What a ride…

By Richard Lissemore|May 25, 2015|Reflection|0 comments

As a Graduate Teaching Fellow and doctoral student in the Speech, Language, Hearing department at CUNY, I was assigned, in August of 2014, to teach undergraduate Anatomy & Physiology of the Speech Mechanism at Lehman College in the Bronx. Having never taught the topic before, I had to work diligently and quickly to study the chosen text, design the course, and build a syllabus. Then I had to hustle to stay at least a couple of weeks ahead of my eager undergrads, as well as the grad students taking the course as  a pre-requisite for entry to the Master’s program in Speech Language Pathology. Fast forward to December of 2014….and the course was a terrific success. Whew. Disaster averted, at least in my eyes. At last I could relax a bit, teach the same course in the Spring of 2015, and get on with my own studies and voice research.

When designing my personal class schedule for the Spring, it turned out that I needed one more 8000 level doctoral seminar toward my degree, but nothing offered in my department piqued my interest. Being allowed to take one seminar outside of our area of expertise, I began a computer search of potential seminars in other departments of the Graduate Center. So I came across a course that looked pretty cool and very interesting; “Mapping The Futures of Higher Education”. The description stated that this was the first-ever course being offered by the newly formed CUNY Futures Initiative, was historic in nature (gulp), would be co-taught by Distinguished Professor Cathy Davidson and former GC President and Acting-Chancellor William Kelley, and that I’d need permission to get in. So I wrote an email to Cathy Davidson and requested entry to the course. She wrote back immediately and told me that there was an application process underway and that there was little chance I’d get in. Though disappointed, there was little to do other than to restart my search for the perfect doctoral seminar. But Cathy wrote back the next day that a student might be dropping out and that there could be room for me after all. She asked me to wait patiently for two days to see if they could get me in, and two days later, they did. So in January of 2015 my journey with “Mapping the Futures of Higher Education” began.

Remember, I was looking forward to a pretty easy sail through my undergrad Anatomy course. But Cathy Davidson, Bill Kelly, and the Futures Initiative crew had something entirely different in mind. We were to completely rethink the way we were going to teach our undergraduate classes. What?? Our courses were to be reinvented as peer-driven exercises that incorporated innovative pedagogies and engaged the students in ways never before imagined. What?? We were to establish online forums that would encourage our students to blog about the new methodologies and about what worked, what didn’t work, and what could be different. What?? In addition, we were all to participate in the “CUNY Maps of New York” and put our undergrads “on the map” in as creative a way as possible. Oh my God. My breeze through this semester of undergraduate teaching was now going to be completely and utterly overwhelming, time-consuming, and new. How was I to reimagine and design a course for which the syllabus had already been written?

My most immediate and important task was to get my undergraduates enthusiastically on board. This would not be so simple. A&P, as it is commonly known, is probably one of the most dreaded classes for a speech major; a required hard science class that often has a high failure rate. Pressure to succeed is intense and the jockeying for an A is evident from the very first day. I decided that I might best catch everyone’s attention with the lure of extra credit. But it would need to be really worthwhile to get them excited about it. So my initial proverbial carrot was the changing of a lowest quiz grade to a 100. That offer garnered gasps of delight, so I knew I was off to a good start. Almost immediately, 28 of 34 students took me up on the offer and decided to take this “Mapping the Futures” journey with me. We started that very first day with an introduction to Think-Pair-Share, which was new to everyone and a huge success. The students loved the idea that I was interested in hearing what they had to say. It was as simple as that. Here’s the blog post recap of that day.

Meanwhile, back in the graduate seminar classroom, my colleagues and I were collaboratively designing our own syllabus for the semester. After some intense brainstorming, we decided to focus on four main areas of pedagogical interest: Assessment, Student-Centered Pedagogy, Professors and Persistence, and Embodiment: A Somatic, Improvisatory, and Contemplative Approach, the latter being the group to which I was assigned. We agreed that each module would run for two weeks and  would be facilitated by three class members. After each first week of the module, we would all take the lessons learned to our undergraduate classrooms and would then report back the following week. What follows is a description of how the four modules were integrated into my undergraduate classroom and the responses of my students.

The first module, Assessment, led by Irene, Maria, and Janey, introduced me to the concepts behind formative (low stakes) and summative (high stakes) assessment. Having never taken a formal course in education, I had never actually heard of the terms, nor was I familiar with any of the research on the topic. And with a BA in Microbiology under my belt, I had had quite a bit of experience with high stakes educational environments. You can imagine my relief to realize that my weekly A&P quizzes were considered a form of formative assessment! We learned so much from Irene, Maria, and Janey that day and I left with my head spinning about how I could introduce this topic to my Lehman undergrads. So I decided to present a very brief Power Point lesson to bring them up to speed. You can find that here: A&P Assessment

After the brief talk on types of assessment, I led a Think-Pair-Share exercise in which I asked the students questions about their thoughts on the different types of assessment that A&P was using. You’ll find details of that session in this blog post.

