Teaching from a place of respect,
equity, and compassion
In light of recent world events, I want to assure our community that the resources coming from the Centre for Teaching and Learning will always come from a place of respect, equity, and compassion. We are committed to helping UBC educators create welcoming and supportive environments for every learner, regardless of religious belief, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, or racial or ethnic background.
Discussions about society absolutely have a place in our classrooms, in any and all disciplines. UBC educators and students must be able to have critical, scholarly discussions about hatred, racism, oppression, colonialization, and more. These are not easy conversations for educators to initiate or moderate, and the CTL is ready to share our resources and seek out other support if necessary.
We are proud to be part of this teaching and learning community. We are grateful for the opportunity to contribute.
Peter Newbury, Ph.D.
Director, Centre for Teaching and Learning
Sr Advisor, Learning Initiatives
Notes about how and why I wrote it:
This is most definitely not the first draft. Or the second. Or the third. The first version was much longer. My boss, the Provost and VP Academic at UBC Okanagan, Cynthia Mathieson, sent back a “less is more” revision. Remarkably, but not surprisingly, all the phrases and sentences I’d struggled the most to write were removed. The ones I wrote easily and with conviction are still here. Imagine that, huh?
Several other statements have come from UBC this week, like this and this from UBC President Santa Ono and another from UBC Okanagan Deputy Vice Chancellor, Deborah Buszard. They mention respect, diversity, and inclusion and share the concerns of my campus and my institution. I felt it was important to include compassion, too, because every instructor I know cares about the success of their students.
Revisions flipped back and forth between “These are not easy conversations…” and “These may not be easy conversations…” In my experience observing other instructors, and definitely in my own classroom, these are not easy conversations to initiate and moderate. I’ve been fortunate to see some excellent class-wide discussions about racism and I can tell you, that instructor (I’m looking at you, Simeon) worked hard to design that lesson and worked hard to facilitate the discussion. He made it look easy and natural – that’s one of the reasons students genuinely and thoughtfully engaged. So, I advocated for the bolder statement – “these are hard” – and the Provost respected it. (I’m very grateful for the trust she puts in me.)
It was important that my name appear at the bottom of the statement. The newsletter comes from my centre so ultimately, everything has my name under it eventually. I wanted it to be explicit, though, so people know this is what I stand for. And to let the campus know this is what they can expect from everyone of the people in my centre. I also want to let the people in my centre know this my expectation for them and that I’ll support them if someone questions their motivation for the support they provide.
I deliberately added “ability” to the “regardless of religious belief, sexual orientation, gender identity, or racial or ethnic background” phrase often found in statements like this. Students and educators with different abilities need the same respect, equity, and compassion when it comes to teaching and learning.
Oh, and the Oxford comma. It’s now part of my style guide. I use it in emails, documents, and blog posts. Having declared to myself that it’s what I do, I no longer pause at the end of a list, wondering if this is or isn’t a place where I could or couldn’t, should or shouldn’t, add a comma. Saves me a tiny bit of cognitive load I can use elsewhere.
Outcomes and feedback
I’ll let you know what I hear as more and more people open their email…
Every one of our students brings their own identity – age, gender, ability, language, ethnic background, orientation, experiences, knowledge, skills. You want to recognize and support and build on each student’s strengths but how do you support one student without accidentally alienating others?
The CIRTL Network recently expanded from 23 to 46 institutions and this meeting would be the first time everyone was together. Bob Mathieu, Director of the Network, asked me to run some kind of “getting to know you” icebreaker early on the first day of the meeting. I’m a big fan of icebreakers, maybe not as a student (I hated it when my professors did anything like this) but definitely as an instructor. Icebreakers let you kickstart the learning community you’re going to spend the next 6, 10, 13, 16,… weeks building, maintaining, and relying on in your class. In my opinion, icebreakers are also an opportunity to introduce students to the kinds of thinking, communicating, and collaborating they’ll be doing for the rest of the course. In other words, yes, I’d do an icebreaker at the CIRTL meeting. But it has to be meaningful. Authentic. Inclusive. Valuable. I came up with an idea and I’m grateful and honoured by the trust Bob put in me to go ahead and push my new colleagues, potentially upsetting some of them:
Coming up at #cirtl: I jigsaw the sh*t out of engaging the diverse experiences of all – students and instructors – in the learning of all.
A detailed description of the jigsaw activity, mostly so I can remember what I did because I’d really like to do it again. I’ve written about jigsaw activities before so if you’re not familiar with them, you might want to take a look.
