Universal Design for Learning – Showcasing Creativity and Embracing Different Learning Styles!

By Karen Oeh

As an undergraduate student at San Jose State University in the 90s, a lecture style classroom made it difficult for me to retain information shared by the professor.  I used a tape recorder to record lectures and rewrote pages of information in a notebook to strengthen my success as a visual learner.  Fortunately, undergraduate Anthropology courses involved interesting hands-on projects and engaging lab activities.  I fondly remember an experiential learning activity in my 7 am course, Archaeology.  For a group project, each student was tasked with gathering acorns, and we transformed the acorns into bread.  We recreated the methods of the indigenous Ohlone tribe to understand traditional resources and lifeways.  This practical knowledge appropriately applied to my early career as a Field Archaeologist employed in Cultural Resource Management in the San Francisco Bay Area, home of the Ohlone Costanoan.

For over 30 years, this activity stuck with me because we effectively applied our knowledge through a hands-on approach to learn cultural values and break down stereotypes.  I asked myself how I can provide activities for my online students to showcase their creativity and benefit those with different learning styles to ensure they also remembered the course material. I also wanted to develop fun learning games about course topics with students experiencing interactive methods of “digging in the dirt.”

The answer to this question came when I learned about and aligned my Introduction to Archaeology course to the Peralta Online Equity Rubric.  One of the rubric criteria, Universal Design for Learning, emphasizes that faculty recognize that students will complete course activities, review content, and learn in different ways, each unique to the student.  For successful outcomes, we must incorporate three core principles; multiple means of representation, action, and engagement.  (Describing the Peralta Equity Rubric, October 2020)

One idea was to design a discussion asking students to replicate Paleolithic hand art as Experimental Archaeologists.  I was excited to offer a lesson using materials at home to demonstrate how art was made thousands of years ago. To pair with their discussion of visual art, I also added an assignment on this topic with a virtual field trip exploring different sites to look more closely at the Paleolithic culture and symbolism found on cave walls.

In our discussion of Paleolithic cave art, students embedded images of their negative hand-prints and wrote about the process of mixing ingredients and blowing “paint” through a straw.  Students reflected on their cultural and personal symbolism displayed in contemporary society.  This “gallery walk” of shared imagery created a positive learning community through practical applications.  Students experienced a visual representation of different artwork and read supportive feedback for a deeper learning experience.  Also, this shared experience enabled me to connect creativity to understanding.  Here are some examples of student reflections that demonstrate learning comprehension:

“My personal symbolism is displayed through the art on my walls that reflects my cultural heritage, posters from campaign rallies and social justice organizations and the books that line my shelves. The objects that I intentionally and proudly display around my home are symbols of who I am and what matters most to me.”

“I had no one around to hold their hand up, so I outlined mine on paper and cut it out.  I spread blue glitter glue on the wall, taped the hand on to the wet spot, put green glitter on my hand, and puffed it onto the wet glue.  It worked fine – especially after I used two more handfuls of green glitter, because it took a lot of material to get anything like the definition in the Cueva de los Manos.”

In another example, I wanted to accommodate students with different learning styles by inviting them to submit poetry for a discussion on the Garbology Project.  Students examined their background and culture with a reconstruction of habits and behaviors from clues in the trash.  By submitting a poem, students dug deeper into their identity and used their voice to express a connection to the material.  The following poem demonstrates that “rather than simply memorizing and repeating information, higher order thinking (HOT) skills ask students to interpret facts through a new lens” (Planbook Blog).

Trash Day

People of culture and care

Of false nails and human hair

Paper bunches and cleaning supplies

Freshly cleaned and sanitized

Where take-out meets seasoned home grown

Plastic caps and paper crowns

Candy wrappers and prescription bottles

Pads and stamps no baby bottles

Dusting off the ash of herb

Not rich no longer poor

Time to put the cans on the curb

Always wanting more

Incoming boxes at the door

Trash day has come and gone

Additionally, peer replies to a discussion poem cultivated inspiration and acceptance as one student commented, “I really enjoyed reading your post as it was considerably unique and insightful. Sometimes it can be hard to write poems, and that is some skill and bravery from your side.”

A “flipped online classroom” may best describe my style of teaching where a learner-centered model takes the form of at-home activities with clear instructions and guidance.  Students take charge of their own learning experience to meet objectives, and through social learning and discussion sharing, they foster a sense of support and rapport.  It was a goal to infuse my excitement of Archaeology and reflect on my role as an online teacher to design engaging lessons that appealed to a diverse group of students.  I reinforced their effort and asked them to reflect on any difficulties when questions arose about our course activities.  Having good communication and clear instructions make these activities rewarding to grade.

In conclusion, the principle for Universal Design for Learning withinthe Peralta Online Equity Rubric motivated me to redesign my Archaeology course to create unique and interactive activities that demonstrate student learning because students can pick the appropriate submission format that fits their learning style. Students can participate in ways that benefit their personal choices and creative abilities to synthesize course information.  By opening the door for opportunities and embracing differences, students maximize their success through individual expression of higher order thinking skills, as demonstrated through the submission of an image and poem.  A student agreed, “I found these to be a great way to truly recognize and validate everyone’s different learning styles and creativity. Yes, I feel that various multimedia approaches are helpful and beneficial and wish all classes offered this.” 

As an “Experimental Instructor,” I want to reach outside the box to create hands-on activities by putting myself into the role of the learner and acknowledge that we all have diverse interests and needs.  Being open to student feedback, adjusting requirements, and communicating my mistakes reinforces trust.  It means a lot to have students share their personal stories and confide in me situations they are facing.  It gives me the opportunity to ensure students feel a connection by being flexible, caring, and engaged in their success.  Teaching and learning is an on-going process, and it’s important to have student confidence as well as value the feedback from students to make necessary changes to remove barriers. 

