Category Archives: student success

Making an Entrance

In my heart of hearts, I genuinely want those around me to succeed, and I take pleasure in watching them do well as they develop. I’d rather help people work out their problems than tell them what they need to do. I don’t consider any of those things character faults, but very early in my teaching experience I learned that certain actions can be confused with weakness. Weakness in the classroom leads to problems that are not easy to correct.

To say I was nervous on my first day in the classroom would be an understatement. I made the mistake of not wearing an undershirt, and my  light blue dress shirt was a drenched dark mess by the end of the 45-minute period. I imagine I seemed as ridiculous as Sir James Martin from Love & Friendship:

That lack of self-confidence and abundance of nerves  lead to problems throughout the rest of the semester. I found out very quickly that if a classroom doesn’t respect you as a person, they also will not respect your lectures, your grading, or your discipline.

That was a difficult semester, but as time went on I gained confidence and my nerves subsided. This lead to better relationships with my students and more success in the classroom. Year to year things improved incrementally. Eventually though, something happened.

Image of Luke from Star Wars about Overconfidence.
Ah George Lucas, your horrible dialogue rings true.

With my nerves fully at bay, my inner-nice guy came out again. With it, the entire catalog of issues I had in my early years started to manifest themselves again. Why?  Because while my students may have liked me, they did not respect me.

So here we are at the heart of the lesson folks: Respect is key. Respect should always be in the back of your mind when standing behind that desk. Whether it was nerves or being “Mr. Nice Guy”, I lost the respect of my students, and with it, full control of my classroom.

It wasn’t easy, and I still make mistakes, but I have learned to balance my kind demeanor with the responsibilities of being an educator. I found that I can still joke, have fun, and be myself, as long as students know I am serious about my job.

The most effective method I have found to encourage a healthy classroom dynamic is to start off strong. I like to make my first week of class filled to the brim with activity. I like to give students things to do, show them the gamut of what is to come: a journal, a discussion, a short essay, a quiz, and a reading. I do it all, because it lets students know that the primary goal of my course is for them to learn. If we end up having fun in the process, that is a bonus.

The classroom is a world with its own environment, dynamics, and life. It has the power to evolve and overtake you if you let it. Start off strong, confident, and focused, and that classroom will turn into an environment that encourages both learning and respect.

 

 

 

Humility + Assessment = Success

I have always been fascinated by assessment, unfortunately I know not everyone shares my feelings on the subject. I have had colleagues who consider it a dirty word. They dread the thought of it, and treat it as just another hoop to jump through when the time comes to participate.

A pre-test here.

A post-test there.

A journal reflection.

Or the ultimate avoidance, just saying a regular class assignment is, in fact, assessment.

Unfortunately, those who avoid confronting the challenges of assessments are not helping with the end goal, to improve student education through meaningful analysis and feedback.

The reason that some fear to participate in a group assessment and decide to take a solo route is that assessments are looked at as inconvenient or difficult; however, these approaches often overshadow efficient strategies for approaching this dilemma, strategies that which rely on one, simple trait: humility.

I love my standardized rubric for essays. It isn’t perfect, but it is consistent, and students appreciate that. The rubric is based off of one that is required to be used in the Kentucky Community and Technical College System. That system consists of 16 colleges and every writing instructor uses the same rubric for their essays. I was lucky enough to see that rubric be initially implemented as well as its evolution over the last decade into its current form.

Now there was significant pushback when the rubric was first forced upon the faculty. Arguments ranged from “but I don’t grade essays with a rubric” to “my rubric is already better than this one”, but top to bottom it was adopted.

It is difficult to adjust teaching habits, but understand that a standardized rubric doesn’t change the way we teach, it simply unifies the way we grade. In that way, a standard rubric is even less intrusive than requiring a specific assignment for assessment.

So what is gained from using the same rubric for every essay?

Starting on the class level, it is easy to get a snapshot of student’s skills improving (or not improving) over a semester. It also allows the teacher to see if the class as a whole is struggling in a specific area (I’m looking at you point of view slips). This lets allows class needs to be addressed on a holistic level through lectures. I do this with my youtube series “English Power Lectures”, but setting aside 15 minutes when essays are handed back to address major problems does the trick as well.