A summary of the remarkable input I received from my 100+ colleagues.
The documents and other resources I used, in case you want to try something like this yourself.
1. Exploring student diversity
In a jigsaw, recall, participants first build/refresh their knowledge of one particular case or example from a collection (like a collection of 4 artists, 5 calculus/integration problems, 6 National parks,…) Then they gather in groups containing one representative of each case or example to share what they know and learn from others.
For the CIRTL meeting, the examples were 6 students you might encounter in your class:
Each meeting participant was assigned to one of these students according to which coloured worksheet they found in their meeting information packet. The meeting room was set up with tables with 6 chairs, with a coloured/lettered sign on each table. As participants entered the room, they sat at a table with their colour/letter/student.
In Part 1 of the jigsaw, I asked everyone to take 10 minutes to introduce themselves to their new colleagues and then reach consensus on the advice they’d give to a new instructor to
assure their particular student they’re welcome to contribute to the class
build on that student’s diverse voice, strengths, experiences
what not to do
When I said, “…You’ve got 10 minutes. Go!” the room flipped from hesitant, anxious silence to loud, engaged, boisterous conversations. It was great!
As we approached 10 minutes, I reminded everyone to write down their group’s best advice on their worksheets [available below] so they’d have notes/reminders when they moved to Part 2 of the jigsaw. At 10 minutes, everyone re-arranged themselves into one-of-each-student groups (quickly and easily accomplished because of the coloured/lettered paper: look for a group without your colour and sit there!)
I asked them to introduce themselves to 5 more new colleagues and then take turns addressing each of the 3 prompts — assuring students they’re welcome, building on their diverse contributions, and what not to do. Notice I didn’t ask them to go around with the advice for their students, one after another. That would invite each person to talk once, for a while, and then not contribute again. And the representative of the last student might not have time. (Similarly, you’d ask your students to take turns describing the medium preferred by each artist, not all about Picasso, then all about Rodin, then…) I gave them about 20 minutes — many more conversations this time!
At the end, I asked them to hand-in their worksheets with all their advice and notes and ideas. My plan was try to summarize what they discussed and report back the next day.
In terms of an icebreaker, I think this worked really well. There was no way anyone would be able to introduce themselves to 100 others with any chance of remembering anything. Instead, I opted for deeper, memorable connections with 10 new colleagues. The jigsaw activity met my other criterion, too, that the activity would engage them in an authentic, meaningful discussion, because teaching people to recognize and celebrate the diversity of their audiences is one of CIRTL’s core ideas.
2. So what did they say?
My colleagues wrote 2400 words in 420 responses on their worksheets. I know, I know, I should have approached these data clean and unbiased, ready to let them speak for themselves. Realistically, though, I wasn’t going to be able to properly analyze the responses in the time between Day 1’s conference dinner and the start of Day 2.
I needed a strategy in order to get something done. So I cheated and when looking for the presence (or absence) of something:
What I hoped NOT to find was special advice for students of colour, special advice for students with disabilities, and so on for each student, even if that advice seemed helpful. Why not? Because I fear that in carrying out those recommendations, an instructor would call out the students of colour, the students with disabilities, and each of the others and treat them differently:
“Alicia [the woman of colour], could you tell us what a black person would think of this?”
“Brian [who needs a laptop], you come sit down here at the front where you won’t distract other students with your laptop”
Instructors trying to connect and support their students but may end up doing more damage than if they’d done nothing at all.
What I hoped for, and gloriously found, was the same advice on every worksheet, advice that supports all students and treats all students fairly:
what not to do
ask them to speak on behalf of their race/culture
how to assure each student they’re welcome to contribute to the class
know students names (perhaps via icebreaker where they give their preferred names) [I’ve written elsewhere about the incredible relationship you build when you learn your students names.]
provide clear, specific instructions, expectations, structure for ALL students
how to build on each student’s diverse voice, strengths, experiences
have student highlight their own strengths, potential, life experiences
“build a community where students value others’ perspectives and listen to each other”
That last suggestion? Wow. If that was the ONLY sentence that came out of this 45-minute icebreaker activity, I’d call that a success.
The excellent news is you don’t need a huge toolbox of techniques, one for each student. Instead, the same behaviours and strategies — respect, acknowledgement, structure, equity — support every student.
