Minutes before class about to start, I heard some commotion coming from one side of the classroom. I went to investigate and learned that there was a disagreement between two students, and it got to a point where it was no longer a private matter. I had to step in and intervened to keep it from escalating. I ended up separating the students and put them on the opposite side of the classroom. That took about 10 minutes. Once again, I find myself starting class late.
I noticed my class was different at this session, tenser. Students were less willing to share their thoughts, and when they did, it was more of a brief response than deep reflections. I think that the conflict before the start of the class had set the mood for the rest of the class session.
During this class session, not only did I start late, but I also was not able to create a stress-free environment for my students to learn.
At the next class session, I noticed that one of my students came to class and just put her head down on her desk. When I asked her to join the class, she sat up and just stared blankly at me. She was one of my more outspoken students, and her behavior concerned me, so much so that I asked the class to take a break before class even started so that I could chat with her privately.
After some discussion, I learned that the student’s parents just got a divorce, and, among other things, she was concerned about her housing situation. She had no idea if she has a place to stay by the end of the week. I asked her to stay after class, and I shared some resources at our institution with her. The session went better this time, with more meaningful discussions, but my mind was preoccupied. I did not do as well as I had hoped and certainly was not as attentive as I could be.
That was how my semester went; calm days punctuated by chaos and challenges. On the calm days, we started class on time and had great discussions. We cast punctuality aside and focused on getting through the lesson on the more chaotic and challenging days.
With each session, we grew a little closer as a class, and we grew together. With each passing class session, I began to place less emphasis on punctuality and began to focus more on what matters most to me, providing a space for my students to voice their thoughts and share their stories.
As I get to know more about my students, I learned about the incredible challenges and adversities they are going through. Some of my students are homeless. Other students are struggling with chemical dependency. Still, others are trying to get away from violence, and some worked long hours just to get by.
I learned that life happens while one is busy trying to get an education, and fortunate are those who have the resources to put life on hold for a while as they pursue knowledge. I also learned that it is impossible to create a completely stress-free environment, and I should not try. Doing so is not only an exercise in futility; it also negates my students’ experiences. My students live in a stress-laden world, and our classroom should acknowledge that reality.
Still, even with all of these challenges and adversities, these students showed up to class. I was, and still am, deeply awed by their incredible dedication and strengths. These students had so many experiences and stories to tell, and I did not do a good job providing them space to do it. If only I could extend the class time, I could provide my students time to reflect.
Then one day, it hit me. I started asking, why must education be confined to a point in time and particular space? Why must education be limited to the four walls of the classroom?
For that matter, why must acquiring knowledge be a lone journey? I concluded that it does not have to be, and began to structure my class differently.
The first thing I did was to leverage the discussion forum within our course management system. I began to post questions within the forum and asked my students to share their thoughts there. As this was an online activity, I extended the time students have to answer my questions. Instead of giving students a few hours to compose their thoughts, I gave them the whole week to do so. Additionally, the forum allowed students to post anytime they are able, day or night. I also asked students to reply to other student’s postings. Doing this helps increase peer-to-peer interactions and build our online community.
The second thing I did was came up with creative assignment ideas. One such assignment was the family podcast. In this assignment, I asked students to share their family stories via audio recordings. I provided students with guiding questions and encouraged them to interview family members if they did not know the answer to the questions. I had such positive responses to this assignment. Some students shared their family stories alone, while others interviewed their family.
Another assignment centered around values. In this assignment, I asked students to interview, via video, someone close to them about an important value they live by and why. I also got positive responses from this assignment. My students interviewed friends, parents, partners, and even their children. With this assignment, I created an opportunity for my students to invite an important person in their lives to walk the educational journey with them, albeit briefly.
I also asked my students to create a digital story about a community of their choosing. Most of my students are non-traditional students (i.e., older, working adults), and I know they value practicality.
The digital storytelling assignment allowed my students to put what they learned in class to practice and, at the same time, allowed for creativity, self-exploration, and real-world problem-solving.
This assignment was particularly challenging for my students due to the amount of effort required. Not only did they need to do the necessary research about their community, but they also had to learn how to use new technologies. My students completed the assignment honorably. However, the experience could have been better if they have better tools to use for this project.
I believe an easy to use, animation tool like Squigl would help reduce the stress and make the assignment more enjoyable for my students.
Overall, I was able to end the semester on a positive note. My students gained valuable skills, created lasting friendships, gained experiences, and most importantly, learned a lot about themselves. They told me as much. I provided more opportunities for all my students to voice their thoughts and share their stories. This is my primary motivation for teaching. I also learned that chaos is okay.
About the writer
Professor Dung Mao PhD is an experienced Instructional Designer at Northwestern Health Sciences University. He serves as an expert advisor on the Squigl team.