All posts by Mary Anne Dugan

“Bad” Teaching, “Good” Teacher?

In a previous Write 6X6 season, I wrote about my teaching heroes (Teaching Inspiration En Pointe and Just a Girl in Senior English). In those essays I waxed nostalgic about teachers who were undeniably “good.” Hallmark movies could be made about them all, “She had solid pedagogy” could be written on their tombstones.

So, I’m not sure why another set of teachers came to mind when asked this week, “Is there anyone in education you felt was exemplary in teaching, learning, or student success?” I’ve studied teaching for the last 38 years, and I know all the qualities that would be on the “good teacher checklist.” But sometimes teachers go off-the-good-book, so to speak, and their students can be all the better for it.

In my doctoral program, I took Research Methods in the Learning Sciences with a highly-respected and highly-introverted professor. She had a funny habit of curling up like a cat on a desk in the front of the room and lecturing from her scratching post podium. And as with all doctoral courses, Research Methods had a heavy reading load.

In one of the first weeks of class, we all filed in as the professor vaulted her tiny frame above us. She started class by asking, “What are your reactions to this week’s readings?” I don’t remember if we were all shy/didn’t do the reading/were still asleep from an all-nighter, but none of us spoke. She employed the good-teacher tactic of using wait time, and then promptly, but not unkindly, announced, “Well, if you all don’t have something to share, class is over.”

She matter-of-factly padded her way out of class, and we all just sat slack-jawed. What just happened?

The good-teacher checklist would dictate the professor should have offered scaffolded prompts to get us talking. She should have used encouraging words to help us take risks. But the effect of her walk-out was the same: We all came prepared to discuss the reading in every class moving forward.

Her strategy only worked because she knew her students. She knew we were a bunch of highly motivated (read: somewhat neurotic) PhD candidates. And when she wordlessly left the room, she communicated loud and clear, “You are responsible for your own learning!” I personally would never do the walk-out with my own students. But this experience reminds me of the importance of transferring the responsibility of learning to the student.

Another professor in the same doctoral program was a renowned qualitative scholar. It was amazing that she was still teaching 1) because she was world famous, and 2) she had a very interesting (read: strange) approach to teaching: She would sit in front of the room with notes she had handwritten in a big book and read them . . . verbatim . . . for over an hour . . . in each and every class! The good-teacher checklist would not be amused.

I don’t know how she did it, but she made it work. She would read for a bit, take off her glasses, and chuckle to herself about some aspect of what she just read. She was provocative – challenging all of us quantitative folks by saying our numbers had just as much potential for bias as the ethnographic methods she taught us. In her own little weird way, she roped us all in as she recited her notes class after class.

I would never straight-on read notes to my students and attempt to pass it off as teaching. But I am reminded that I don’t have to be the entertaining dancing monkey for my students that sometimes I feel compelled to be. I’m not sure any student ever stitched these professors’ names on a pillow, but I believe we all benefited from their unconventional (read: not research-based) instructional approaches. And this former-kindergarten teacher learned to have elevated expectations for college students who are ultimately responsible for their own learning.


The Nature of GCC

Before you read any further, take a moment to watch this video with the volume on high. (You’ll thank me later.)

When asked, “What area or areas on campus hold a special significance for you?” my resounding response is anything outdoors! I have a distinct memory of feeling awe while touring the grounds as a new faculty back in 2019. I texted pictures of trees, plants, and rocks to my husband and children. “Aren’t I lucky to get to see this every day!”

Then along came COVID, which is really a story for another day. To be sure, when we all returned to campus the following year I was excited to see my students and colleagues. But, I was also gratified to return to views like this:

I strongly believe that how GCC tends to its natural environment is an important factor in how students feel about school. An enriched natural setting communicates to students that we care about them and that they are worthy of being surrounded by such beauty. It’s as if all the trees and plants envelop students in a metaphorical hug each time they step on campus.

Okay, did I go too far there? Maybe, but I’m a true believer in the healing powers of nature. For anyone who needs convincing of this, I highly recommend the book The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative by Florence Williams.

And when I snapped these photos this week, the sky was just showing off, don’t you think?


My Learning Network

I recently had a quick getaway to Borealis Basecamp, which is located about an hour outside of Fairbanks, Alaska. My lifelong friends and I were there to celebrate one of our crew’s 60th birthday and, of course, chase aurora borealis shows.