3. My diversity jigsaw resources
If you have the opportunity to run a diversity-awareness workshop or discussion with instructors, and are interested in using a jigsaw approach, here are the resources I created for mine. They’re shared under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License so you’re welcome to adopt and adapt, with a link back to me, thanks.
worksheets (PDF) – Each participant received a coloured worksheet in their conference info packet
I went to a day-long retreat where the participants, about 20 of us, were deliberately selected to represent a wide range of backgrounds, experiences, and expertise – all the stakeholders in big project. The retreat organizer suggested each person prepare a 5-10 minute presentation about what they’ll bring to the project and what they’re hoping to get out of it. I was there to represent the teaching and learning support my center provides to instructors.
I had nightmar—, uh, visions of participant after participant clicking through PPT after PPT. The educator in me didn’t want that to happen so I decided to do something active to give my colleagues a better understanding of what I do. They would experience it rather than listen to me describe it. You know, active learning.
(For the record, PPT after PPT was NOT what happened. People talked and distributed some hand-outs. Better that I was prepared, though.)
That’s when I remembered a really interesting and engaging activity I did during a workshop from Kimberly Tanner: card sorting. The idea is, you give each group of 2-4 participants a short stack of cards. Not playing cards but, for example, 9 index cards, one item on each card. In Kimberly’s workshop, the cards were 9 different superheroes. You ask the groups to sort the cards into categories — any categories they want — with just a couple of rules: there has to be at least 2 categories; there can’t be 9 categories (ie, you can’t put each card in its own category.) Well, there are more rules but that’s all I needed for my version.
Then something interesting happens. You’ve carefully chosen the cards so that the items have both surface features (these are superheroes with primarily green costumes, these are mostly blue, these mostly red) and deep features (these are Marvel superheroes, these are DC.) How people sort the cards reveals their level of familiarity and expertise with the content, and gives each participant ample opportunity to share that knowledge with their group-mates.
Back to my card sorting task: I made 9 cards, each one giving the name of a course, the course description, and the format of the course meetings (lectures, labs, discussions, seminars, online, etc.) Thanks, btw, to my colleague Dominique Turnbow for the great advice about what to put on the cards.
So, 9 courses. Please sort them into more than 2 but less than 9 categories:
There were lots of surface features that could be used:
STEM vs Social/Behavioral/Economic Sciences vs Arts & Humanities
those with discussion sections vs those with labs
which UC San Diego Division they fit in: Biological Sciences, Physical Sciences, Engineering, Social Sciences, Arts & Humanities, Medicine, etc.
(I forgot to put class size on the cards – d’oh! – but that would be another way to sort them: small, medium, large, ridiculous enrolment)
I was expecting some of those “surface” sorts but my colleagues blew through those surface features and quickly re-sorted based on deeper features. Honestly, the categories they invented and the categories I made up ahead of time (in case they needed an example) are mixed up in my memory but here are some deeper features (analogous to “color of superhero costume” and “superhero publisher”)
amount of active learning in typical classes
amount of close reading required
amount of writing required
We took 5-10 minutes to sort and then another 10 minutes to report out. Sure, I went over my 10-minute slot but the schedule was very flexible (by design).
I think the activity went great. It gave participants, many of whom were strangers to each other, an opportunity to share their backgrounds and expertise with each other. It revealed the breadth of knowledge in the room. And it gave everyone involved a reminder to look past the surface features of our meeting and project – who will be responsible for this or that, how many offices will be required, what budget will this come from – and look at the big picture: supporting learning.
Details about implementation
(These details are mostly for me so I’ll remember what to do next time. If you’re thinking about running a card-sorting activity, you might find them helpful, too.)
I started with a spreadsheet to help me select sufficient courses that covered the surface and deeper features I wanted. I printed it out and had it with me during the activity so I could remember why I’d included the courses and what I anticipated as surface / deeper features.
I wrote the course descriptions in Word as 2″ x 4″ labels, printed the labels, and stuck them to index cards. This made it easy to create as many stacks as I needed:
What do you notice about the stacks? Right, the missing corners. Each stack has a different missing corner so I can easily reset the cards into stacks. Can you imagine the tedious task of sorting 8 x 9 = 72 virtually identical cards into stacks? No, thank-you!
There were 2 main camps of people at the retreat, plus a number of important “third parties.” As I began the activity, I formed groups of 2-3 with at least one person from each camp.
I used some old fridge magnets to make 9 magnets, one for each course. When the groups reported out, I quickly arranged the magnets on a handy whiteboard so I could hold it up for the others in the room to see: