This post is dedicated to Sarah Parsons, Graduate Assistant, in Learning Leadership and Community, who wrote about her desire as an educator to promote curiosity, creativity, risk-taking and collaboration. Her words resonated with my thinking and thus became a springboard for writing about my reflections on my spring 2020 courses at Plymouth State University.
Now that the semester is over, I am asking myself- what were the most significant lessons I learned from flipping my courses to online in mid-March 2020, after spring break, when Covid struck the US? Opportunity to offer online courses has existed most of my professional life, but suddenly being “forced” to do so with little time for preparation presented trepidation and challenges. My students and my lives were disrupted. Our living situations changed. Our routines were interrupted; we had to scramble to find new ones. We had to adjust to new technologies like Zoom.
Covid wasn’t solely responsible for changes in my courses, but it was a catalyst that pushed me to shift my perspective on how I view my students as I facilitate our journey in my courses. Covid was a new river to navigate and I launched at the confluence of three streams converging; the water was roiled and rough, but I got through the turbulence with my students without capsizing. The three streams that joined were actually three attitudinal processes: compassion, appreciation, and creativity. I had been exploring each of these channels separately but when they joined together the force was overwhelming.
What provided the most reassurance for navigating Covid, were the supportive messages coming from my colleagues and university administration about adopting and practicing compassion. For me the word compassion was like a synonym for forgiveness, acceptance, and patience all rolled into one. The idea gave me the notion to ease up on, listen to, and make accommodations for my students as we found our way to the end of the semester. Partly this meant making a space and time for class members to share about our circumstances and struggles during Covid. I told my story about sheltering-in at a friend’s in the Adirondacks instead of my home in NH where my 25-year-old housemate was sick with Covid. By opening-up, I wanted us all to be tolerant of one another’s adjustments along the way. I let go of my previous rigid sense of equity in my classroom which meant setting strict academic standards, protocols, and deadlines to which all class members had to adhere to for there to be a sense of fairness. I wanted students to reach certain learning outcomes, but each path could be different and take different amounts of time.
I haven’t given quizzes or exams in my courses for a long time. Many years ago, I built my classes around modules, and I offer students choice about how they earn points for the grade they desire. Students know they don’t need to do all the assignments to earn an A. What was different after Covid hit however, was how I, and my two teaching assistants, one for each class, responded to students’ work. After the pandemic took hold, I steadfastly made a commitment to start every email to students with remarks about what the students were doing well. I began with thanking them for submitting an assignment. I wanted them to know that every effort was considered an accomplishment, not a given. In providing feedback, I organized my comments under two headings: strengths and recommendations. The degree to which my teaching assistants adapted and followed my lead surprised me. Compassion was necessary because Covid caused a situation no one expected. The question now is how to move forward in a future semester and have this attitude carry forward. This is where the influence of the other streams connects.
Appreciation is about acceptance and recognition. Acceptance is acknowledging that all of my students are individuals; all are on their own unique path. Recognition is about making my awareness and understanding of my students known and accepted and doing this through positive, encouraging reinforcement.
I have experienced the power of positive feedback and I know the effect of motivating, affirming comments. During the spring semester of 2020, I was a student myself, enrolled in The Art of Sketching. I wanted to be successful, and the course took me out of my comfort zone. I worked hard on my drawings, and I learned much from observing my peers and hearing my professor’s instructions. Some of the students in my class were really talented, much more so than me. We could “fix” our drawings as we went along and even after his formal, written feedback. Positive affirmations were motivating, as I made attempts to improve.
After Covid, I found it challenging to discipline myself to complete my drawings, take photos of my work, and submit these online. I didn’t like working in isolation. I missed having the designated time to meet with all my peers and accomplish our task sitting side by side listening to the commentary of the instructor as he moved from one student to another, making suggestions. I translated my wants and needs as a student during “lock-down” into thinking about my students. I had a better understanding of what they might be going through and wanted to be as supportive, responsive, and positive as I could. What I noticed was that the more respect I showed my students and the more enthusiastic I was about their learning and products, the more they in turn respond with positive comments about their experiences in the course.
As I mentioned above, I believe in providing choice to students. Since the emergence of interdisciplinary cluster projects at my institution, I have embraced taking more pedagogical risks. As I have realized my passion for integrating art and science, I have shared this with students and have built in opportunities for them to find their voice through creativity. I endorse their efforts to write poetry or stories, create original images, and/or design aesthetic presentations that relate to stewardship of the environment.
One of the reasons I enjoy teaching so much is in seeing students flourish in diverse ways. Now as I increasingly experiment with merging the two sides of the brain in delivering my work and messages, I seek to have students do the same.
I don’t require students to be creative in a science class, but I allow them to experiment and test the waters. Allowing students to be creative helps them develop their voice and recognize their contribution is important, especially in the field of environmental science and policy where innovative, entrepreneurial solutions to issues are needed.
To celebrate their efforts, if they are comfortable, I share their work. I encourage them to consider their classmates as collaborators and editors. I routinely talk with my students about the legacy of their work. I seek ways to have them think about their assignments as authentic contributions that can benefit and inspire future students and inform others who have similar interests.
I want my environmental science and policy courses to be places where students can experiment and thrive, where they are challenged and rewarded. Covid set me on a new trajectory in thinking about my pedagogy. With the pandemic we don’t know what’s ahead necessarily; the river turns and twists and we can’t always see around the next corner. We don’t even have an “accurate” map, but I can provide everyone in my courses with a life jacket as we navigate this new river. Practicing compassion, appreciating my students, and endorsing their creativity is part of the design of helping my students develop confidence and become resilient environmental stewards and leaders.