These gals are my learning network. Together we have traveled far and wide to learn new things while enjoying each other’s company. We have gone on long distance hikes in Ireland, France, Spain, and Portugal. We’ve hiked the Grand Canyon three times together. We feverishly share books, most recently Lessons in Chemistry. This trip was one more opportunity to add to our collective knowledge banks.

And sure, I learned a lot on this trip about the aurora borealis, (perhaps most notably that’s it’s not as easy to spot as shown in the movies!) I learned interesting facts about the boreal forest biome in general as well as the Alaskan pipeline. I learned about the sport of sled dog racing and the lifestyles of caribou.

But perhaps the most powerful learning was not factual in nature. On one day we went on a 6-hour snowmobile tour, which, before we left, I calculated would be about 5 hours and 59 minutes too long.

I wasn’t far off. I am a careful person by nature, and fear had it’s death grip on me as I tried to maneuver the machine without toppling over into a snow bank at best or a tree at worst. But my friends helped me with tips such as leaning away from a fall and using the palm of my hand on the throttle. They coached and cheered me on.

I had a flash of how I encourage my students all the time to take risks and be unafraid of mistakes. I soon realized that I often do so from a lofty perch. This experience reminded of how much I live in my comfort zone and how branching out and trying new things can make me stronger. How pushing myself in this way can help me handle more mundane fears in life, such as initiating a difficult conversation or saying no in certain situations.

I would lie if I said that I learned to love snowmobiling and mastered the beastly machine. I did not technically like a lot of it. But now that it is in my rear-view mirror, I am extremely glad I did it. This is an example of the vast hidden curriculum of traveling with my adventurous learning network.


Neurodiversity and Trauma

We likely all have a certain type of neurodiverse learner in our classrooms — the student with a history of childhood trauma. Whereas definitions of trauma vary and our understanding of the effects of trauma are constantly being updated, one thing is clear: Complex trauma physically changes the brain.

Although trauma manifests in many ways, one hallmark effect is the development of an overactive stress-response system. This can lead to hypervigilance, attentional difficulties, distrust of teachers as authority figures, loss of self-efficacy, and a host of other issues that interfere with learning.

The infographic below outlines some practices college instructors can employ to more effectively teach students who have experienced trauma. The good news is these are not instructional “add-ons,” but rather universal best teaching practices that benefit all learners.

View Trauma-Sensitive Teaching Practices for Higher Education on Canva

Do you have a trauma-informed teaching strategy that works well for you? Add it to the comments!


High on Learning

When given the choice to write about AI or learning this week, I jumped at the latter. I absolutely love all things  learning. And if AI and I were in a relationship, right now we would not be speaking. I’ll look to my Write 6X6 colleagues’ posts on AI this week to help me find footing in this rapidly changing tech hellscape landscape. But back to the learning prompt:

When was the last time you learned something new? What was that like?

It’s the second question that caught my attention. Learning feels a-maz-ing. And that shouldn’t be a surprise due in part to the role of dopamine in the learning process. The human brain is attuned to novelty, and when we learn something new the reward center in our brain is activated.

For example, take this quick geography quiz:

1) Which city is farther west – Reno, NV or San Diego, CA?

2) Which city is farther north – Philadelphia, PA or Rome, Italy?

Perhaps you can remember the feel-good rush of mastering where different places are located on the globe. Geography provides unending opportunities to learn something new.

I’ve become obsessed lately with a Facebook page entitled Simon Shows You Maps.  On the page are wacky maps such as “The World According to Frank Zappa,” (who once said you can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline). Another post shows the percent of people in various countries who believe in life after death. Yet another entry shows the location of various Seinfeld scenes on a map of Manhattan.

But a map that caught my attention lately is one provided by Google showing my own travel history (for as long as I’ve toted along a cell phone, at least):

Now that I have sufficiently distracted you, back to the geography quiz. San Diego is farther west, and Philadelphia is farther north, right? *Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzt*

According to research on cognitive maps, people often use a rotation heuristic, which means we tend to see figures as more vertical or horizontal than they actually are. So, people tend to envision the coastline of California as vertical, even though it is curved:

And other research demonstrates the alignment heuristic, which is our tendency to line up two separate geographic entities. An example of the alignment heuristic is that many people place the center of the United States directly across from the center of Europe. But Philadelphia (in the northern US) sits at approximately 40 degrees north latitude, whereas Rome (in southern Europe) is actually farther north of Phili at around 42 degrees.

