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Reflections on Implementing UDL in Low and High Stakes Activities

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.

Well, It’s Been A Year™: On Listening and Student Leadership

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!

Reformulating Our Assignment…

I took the time to reflect on the last semester and the consideration of my UDL assignment into my SCH150 (Drugs, Society, & Behavior) course for Spring I 2018. I am working to fully implement a scaffolded assignment after implementing, a low-stakes version, in my class during the Fall I 2017 semester. Over the course of the Fall II 2017 semester, I worked to adjust the low-stakes portion of the assignment and to expand the more complete assignment for the course. The premise of this assignment is to expand upon the considerations of drug policy, based upon course information and review of current affairs related to drugs and drug policy within the United States.

In the Fall I 2017 I had my students complete a low-stakes reflection at the end of the course on their perspective related to the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970. Specifically, if they felt that this policy was still correct in its application and classification of substances within the United States. Students were encouraged to either write out the blog post or to record and upload a vlog post. Currently in Spring I 2018, I have more fully-integrated a scaffolded assignment with both low-stakes and high-stakes portions using different modalities to access the various strengths of students within the classroom. First, after a brief discussion on the history of U.S. drug policy and the aforementioned act as well as watching a documentary “Breaking the Taboo” and writing a brief reaction response, students record and upload a brief (up to 5 minutes) recording on their current perspective on the aforementioned act (i.e. what does it say, is it a good policy). The students will receive feedback as well as discuss their perspectives in class on the topic further. Students will begin compiling their evidence to think about potential reclassification of drugs within the current structure as we dive into discussing the different substances over the course of the semester. Students also continually watch films and write brief reaction posts that will help further inform their final paper. At the end of the course, students will have compiled the final high-stakes paper and then will work in teams to have a low-stakes debate in-class (once I provide position statement for them to approach the debate).

I am still working on adjust the assignment. However, my DfA colleagues have continued to be a wonderful support to this process. It has been through their work and listening to their assignments that I have been able to re-evaluate how to approach work within the classroom. It is helped me figure out the key objectives and understanding that there are a multitude of ways to work toward accomplishing that objective for the course. Overall, this project and initiative will help ensure a  more inclusive and accepting environment at LaGuardia and beyond.



Fan Fiction as Anti-Ableist Praxis

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!

From Low-stakes to High-stakes: Scaffolding Assignments for a Mid-term Exam

I designed a low-stakes, in-class exercise, structured on finding appropriate direct quotations and formulating paraphrases, for my students’ ENG101 mid-term exam. Because the mid-term is a two-hour in-class essay, I thought it best to design this particular exercise, as it eliminates a few steps in the writing process and allows students to focus their full attention on drafting and revising during the actual exam.

Since my research question involves identifying best practices for composition classes, this type of scaffolded assignment provides a seamless combination of efficiency and self-directed measures that are encouraged to assist students in becoming more comfortable with the drafting, revising, and editing steps in composition best-practices pedagogy.

All of the students were able to find direct quotations and/or develop appropriate paraphrases that related to the following themes from the narrative essay, “The Back of the Bus,” by Mary Mebane and The Autobiography of Malcolm X: institutional racism, segregation, anti-black violence, dehumanization, internalized racism, white supremacy, and Black nationalism. This portion of the exercise went very well; however, the challenges that followed were related to properly citing the source and formulating proper analyses.

The pedagogical strategies/ideas that were sparked during my conversations with students were the following: 1) I need to create another low-stakes exercise on how to develop strong analyses of sources; 2) I should have students work in pairs on this analysis exercise, since some students were particularly gifted in generating strong analyses while others needed more mentoring; and 3) I learned that these types of low-stakes exercises should be done at least once a week, since ENG101 meets twice a week. Incorporating these changes would allow for continuity, reinforcement, and eventual student mastery of these necessary steps in the writing process.

For my spring activity, I will definitely implement the exercise on developing strong analyses of sources. From past experience, when I have directed students to work together on different types of peer-critique exercises, I have learned that this type of partner-based activity is one that benefits both student mentor and mentee. The added bonus of these partner-based activities is that the students actually enjoy learning from each other. This exchange really creates a welcoming and engaging culture of learning in the classroom.

Okay, But Did It Work? — A Reflection on Consent-Based Participation Practice

Last term, as a pilot faculty member with the Designing for All project, I joined my colleagues in creating a low-stakes assignment for a course that I hoped would increase access to my classroom. I have publicly outlined the parameters of this “low-stakes” activity, but in brief, I was teaching HUT 101 at LaGuardia, which is Art of Theatre.

