Bringing ‘Structuring Equality in the Classroom’ to the Purposeful Pedagogy Conference

On Friday, May 1, Natalie Oshukany, Evan Misshula (in absentia), and Rachel Oppenheimer modified their Life Barriers & Persistence Mapping/Futures Unit for a 1 hour 15 minute workshop at the Purposeful Pedagogy Conference. In essence, we distilled 4 hours to 1.25, drawing out the key take aways and key modeling necessary to convey the importance of structuring equality in the classroom, while contextualizing such strategies in the CUNY student landscape, one in which our participants were already, or soon would be, immersed to varying degrees.

This process of workshop development was an important educational exercise in itself. It enabled Evan, Natalie, and Rachel to further discuss and build on our ongoing persistence and life barriers conversation (which is never lacking —  we often have to refocus ourselves multiple times to get back to “work” because we are just constantly setting off lightbulbs for one another and the bright ideas never find a natural pause..), while giving us critical practice in modifying, enhancing, and refining our facilitation skills and tightening our sessions as our concepts and audiences change. For me, Rachel, personally, this was the first time I’d taken a leadership role at the GC outside of the classroom, and I know this experience is valuable for my academic and professional career as I take on more conferences and public leadership roles. Further, the ideas and research on faculty validation and structuring classroom equality align well with my thesis interests and future research.

For the structure and content of the session, Life Barriers and Ethics: Structuring Equality in the Classroom, we did as follows:

Handouts included: CUNY Student Demographics and Strategies for Structuring Equality in Classroom and “Structure Matters,” by Kimberly Tanner


In the GC’s Sociology Lounge, we set up the chairs in a circle, and asked that everyone join it. In welcoming the group to the workshop, we talked briefly about our and the workshop’s origins in the Mapping course and Futures Initiative. We also set the stage by sharing that we designed this workshop to be both content and form focused, meaning that we would be discussing the What & How of Classroom Equity, but we would also be modeling the How, and that it would be critical to be aware of this modeling in the activities we were doing. We asked that all be mindful (mindfulness!!) of their speaking and participation time, speaking more if they were normally quieter, or restraining more if they tended to lead in vocal participation.

1) Warm-up Think-Pair-Share in response to “What does classroom equality look like?”

Participants spent about a minute writing their initial thoughts on index cards, and then another couple minutes sharing with a partner.

After the partner share, one member of the pair was responsible for collating their key ideas and writing them on big chart paper.

Next, Natalie and I read off these concepts of Classroom Equality and asked the pairs who were responsible to add any comments or explanations to what they wrote, if they wished. We capped comments at 1 minute as needed, though almost no one needed the reminder.

Responses included:

– Ensuring a safe space for students to not feel judged

– Allowing room for debate in class, and encouraging and accepting multiple opinions

– A classroom inclusive of relevant and diverse content

– Making room for all student contributions and different modes/methods for student participation

– Breaking down student/teacher hierarchy

Classroom Equality (Photo by Katina Rogers)

Before moving on, we asked everyone to introduce themselves – their name and why they’re here at this workshop. These introductions help group members to get to know one another and start to form community on equal footing. The circle formation also challenges classroom/group hierarchies.

2) So why does classroom equality matter? Because:

– As Instructors, we are responsible for EVERY student’s learning

– To ensure every student learns, we need to structure our courses with the goals of student engagement, student validation, student participation equity

– When students are engaged and validated and develop academic identities and confidence, they learn, succeed, and persist

3) And what does the research (CCRC 2011) say?

– CCs enroll nearly 1/2 of all college students in US, but less than 1/3 receive a degree or certificate within 3 years

– For commuter students (CUNY 2- and 4-year schools), most of their experience is classroom-based

– Faculty validation predicts students’ ‘sense of academic integration’ and intent to persist

– Formation and maintenance of student’s academic identity is key

4) Doing the right thing as a teacher

We showed some of the Samuel Delaney clip.

“Every time you do not answer a question… you’re learning how to make do with what you got… you’re learning how to take it… You need to teach people that they are important enough to say what they have to say.

– Samuel Delaney

5) Life Barriers and CUNY Student Demographics

We reviewed the eye-opening and grounding facts about the resource, financial, and time barriers and family situations the vast majority of our students are faced with.

6) Classroom Equality Reflection, Discussion, and Take-Aways

With about 30 minutes left in the session, we asked the participants to individually write on index cards about a classroom experience, either as an instructor or a student, where…

  1. Classroom equality was well structured and successful OR
  2. Classroom equality was lacking

Next, participants counted off to make 5 groups of 4 or 5 members each. At the start of group formation, we let them know in advance that one member would be chosen at random as ‘Reporter,’ and thus everyone should be prepared to report out on the following:

  • Discuss your scenarios, focusing on:
    • Strategies employed to foster equality OR
    • Strategies from which an unequal scenario may have benefitted

In groups, members shared with one another their experiences of successful or problematic classroom equality experiences. Again, they were asked to remain mindful of their speaking times and their fellow group members’ participation.

While groups were in conversation, we went around and had each group member pick a card at random (cards had the letter A, B, C, D or E). It was announced that D would be the Reporter!

Finally, we went around to each “D” and report out for up to 2 minutes on what strategies their group discussed. After reporting, anyone from larger group could raise hand to respond for up to 1 minute. Almost everyone was super mindful of their own speaking time and kept to time and a couple times we moved on by saying “We’re going to move on” or “Thank you”

Strategies from groups included:

– Establishing norms and values of respect and caring at beginning of semester with student involvement and leadership in this community-building process

– Re-arranging physical space of classroom

– Being aware of students’ limitations, with time and resources, when creating assignments

– Managing due dates and lateness policies with flexibility, consistency, and fairness

– Mandating student-teacher conferences where they can talk about anything

– Cultivating genuine student-teacher supportive relationships, so students feel they can approach instructors and admit fallibility

7) In conclusion, we pointed to the strategies and teaching techniques (and more) that we’d included in Conference handout.

There was great enthusiasm and feedback from the group of participants. For me, it was exciting to be able to really model the strategies with this group of peers not used to doing things differently (as our Mapping class is). So many conference presentations talk about innovative work but do it through lecture.

Further, the responses I heard from many of the participants were grounded in important and relevant theory, demonstrating both the depth of their concern with this issue of equity AND the need for this type of pragmatic, practice-oriented, “real life” workshop. All of this to demonstrate the timeliness of all of the Futures Initiative’s work!