So how do you feel right now? If you’ve never heard of the rotation and alignment heuristics, you might feel a little glittery after-glow from the novelty/surprise of it all. Our students are just as attuned to novelty and surprise as we are. As such, injecting the new and unexpected in our lessons is a powerful way to stimulate learning.

And yes, the irony of the first paragraph of this post is not lost on me. AI is nothing if not novel, and I know I’ll get a little buzz from reading everyone’s AI posts this week. So, thanks in advance for the learner’s high!


The Art of Intentional Planning

Last fall, I went on a weekend getaway to Hood River, Oregon to hang with friends and take an art journaling class. The art studio hosting the class was the last place I’d expect to stumble on an organizational productivity tool that would rock my teaching existence! I am quite sure I will never be the same.

Okay, maybe that was artistic license. But after our class, my friends and I perused the studio’s gift shop, and in-between paintbrushes and canvases I found these lovely daily planner sheets by Ramona & Ruth.

I used to start each day in response mode. Now, before I open my e-mail and let in the fresh hell of whatever online emergencies occurred overnight, I start the day with this planner. The first section I fill out is my daily intention:

In this small box I write something meaningful that I want to remember throughout the day. Some of my intentions have been to take two mindful breaks during the day or to remember perfection is an illusion.

The next block I fill in is my time schedule:

I use a process outlined in the book Happier Hour of writing down not only my obligations but my commitments to self. So, right next to a committee meeting might be an appointment for a 10-minute meditation. (Actually, maybe before and after the committee meeting!)

After that, I enter my tasks to complete in the day:

What I love about this planner is the ability to identify three priorities. What I hate about this planner is that there are too many damn lines. But, back to the love; I get a little dopamine surge when I am able to check off each task as “done.” I often think I can accomplish more than I actually can. Now I limit the amount of tasks I put on my daily list.

Thus, it feels very satisfying to put some tasks in this section:

Finally, in the bottom left corner is the opportunity to write something for which I am grateful:

(Today, I am grateful to be able to submit this blog post just under the wire!)

I don’t love this tool because it makes me a more productive teaching automaton. Rather, it helps me to have more balance in my days and be more reasonable in my self-expectations. It allows me to proactively plan my day rather than being led around by immediate drama.

Does this all work perfectly? Absolutely not. But my life-in-balance is sort of a sculpture I work on each day . . . shaping here, chiseling there.


Note to Self

by Mary Anne Duggan

If I were to write a letter to myself as a beginning teacher some 36 years ago, what would I say? How could I light a path forward for the old me? How could I keep the letter from being 50-plus pages long? I have a lot of questions about this week’s Write 6X6 prompt. But one thing I have learned over the years is to just jump in – knowing all the answers is not required (and most often not even possible!)

Dear Mary Anne,
     I see you over there. You are at a high school football game in September where you are watching your new fiancé’s brother play football. But you’re not watching the game; you’re grading a stack of papers. On a Friday night. And, oh yeah, you teach fourth grade
. . .

Flash forward to you leaving your classroom at the end of another long day in January, towing a luggage cart carrying five or six textbooks and a blank lesson plan for Wednesday. It’s Tuesday. A veteran teacher passes by and quips, “Ah, working more and enjoying it less, right?”

Now it’s the last day of the school year in May, and you are furiously assembling books the students created to take home for the summer. You’re using the new-fangled book binding machine the school just purchased. It’s your lunch hour, and you are sweating like a — well — a teacher who waited until the last minute to provide a special experience for her students in a room with a swamp cooler.

Dear, dear Mary Anne, the school year is not a nine-month slog with respite only allowed in June. You can’t hurl yourself against the wall year after year trying to attain teaching perfection. No such thing exists, and your health will suffer in the process.

You have ambitious plans for providing a wonderful school experience for your students. You have all these grand ideas of what makes a “good” teacher. But a “good enough” teacher who lives a healthy and balanced life will surely be enough by anyone else’s standards. Let go, at least a bit, and you’ll see that the world keeps spinning and your students keep on learning. And you will have many years in this profession you love.

