Creating Caring and Respectful Teaching and Learning Communities

classroom scene

Welcome

One of the distinctive characteristics of our campus is the enormous diversity of our community. As we plan our courses, our assignments and our class activities, it is helpful to bear in mind the wide range of backgrounds, experiences, expectations and assumptions that we and our students bring.  Below, we provide resources for faculty to draw upon, as they seek ways to create caring and respectful teaching and learning environments that are be welcoming and intellectually engaging for all of their students.

Resources

The Center for Faculty Development maintains a lending library/collaborative space, where faculty can access a wide variety of materials pertaining to creating inclusive teaching environments. We also offer informational and workshop sessions on Creating Caring and Respectful Teaching and Learning Communities.

 

SJSU Faculty Share their Insights

Below, SJSU faculty who are recognized for creating teaching and learning environments that are welcoming and intellectually engaging for all of their students share some of their thoughts and practices. Not surprisingly, their approaches vary. We invite you to read through their comments – we are confident your will come away with ideas you'd like to incorporate into your own teaching.

   
colette rabin

Dr. Colette Rabin
Associate Professor
Department of Elementary Education

Insights about teaching

 judith lessow hurley  

Dr. Judith Lessow-Hurley
Professor
Department of Elementary Education

Insights about teaching

 julia curry  

Dr. Julia Curry Rodriguez
Associate Professor
Department of Mexican American Studies

Insights about teaching

 Beth WrennEstes

 

Ms Beth Wrenn-Estes
Lecturer
School of Information

Insights about teaching

 

 

   


colette rabin

 

Dr. Colette Rabin

Can you describe what you do to build community in your classes? (Specific activities or practices that are part of your classes)
I start my courses with an assignment in which each student writes a narrative about their self as a learner. As a teacher educator, I consider this as an opportunity for students to begin to take the role of "ethnographers" of their own experience of schooling. As "apprentices of observation" of schooling, "seeing" schooling clearly takes this kind of careful thinking in order to think flexibly about how we might do more than reproduce the status quo. Part of teacher preparation involves learning about one's identity as a teacher and to do that requires deep reflection over our larger purposes for choosing to become teachers. Students take particular account of experiences with issues of social class, gender, race, ethnicity, language, sexuality, and oppression. Starting with this assignment helps to build community because it involves bringing one's whole self to the classroom. I think it's important to tell students that I'm asking them to bring their whole selves to class in this way. One key element in making this possible is setting norms for dialogue.

Can you describe what you do to create a respectful and caring learning environment?
For the first several class sessions, I facilitate the creation of norms for discussion and groupwork. I frame the need for norms by explaining to the students in my foundations of education courses that we will address controversial topics and unearth deep seated perspectives that reflect who we are and who we hope to become as teachers. I let them know that I believe they will learn a lot more if they decide to bring their whole selves to the project of learning in their course. This would require an interdependent willingness to question their own and each other's assumptions. They need to feel safety for taking those risks.

On the first day, I ask them to recall the best learning discussions and what distinguished them from less powerful learning conversations. They form groups and share a few of these characteristics. In their groups, they look for themes. I ask them to share a few with the whole group and to email me a list of 3-5 of each group's ideas for norms. Then, we proceed with class. The next seminar, I bring in a compilation of the norms. I ask them to form new groups. In these new groups they revisit the whole list of norms, consolidating, considering what might be missing given their first group conversation over their sharing of narratives. Each group chooses their top 5 norms. We continue with our 2nd seminar after I ask them to share one norm they think we've begun to cultivate as a class that could help them learn deeply, and one we need to work on. The 3rd class session, I bring the top 10 norms with the highest votes. I ask them why they think these were important to them. I notice that the norms differ from class to class in interesting ways and I share the differences later in the semester as I learn about the group's dynamics. I then ask the class why an instructor might take 10-15 minutes of precious class time for 3 classes in a row, and what they might do as teachers to create a community and why. During this debrief I share how as a teacher of elementary ed students, I found that students need involvement in creating their "rules" and experiences to learn them or they become no more than a wall decoration.

I connect the experience to theories we learn in my courses, the philosopher of education, John Dewey's concepts of continuity and end-in-view, and Tim Wise's findings about how to unlearn racism. Throughout the semester, we experiment with different structures for dialogue and refer back to reflect on how the norms might inform our particular participation.

