.

By all intents and purposes, it should have been coaching Forensics. This took up 10-15 hours of coaching per week in addition to traveling on the weekends, and it paid the least. But, I couldn’t give it up. I couldn’t let go.

I took some time to reflect. I realized that I loved teaching and coaching. I loved connecting with students and helping them to become better speakers. I loved being a coach and leading a team. I’m pretty very competitive. Forensics gave me an outlet for my competitive drive and my creativity. Teaching gave me a platform to continue to publicly speak and to kindle students’ love of learning, too.

Sometimes inspiration comes in the form of a mentor or a beloved family member. I certainly have stores to draw from. My favorite teacher in high school, Mrs. Farrington, who taught Speech (This should have been a sign) and was the club adviser for TAFE, the Texas Association for Future Educators (yet another sign.) I became the President of the club, mostly just to get to continue working with Mrs. Farrington. I signed up for every speech competition she recommended. (My awards include being the Hutchinson County Cattelwomen’s Beef Ambassador for both 2000 and 2001. I can’t make this up.) Mrs. Farrington is also the person who first introduced me to the world of Speech & Debate. I competed for 3.5 years in high school, then went on to compete in college as well. I still remember her combination of classy authority while also making me feel valued, like an “insider” working with her not just for her. As a high school student, that was a great feeling, but as an adult, we still desire this feeling of inclusion. I strive to impart these feelings of autonomy and support for my students.

I also remember my grandfather, who retired from the Navy and came back to our home town to run the family business, an office supply store. But when Walmart moved to our small town, our little store (like so many others) went out of business. My grandfather, “Gramp,” went back to school. He drove to the nearest college 2 hours away to complete his degree in Special Education. Upon graduation, he accepted a teaching position at a middle school in an even tinier town than ours almost 3 hours away. He rented a small apartment across the street from the middle school and walked to work every day. He came home on the weekends, but sometimes we’d go stay with him, which felt like a special treat. A few times, I even got to go to work with him. I met his students and his teachers aids; I observed the rapport he had with his students and the passion he had for connecting with students who struggled in the education system. I saw my grandpa in a new light. He seemed so happy and capable. I was proud to share my smart and funny grandfather with these students. His colleagues shared with me glowing complements about him as I drank my hot chocolate from a coffee mug in the teacher’s lounge. I like to think I got my sense of humor from him, and this is a vital tool for my teaching.

These are just two pillars in my life who inspired me, long before I knew that I would someday become a teacher. I believe that no matter what career path I chose, these inspirational figures would still have guided and shaped me to be my best.

But sometimes, inspiration comes in a less obvious form… like perhaps the form of a Large Caramel Annihilator from Dutch Bros. So to that fateful barista, I say “Thanks a latte.”