Play Doh

This weekend I visited CSU Monterey Bay for Teaching 21st Century Students, the culminating conference of the university’s three-year Collaborative Alliance for Postsecondary Success, a partnership with two of its main feeders, Cabrillo College and Hartnell College.  I wanted to go because the alliance has been testing new approaches to remediation — a stumbling block throughout the CSU and CCC systems — and because they’re turning next to transfer coursework in lower-division GE.  That’s where I work, and after remediation it’s the next main area where the students leak out.

California Community Colleges are “open access,” so remediation can begin way, way back.  Basic classes in math and English have to serve students with little proficiency and even less self-efficacy, who see these subjects as their lifelong enemies.  As Cabrillo instructor Elizabeth White put it, anonymity in these settings is a typical defense:  students show up, obey, blend in . . . and then, once safely below the radar, quietly stop showing up.

She beats this with a range of tools, including – literally – Play Doh.  When I got into the room, watching for ideas we might redeploy into the GE transfer curriculum, I was handed a card with an image on it, and written directions to sculpt what it depicted (in my case a baseball cap) without asking for help from the facilitator.  I was late to the session, and noticed that focus in the room was intense.  No one was talking.  It was unsettling, and not unintentionally, as we learned during the debrief that immediately followed.  Her students get the same discussion period, after each idiosyncratic experience.  And, like ours, once the spell is broken the room gets quite loud.  You can’t really stay shy.

Elizabeth spends the first two weeks of each semester in exercises like this: weird activity, then shared reflection, facilitating discussion among the unaccustomed.  She says it’s her hardest work, drawing people out, modeling creativity and risk taking, but also public introspection.  No one knows what to expect, so the ingrained self-images of good-at-school or not-good-at school don’t apply.

 And above all, after two weeks everyone knows each other.  You know that if you disappear, people will notice.

Elizabeth is working with people for whom English is often a second language, and while the forced interaction may improve speaking confidence, the real benefit is in student persistence.  By the time her courses get around to traditional grammar, her students are committed.  Systemwide course completion is at or below 50%; she usually hits closer to 75.

It was impressive, and also a sobering reminder that genuine access means committing to this kind of full-spectrum teaching.

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3 thoughts on “Play Doh

  1. While I do work with ACE students, my assignment is in the Cabrillo Writing Center. Much of what I do has been inspired by Skip Downing and On Course as well as my own instructors and mentors.

  2. I am happy to say that I know Elizabeth. Her passion and her approach are absolutely not accidents. She wants her students to succeed because it is deeply important to her. Thanks for writing this post.

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