Karen Oeh

Karen Oeh holds a BA and an MA in Anthropology, and has been an instructor in the California Community College system since 2003, as well as a specialist in online instruction since 2007.  She joined the Kern Community College District in 2017, and teaches online courses for Porterville College and Cerro Coso Community College.  In addition, she has served as a Program Coordinator within the California Community College system for over 23 years, supporting students in ACCESS/TRIO, AANAPISI, Career, and Transfer, and is responsible for tracking data and reporting on the Ecosystem Tools (Cranium Café, NetTutor, and Proctorio), hosting webinars focused on training and equity, and managing the Online College Counseling courses.  She has also worked with CVC-OEI, the @ONE Course Design Academy, has completed the @ONE Peer Online Course Review (POCR) training, serving as a local POCR Reviewer for Porterville College.  She has aligned four courses to the CVC-OEI Rubric and two courses to the Peralta Online Equity Rubric.  Karen was also accepted by the Center for Learning and Applied Research (CLEAR) at Bakersfield College as a 22-23 Research Fellow to conduct a 10-month action research project.  When she is not teaching, Karen devotes her time to her farm in the Santa Cruz Mountains with 3 horses, 2 cats, and 25 chickens.

Mindfulness, Teaching, and What Matters

By Janet Uresti

Over these last few months, I have been spending a lot of time reflecting on my mental and physical health and the time I dedicate to both. Am I on the right track? I truly believe each of us is on this Earth to learn, grow and serve a purpose. Have I served that purpose? Is this a mid-life crisis since I recently turned 40? Is this a fear that I have not accomplished what I am here for?

I’ve tried scheduling my days. I’ve tried “Putting First Things First” and “Beginning with the End in Mind.” (Who doesn’t love Stephen Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People)? But my feelings of inadequacy and fear of failure and fear of saying “No” get in the way of the bigger picture. What if I’m not on the right track? What if I don’t know what I really want?

This summer I decided I was going to get my act together. I started with my physical health. I joined the gym and gave up soda (my one true vice). I knew I needed to become more active, lose weight and feel better. Then, the school year began. I returned to teaching full-time during the day and then two nights a week at Porterville College. Exercise and eating well quickly moved to the bottom of my priority list because I needed to ensure that I spent adequate time with my sons, make sure I am ready for both jobs, and try to fulfill responsibilities in my church and community.

I’ve been overwhelmed. Tired. Feeling alone. Maybe I feel the way a lot of people felt when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. While I was nervous during that time, I loved being with my children more and the idea of not having anywhere to be. The lack of a schedule (on the days I didn’t work) was freeing. 

Last year, as things began to return to “normal” after the pandemic, there was a lot of discussion around social-emotional learning. This fascinated me. I don’t think as a society (or myself) that we saw how hard individuals were during the pandemic because a lot of their needs were being met by the educational system. We sometimes forget Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and how as people we cannot reach self-actualization without having a foundation of physiological and safety needs being met. 

This year started and the rural school I work at gained a social worker who asked teachers if we wanted her to come in for a short “Mindfulness” lesson for 15 minutes, one day a week. At first, I was a skeptic. I am the child of very Conservative parents. As the daughter of a nurse who – even though he served in the Navy in Japan for more than a year – never seemed to believe in Eastern medicine and the overall connection between mind and body, so what would I, or my students, learn from these lessons? But since I was having my own struggles, what can it hurt, right? Anything that will help the students.

The social worker comes in, rings a Tibetan singing bowl at the beginning and end of each session, and reads from a script. Each week the focus is different. Students are asked to focus on their breathing, their body, and their thoughts, and it gives them strategies on how to focus on their thoughts and identify how they’re feeling. 

Again, at first, I thought it was kind of silly, but as I have my own struggles with feeling overwhelmed it helped me to focus and reflect. What is truly important? What is my purpose? Then, when I saw how the students reacted and how seriously they took it and how much they appreciated it, it showed me that this “settling” of mind and body could truly help them be better learners if they felt more at ease and comfortable with themselves and others. It could also help me as their teacher.

It’s interesting how when you’re searching for answers in your life how things seem to come out of nowhere and be applicable to your situation. I do not discuss religion at work (this, however, is a blog post). Soon after I thought about what teaching-and-learning experience I might share, I was studying a religious talk that would be discussed at church that Sunday. It was called “Do what Mattereth Most” and was given by Rebecca L. Craven. The content of the talk is religious, but there was one line that struck me and seemed applicable to this topic. Craven said, “And it’s not about doing more. It’s about doing what matters.”

The next Monday, I attended a Small Schools Conference at the Tulare County Office of Education. The guest speaker was Roni Habib, a former schoolteacher, and alumnus of Harvard University, who gave a presentation titled “Joyful and Resilient Teaching (and Living!)”. His presentation focused on being mindful of ourselves (and students). He modeled how to practice mindfulness in the classroom. He taught us fun games and cheers to share with our students to help them be focused, have fun and be ready for that day’s lessons. He shared the importance of reflecting on what we are grateful for and having our students and ourselves physically write out three things we are grateful for each day and sharing those ideas with one another. If you ever could take a training course with him, I highly recommend it!

I do not have all the answers. I know these are things I will continue to struggle with, but I am getting better at letting people know my needs and advocating for myself. (For example, although it was hard, I had to request to only teach one class in person at PC next semester. I am hoping to spend more time with my boys). There are other areas of my life I am working on prioritizing and maximizing my time and efforts, which is helping me better manage my mental and physical health. Even in my classroom, I am trying to figure out what lessons and strategies will maximize student understanding and growth and what can be left out. What more can I do in my classroom to promote “Mindfulness?” I hope as we continue this journey that we can all remember “… It’s not about doing more. It’s about doing what matters.”

Janet Uresti is an adjunct instructor at Porterville College. Janet was raised in Lemoore, CA, and graduated from West Hills College, Lemoore with an A.A. in Liberal Arts in 2001. She attended California State University, Fresno, and graduated with a B.A. in Mass Communication and Journalism in 2004. She got a job as an education reporter at the Porterville Recorder and worked there for a while when a school district administrator encouraged her to become a teacher. She went on to earn a multiple-subject teaching credential in 2009 from Fresno Pacific University and taught kindergarten for two years and third grade for two years at a small school district in Porterville. After having two boys a year and a half apart, she decided to take some time off but later got a job teaching part-time at an independent study charter school for at-risk teens. It was there that she discovered her passion for helping students gain skills to become college and career ready and she returned to Fresno Pacific University to earn an M.A. in Administrative Services. She taught articulated college and career readiness courses at the school, which helped her get hired at Porterville College as an adjunct instructor in 2019 where she teaches student success courses. She also currently teaches sixth grade at a rural K-8 school.