When multiple faculty start to use the same rubric the assessment becomes that much more valuable. Now trends can be seen over a much larger group of students, it is also possible to see where one class struggles and another doesn’t. With this knowledge, teachers can share techniques for dealing with that particular issue. This is the beauty (and truly the purpose) of assessment. It serves as a common tool and focal point that can start an analysis, conversation, and implementation of course wide improvements.

Now implementing something district or even school wide is difficult, so start small. Talk to a group of fellow faculty (or adjunct faculty) and do your best to develop a rubric that works for multiple assignments or essays. Use that rubric in a course and compare notes. It won’t be perfect, but assessment can always be improved upon. It may be difficult to unify your grading techniques with others, but remember that teaching isn’t meant to be a solo endeavor. Instructors are stronger as a community, and students will benefit from that community. All it takes is a little bit of humility.

 

I Made My Mentee Cry

It all took place while I sat at the  car dealership waiting for my 2006 Mazda 3 to get repaired.

I didn’t mean to make her cry.

But she inspires me and she needed to hear it.

This set a thought process in motion that inspired me to write. GCC Faculty work very hard and are incredibly dedicated to student success. We really don’t hear enough about them and their stories that are so inspiring, so I will share one.

As a PAR Mentor, I was reviewing her hybrid 101 course, specifically looking at a series of videos she had created about exercise motivation and adherence. She designed the videos so the students could “chunk and chew” the information for the module. Each of the seven videos were about seven minutes long. Just enough time to engage a student and maintain their attention.

She didn’t have to do this at all. She could have easily said “read the chapter, take notes, and take the quiz.” But she didn’t. She saw a need and an opportunity and she went for it, despite all of her other responsibilities as full-time faculty.

She knew the students could play these videos over and over as a listening tool while driving or exercising, or to watch while sitting at the computer after school. She knew the students would appreciate the extra effort she made.

Do you know how long it takes to record, edit and upload a seven-minute video? It takes a lot of time and love. She did this seven times, and then created quizzes to go with the videos so the students would know if they really understood the material.

Our faculty do a lot of behind-the-scenes work that they don’t boast about. They do it because of their passion for teaching and ensuring the students are getting what they need for success.

So, go ahead and make a faculty member cry.  You might get a quote like this:

“Oh my goodness! You just made me cry! I cannot thank you enough for your kind words and encouragement. You have lit a fire under me to work harder and give more.”

 

Repairing the Damage

I’ve always loved reading and writing. Throughout most of my education, it was never particularly difficult for me to complete English assignments, even if I wasn’t particularly engaged. I wrote the assigned essays with relative ease, even if I didn’t care about the topic, because I liked having my opinion heard. I read the books I was given, even if I hated them, because I loved reading. Reading and writing came easy to me, and I took it for granted everyone else was the same way.

Of course, it helped that I had teachers that encouraged my interests and skills. With the exception of one teacher: Mrs. Michelson, sixth grade Language Arts teacher. To this day, I don’t know what I had done to aggravate her, but she seemed to have it out for me. She actively discouraged my point of view on matters discussed in class, to the point where I stopped raising my hand or speaking up entirely. Further, she often criticized my assignments as having “too many details” or being “too long;” she only marked the issues and never gave me any praise on what I had done well. Nothing I submitted to her was good enough for her approval, nothing I said was worthy of leaving my mouth. My voice was stifled, my opinions outright discouraged. I learned to hate English class, and perhaps would still to this day had it not been for my seventh grade Language Arts teacher, Ms. Smith.

When I decided I wanted to be an English teacher, it wasn’t because I was thinking of all the supportive and wonderful English and Language Arts teachers I had had throughout the years, or all the encouragement I had received to pursue my dreams. Instead, I thought of all the burned out teachers my friends and I had witnessed over the years. I thought of all the negative experiences inside of a classroom. I thought of Mrs. Michelson. Of course I wanted to emulate the teachers who had inspired me, but more than that, I wanted to be the teacher who undid the damage of the bad teachers, the burned out teachers, the teachers who had simply stopped trying. I never wanted my students to feel the way I did in that sixth grade classroom, and in other classrooms in high school and university.

That’s why I do what I do. I like teaching English here at GCC because it gives me the opportunity to begin reversing the effects of the teachers who had wronged my students, who didn’t make them feel that they were worth listening to. I do my best to engage my students in a multitude of ways, to get them to think critically and then transfer those thoughts onto paper. The writing is usually rough and needs a lot of work, but it’s a start. The goal is to have them not necessarily “master” writing by the end of the semester, but gain confidence in their own abilities and in their own voices. They may not leave my class at the end of the semester loving reading or writing, but they see the need for it in the college and university environment. What’s more, they feel that they deserve to be in the higher education classroom.

