On Monday, May 25, 2020, exactly one month ago, George Floyd died at the age of 46 while in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota, after enduring a police officer’s knee on his neck for more than eight minutes and pleading repeatedly, “I can’t breathe.” Deeply committed to his church, Mr. Floyd had worked most recently as a security guard for a homeless shelter and as a bouncer at a restaurant/dance club. During high school, Mr. Floyd told a friend, ominously, “I want to touch the world.” Yet Mr. Floyd’s younger self, who became the first in his family to go to college, could never have imagined the profound impact he would have on the world. Following his death, there have been protests against racism and police violence around the world and in all 50 states in the United States.
How does George Floyd’s death relate to teaching? What can you do this fall to advance equity through your role as faculty? As options abound, this communication distills the five practices described by Dr. J. Luke Wood and Dr. Frank Harris III, San Diego State education professors, in their powerful webinar, Employing Equity-Minded and Culturally-Affirming Teaching Practices in Virtual Learning Communities.
Five Equity-Minded Pedagogical Practices
In his message to the Valencia community, College President Sandy Shugart lamented the death of “another young, black man dying a brutal death at the hands of those who were sworn to serve and protect,” and he reminded us that “Valencia has a special responsibility to push back against social and institutional systems of inequity, especially through fulfilling our mission of education for opportunity.”
Specifically, President Shugart affirmed that “we will continue to raise the standard of our performance in serving the learning needs of our students to include measurable impact on the equity gaps at every part of their experience — access, inclusion, engagement, learning, academic momentum and progress, completion, and success beyond completion.” Given this commitment and the central role faculty and teaching play in advancing equity, we bring you Drs. Wood and Harris’ five equity-minded and culturally-affirming teaching approaches:
1. Be Intrusive. Drs. Wood and Harris recommend starting with an informal assessment of students’ experiences with online learning; then carefully monitoring students’ performance (as with early alerts) so they have time to improve/catch up, when necessary. To assist with reaching out to students and creating connection, Faculty Development has partnered with LifeMap and CARE faculty to devise a just-in-time course, LFMP2910: Just-in-Time Early Alert Intervention Strategies. This course helps faculty look for patterns of success and challenge in student performance and also highlights fostering an essential sense of belonging in the online environment.
“Some students, especially men of color, struggle with help-seeking because of social stereotypes and ‘intelligence,’ ‘fit for college,’ and ‘independence,’” point out Drs. Wood and Harris. As such, we will need to take great care in how we frame the suggestion that students seek help, perhaps disclosing our own help-seeking experiences or providing a student testimonial, and always coupled with our assurance that we have high academic standards and also that they are capable of reaching the higher standard.
Drs. Wood and Harris also advise us to provide high levels of transparency to students, including taking the time to specify what it will take to be successful in the class, how to approach readings and assignments, etc. As demonstrated by the Transparency in Teaching and Learning (TILT) in Higher Ed. project, taking intentional steps to be transparent about the purpose, task, and criteria of an assignment is “a teaching intervention that increases underserved college students’ success” (Winklemas). Templates and sample assignments from varied disciplines are available online.
2. Be relational. A primary goal in being relational is to demonstrate an authentic investment in students’ success, explain Drs. Wood and Harris. They advise faculty to humanize themselves as a way to connect with students, to begin to build trust and create a classroom community. This can especially be important when teaching across difference, including race, ethnicity, and gender. As Zaretta Hammond (2015) reminds us, trust can help us transcend our differences. “When students trust that we have their best interests at heart,” she explains, “they give us permission to push them to higher levels of achievement.”
Drs. Wood and Harris challenge us to “learn at least one thing about each student that has nothing to do with them being a student”— whether their talents, hometown, hobbies, or favorite artist. One powerful way to get to know students is to use the “This I Believe” exercise, first shared with us by Dr. Bryan Dewsbury, associate professor of biology at the University of Rhode Island. This assignment, which Dr. Dewsbury assigns on the first day of class, “asks students to look into their soul and articulate the things in their lived experiences that are most important to them, and their role in determining their futures.” The assignment creates the basis for being relational with students throughout the term, connecting learning back to what is most important to them.
3. Be Culturally Relevant and Affirming. This approach, rooted in the work of Gloria Ladson-Billings, entails “acknowledging and leveraging cultural strengths and assets to facilitate learning” and “mirroring” students in course content, perspectives, and materials. As Drs. Wood and Harris explain, students of color often find that their voices are absent from course readings, assignments, and assessments, and that even the images used in PowerPoint presentations tend to be of white individuals. One of the ways we can improve the equity-mindedness of our practice is to increase our self-awareness. In partnership with SEED-trained faculty, Faculty Development has built the course, INDV3121: Implicit Bias and Microaggressions in Online Learning Environments, which encourages self-reflection through the use of discussions, scenario-based activities, and other online resources.
4. Be Community-focused. Drs. Wood and Harris advise faculty to model the level of engagement expected in the course. Introduce yourself and be active in all aspects of the course. Then, when you encourage students to interact with each other, you have set the expectation. Your video introduction serves as the example when you invite them to do the same. Take the time to co-create classroom norms and point out how you are relying on these norms in specific learning moments throughout the course. They also suggest that we require students to interact with one another.
5. Be Race Conscious. The last practice shared by Drs. Wood and Harris is that we be explicitly race conscious in our teaching. “Be intentional about providing opportunities to engage racial and equity issues within the context of the course,” they advise. This may not be possible in all courses, acknowledge Drs. Wood and Harris, yet they remind us that inequities are prevalent across disciplines, citing COVID-19 as a salient example. They stress that we must provide students with guidance, safety, support, and tools they will need to productively engage in racial dialogue in the course, ensure that we ourselves have the tools we need to facilitate the dialogue, and stay present in the dialogue, monitoring it closely and intervening when necessary. Stephen Brookfield’s new book, “Teaching Race,” may be a helpful resource in building our own capacity.
As we look ahead to the fall term, during which we’ll engage in deep discussion and robust planning regarding racial equity at the College, consider your own role in this work: What impact will the death of George Floyd and the recent spike in awareness of the systemic racism that permeates our country and institutions have on your teaching?
- Dewsbury, B. (2018). Deep teaching in a college STEM classroom. Cultural Studies of Science Education.
- Hammond, Z. (2015). Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. Thousand Oaks: Corwin.
- Winkelmes et al. (2016, Winter/Spring), “A Teaching Intervention that Increases Underserved College Students’ Success.” Peer Review 18, 1/2.