The Long View of Teaching’s Impact: A Tale of Film School and Pandemic Survival 

By Robert Alan Simpkins 

When I teach my Anthropology classes, I understand that most or all students in those classes will not become Anthropology majors or pursue a career in Anthropology.  My hope is that I will give them something through the class that they will remember, and that might shape how they think or see the world.  What I do not know is what that ‘something’ is, and how it might provide some benefit to them in the future.  In the early weeks of our college’s closure under the pandemic in 2020, I unexpectedly found myself drawing from my early college experiences in an unexpected way, while my family was all at home and unsure when schools and businesses would reopen and if it was safe to venture outside.   

My first semester of college, I was not studying Anthropology.  I was a film major at New York University, where I had received a scholarship.  As a film major, I of course was enrolled in film courses in that semester – which I enjoyed – but also through work study as part of my financial aid was trained as a film projectionist in the Cinema Studies department and had this role for two additional classes that happened to be taught by a husband and wife at the university.  I immersed myself in film that first semester, using the resources of their film library to watch on my own time movies that were not available to me growing up, but had read about in books.  In the era before streaming, this kind of access was thrilling for me.  For a number of reasons (financial, cultural, and personal) at the end of the semester I decided not to continue with the program, and soon after that, I decided not to pursue filmmaking for my education or my career.  I never stopped loving movies, but I never took another film class again. 

A few decades later, in a household full of uncertainty about the future under COVID-19, I was busy learning how to transition my classes to online instruction while my wife and I waited for news from our children’s school about their plans for assignments, technology, etc.  With all of us being home all day every day, and with watching television as something we could all do together, I had an idea: I would create a film school curriculum, and teach our children about film history and improve their cultural literacy.  We had already watched a number of age-appropriate classic films, so I skipped those and made a list of additional films we had never watched together.  I grouped them around themes, with a roughly chronological order.  Each day we would gather in the living room, where I gave a short introduction to the film, providing some details about the making of the film and its cultural significance and influence (minus spoilers).  I was delighted when everyone seemed to enjoy and want to discuss the films, and even more delighted when they spotted the influence of the films on other works later. 

After we worked our way through the silent film era and to the Golden Age of Hollywood, we got to some selections where I was unsure how, for example, our seven-year-old daughter would react to Citizen Kane.  Yet she and my son sat through it without complaint, and she gave it a big thumbs up at the end.  Not long after that our son and daughter were watching a cartoon with a ‘Rosebud’ gag that my son paused and called me in to see.  But re-watching it brought back memories of NYU film school and my time as a projectionist for a professor’s Orson Welles course.  When I was given a choice of classes in which to work as a projectionist, I picked that one in part because although I had seen several of Welles’ films in high school, many were not available on home video and the Cinema Studies film library seemed to have them all.  Reflecting on that class, I remembered how much I enjoyed his lectures, and wondered if it was possible, over three decades later, that he was still teaching.  I searched and quickly found an NYU email address for him, and sent him a message about my time there and his class, and my ‘Kid’s Film School’ concept and how I was drawing from what I learned during that semester in Greenwich Village to share with my family.  His wife’s class was on the cultural history of New York City, and in my reflections I thought of her class too, and decided to try to find her email and share the story with her as well. 

Before long, both had replied to my emails, and thanked me for writing them.  My Orson Welles professor was about to retire after a career as long as my own life.  His wife had been a Dean at another college since I was at NYU, and was already retired.  With so much unknown about the future under the pandemic conditions, I was happy that I was able to share with two teachers from so long ago that their classes didn’t just have an impact on me, I was passing along what I learned to my family, and to our children.  I may not have become a filmmaker, or a film professor, but for a while at home while we sought ways to stay enriched and engaged as a family during tense and uncertain times, I got to play that role.   

As I shared with both teachers in my email:  “While universities, faculty, and administrators may think in terms of their most distinguished alumni when viewing their legacy, I wanted to show how there are these little legacies too, where even a student who spent only one semester in the program absorbed a great deal and appreciated the opportunity and years later found a use for the education in creating the next generation of film-lovers.” 

My Orson Welles professor shared with me in response: “Receiving a note like this at a time like this means a great deal!  Thank you so very much.  I’m so pleased to learn of what you are doing.  We are finding that film, poetry and music….all the arts, really, are such an enormous help in these dark times.  It means a great deal to us to know that our teaching still has some impact after such a long period of time, and that it is being passed from generation to generation.” 

I don’t know what impact my teaching has or will have had on my thousands of students now after more than two decades in this profession, but hope that I have left some of those ‘little legacies’ as well that might manifest themselves in unexpected moments, and that can spread beyond the individual students in my classes, to the people around them.  The time we spend with our students then is about more than what we are teaching at that moment and for that assignment.  It is also about that opportunity to give them something long-lasting and impactful even if they don’t realize it at the time, and even if its value isn’t apparent to them until half a lifetime later. 

Robert Alan Simpkins has been a Professor of Anthropology at Porterville College since 2012, where he also is currently the Academic Senate President and faculty lead for Guided Pathways.  He previously served two terms as the Social Science Division Chair, and organized PC’s CHAP (Cultural and Historical Awareness Program) series for five years.  Prior to coming to PC, he was an adjunct at De Anza College and at San Jose State University.  He has an MA and a PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and BA from San Jose State University.  As an Archaeologist, he is interested in the relationship between roads, architecture, cultural landscapes, and socio-political organization.  His particular focus has been the Golconda kingdom in the Indian Deccan region, which was the subject of his doctoral dissertation and on which he has presented his research internationally and published extensively, most recently in the article “Inferring Road Networks and Socio-Political Change from Elite Monuments of the Golconda Kingdom” in South Asian Studies in 2020.  Although a native of the Bay Area, he enjoys the farms and orchards of the central valley and the proximity to the mountains, and going on drives and exploring the region with his family.  He has a weakness for books, toys, classic movies and animation, art, stories, and anything that he finds amusing. 

