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CTI Workshops foster faculty teaching community

To support faculty preparation for spring semester, the Center for Teaching Innovation (CTI) hosted two series of workshops entitled What Works in the weeks before the start of the term. The workshops brought together faculty from across campus to discuss successful teaching strategies from fall courses, as well as ways to adapt them to the challenges of the spring 2021 teaching context.

CTI developed What Works for In-Person Teaching with Remote Students and What Works for Online Teaching out of the knowledge that instructors worked extremely hard to teach in new and difficult circumstances last fall. Each series focused on 4 areas: Group and Collaborative Assignments, Active Learning, Assessment, and Building Community.

“We heard many stories from faculty about the myriad challenges, but also about creative approaches that worked,” said Rob Vanderlan, Sr. Associate Director at the CTI. “These workshops allowed faculty to share those hard-won lessons about what worked best to engage students, develop a sense of community, and create a meaningful learning experience for our students."

Across all the workshops, coming together was a common thread. In her presentation, Sahara Byrne, Professor in the Department of Communication, discussed the “proximity pods” she tested in her Comm 1101 (Introduction to Communication) class.

“The students online could all see each other’s faces and talk very closely,” said Byrne, “but I found, strangely, that at least for freshmen, with masks in the classroom and social distancing, it was more difficult to create community [among in-person students] and get to know each other, than it was for the students online.”

Byrne also required her students to join a campus club or activity. This especially helped freshmen feel more connected to the campus community.

Similarly, Jason Simms, Assistant Professor in Performing and Media Arts, noted the importance of acknowledging the challenges, both those he faced as the instructor in PMA 3630 (Scenic and Lighting Design for Performance Studio I) and those his students encountered.

“The thing I think is really crucial in this time is humanness. Not being afraid to express emotions,” said Simms, “acknowledging what everyone is going through.”

Addressing one challenge presented by the Zoom classroom setting, Derrick Spires, Associate Professor of Literatures in English, used music to set the tone for his ENGL 1158 (Freshman Writing Seminar: Democracy in Hamilton’s America) and create a background while students entered the virtual classroom.

“I played [a clip of the Jackson State University marching band] around October because we were all in the middle of the quarantine blues, and I was missing all the stuff that came with being in college in the fall,” said Spires. “It's my way of setting a tone, but also filling what can be an awkward silence as people are coming into the space.”

Spires also saw his music as an icebreaker; students would nod their heads to the music, laugh, or otherwise react, putting them at ease before class.

Over 200 faculty attended the CTI workshops, and many have joined the Faculty Online Community for Teaching (open to all faculty) to continue the discussions sparked by the presentations. For more on the ideas mentioned here and many others, see the recordings of the What Works workshops on the CTI website. Please contact the CTI for more information about building community in the classroom or other teaching questions.

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