Can you describe an instance where you had to step in because something happened or someone said or did something in class that violated these principles of inclusiveness and respect? What happened? What did you do? And what happened next?
When a student dominates conversation, I refer back to the norms and I ask the class to reflect on their own participation and consider what a next step might be for each person to improve the learning of the group. I ask the students to recall the interdependent nature of a deep learning conversation. I directly ask them to ask themselves if they are dominating any aspect of our discussion or groupwork and to consider alternate methods of sharing if they are, such as posts on our threaded canvas conversation or written reflections. I also ask students to consider if they are judging those who dominate the discussion and how they might consider taking the responsibility to share. I refer at this time to how they have an opportunity to learn to participate in a collegial discussion and that they can use their current struggle to learn to prepare for faculty meetings, discussions which can be even more frustrating than the ones in grad school.

Sometimes I share about a brilliant Latina student I had as a TA who waited till the very end of the semester in my course to express her anger at not having participated in the group dialogue because she didn't want to have to represent all Latinas and contribute to their being judged as "bossy angry ladies." We discussed how she might have shared the reason why she hesitated sharing before she shared and we might have connected her experience to Claude Steele's work on stereotype threat, and she might have helped the class learn without harming her or others' reputations. We wished we'd spoken earlier. I wished I'd noticed her. I ask my students to share with me or each other early so we can work out ways for them to learn together.

Can you describe how, if at all, you address the range of special needs, learning styles and academic experience and preparation of the students in your classes?
I had a student whose last class in her program was mine, and she was diagnosed with cancer in the late stages. She had to miss my last class session in which I had scheduled a group presentation. We worked out a plan in which she wrote a script for her final project and I read it to the class myself, since I had worked very closely with her on the project. She prepped both myself and a colleague who was particularly interested in learning about her project to field her colleagues' questions. We recorded the presentation for her to hear and she was able to earn her degree.

Would you like to share any insights you have gleaned, teaching at SJSU, about how best to help our students thrive?
I have found that the key with such a diverse population is to create an environment in which interdependence is required to succeed and differences in learning styles and backgrounds are recognized. Groupwork in which students must prepare individually and the instructor requires students to demonstrate this preparation helps mitigate imbalances in contributions. Requiring reflective self assessment over progress and experience, as well as the products of an assignment, has also been instrumental in helping students engage. The more the students drive their learning experiences, the more I see their work deepen.

Back to top


judith lessow hurley

 

Dr. Judith Lessow-Hurley

Can you describe what you do to build community in your classes? (Specific activities or practices that are part of your classes)

I start my classes with an activity that gets students talking to each other about themselves, their goals, and the experiences they have had that are relevant to the work we do. In some classes I build groups for group projects taking into account the topic preferences that people might have. If I need to move students to their second preference, I consult with them, so that everyone ends up in a group that sounds interesting to them. I use a variety of methods to group students for activities in a variety of ways: I give out pre-counted assorted candies and then group all the peppermints, all the butterscotches etc., I use playing cards and group by color, suit and/or number. I have a set of playing cards cut in half so I can create random partners by having students find their matching half. I have every student make a tent name card that's on their desk every class (I collect them at the end of class. It's a handy way to casually take attendance). That enables me to learn everyone's names and students to get to know each other.

Can you describe what you do to create a respectful and caring learning environment?
I include a set of expectations that I have of students in my syllabus and I also include a section that describes the expectations students can have of me. I assume that all my students are adults and have real world issues to deal with. If a student is absent I expect to hear from that student, and if the reason is legitimate I make every effort to provide the support that student needs (my classes meet once a week, so an absence can be significant.) I treat my students with respect and I have only had rare experiences where students' behavior or attitudes were problematic. (Note that nearly all my students are post-baccalaureate and have been screened for admission to the credential program). I would note that over the years some of my students have become colleagues and friends.

Can you describe how, if at all, you address the range of special needs, learning styles and academic experience and preparation of the students in your classes?
I provide hands-on experiences, use videos and illustrations, engage students in conversation with each other. I read stories to my students as a way of modeling good pedagogy and also as a way of bringing them into literature that they might not access themselves. I provide lots of resources in Canvas for each topic. It helps students learn when they encounter the same idea expressed in multiple ways.