The older me,
Mary Anne

As I look back on this letter, I am left with further questions: Would I have listened to this advice way back when? Is it desirable to have all pitfalls flagged ahead of time? Or are some missteps just part of the process of growth as a teacher and, perhaps more importantly, as a person?


Why Online?

by Mary Anne Duggan

According to Maricopa Fast Facts, in fall 2022 69% of GCC students attended school part-time. In addition, ever since the onset of COVID, students are opting for online courses in greater numbers. The masks may be down and freedom to roam the school halls restored, but the online, part-time student population only seems to be growing in droves.

We are a community college because we serve the community. But, we also build community in our classrooms, student organizations, sports teams, and special events. Community building becomes decidedly more difficult when our students only have one toe dipped into school life.

I have been thinking a lot about why my online courses fill up much faster than my in-person courses. As part of an anonymous mid-term survey I gave to my statistics students this semester, I asked students to “Briefly explain why you decided to take PSY 230/231 fully online as opposed to in-person.”

Two major qualitative themes emerged to the question of why online: 1) scheduling/logistical and 2) preference for online learning. Scheduling/logistical reasons dominated (71% of all responses) and had the following sub-themes:

  • Convenience
  • Flexibility
  • Work demands
  • Avoid commute
  • Scheduling needs
  • Participation in sports
  • Parenting/homelife responsibilities

Preference for online learning had the following sub-themes:

  • Do well in online classes
  • Like online better
  • Anxiety/avoidance of being in-person
  • Ability to go at own pace
  • Perceive in-person courses as harder

What was interesting (but not at all surprising) is that, when broken down by age (18-21 vs. 22+ or “traditional” vs. “non-traditional” ages), scheduling/logistical was mentioned by the 22+ set more often (81% of their responses) than in the 18–21-year-olds (62% of their responses). Of course, this survey of my classroom students is not generalizable to all college students or even students at GCC. But, it helps me to know a little more about what motivated my students to choose an online class, especially a class that is typically perceived as highly rigorous.

The reasons my students gave for selecting online courses over those taught in-person indicate the strong pull of this learning platform that isn’t going away any time soon (or ever). The continuing challenge for educators is to find new ways to foster a sense of belonging for part-time and online students.

And yet, there is another “community” to which our students belong – their immediate and extended families. Yes, my student who is a father in his 30’s might not attend a basketball game on campus, but he shares his online work with his 10-year-old son who wants to know about “all those funny numbers on the screen.” Or there’s the mom of a two-year-old who laughs as her child climbs all over her while we video conference. There’s the dad who I just know is sitting off camera as his son participates in a Zoom class, poised to offer tutoring after sign-off. College simply looks different for some of our students, but the motivating factor of community can be present in many forms.


ChatGPT? Good Grief!

by Mary Anne Duggan

It’s hard to put into words how I feel about the sudden explosion of AI (and ChatGPT in particular). My son happens to work in AI, and our conversations usually leave me with a blank look on my face. I nod politely as not to let on how little I understand about this thing that will supposedly upend how we all live and work.

Sometimes I feel like technological roadkill. The advancements are rushing by at 100mph, and I’m left stunned by the side of the road. As I think about it more, the feeling I have might be one of grief.

So, I asked my new, best worst friend ChatGPT to tell me a little more about grief so I can figure out if this feeling fits. In less than 30 seconds, this is what my “friend” delivered:

“The stages of grief, as identified by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, are:

  • Denial: This stage involves disbelief or denial of the reality of the loss.
  • Anger: This stage involves feelings of anger, resentment, or frustration about the loss.
  • Bargaining: This stage involves a desire to make a deal or bargain with a higher power or with fate to change the outcome.
  • Depression: This stage involves feelings of sadness, loneliness, and despair about the loss.
  • Acceptance: This stage involves accepting the reality of the loss and moving forward with life.

It is important to note that not everyone experiences all of these stages, and they may not necessarily occur in a linear or predictable order. Grief is a highly individualized and personal experience, and people may experience a range of emotions and reactions that are unique to their situation.”