 

I work here for the view…

As a student, I fell in love with the GCC experience. The first day I stepped on campus in 2007, I felt like GCC wrapped its arms around me. I sensed tremendous positive energy here. Everyone at GCC wanted me to succeed. The mission of this organization was crystal clear. Student success. I remember walking around campus, gazing up at the picturesque palm trees set against the blue Arizona sky. Walking from one class to another, I was in heaven. What a view…

I was a first generation college student who came to GCC full of hopes and dreams. I was new to Arizona and eager to make things happen as I began a new chapter in my life. During my first week of classes, I made 2 important purchases: a rolling book bag and bifocals. Being a 42 year old college freshman presented a few challenges. I quickly discovered that my books were too heavy and the print was too small…

With my new glasses and book bag, I began to understand the meaning of “life-long learning.” GCC was my dream come true…I was hooked. No book was too heavy…no print too small…

Fast forward to January 2017. Today, I’m honored to be part of the GCC Library staff. I work here now! I’ll never forget the success I felt as a student. My education at GCC was mind-expanding and life-changing. As an employee, I want to contribute to student success and help others live their best lives.

As a new employee, I’m still walking around campus at lunchtime, gazing at the palms against the blue sky and continuing to feel the joy of GCC. I guess you could say I work here for the view…

 

Appreciations – Driven Home by a Sixth Grader

To the logical, pragmatic, no-nonsense, Type-A personality that I am, the concept of appreciations in storytelling (or teaching) was initially lost on me. It felt like a “nicey-nicey-fluff-give-them-positive-first-but-doesn’t-help-teach-them-or-move-them-to-change” process. Why not just tell them what they need to change? Enough of the touchy-feely stuff. Give them meat to chew on.

My first formal storytelling teacher kept giving people appreciations in class, no suggestions or critiques, just appreciations. And he really meant it too. It wasn’t just lip service. I thought this was OK for the first few weeks of class, but when was he going to get to “telling people how they need to change and improve”? As the weeks went on, I began to try to follow his lead. I was quite surprised to find that it was easy to find something to appreciate about every telling.

Then I attended a workshop with long-time teller and storytelling coach. He spoke of how his father gave him constant praise, even for the smallest things, from birth, and throughout his life. It made me think of my own father who could pick out the one mistake I made and focus on that negative aspect of my effort. It made me think about my eighth-grade teacher who embarrassed me in front of the whole class with his condemning critique of a book report I had written. It made me think of how I critique both others, and myself.

A small part of me, the therapist and a mediator, began to understand appreciations, at least on a psychological level. Reinforcing positive behavior helps people repeat that positive behavior. I began to make a change. I tried to “give praise” wherever I could. I was conscious of really looking for the positive aspects of what I saw, and letting people know what I appreciated about what they had done.

Then I met Anthony. Anthony was a cherub-faced sixth grader at a school I visited to tell stories and talk about storytelling. The students had already done some storytelling and the teacher wanted the class to demonstrate to me what they had learned. Anthony eagerly raised his hand and volunteered to be the first to tell his story.

He stood before the class and began. He was a little nervous, but told a good story. Oh, he paced back and forth and didn’t always face forward and look at his audience. And as he was telling, it hit me like a ton of bricks: Anthony was me!

Yes, I did see myself in that eleven year-old boy; eager, creative, excited, longing for acknowledgment and praise. I thought, how can I say anything negative about his telling? What good would that accomplish? I felt that even one tiny “constructive suggestion” might bruise his young ego and only send him into a labyrinth of self-doubt. And then the second wave came over me. Are our adult egos any less fragile than Anthony’s? I think not.

It was then that I began to understand appreciations on an emotional level. There have been adult students and colleagues who have said, “Just tell me the bad things.” I, myself have even said that in the past. And yet, behind the bravado that purports to be strong and only wants a critique, stands a delicate ego, deeply longing for praise and acceptance. And it is the praise and acceptance that supports their growth and learning.

So the next time that you hear someone tell a story, have a student give an answer, have a student try, I hope you see Anthony…
and then, perhaps, yourself… and then give an appreciation.