Culturally Responsive Teaching, Innovation, and Public Humanities

Photos from the Digital Delano Project

By Oliver A. Rosales

When I was first hired at the Bakersfield College Delano Campus in 2012, I had never actually spent much time in Delano.  As an alumni of Garces High School (Class of ‘98, Go Rams!), I recall visiting Delano as the local high school was on our regular football schedule in the then South Sequoia League.  Between 2005-2012, I completed my PhD in History at UC Santa Barbara, where during the doctoral research phase, I traveled across the country to multiple archives researching California labor and civil rights history.  When I approached the ABD Phase (All But Dissertation), I began presenting my work at academic conferences and attending sessions of other scholars working in the field of U.S. labor and civil rights history.  When the chance to work at the Bakersfield College campus opened up, I was excited because Delano had always been a recurring topic of conversation among scholars doing work on California labor and civil rights.  The legacy of César Chávez and the farm worker movement looms large in Delano and across the San Joaquin Valley; anyone studying Latino history in the twentieth century knows about Delano’s legacy.  After landing the job, I was excited to jump into teaching various history courses focused on the twentieth century, where I could align local history and oral history methods to illustrate to my students that “history is all around them,” often times within their homes or the collective memories of their families.

To somewhat of a surprise, many of my students knew very little about the history of the farm worker movement.  Many of my students, while their families may come from migrant agricultural backgrounds, stem from families of more recent immigrants from the 1980s forward, after the heyday of the farm worker movement had passed.  Still, in Delano, many of my students attended César Chávez High School or Robert Kennedy High School, not realizing that the naming of their school was a direct reflection of the history that occurred within their hometown.

For nearly a decade then I’ve practiced oral history methods with my students.  The design of these assignments has been a culturally responsive approach that taps into the rich histories of agricultural, labor, and migration within student families; historical themes so commonplace to my students regardless of racial, ethnic, or cultural background.  After practicing this method for a few years, however, I began to realize that more could be done in helping address a systemic problem within the region faced by students, a lack of traditional archives. 

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in 2017 funded Digital Delano: Preserving an International Community’s History.  Part of their common heritage series, the grant was focused on expanding digitization efforts in rural underserved communities.  Through that program, Elizabeth Sundby (Delano Campus librarian) and I hosted a series of public events featuring writers and cultural stakeholder groups invested in preserving the history of international migration in Delano.  At these events, aside from creating a public humanities learning opportunity, we hosted digitization events where the public could digitize family historical artifacts.  This was a first step in creating the Digital Delano archive, which we have continuously grown since the grant was implemented. 

Digital Delano served as a spring board for subsequent grant opportunities.  From 2017-2020, Professors Andrew Bond (English) and Josh Ottum (Music) and I co-directed the NEH grant Energizing the Humanities which provided a three year interdisciplinary humanities program for faculty focused on the San Joaquin Valley.  Over 30 faculty participated in the program, having a chance to read and meet authors from diverse interdisciplinary perspectives all invested in writing about California’s Central Valley.  In 2021, the NEH awarded $190,000 to CSU Bakersfield for a Landmarks in American History grant, which will fund 72 teachers from across the United States to have a resident learning experience in Summer 2023 and visit local historical landmarks associated with California farm labor history.  As co-director and lead author for that grant, the ideas generated for the project stem directly from the oral history practices I’ve done at the BC Delano campus for a decade. 

I find my own learning is continuously advanced by embracing culturally responsive teaching in Delano.  I’ve become fascinated by the use of ArcGIS and geospatial technologies and its capacity not only to create new forms of digital archives, but also how technology can be used to visually map communities in new ways.  The intersection of the work I’ve done in Delano and ArcGIS technologies informs my approach to the Whiting Foundation’s Public Engagement fellowship.  This $50,000 grant is currently funding my professional development with ArcGIS technology, as well as providing teacher professional development and public humanities programming in the spring of 2023 related to local landmark sites in the San Joaquin Valley.  I am thankful to my students in Delano for enthusiastically engaging the history of their local communities, as well as to the Bakersfield College and Kern Community College District administration for always supporting faculty innovation.  I am hopeful readers of this blog will consider attending public humanities programs next semester, as well as embracing culturally responsive teaching and innovation in their own classrooms.  There are many opportunities for faculty to be a bridge between student learning, innovation, and stakeholder groups interested in improving educational outcomes across the Kern Community College District.


Author Bio

Oliver A. Rosales, Professor of History and former Faculty Coordinator of the Social Justice Institute at Bakersfield College, earned a B.A. in History at the University of California, Berkeley, M.A. in History at California State University, Bakersfield, and a Ph.D. in History at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is also a former Visiting Faculty at the Bard College Master of Arts in Teaching Program and Visiting Fellow at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Studies at Harvard University. He is contributor to The Chicano Movement: Perspectives from the Twenty-First Century; Civil Rights and Beyond: African American and Latino/a Activism in the Twentieth Century United States; and The Journal of the West. He served on the Nominating Board of the Organization of American Historians and is Board Chair with California Humanities.

Opening Doors with Open Educational Resources

By Clara Hodges Zimmerman

In April 2021, I responded to a call from a colleague at Berkeley City College for collaborators on a project funded by ASCCC Open Educational Resource Initiative (OERI) to write a textbook-style advanced-level OER for students who were learners of English. It was a year into the pandemic and I was back to teaching after having a baby in October. To be honest, I was feeling a little isolated and disconnected from my vocation (although maybe that was just the sleep deprivation!). So, I eagerly emailed back my enthusiastic response and joined eight other community college ESL instructors from around the state interested in filling a gap in the OER/ESL world.


We had several goals in mind as we started.

First, we wanted a text that truly addressed the mix of language and composition skills for a reading-and-writing focused course one level below transfer English composition.

Next, as ESL teachers, we spend a lot of time making materials that address our students’ unique needs and identities, particularly since most ESL textbooks are geared toward an extremely general, international audience. We wanted to create a text that was narrower in its intended audience but reflected the diversity of the students in our classes; it was just our luck that the participants in this project represent rural, urban, small, and large campuses from around California.

Finally, we felt strongly that students need authentic models of student writing as well as other authentic texts not edited for an “ESL audience.” To that end, each of the six chapters in the book contains an unedited student essay and authentic readings from a variety of sources.