Hmm, this might be what I’m going through. But my new friend left out all the nuances of Kübler-Ross’s research on grief (which was actually conducted with critically-ill patients and not the grieving public in general). No mention is made of the problems of stage theories in general or the liberal application of Kübler-Ross’s stages to any kind of loss one might have. In short, ChatGPT is not ready to replace me as a professor just yet.

But, if my career is on life-support from the attack of AI, perhaps the stages of grief apply to me as the not-quite-dead-yet patient:

Denial – I teach statistics. Surely ChatGPT can’t solve the multi-step hypothesis testing items I assign to my students.

Anger – ChatGPT can solve the multi-step hypothesis testing items I assign to my students! Gaaahhh! It also can correctly answer multiple choice items pated from Canvas. *sound of punching pillows*

Bargaining – If I just demand that my online students come to the testing center four times a semester it will all be okay. If I just show my students why learning statistics is important it will be okay . . .  If I just . . . If I just . . . If I just . . .

Depression – Instead of finding solutions, I’ll rewatch season 2 of Ted Lasso for the third time (and “Believe!”)

Acceptance – ChatGPT isn’t going anywhere. Since I am not going anywhere either, acceptance is the only option.

Acceptance, however, doesn’t mean resignation. I can accept this new way of finding information and turn it to my, and my students’, advantage. Not quite sure how I’ll do that yet, maybe I’ll ask my new friend.


When the World Bursts Through the Classroom Door

by Mary Anne Duggan

Photo by Aidan Bartos on Unsplash

As a dutiful kindergarten teacher, I always wrote my lesson plans a week in advance. It just so happened on the schedule for September 11, 2001 was a class book the students would create entitled What a Wonderful World. The plan was to play a recording of Louis Armstrong’s song of the same name while the students each illustrated a sentence from the song.

I see trees of green
Red roses, too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world

This on a decidedly not-wonderful morning. Just a few hours prior I woke my husband from his post-night shift slumber to let him know he would be putting on his uniform again. I wrenched with whether I should drop off my daughter at middle school. Were we all in danger? Would school even be held? I dropped her off and brought my son to our school not knowing what would happen next.

In the faculty room before the first bell, we deliberated on how much to discuss with the students. In that moment, the kindergarten team decided to treat it like a normal day and gently answer any questions as they arise. (And cross fingers that they would not!)

Fast forward to Armstrong’s powerful voice playing in my classroom later that morning and me trying to stuff down the tears of the moment. Up to that point, no student had said a thing about the terrorist attack, except for Matthew who came running up to me at the start of the day. “Some planes flew into the Twin Towers!” he shared with me in his strong, 5-year old New York accent.

As the students each illustrated their page of the book, (a book I still have over 20 years later), pictures of blue skies and rainbows and people really saying I love you filled their pages. But Matthew made a different artistic choice. On his page was an airplane with two rising towers in its sights.

I learned then what I continue to believe now. Current events let themselves into our classrooms unbidden. And even if only some of my students are aware of them, as the teacher I, too, am affected. The question for me, then, is not if current events should be part of classroom dialogue, but how.

Acknowledging contagious ideas

On a brisk February day 18 years after 9/11, I again stood in front of a class – this time a college statistics class. I was trying to teach about z-scores that day, but the students were more interested in talking about this weird new virus that was going around. I remember one nursing student saying to the whole class, “Hold on, people – It’s coming!”

If I taught social psychology, we could have discussed the phenomenon of conspiracy theories or the sway of confirmation bias. If I was a nursing instructor, we could have focused on hand-washing and other ways to prevent germ spread. I could have espoused theories about how a pandemic should be handled, but I don’t teach public health. I could have gone all sorts of political, but I resisted.

Since I teach statistics, however, there was plenty to tie in. We talked about probabilities associated with the virus and base-rate errors people are inclined to make. We learned how to calculate rates of contagion and R-naught ratios. We talked about how COVID deaths were operationally defined from a statistical perspective– a sad discussion but one the students really wanted to have. In short, we kept to the content of statistics, and that gave us plenty to chew over. And, I believe in neutrally approaching this topic and sticking to the science, students gained some knowledge that may have helped them find their footing when it seemed the floor was dropping out from under them.

Current events run in the news on a loop and some students walk into our classrooms replaying that loop in their minds. Current events can either serve as a massive distraction for students or as a vehicle for powerful learning. I choose to minimize the former by capitalizing on the latter.