The Spring I high-stakes activity I created grew directly out of the Fall’s low-stakes activity, which was designed as a scaffolded assignment, and foundation, to assist students with their in-class mid-term essay. While the low-stakes activity was extremely effective in allowing students to locate, interpret, and analyze relevant direct quotations and paraphrases from the course text, the high-stakes assignment proved to be more challenging and time-consuming.
The high-stakes assignment required students to continue utilizing the comparison and contrast format, within their research essay assignments, to specify the major similarities and differences between the respective legacies of female civil rights activists, Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer, and the more widely-known civil rights icons, Malcolm X and Dr. King. All of the students readily identified sexism and gender discrimination as the principal obstacle to the afore-mentioned women’s notoriety; however, only one third of the students fully addressed more complex issues, such as differing philosophies of grassroots organization and intersectional approaches to encouraging mass political mobilization among women, people of color, and the working classes.
As it currently stands the research assignment is on Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer. In the near future, I plan to revise this research assignment so that it will include a preliminary low-stakes assignment on how these women’s organizing strategies included proto-intersectional objectives that foregrounded the need for unity among all people, regardless of race, sex, and class.
Revising the research assignment by including this low-stakes component will introduce students to critical race theory, as it relates to intersectionality, while also allowing them to begin their own analyses before drafting their high-stakes research essays.
Reflections and future plans: Collaborative learning as an anti-ableist and inclusive teaching practice
I discussed my high-stake activity project on Social Self and the plan for its implementation here .
Within my D4A pilot research I focused on exploring how collaborative learning can increase accessibility to learning and students’ engagement, and integrating disability into curriculum and teaching.
I designed this project with several goals in mind, including that the project would (a) be relevant to students’ lived experiences; (b) position them as authors of scientific knowledge; (c) through engagement of students in collaborative activities; (d) thus promoting accessibility and engagement of learning.
In overall, the assignment worked well, including the in-class presentation of students’ work-in progress projects. Initially, it took some modeling from my part and warming up for students to engage in constructive discussion and providing feedback to their peers, including suggestions for further improvement and elaboration of their projects, but gradually students took the full ownership of the discussion as it became truly a student-led conversation. I believe it was also due to the fact that the project was designed to address topics relevant to their lived experiences and positioned them as authors of knowledge produced in the process of the project. I was also pleased to see how students were able to use the concept of disability and the material we discussed in class and relate it to other topics and social categories they researched.
However, despite the fact that the discussions were very lively, quite sophisticated, and on several occasions had to be ended due to time limitations, there were still students who chose to remain quiet if not disengaged during the post presentation discussions.
I would like to continue using this assignment in the next semester in a very similar format. Although students had an opportunity during the class activity to practice analyzing data (both, individually and collectively) using concepts of dominant and counter discourses, I believe students would benefit from additional time and/or further experience of practicing analysis of their narratives.
I observed that the faculty commonly question what accessibility to learning looks like and frequently hesitate implementing accessible practices in teaching as they are concerned that the expectations would be lowered and overall quality of learning compromised. Based on my experience with this project, providing students with additional instructional support in the form of project instructions and incorporating collaborative activities throughout the semester led to higher quality of work and more sophisticated analysis and conclusions.
In the next semester I am planning to focus on students’ contribution to developing learning community that promotes accessibility of learning. Although it might sound as very obvious, the role of students’ contribution to learning accessibility is probably one of the most important realizations from my D4A project. Drawing on the notion of learning as collaborative practice and experiences from the last two semesters, I understand that accessibility can not be simply delivered to students by the faculty, but also has to be collaboratively constructed within the learning community of the classroom by students and faculty. I believe that accessibility is not a thing that can be simply added to teaching as a new ingredient into a recipe. Rather, it is a process that has to be developed through revising existing teaching/learning practices and developing new anti-ableist pedagogy that includes students as its co-constructors.
From consent-based pedagogical practices to assigning fan fiction in my first-year composition class, this has been a year of delving deep into what anti-ableist pedagogy means to me, and how emotional health needs to shape this conversation.
More importantly, though, this was a year about listening.
Listening to the five brilliant student leaders we worked with on this project, and fighting for their voices to be prioritized rather than fetishized, decision-makers rather than props.
Because I had the privilege of meeting weekly throughout the year with our D4A student leaders, I think my experience with this project was fairly unique. Not quite a professor (I teach, of course, but I’m not a full-time faculty member and don’t, career-wise, want to be) but not quite a student (I’m defending my dissertation in November, but I haven’t been an undergrad for some time now), my position was an exhilarating one.
The students and I cried together, laughed together, ate guacamole together, and developed an array of inside jokes that kept us going amidst emotional breakdowns, horrific discrimination, and anxiety attacks. The bond we developed was, I think, the most generative part of this project; because it’s that bond, and consent-based project creation and activism rather than strict agendas and one-sided lectures, that made D4A something that will stretch beyond the realm of funding situations. It’s the ownership the students had over the direction of the project that ensures that it will last; because they want it to, and together, we’ve been developing the tools all year to continue this advocacy as a healthful lifestyle rather than an anxiety-inducing obligation.
Because the students were given completely free-reign to choose their own projects during the second part of the D4A year, they came up with totally different projects that all reflect their personalities, experiences, passions, and immense intellect. Individually (one project per student), our student leaders:
- analyzed professors’ behaviors in relation to student feelings of safety in class participation (and, sure enough, the preliminary survey data we’ve accumulated suggests that professors’ attitudes are the biggest factor in student engagement);
- interviewed employees in the Office for Students with Disabilities to determine holes in services and best practices for getting students what they need;
- interviewed his fellow LaGuardia students to uncover the emotional impacts on motivation that required classes have on the student body;
- developed a proposal for integrating high school students in special education programs into college life to ease their transition; and
- recognizing his privilege as not, himself, identifying with having a dis/ability, our final student documented his fellow leaders’ efforts in a video project introducing D4A, a trailer for the project, of sorts.
(These projects will be featured on our website soon!)
From the magnificent range of methodologies and presentation styles and topics our five student leaders generated, it was a huge takeaway for me that giving students free reign to investigate what they think needs to be investigated and presenting it in a style that works best for their learning style is tremendously important.
We can’t in good faith call students student leaders if we structure our programs to actually allow students to lead. The humility required to genuinely take this approach is a massively important part of anti-ableist pedagogy, and it’s one of the biggest things I learned from this year.
However, the student leaders were also very quick to assert what they needed (which I was thrilled with them for!) when I was loopy with giving specific guidelines for their projects. Giving students clear, bulleted lists of tasks to be accomplished, and specific dates and criteria, is hugely important in alleviating student anxiety. So, finding a balance between empowering students with consent-based project choices and also alleviating anxiety by being clear and consistent with expectations was a priority this year.
I find these realizations to be a huge part of anti-ableist pedagogy, since our student leaders were constantly emphasizing how the methodologies we were using in meetings — always allowing ample time for settling in and emotionally checking in, while having a clear and consistent structure for the rest of the meeting — were important to the ways they need to exist in learning/working spaces.
From these thoughts emerge my biggest “coulda-woulda-shoulda” from this year’s D4A work: sure, there was everything from massive scheduling issues to meetings-to-plan-meetings that interfered with efficiency, but those things seem to be part of the structural culture of LaGuardia. Therefore, those struggles, for me, sort of blend into the background.
More specific to our mission and our project, though? The entire D4A faculty coulda-shoulda-woulda been much more involved with the students and their projects. The insights that our students offered, consistently and brilliantly, throughout every aspect of this project, cannot just be conveyed by one (part-time!) professor to other (wonderful, full-time) professors. It set up a dynamic of relaying information from those most marginalized in school structures (students of color, most of whom identify as having dis/abilities) through me (a white, trans, part-time faculty member with mental dis/abilities) to the other D4A faculty members. It worked fine in a pinch, but structuring in deeper levels of contact with students — and I emphasize structured in, because our faculty did often contact/work with our students, but more on their own time than what was structured into the program — for all project faculty is the main thing I would recommend for future iterations of this project.
These projects — indeed, all projects of this sort — need to be led by students. We did a good job at this: our students (with the dedicated and powerful help from Justin Brown and Priscilla Stadler) created our survey (data and report forthcoming!), and they created brilliant projects that will shape how we talk about D4A moving forward. However, weaving formative interactions into more of the everyday structure of the project for all faculty and staff involved would be even better.
It’s been A Year™ indeed.
And thanks to our brilliant student leaders, I wouldn’t have it any other way!