Since most of us didn’t know each other, one of the first things we did was discuss and create a values statement to make sure our goals aligned. Central to this statement was a firm belief in the need for broad, equity-minded representation in images and examples used throughout the text and an emphasis on writers and writing that mirrors the diversity of the California Community College population. We also agreed that, because we each bring our own biases to the table, we would keep an open mind throughout the writing process and be open to suggestions for revision. In retrospect, I believe that this discussion was crucial to the success of this project since it provided a focal point for our large team of contributors.

To select content and frame the structure of the book, we pulled course outlines from our colleges’ English composition classes and advanced ESL courses, examined and compared them, and made choices based on what we felt students would need to be prepared with for success in transfer-level English. We also reviewed existing OER for ideas and pooled activities and lessons we’d developed for our own classes. Then, we drafted the chapters. After completing a draft, we peer reviewed each other’s work, filled in any gaps, and put the draft on LibreTexts, our publishing platform. Finally, the book was peer reviewed for content, accessibility, and appropriate licensing by a team at ASCCC OERI.


I was fortunate to be able to present the text with my colleague and project lead at October’s CATESOL conference and, as we prepared, we spent some time reflecting on the project.

We agreed that the process of creating this text was far more intensive and laborious than we had imagined going into it. Since our team was large, weaving together everyone’s voices to create a cohesive text was a challenge. However, we came to think of these different voices as a strength of the text and a feature to highlight. Other challenges were much more mundane; for example, learning how to import and edit the textbook in LibreTexts was a learning curve we hadn’t anticipated. Personally, though, despite the tremendous time and effort spent on this project, I still came away with my cup filled; I felt, and continue to feel, a greater sense of community and am reinvigorated about my vocation.

More than anything, this project underscored for us the power and importance of inter-campus collaboration in service of our students. A shared vision and set of values that reflect a commitment to student success will lead to projects that create an impact in our students’ lives. And, the more high-quality OER that are created, the easier we can meet zero- and low-textbook cost goals for our classrooms.

Now that it’s out in the world, our text will, we hope, be useful in a variety of language classrooms and situations. While we designed the book for an ESL class one level below transfer English, much of the content could be easily adapted for to levels above and below this – in my case, I’m teaching a transfer-level English class this semester and have adapted activities and examples to use in my class. (This flexibility is one of the benefits of using OER; I don’t feel guilty about assigning a text and only using bits and pieces that suit my class’s needs!)

As an English teacher, I love a good call to action. I encourage you to think about creating, adopting, and sharing OER in your own classes as it feels useful and appropriate for your situation. These high-quality resources can help alleviate financial strain on our students, be customized for real students in real classrooms rather than an imagined audience, and create opportunities for valuable cross-campus discussions and collaboration. What are we waiting for? 

We’d love feedback on the text, particularly if you have adopted it in some form in your classroom. You can find Reading, Writing, Research, and Reasoning: An Advanced ESL Text here.

Clara Hodges Zimmerman grew up between Indonesia and California and developed a love of language and learning at a young age. Her family moved to Porterville when she was in high school, and her first college class was English 101A at Porterville College (thank you, Professor Mills)! She has a BA in Anthropology and Sociology from the University of Redlands and MA in English with a TESOL emphasis from Central Washington University. Prior to coming to Porterville College as an adjunct instructor in 2015, she lived and worked in Washington State and Guangxi Province, China. She teaches English, ESL, and Linguistics courses at Porterville College. In her free time, she loves reading, being outdoors, and spending time with her family.

Building Community 15 Minutes at a Time

By Leslie Pelon

I will never forget the first day of my British Literature class during my final undergraduate semester. I was excited to have made it onto the roster from the waitlist the week before, since it was a popular course taught by the most beloved English Professor on campus. I knew the class would be excellent. I had no idea that it would be transformative.

There were almost fifty of us crammed into that basement classroom when Professor Walker came through the door and proceeded to greet us, each by name. No, he did not call roll or go alphabetically. He went down each row, looked each student in the face, and greeted them, “Hi Sarah, nice to see you. Ethan, welcome. Hello, Sam.” At first, I assumed he knew these students from other classes, then that they must all be students who spent a lot of time in the English department offices. It was not until this man whom I’d never met greeted me by name that I realized what was happening. Dr. Walker, a man who taught 200 plus students a semester, had memorized our names and faces off his roll sheet before coming to class.

Ten years later, I still have no idea how he accomplished that feat of memorization. From the moment I stepped into his classroom, I felt seen.

While I have yet to imitate his first-day roll-calling trick, I have worked hard to emulate many of the practices I observed him use in class. And one in particular has made an enormous difference in my classroom cultures – and student outcomes.

When it came time to submit our first writing assignment, Dr. Walker had us sign up for a 15-minute, one-on-one meeting with him. I turned in my writing assignment in the meeting and watched as he read and graded it in front of me. We spent the rest of the time talking about my writing, goals, and concerns about the class.

When we went into lockdown in the spring of 2020, all of us were looking for ways to connect with our students and keep them engaged. I was trying to figure out ways to get to know my students and impact them, when I read an article that mentioned requiring students to attend office hours. I immediately thought of how impactful that 15 minutes with Dr. Walker had been and decided to try it.

Unlike Dr. Walker, I do not grade a paper in front of my students. Instead, starting in the second week of the semester and going through week five, they are each expected to sign up for a slot and meet with me to discuss their final paper topic. I expect them to come having read the assignment instructions and with ideas on topics that might interest them. We usually spend about half the time talking about the final paper and the rest of the time discussing other concerns and interests. The meetings all end the same way, with me asking them to repeat after me and say, “I promise not to suffer in silence.”

I will admit those three weeks of the semester were long and hard. During this semester I have ninety-five students on my rolls, and I met with each one for fifteen minutes. That comes out to about twenty-four hours of student meetings over three weeks. And, of course, there is the rescheduling and the no-shows. That first semester I began doing this I thought, “Well, that was cute, but we are not doing it again.” No way could that much upfront work on my end be worth it.

I was wrong, and I have continued the practice every semester since.

After starting to require these meetings, I have seen my students’ success improve drastically. They do better on the assignment when they meet with me because I can explain it to them and answer questions one-on-one. They show up to student/office hours more often throughout the semester. Because my student has had the chance to get to know me, they have been eager and willing to ask me for help and share their insights. And best of all, I have seen them feel more confident participating in class and engaging with their peers.

Committing to intimidating or time-consuming practices is scary, and I understand why many of my colleagues call me “nuts” when I tell them about these meetings. Still, I am reminded of what I learned as a student in Dr. Walker’s class again each semester. It always pays off when instructors put forth the energy and extra effort to create relationships and connections with students.

Leslie Pelon is an Assistant Professor of History at Porterville College. Before being hired full-time, Leslie had been an adjunct instructor at PC since the Fall of 2019.  Leslie holds a B.A. in History from Brigham Young University and an M.A. in History from Southern New Hampshire University. Her master’s thesis centered on women preachers of the Second Great Awakening. When she is not teaching, Leslie keeps busy performing in plays at the Porterville Barn Theater, listening to audiobooks, and being a dance/swim mom for her two children.

Entering A Brave New Metaworld: VR and Education

By Rachel R. Tatro-Duarte

In 2017, a colleague introduced me to virtual reality (VR). I got an email from him that said, “You have to come to my office and try this VR set!” There was a clear tone of enthusiasm in the email that intrigued me, and while I wasn’t too sure about what VR was, as soon as I could, I went to meet him at his office to try out this exciting new VR technology.

When I put on the goggles riddled with cords connected to a high-end gaming laptop, I was instantly teleported and transformed into a wizard. I was blown away. It was like walking into a world I imagine J.R.R. Tolkien saw as he wrote Lord of the Rings. But this VR world was not imagination; everything I touched was real in that fantastic world; I could interact with the objects in the room just like we do in our physical world. I could also manipulate the objects in a way we can’t do in our physical world. I could make myself as small as a mouse and roam the room as a tiny wizard slipping through cracks in the walls. 

It didn’t take long for me to start thinking about the potential of VR to enhance teaching and learning, especially at the college and university level. It became my mission to get this technology into the hands of our students. 

So, I set up borrowed VR goggles in my office and invited students to come to play VR games with me during my office hours. I had interested students spilling out of my small office and into the hall. My office became a popular place for my students to gather together and explore the limited VR experiences I had to offer.

Together we went to museums to see the Mona Lisa; we teleported to Italy to visit the Sistine Chapel in all its glory and to see what it was like to live on a scaffolding like Michelangelo. We assembled robots and explored the complex human body through CT medical scans. Sometimes, when we just needed to get away from the stresses of finals week, we would teleport to the top of a mountain to view the sublimity of nature and remember that life is big.

Then the pandemic closed my office door. I left my VR goggles to sit still and gather dust for the next two years. 

Today, three years after the pandemic began, as the world eagerly transitions back to face-to-face, the momentum of using VR in the classroom has arrived, and I dare say, it’s here to stay. My office is no longer a rare hub that carries VR goggles for students; the potential of VR caught fire and has made its claim in education. There are now metaversities that offer most or all of their curriculum via VR, such as Moorehouse College, an HBCU in Atlanta. In fact, data suggests that VR has higher levels of engagement, retention, and deep learning in universities and business training.

Let me share a few of my favorite VR experiences I have discovered and plan to use in my classroom:

The Book of Distance

The Book of Distance is a 30-minute animated virtual experience that is both the first and second perspective of a young man leaving Japan for America, hoping for a better life. The experience also uses archival documents and photos to bring the event to life. The experience is also a family folktale shared with the player in story-telling form. Players follow the young man’s journey from Japan and end with his grandson retelling and recreating his grandfather’s life and experiences of being taken from his family and home to living in the Japanese internment camp.

The Key 

The Key is a 15-minute interactive short film/narrative in a first-person perspective with many interactive moments. The poem and the VR experience both focus on journeying into the unknown, the plight of a refugee, facing challenges, and making difficult decisions. Participants will experience a virtual journey from danger to safety in a beautiful yet eerie, dreamlike animated world.

The VR Museum of Fine Arts

Players can get up close and personal with the Mona Lisa (without the limitation of a glass case), Michelangelo’s David, The Quinn Dynasty Terra Cotta Army, Monet’s Water Lilies, etc. 

The Lab

The Lab invites players to test out a variety of VR experiences showcasing the vast potential that VR has to offer, such as virtual travel to various locations like Italy or even the solar system. It allows users to look closely at the human body via CT scans.

Perhaps it’s time for us to — not say goodbye to what learning in the classroom used to look like pre-Covid — but welcome VR, the newcomer, into our brave new post-Covid educational world. As a professor and researcher in VR, I have learned that VR provides a way to bring experiential learning into the classroom in ways we have never been able to do before. It allows users to connect to experiences, build empathy, and enhance learning through knowledge transference. One student described after playing through The Book of Distance that in the VR experience, it felt as though they were “taking on the heaviness of the situation,” and that helped them “start to connect the dots” and better understand poems relating to life in a Japanese internment camp. The VR experience enhanced their ability to empathize and better understand the readings. 

Rachel Tatro-Duarte has a BA and an MA in English Literature and an EdD in Higher Education Leadership. Her dissertation research focused on using learning technologies, specifically Virtual Reality, to enhance deep learning in the higher ed classroom. Rachel has also developed the VR Learning Model, which articulates concatenated stages by which participants experience Adaptability, Transitionality, Fusion, Enhancement, and Knowledge Transference. As a student, Rachel had the opportunity to study Sappho in Greece. As an NEH scholar, she traveled to southern Switzerland and Italy to learn about the Etruscans and early Italy. These immersive experiences allowed her to learn at a deeper level. Rachel hopes to recreate this kind of immersive experiential learning in her classroom using VR. 