Two weeks later we were led in a fascinating discussion on Student-Centered Pedagogy (which was actually open to the public and streamed live from the GC!) by colleagues Danica, Hallie, and Michelle. Again I was introduced to so many pedagogical theories that were new to me. My biggest take-away from this session was how very important it is for the students’ class activities to be experiential. This isn’t always so easy to do in a hard science class that doesn’t have a lab. And frankly, given that it’s an anatomy class, the best experience would be a trip to a medical school cadaver lab. But that’s not likely with a group of undergrad speech majors. So we did the next best thing and we created the “living larynx” in the Bronx. You can read about that in this post. But before we actually got to our student-centered activity, I decided to repeat the successful experience of a brief Power Point presentation to introduce the topic: Student-Centered Pedagogy.

The third module, Professors and Persistence, ably led by Rachel, Natalie, and Evan, concerned itself mostly with life barriers that students and professors in major urban universities often have to deal with. Evan offered sobering statistics about the economic hardship with which many CUNY students contend. In our Lehman classroom, I decided to have a less formal discussion this time. We used Think-Pair-Share as a means of getting everyone in the classroom to express what particular barriers were challenging them In an added twist, I had everyone pass the T-P-S cards around the room very rapidly so that no one would know whose card they actually had. Then I had everyone read aloud the sentences on the card in front of them. Each student’s intimate concerns were given voice in the room yet everyone remained anonymous. The students absolutely loved it. As a follow-up to that class, I posted (on our A&P@Lehman site) a detailed list of services that are available to the Lehman students, from computer assistance to science tutoring to career and mental health counseling.

Before moving on to the final module, I wanted to mention that we had also spent time during each class familiarizing ourselves with the CUNY Map Of New York project. Getting the students accustomed to the mapping site took some diligence, but we finally got everyone added to our map. This mapping exercise was focused on the area of New York in which everyone lived. The result is that our map goes from Brewster in the north to Brooklyn in the south, with a visit to Fort Lee, NJ in between!

In addition to mapping, these A&P students became prolific bloggers!  Almost none of them had done so before and once they got a taste of it, there was no turning back. Check out our A&P@Lehman page here. There 38 posts and 227 comments!

The final module of the semester, Embodiment: A Somatic, Improvised, and Contemplative Approach, was facilited by Ryan, Hilarie, and myself. What an amazing experience this was for all of us. I was personally responsible for the section on contemplative pedagogy, and boy, did I learn a lot about this fascinating topic. My particular section involved a focused-attention meditation exercise used to develop an “organ of perception”. The wrap-up of our two-week session, written by Hilarie, can be found here. As for my Lehman undergrads, I had actually used them as guinea pigs for my meditation experiment the week before. We did a ten-minute focused-attention meditation using meditation bells and did the same picture perception discrimination task. Their response was amazingly positive and is documented throughout the class blog.

Another aspect of this course is that we were required to write a syllabus that would incorporate the many new and innovative ideas that we learned throughout the semester. Though I’m not exactly sure how this will all play out in real time, I will always have this semester as a model upon which to build. And if something doesn’t quite work out, to quote Cathy Davidson, “we’ll just do a work around”. Here’s to the Fall of 2015: A&P Syllabus Fall 2015. Those lucky A&P students!

For a final class project, I created a piece of map art that playfully overlaps an illustration of the speech mechanism on to the map of New York, takes a geo-political jibe at the commonly held notion that Manhattan is the power center of New York City, and gives voice and power to my students at Lehman College and to all the people of the Bronx who might feel disenfranchised. You can view the entire project here.

To wrap up, my semester with “Mapping The Futures…” has been an extraordinary experience. To be sure, there were moments when I thought I would lose my mind, moments when I wished I had taken something less time-consuming, and moments when I dreamed of coasting through an easy second semester of A&P. But then I wouldn’t have learned so many new things, or grown, or changed. Yes, “Mapping The Futures” has changed me, made me an even better teacher, and encouraged me to be more inquisitive than ever about new ways of thinking and learning. Thank you Cathy, Bill, Katina, Lauren, Shawn, Lisa, Michael, Kalle, Maria, Janey, Irene, Danica, Hallie, Michelle, Rachel, Natalie, Evan, Ryan, and Hilarie. What a ride.

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