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!
Last term, I wrote about something I was doing with my theatre class. It was a consent-based model of participation and assessment, which I use in all my classes but make physically explicit in my theatre class. This term, I think the compositionist in me was feeling left out; so I’m going to focus on something new I’m doing in my English 102 class. At LAGCC, this class is Writing Through Literature.
I’ve long been an advocate of fan fiction as a form of potential community building. Additionally, I think fan fic can be a radical reclaiming of who gets to create the narratives we tell ourselves. Emotions — the grief of straight cis white able-body-minded men writing everyone else’s stories, as well as the sheer joy of recognizing ourselves on the backs of dragons — drive the fan fiction writing process. So, too, does a sense of social justice and the thirst to be included that marginalized creators feel deep in our bones. Historically, fan fic is a genre created by and for marginalized authors who don’t otherwise see ourselves in dominant narratives.
And if fan fiction is about joy, about community, about justice and representation and improving our writing skills while flexing our inclusivity muscles, why, then, should it not be practiced in our writing classrooms?
So, this term, I’m having my comp students write fan fiction of Nikki Giovanni’s poem “Poem for a Lady Whose Voice I Like.” I have never seen them all take to an assignment with such fervor, and it is, so far, amazing. Letting them analyze the poem and engage deeply with Giovanni’s text and subtext while being able to craft their own original stories has been an absolute revelation thus far.
Why am I including this as an anti-ableist, inclusive practice, though? Because emotional inclusivity and emotional access to classrooms is, I believe, just as necessary as any other form of access. Are all my students fan fic readers and writers? Nope. Have each and every one of them expressed excitement about the idea that they’re allowed to craft their own tales as a valid way to analyze literature? Have each and every one of them found that suddenly, their chosen forms of expression — and through this, their chosen forms of learning — are sanctioned and encouraged and rewarded in the classroom? Yep. Yep, they have.
And to me, that is every bit as anti-ableist as it can come, especially when we consider the sheer amount of young people who experience depression and anxiety who are engaged in fan fiction reading and writing outside of the classroom.
My assignment is on my course blog, and you can peruse it for yourself; and, perhaps, even draft a little fan fic of your own!
While our five magnificent DfA student leaders work on designing their bios for our site, as well as the student survey we intend to conduct during Fall II, they’ve given me consent to draft our meeting notes into a public-facing post. During our first few meetings, we focused on developing truly shared expectations, and explored what each of us brings — intellectually, personally, emotionally — to our joint project.
Immediately, our students dove into experiences — both shared and unique, both interpersonal and structural — of learning in classrooms that are not, fundamentally, structured for them. While one student spoke beautifully about the complexity of being able to speak comfortably to a lecture hall full of people, as well as on an intimate one-on-one basis, but not to a group of five people, say — which got vigorous nods and murmurs of agreement from the rest of us — others swapped stories about the power of representation on mainstream television shows and the need for increased humanity in both media portrayals of dis/ability and in classroom interactions.
When we discussed what students wanted to learn throughout our time together, responses ranged from finding more abilities of their own to thrive in classrooms to discovering the specifics of how academic policies are made at LaGuardia, including examples, to provide a possible roadmap for structural change. How, our students wanted to know, can undergrads effectively convey ideas about what they need in classrooms? How can we influence not only what policies are formed, but how they are formed, at the level of our school and beyond? And how, one student asked poignantly, can students tell when professors are truly dedicated to our students?
This struck me as a tremendously important through line in many of the students’ comments: the interpersonal affect and structural impact of, simply, care. How, our student leaders kept asking, can students with various mental dis/abilities be not only accommodated, but welcomed, into classrooms? How can structure and consistency meld with, as one student put it, professors who “let everyone be human”? Pedagogically, students were seeking a balance between clarity and consistency with the empathy and care of flexibility, understanding, and approaching students as human beings.
This, though, was just our first meeting. If the first was a crucial outpouring of ideas and buzzing excitement for where the students are going to lead this project, the second was an emotional breakthrough that left most — if not all — of us in tears.
Students shared stories — stories that are not mine to share for them — of being shamed, of being taunted, of being passive-aggressively targeted, by teachers, by administrators, by classroom and university structures that do not interweave any concept of care into policies, that actively refute the humanity of students with a range of dis/abilities and language experiences. The ways that structures of racism interlock with structures of ableism rang strong throughout their stories, their experiences, my stories, my experiences, our tears and our hopes.
One student spoke extensively and beautifully about shame. He said that shaming people is framed as “a way to help you improve,” when in reality, it’s just a way to make you feel dirty and less than for the way you move in the world.
Another student wanted to make it clear that no one should “have to force [themself] to learn the way other people learn.”
There were silences and there were long bouts of laughter; there were giggles over my veganism and eagerness to eat the cheese of my pizza. (Because yes: there was pizza.)
There was, at the end of the day, the settling of a powerful feeling into our bones. As one of our students brilliantly said, he felt profoundly shaken and sad, telling his stories, sharing them with us; but he also felt, inexplicably, happy. Because he was finally in a room with people whose nods weren’t pitying, but rather empathetic; with people who had stories of our own, and shared them, not to overshadow his, but to make him less lonely in the ways he’s been shamed.
Because we were all in a room, for a purpose, that intends to transform what has been imposed on our students as shame, and transform it into structural changes that will last, that will, as one student put it, teach us how to not apologize for the ways we exist in the world.
On October 4th, our team (sans our wonderful students, whose selection will be publicly announced soon!) met on campus to explore the resources already available at LaGuardia and connect the dots between our various, inter-departmental goals, needs, and skills.
Having faculty and staff in the room from as diverse a spread as Health Science, Theatre, the library, IT, and the Office for Students with Disabilities helped us gather an abundance of information, all by using the principles of inclusive design to get us there.
Creating and representing information verbally, visually, kinesthetically, and in written form allowed us to model, in our own meeting, some classroom practices that allow as students to latch onto the way they learn best while also practicing other kinds of skills.
We split into groups and discussed six questions; as groups, we wrote the ideas down and taped them to different sections of the room walls. Each section corresponded to a different question. Examining the gallery after our group discussions allowed time for social decompression/alone time, individual processing, and reading what other groups had come up with. We then synthesized the information in a very generative group discussion.
Below, I have compiled the questions and the notes we all took to start answering them. Please feel free to hop into the comments to add ideas and questions!
What resources can you offer to support and expand inclusive design at the college?
- Increase education about already-available tech access
- Increase education about accessibility features of Windows 10
- Increase education about using built-in accessible features of smart classrooms
- Distribute PDFs on how to make documents accessible (with reminder that you only need to learn how to do this once)
- Design a library website that all students can use equally
- Constructing a UDL-design syllabus template
How can you help with the student survey this fall?
- Promotion through the library website and social media
- Online via Blackboard
- Can send to any group/sample of any group of students
- Can make it available in study halls and library open area (on the desktops)
- Offer freebies (“a chance of winning…” for filling out survey)
- Department meeting announcements
How do we build the CUNY network for inclusive design?
- CUNY CTL Council
- Present at CUNY IT Conference
- CUNY Accessibility Conference
- Teach@CUNY Day
- CUNY-wide library listservs
- CUNY dis/ability listserv
- Populate CUNY Commons site (here!) and form public group on Commons (forthcoming!)
- Invite Queensborough, Lehman, to show us some UDL practices
- Cross-CUNY workshops
- UDL toolkit with syllabi template
- UDL certification for educators (professional development, certified in UDL practices after 4 seminars, for example)
How can we promote/implement Accessibility 101 — UDL for educators?
- Framing it as Decolonizing the Classroom rather than Accessibility 101
- Enlist faculty to run educational/enrichment opportunities, partnered with experts from outside the college
- Present information as a talk/sharing research rather than a workshop per se
- Citing work toward these goals already underway at other campuses
- Tying our work to retention and graduation rates
- Host student-led panels about barriers to learning
- Branding — make UDL something people have heard of and are curious about
- Connect our goals with LGCC competencies, thinking through how to expand concepts with other class activities
- Open up pedagogical practices
- Create a culture of continual learning
- Remind people that many faculty already are using these techniques
- Demonstrate possibilities for faculty
- Reframing and translating what this is (e.g. decolonizing practices)
- Creating concept maps that transcend and include all elements within/across different professional development opportunities
What do YOU really need to be effective in cultivating inclusive design at the college?
- Student feedback and input
- Interdisciplinary partners
- Student usability study of website
- Activity sharepoints/space for faculty exchange [of pedagogical ideas, struggles, practices]
- Supportive systems for encouragement of faculty around skills and knowledge already within each of us
- Solid theoretical frameworks
- Internal systems to assist in design/activities (eg. closed captioning creation)
- Finding ways of sharing the burden/raising people’s consciousness
Universal Design for Learning — often, referred to as Universal Design because of its origins outside of the classroom — is a pedagogical approach based on the idea that learning is a process that is facilitated (and hindered) by the environment in which one is expected to learn. UDL at its best draws attention to the underlying structural ableism, racism, classism, cisnormativity, and heteronormativity of learning spaces; instead of questioning “what is wrong with this individual that they are not learning in this space?”, the principles of UDL instead pose the question, “what is wrong with the structural environment that is designed for some, but not others? How can the structural environment be improved to create space for multiple styles of learning, particularly those that are undervalued in hegemonic learning spaces?”
Particularly at LaGuardia Community College — as well as CUNY more broadly — UDL has tremendous implications for a largely POC, largely immigrant, largely low-income student population.
In brief, UDL attempts to ensure that each piece of classroom learning can be accessed and manipulated by users in various ways, such that there are:
- multiple, valued forms of representation;
- multiple, valued forms of action and expression;
- multiple, valued forms of engagement.
The valuing of different forms of engagement — for example, actively valuing non-verbal modes of participation in class by assessing quieter students with the same worth as students who speak up more in class — is a crucial component of ensuring that classroom spaces move toward equity rather than perpetuating the privileging of some affects, learning processes, and forms of engagement over all others.
UDL is often critiqued for the problematics of “universality” (which is usually code for whiteness), and it is our goal through DfA at LaGuardia to ensure that our versions of UDL incorporate critical race feminisms and queer of color critique as central facets of course design and research.
For more on UDL and the information presented here, please explore our General Must Reads resource page.
Part-time Job and Learning Opportunity:
STUDENT LEADERS for Paid Advocacy positions
APPLY BY SEPTEMBER 15, 2017
Are you a LaGuardia student living with dis/abilities? And/or have you advocated for improved access to education for all students?
The Designing for All Project at LaGuardia Community College is an initiative that will help provide increased access to education across the school. If you’ve ever had experiences in a classroom where you felt like you weren’t being invited to learn in the ways you need to learn, this project might be a great fit for you.
We will be working throughout Fall 2017-Spring 2018 to expand the way that we think about teaching and learning at LaGuardia — and across CUNY — so that all students can have access to effective, empowering learning. This means finding out what resources and curricular changes students need to learn well and figuring out how these needs can be both met and exceeded.
We’re looking for five students to take a leadership role in LaGuardia’s Designing for All Project. These students will ideally identify as having dis/abilities, or be learning academic English as their second language, and/or who have experience working to improve educational access for all.
Over the next two terms, we will be working across disciplines to generate universally designed classroom practices so that all LaGuardia students — inclusive of dis/ability status, language experience, or learning styles — will be able to more effectively access and control their own education.
Student leaders will be paid stipends of 1000 dollars total for the year.
Student leaders’ work will be published in Summer 2018, and they will play a key role in shaping the direction of this project. Meetings with students will include leadership skill development and will be driven by student needs and desires.
To this end, we are recruiting five students to take the lead in the following projects:
Summer and early Fall, 2017:
- Apply for Designing for All student leader position by September 15th; and
- Participate in a full team meeting with faculty and administrators to ensure students’ experience will play a key role in shaping the trajectory of the program.
Fall I, 2017:
- Participate in weekly student team working groups (schedule to be determined), some of which will meet online;
- Co-develop a survey for fellow LaGuardia students regarding their needs as learners;
- Craft a plan for survey distribution/collection;
- Distribute survey; and
- Assist with analysis of survey data.
Fall 2, 2017 (Winter Term)
- Begin crafting a reflective project about your experience here (possibly reflecting on the experience of creating universally designed classroom practices) that will be published in Summer 2018.
Spring I, 2018:
- Participate in one full team meeting to share expertise and skills that students think the rest of the team will need moving forward in this project;
- Participate in two full team meetings to evaluate program implementation and offer expertise for course correction;
- Participate in student team meetings (schedule to be determined); and
- Reflect on your project-related experience and any connected issues around inclusive learning through a crafting project of your own choosing.
- Commit to fall, winter, and spring participation in the project starting Fall 2017 through Spring 2018;
- Be registered as a student at LaGuardia Community College during Fall 2017 and Spring 2018 terms; and
- Demonstrate a desire to advocate for your communities, or have experience advocating for your communities.
Students will apply for this opportunity by Friday, September 15, 2017 and be interviewed the following week.
Fill out the form here: https://goo.gl/forms/zEs93bkxiYHS5rya2
Coming soon! Stay tuned!