Room to Fail

By Robert Alan Simpkins

My first job as a community college instructor came about in an unplanned manner due to a combination of three factors: 1) an unexpected need arose at a nearby college; 2) I met the CCCCO minimum qualifications for the position; 3) a faculty member at the college knew me from graduate school and recommended me to the Dean.  But as may come as no surprise to anyone reading this, I quickly learned that my qualifications and self-confidence (mostly stemming from my successful experiences as a student and a graduate Teaching Assistant) were hardly adequate preparation for the job.  In fact, it was a lengthy trial-and-error process with my students as unsuspecting test subjects that slowly led to my improvements as an instructor.  In some ways, over twenty years later, I feel I still have significant room to grow.  What made it possible for me to be here at all, as a tenured faculty member collaborating on diverse campus and district initiatives, was the support of and patience by key individuals who gave me the room to fail – which I did repeatedly.  Looking back, I suspect that it was the evidence that I was learning from those failures that gave them the confidence to continue supporting my evolution as an educator.  I have in turn tried to bring that insight to my work leading my degree program and adjunct faculty, as a two-time division chair during which time I oversaw some of the largest numbers of adjunct evaluations at my college, and working with a cross-section of colleagues across the college in initiatives, in which sometimes there was no precedent for what we were doing, no road map or template, and in which to succeed at times we also needed that room to fail.

I have so many stories of failure that I could probably fill a book with them, not that I am eager to admit them all.  There is one in particular, however, that I will share here as an example.  In this case, it is not a community college experience, but instead an experience as an adjunct teaching at a four-year public institution, where I taught simultaneous to my community college teaching for just over a decade before coming to my current position at Porterville College.  There I was asked to teach a course that was cross-listed in four departments, and was created by a group of full-time faculty members, and part of the Liberal Studies teacher-prep program.  It was a course that required extensive and interdisciplinary knowledge.  My struggle in it was not with the subject matter, but instead with the pedagogy and student culture.

In the case of the pedagogy, I was provided with a sample syllabus and assignments and asked to follow it precisely, including the use of a specific textbook.  I quickly realized the scope of the course required a massive amount of reading each week, and the expected quiz format was insufficient to representatively sample the material.  I gave the quizzes, and students took them, but I doubted that the quiz scores were any representation of their knowledge of the subject and felt arbitrary.  I tried to encourage them to teach each other by assigning chapters for discussion led by assigned students, seminar-style, which quickly turned disastrous as students came unprepared and I often ended up leading the discussion anyway – but not without awkwardness and complaints that students wanted me to just lecture.  A required large end-of-term assignment seemed hard for them to understand, and their research skills seemed inadequate – and being such a large percentage of their grade, it adversely impacted those who waited too long for help or submitted something contrary to the directions.  In the end, scores were low, students were frustrated, and as adjunct faculty were evaluated in every class in every semester there, I ended up with an embarrassing trip to my Department Chair to discuss what had happened.

Two things came out of that experience.  First, the Chair, who had known me for some time, allowed me the opportunity to share my observations of the experience.  Second, due to the course being cross-listed, the actual evaluation was to be overseen by a faculty member in another program, and at that time there was a change of oversight.  The new faculty member assigned to my course asked for a meeting, and since at that time I was a new parent and living only a few blocks from campus, offered to come over for my convenience and talk with me at my home.  That new faculty supervisor turned out to be one of the most important figures in my future career, and that conversation became one of the most important moments in my demonstrating my ability to learn from failure.

That Department Chair asked me very simply, “So what do you think happened?”  Fortunately, I had a lot of ideas, which I discussed at length.  She then asked, “If you could do whatever you wanted to fix things in the class, what would you do?”  I had ideas about that as well, to which she patiently listened.  I was able to show that I had been thinking about it all for some time, and not just because she had asked for the meeting.  I had gone through different ideas, I had researched other kinds of materials to use, and other ways to teach.  What I did not know was if the results would be different, if students would be less frustrated, and if they would learn the subject matter more effectively.  She told me to go ahead and try out my ideas, and we would see what happened.  Fortunately, the class the next semester was a totally different experience, with much stronger student participation and enthusiasm, and enabled me to break the mold of my own teaching style, increasing my confidence in the process. 

It was also important to me to show that her faith in me was validated, and in giving me that room to fail, learn, and grow, was leading to my being a more effective instructor.  Now I was not free from failure at that point – a year later I had some struggles in the same course, as it appeared that some students were figuring out how to work around some elements in my course design, and as I tried to close the loopholes it provoked a new backlash, but she and I again went through the same process of discussion.  We had a meeting, we reviewed what went wrong, I showed my understanding of my role, how I thought it could be corrected, and she again gave me the opportunity to change and improve, which I did, and I continued to teach that course until I left for my current position at Porterville College a decade ago – an application for which she was one of my references.

Because our work as educators does not occur in isolation and is always embedded in a complex web of changing perspectives, expectations, and requirements, some degree of failure is probably inevitable for instructors, regardless of the number of years of experience in the profession.  Achieving success in the long-term then means that faculty need a support structure that expects occasional failures and supports the correction and experimentation needed to ensure the success of the student learning experience – yet that support system is rarely placed systematically and intentionally for all faculty, including adjunct faculty as well as tenure-track and tenured faculty.  Some may have similar stories of supportive peers or supervisors, and understanding and patient students.  But others may have been scarred by experiences that lacked such support, perhaps causing them to leave an institution, or even the profession of education altogether.

To ensure equity for our educators, then, perhaps the solution is to embed the support for faculty into our institutions from the start of their time with us.  Dedicated mentors who are experienced educators can help faculty experiencing unexpected trouble in their classes.  Specialized instructional designers can work with new faculty to help with their course design choices.  Supervisors can meet with struggling faculty, giving support and allowing for them to have that room to fail, when they can show that they understand why they faced difficulties, and that they are growing as educators in response.  The faculty evaluation process could place a premium on the evidence of this self-reflection, and the evaluee’s evidence of self-directed investment and improvement.  My hope for future educators at my institution is that they can avoid some of the lengthy and disheartening trial-and-error experiences I experienced early in my career with a stronger, institutionalized, cross-college support system.  Although to some degree we all have to learn on our own and in our own way, perhaps failure is better experienced when not hidden from view, but in a supportive, sympathetic room surrounded by those who understand because they have been there too, and remember the support they received, and would have wanted others to also have.