Many of my students were theatre majors: some were not. When we were designing our grading contracts together (something else that’s an essential part of my consent-based pedagogical practices), one of my students said, “so, we should all try to get comfortable being uncomfortable.” This insightful comment followed an extensive discussion we had about risk, vulnerability (which, incidentally, in the middle of the term, I got tattooed on my arm and they were delighted), and keeping ourselves healthy. This discussion focused on the fine line between pushing yourself to do something that scares you and then feeling good about it, versus knowing that the very act of pushing yourself to do a certain thing at a certain moment will give you a panic attack and/or make things worse. We’re all constantly trying to find that line in our theatre classrooms, and in our class, we were explicit about our commitments to supporting each other in pushing ourselves healthily, rather than destructively; and caring for each other when lines were accidentally crossed.

The cornerstone of this discussion — and of our class in general — was our consent-based system of participation. We each (myself included) had red, yellow, and green index card name tags that we changed with our mood. These Personal Traffic Lights signaled to ourselves and each other whether or not we were feeling able to participate physically and readily (green); whether we were feeling tired and/or unsure, but ready to try something new, if tentatively (yellow); or ready only to be physically present in class, not feeling up to engaging in a more direct way than simply being there (red).

The persistent criticism and caution that I heard from fellow faculty members was that students would elect to always be on red; and, since I made it clear that no one would ever be penalized for being on red, they would get a free pass to not participate (in traditional ways). This consent-based system, people argued with me, was setting my class up for disaster, for exploitation, for an utter lack of participation and gaming of the system.

As it turned out, nothing could be further from the truth.

Both on a classroom-wide level and on a one-on-one level, we negotiated what students could do to participate while they were feeling red. Perhaps they’d write their thoughts and give them to me quietly; perhaps they’d email me after class with their comments; perhaps they’d help their team, in the case of group work, by quietly researching, even if they physically wanted to sit far from the group. All of these things happened, and so much more.

My students who were on red participated in profound — and profoundly unexpected — ways.

One of my boys, when we were presenting our monologues, was on red. He usually was on red during class. Nonetheless, he got up and performed an absolutely beautiful monologue with passion and poise, even though he showed signs of panic right when he (voluntarily) stood up to begin. When the other students were offering feedback, one raised his hand and said, “Man, I notice that you’re on red right now, and you did a kickass job anyway. That’s badass and brave. Thanks for sharing with us.”

And the rest of the class applauded and snapped while this student beamed and bowed.

There was a chain reaction, then: more and more students who were feeling red that day performed, and they were all congratulated with particular fervor.

Even during peer reviews, students on red were extremely productive. One of my students was on red during peer reviews and quietly backed out of interacting with others. His partner gladly joined another peer review team, without comment or criticism; just a supportive clap on the shoulder. The student emailed his work to his partner; they both agreed to look at each other’s work later, in the comfort of their own spaces. In the meantime, the student worked on editing his own ten-minute play, sometimes coming up to me and softly asking me questions and for guidance; but for the most part, he stood alone in the corner, working on his own piece. Which, by the way, turned out to be amazing.

I had students who were never on green; who were perpetually on yellow. One of these students never spoke during class; ever. She talked to her group mates in small group work, and she talked to me (sometimes) one-on-one. But never, ever, ever, in front of the class. She even went so far as to ask a classmate to read out her monologue for her, because she wasn’t feeling able to read it aloud herself; it was a spectacular piece of writing. However, on the last day of class, this perpetually yellow student gave a bold, confident, organized, poised presentation as part of her collaborative group project: in front of everyone.

So, I found that the criticisms — the gaming of the system that people kept cautioning me against — had no play in my classroom. Students on red and yellow often participated in the most creative and incisive ways, and the bonds between the students were higher than I’d ever seen in another class. They developed group Snapchats just for them, and I know many of them are keeping in touch now, after term has ended.

We as a society too often associate consent — explicitly or not — with weakness. With a lack of masculinity. With wishy-washy-ness. All of this, of course, is wrapped in a misogynist culture that associates gentleness and consent with negativity, with being less-than. Throughout education, but also in the humanities — which is already mired in feminizing tones of not being ‘hard’ subjects — countering these attitudes (especially when we’ve unconsciously internalized them) is a tremendously important aspect of designing classrooms.

Consent-based pedagogy, then, can be a very important part of explicitly inviting, welcoming, and validating students whose bodyminds are disrespected and disregarded by more mainstream pedagogical practices.