 

Believe You Can Float!

As a Storyteller, I go to as many workshops and conferences as I am able. Learning more about my craft is an ongoing quest. Recently, I had the opportunity to attend an all-day workshop with international Storyteller and Mime, Antonio Rocha (pronounced “hosha”), originally from Brazil. Antonio is an incredible performer. I swear that I have seen him “float”!

At the beginning of the workshop, Antonio asked each participant to voice what they hoped to get out of the day. In addition to some specifics, I said, “Oh yeah, and I want to learn how to float!” Antonio’s response set the tone for the whole day: “The first step is to believe you can float!”

There were many things that I learned and gleaned from the workshop, but one of the most important, and most revealing was the actual “coaching” that several people got from Antonio. As each person told their story, I had my own ideas about how they were doing, and what might be helpful. It was quite amazing when Antonio’s suggestions affirmed my own thoughts. To be “in sync” with a master that I admire confirmed for me that I was “on the right track” with my own assessments.

Then came my turn to be coached by Antonio. Try as I did to affect what I had already learned from the workshop, I was not completely successful. Antonio was gentle and affirming in his suggestions for me, “You can do this. Believe you can!” It was in the “doing” and putting myself out there that I learned the most.

My advice to all who wish to improve themselves, in whatever endeavor: study, learn from the masters, get coaching from a trusted and admired mentor/colleague.

The first step is to believe you can!

 

SciTech Night of Student Success

Friday night was a night filled with stars, meteorites, comets…chocolate, ramps, burning gumming bears, fossilized arthropods, and so much more. Friday night was the third annual SciTech Festival Event held at GCC North. I had the distinct pleasure of officially starting the event by welcoming everyone…of course, I was so excited I forgot to introduce myself, but I was not the star of the show…our students and faculty are the real stars.

We are so fortunate to have such amazingly dedicated faculty, committed to their discipline and committed to our students. The level of expertise displayed by our students is a direct result of the care and commitment, and their hard work, that our faculty have shown to these students.

My two daughters, ages 10 and 12, gave up their gymnastics class so they could be part of this event, they loved it so much from last year! We all learned so much and I finally have a point of reference regarding light years. As we were looking at a double cluster of stars through one of our high-powered telescopes, Caushlin, the young student who wants to be an Astrophysicists, explained that it was 7500 light years away….”Ok, what exactly does that mean?”, I asked her. “We are looking in the past…7500 years in the past.”, she patiently explains….What? Then she explains that it takes 7500 years for light from those stars to reach our eyes so we are actually looking at the double cluster of stars as they were 7500 years ago…are they even still there? Next things I know, there are two other brainiacs with us, explaining to the uninformed Vice President, the obvious facts about Astronomy. A special thanks to Curtis and Angel for your patience and for not laughing in my face.

Watching our faculty in action takes my breath away. Learning the chemistry of how chocolate is made, as explained by Dr. Christina Clark, was interesting and so well explained that even a non-chemist like myself could understand it…and the chocolate was delicious. Watching the theatrics of Dr. Joe Springer as he blew up balloons and showed florescent chemicals made it clear why our students enjoy his classes. Listening to the excitement in Dr. Sally Watt’s voice as she explained the stars to community members was inspiring.

I have always thought that being an excellent teacher was part art and part science; the art of performing and engaging your audience to learn the science of our disciplines. Watching our faculty and students in action on Friday night, proved to me, that this belief still rings true.

 

Trickle-Down Help

The theme this week is asking how I have helped someone. I could go on about all my amazing successful students, of course. (There is nothing more rewarding than mentoring students.) Instead, I want to highlight how I have been helped … and how hopefully that help has trickled down to the students.

Before I came to the community college, I taught science in a Montessori Elementary setting, and I also handled the tough behavior issues that went beyond the classroom. I felt pretty good about classroom control and helping students learn from their behavioral mistakes.

Funny thing though, Montessori Elementary classroom management techniques don’t always work in a community college setting – for a host of different reasons. I can no longer ask students to check their cell phones in at the door. Moving people’s seats during a lecture doesn’t go over very well. Students who misbehave cannot be sent to another classroom, and they don’t get detentions or “write ups.” They cannot be asked to write a reflective essay on their behavior. Adult students expect a certain amount of freedom – after all, they ARE adults!