Would you like to share any insights you have gleaned, teaching at SJSU, about how best to help our students thrive?
It seems to me that we support our students instructionally but we do little to mitigate the real circumstances of their lives, some of which are challenging. For example, I teach in Sweeney Hall and most of our classes begin at 4 PM or later. Many of our students come directly from work. The bathrooms are filthy in the evening. The vending machines in the lobby sell only junk food. There is no place to sit except on the floors of the hallways. Our facilities and the lack of amenities communicate disrespect and insensitivity.

Back to top


julia curry

 Dr. Julia Curry Rodriguez

 

 beth wrennestes

Beth Wrenn-Estes

Can you describe what you do to build community in your classes? 

start each semester with a discussion thread that each student posts to. They share what brought them to the School of Information, current focus, current employment, family, pets, hobbies and anything else they'd like to provide. I also ask them to post pictures and most students do. It helps put faces to the names at the very beginning of the semester. I also have a discussion thread set up to share ideas, work and anything else related to their professional life.

At our first Collaborate session (we are 100% online so these are important get togethers) I have them turn on their video for a moment and say hello.

A great many of my classes focus on youth services in school and public library environments. Students have to present in groups or as individuals depending on the assignment as well as videotaping themselves (storyhour performances). These class sessions allow students to hear and see each other and that develops a connection that is absolutely essential in an online environment.

Can you describe what you do to create a respectful and caring learning environment?

I start out every semester with an optional Collaborate session where I describe the course. It is of great importance to me to relate to my students what my professional philosophy is and that I am here to create a positive and creative learning environment. I stress to students that they need to address each other with respect and to treat each other as colleagues. I provide the model with how I speak to students during synchronous sessions and during one-on-one sessions where a student needs to speak with me. I provide instruction on how to work as a group and in that document and in my introductory lecture I stress that mutual respect is a key element to successful group work.

Instructor’s Instructional Philosophy (from my Greensheets): I want each student in the course to succeed and will do everything to help students do so but it is a partnership. Please make sure that communication and your engagement in class activities stays a top priority for you during the semester.  Ask questions when you have them, seek clarifications when you need them, take responsibility for understanding all expectations, content and assignments for the course.

Can you describe an instance where you had to step in because something happened or someone said or did something in class that violated these principles of inclusiveness and respect? What happened? What did you do?  And what happened next?

Above I described how students use video to complete assignments in my children's classes. During one class a male student had indicated to a female student that her body language was just perfect for the story. The female student took this as a bit "off" and let me know that. I spoke with the male student who contacted the female student by email (copying me) apologizing for anything that he did that would have created that impression. They had several exchanges and everything smoothed out. It was a total misunderstanding but made both of them aware how important open communication was. 

 

Can you describe how, if at all, you address the range of special needs, learning styles and academic experience and preparation of the students in your classes?

If a student comes to me and says they have a special need I usually refer them back to the disability center just because I'd like some validation to what they are telling me. As to the difference in learning styles I try very hard to provide several ways to access course information as well as offering a couple of ways of completing assignments. I use audio, video (and both) to record lectures. I provide written transcripts of everything. Students can submit their assignments in written form (electronically) or create blogs, wikis or Google Sites. I tweet reminders about assignments and use Blackboard IM frequently. 

As to academic experience. This is the hard one since many students are returning to Master's work several years after their undergraduate work. I ask students to share that with me so I am aware of it. I put all of the resource links on my Canvas sites to the writing center, etc. and I also tell students about my open communication policy and that is to just let me know what is going on. Do they want to do a draft so I can see if they are headed in the right director? Do they need extra explanation or clarification? Can I find another student with more experience to be a "mentor"? I look for creative ways to make the lack of experience resolvable. 

Would you like to share any insights you have gleaned, teaching at SJSU, about how best to help our students thrive?

I think that one of the most important thing to think about in our program is that almost all these students work full-time, have families and that compassion and open communication have to be my guiding principlesI am fair but not a push over. I expect great things of students but I also want them to succeed so how can I foster a learning environment where they are excited to do just that. Since I teach on a graduate level most students understand that the bar is set a bit higher for them but at the same time I have to keep in mind that many haven't been back in school for quite a while OR their life changed dramatically from when they were undergraduates living on campus to now taking a 100% online program and having a completely different lifestyle. I expect hard work and at the same time I try my best to create a class environment that encourages them to participate fully. As a lecturer I make extra efforts to stay connected to my students and I think that has proven out over the last 8 years of my teaching at SJSU by their comments and academic achievements.