I know I am not the only one who can spot a problem brewing. When we see this, we must decide how far to take it. I usually start by speaking to the student individually. I can suggest, cajole, offer, etc. to students who need help to visit the appropriate support service (counseling, testing center, library, writing center, etc.) – but sometimes those students just do not follow through. Then, when the student is not getting what he/she needs outside the classroom, it shows up in classroom etiquette and other disruptive behaviors. As soon as it becomes a distraction to the learning of the others in the class, we have options and support.

The Behavior Intervention Team, a committee through the Dean of Student Life has helped me handle a specific difficult situation and become a better teacher at the same time. I had a student that was significantly disruptive and I frankly was concerned for his mental health. I started by having an informal conversation with Dr. Trisha Lavigne (fellow faculty are amazing), and then I followed through by filing a report online. I wanted the record to be in the system, but it was only in there for informational purposes. It is important to track things like this, as if the student repeats the behavior for another instructor, we at least have a paper trail. After the initial report was filed, we decided to have someone call him and offer services to help him get on track. Trisha gave me some words to use when speaking to the student about it. He got agitated, and the next class period, his behavior was even worse. I knew I was going to have to speak to him again, this time about his grade and what he was going to need to do to remain enrolled in the class. This is where Lt. Nate Achtizger helped me. He sat in the classroom and assessed the situation, then he sat outside the conference room when I met with the student. His feedback helped me feel more safe when the student was around. In the end, the student ended up dropping the class, which was helpful for everyone else – and maybe for him, too. Whew! Dodged a bullet! All through this process, Dean Monica Castaneda was aware and ready to step in if I couldn’t handle it.

The bullet was not dodged for long, though. That same student enrolled for another one of my classes this semester. Again, Dean Castaneda spent time emailing and talking with me to be prepare before the semester even started. While we tried to get the student to get the services he needs, he has refused. He is, however, doing much better this time around. And so am I. I know I am supported – the team has my back. I have established a new rapport with the student, and maybe, if he continues to not be disruptive, I will be able to reach him. Maybe he will eventually follow through on getting the services he needs. Just maybe. I hope.

So to answer the question, “How have you helped someone,” I can say that the GCC community has helped me. And in turn, hopefully, I can return the favor.

 

Healthier, Happier and Smarter

Have you read Spark yet? It gave me goosebumps.

The book basically justified my persistence for the past 30 years in the field of Fitness and Wellness. Exercise is not just about getting fit, looking good, preventing heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes and the like. It helps keep you smarter!

I finished this book on a plane flight to Dublin last summer, on my way to see my family, but more specifically, my ailing mother who is suffering from the debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s disease.

The book highlighted many of the mental health issues we deal with, including Alzheimer’s, ADHD, stress, anxiety, depression and addiction. And guess what? Exercise outscores medication in every case. It may not replace it for every case, but it certainly is a great complement to treatment.

It turns out that exercise is like Miracle Gro to the brain. It promotes the production of Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) which causes neurons to grow! It was only discovered in 1990! Since then, neuroscientists have been studying it like crazy. Exercise lays down the foundation for our students to learn.

In his book, Ratey devotes an entire chapter to the “Learning Readiness PE” program in Naperville, Illinois. These high school students are outsmarting their Japanese and German counterparts on the TIMMS test! You can find out more in this video!

It is my intention to make a difference in the lives of our community college students, faculty, staff and administration by raising awareness about the importance of movement throughout the day.

Just yesterday, the following bill was passed in Senate (SB211). I read it excitedly to my students this morning! Positive change is finally happening at the national level!

“A program of physical activity (i) that consists of at least 20 minutes per day or an average of 100 minutes per week during the regular school year available to all students in grades kindergarten through five and (ii) with a goal of at least 150 minutes per week on average during the regular school year available to all students in grades six through 12. Such program may include any combination of (a) physical education classes, (b) extracurricular athletics, (c) recess, or (d) other programs and physical activities deemed appropriate by the local school board. Each local school board shall incorporate into its local wellness policy a goal for the implementation of implement such program during the regular school year.

…That the provisions of this act shall become effective beginning with the 2018-2019 school year.”

Elementary schools and high schools will finally see the benefits of more movement on the brains of the students. I hope we can continue this trend at the community college level. It is critical to the success of our students.

Source: Ratey, J. J. (2012). Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. Little Brown and Company.