Robert Alan Simpkins has been a Professor of Anthropology at Porterville College since 2012, where he also is currently the Academic Senate President and faculty lead for Guided Pathways.  He previously served two terms as the Social Science Division Chair, and organized PC’s CHAP (Cultural and Historical Awareness Program) series for five years.  Prior to coming to PC, he was an adjunct at De Anza College and at San Jose State University.  He has an MA and a PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and BA from San Jose State University.  As an Archaeologist, he is interested in the relationship between roads, architecture, cultural landscapes, and socio-political organization.  His particular focus has been the Golconda kingdom in the Indian Deccan region, which was the subject of his doctoral dissertation and on which he has presented his research internationally and published extensively, most recently in the article “Inferring Road Networks and Socio-Political Change from Elite Monuments of the Golconda Kingdom” in South Asian Studies in 2020.  Although a native of the Bay Area, he enjoys the farms and orchards of the central valley and the proximity to the mountains, and going on drives and exploring the region with his family.  He has a weakness for books, toys, classic movies and animation, art, stories, and anything that he finds amusing. 

Having Each Other’s Back

By Ana Ceballos

I recall at a very early age having to take care of my father and support my mother.  I began to work at the young age of 11 helping my parents pick the bountiful fruits of the Central Valley.  And at the age of 15 I started to clean tables as a “busgirl”.  I did this to help support my family when at times my father could not provide due to his constant drinking.  As I grew older, I realized that I had developed a lack of trust in others and a mentality of “do it yourself, don’t rely on others”.  I was determined and perseverant, and I knew that I could count and rely on the survival skills that I had built growing up to help me through any situation.  Despite having been a first-generation college graduate and the first in my family to pursue a professional career, there were times when I did not trust in my own capabilities.  I have had moments where I also felt alone, working in silos, wanting to reach out to others, to ask questions, or ask for help, yet not doing so out of fear that I would burden people, or that I would come across as not capable.  I remember thinking, “Well, I will just have to figure it out and do it myself,” and many times I did.  The experience of accomplishing something by myself was gratifying, but at times it also left me feeling bitter, drained, exhausted, and in need of a break.  Yet I have also worked in various settings of higher education and collaborated with colleagues on projects which have all been fruitful, satisfying, and rewarding.  I now look back and realize some of those experiences opened the door to my own individual personal and professional growth.  From them, I would learn to trust, be resourceful, and rely on others.  From this I would experience what it was like to “have each other’s back” at work.  I sometimes still find myself reflecting on those experiences, the people, the goals, the triumphs and fears – all part of the continuous journey and growth in the profession – and what having each other’s back at work means, how it feels, and how it can be developed.

For example, a few years ago, I was presented with the opportunity to explore this notion of offering and receiving support from colleagues at work when I was asked to form part of a new team – the Porterville College Education Careers team – whose mission is “to prepare, support, and inspire students along a successful path toward teaching and careers in education.”  What I learned quickly through our first team meetings in 2018 is that each member possessed areas of expertise that I like to refer to as gifts.  I knew that I also came with gifts to offer as a Counselor, and while I knew my colleagues had gifts of their own to share, part of me felt that I still needed to trust more fully in my gifts.  Perhaps this feeling of needing to trust more was due to my upbringing where I was taught to be strong, that to get something done you needed to do it yourself, and that no one else would do it for you.

Over the years as I worked with teams, I learned to trust more.  The Education Careers team developed a rapport over time through consistent and constant meetings, and as we did I could feel myself opening more and accepting the other team member’s gifts, as well as offering my own.  As I began relaxing, trusting, and allowing for support to flow naturally – as well as opening to creativity – I found myself actively engaged and excited with our team’s mission and everyone’s willingness to share their gifts freely.  The moments where I felt tempted to figure it out and do it myself diminished as the memories grew of my team, our experiences, and the support each member offered generously.  Trusting became more natural for me, and I found that our efforts as a team continued to strengthen, expand, and solidify.  This experience would challenge me to put fully into practice what I had learned over the years, and let go of some misconceptions I had acquired growing up.

In time, we began to see the fruits of our labor.  The program began to grow, student graduation and retention rates increased, and partnerships within campus, outside of campus with universities, K-12 schools, and community partners solidified.  The work we started and gradually opened ourselves to experience began to pay off not only with students but within us.  I had grown and I knew I would continue to grow as a professional – not alone but with the support of my colleagues.

I like to say that “having each other’s back” at work, for me, means trusting one another, offering our areas of expertise freely to the team, relying on each other, being open to growing together and as individuals.  It also means finding the anchor that keeps us motivated to do the work to show up and be vulnerable, creative, and open to the experience.  In the case of the Education Careers team, I considered our anchor to be our common goal of supporting students in their path towards a career in education.  Another key component of forming a team that has each other’s back is being comfortable with vulnerability to see our own strengths, as well as the areas where we can grow, and in turn demystify.

Overall, I felt that I had found the answer of how it felt and looked “to have each other’s back”.  I felt supported, secure, and confident.  The team offered diverse areas of expertise, experiences, and thought processes.  Such a team can be developed gradually and progressively through openness, trust, vulnerability, and a common goal.  I am grateful for the experience, and for my colleagues – excellent individuals whose strengths have helped me grow in more ways than one, and who have fostered a greater understanding of what it is to form a team and have “each other’s back”.  These great colleagues, humans, and mentors are:  Dr. Robert Simpkins, Kimanthi Warren, Primavera Arvizu, Professor Karen Bishop, Dr. Michelle Pengilly, Professor Jacqueline Pennell-Meredith, Michael Carley, DJ Vanderwerff, Jacqueline Escareno, and Frida Mendez.

I opened myself to the experience of forming part of the Education Careers team, and the experience not only produced fruits for students but for myself as well.  I take the lessons learned to take risks more often, be vulnerable and open, try new strategies, be resourceful, and to trust more in the capability that lies inside myself and others.  I felt that I had grown in leadership skills, creativity, and determination.  I led several of our team meetings, coordinated events, formed and strengthened partnerships, and – most importantly – grew in trusting not only myself but also my colleagues.  I grew in gratitude for the diversity of the Education Careers team that united us in accomplishing a common goal.  Most importantly, the experience also helped me to see myself and my own gifts more clearly which led me to grow in gratitude for my parents and the upbringing that shaped me to be the person I am today.  I always say I would not be here if it was not for them, they are my rock and my motivation and continue to play a positive role in me.  We are all part of various teams in life, and if we are actively open to the experience we will continue to grow.  I can now see more clearly what it means to “have each other’s back” at work – and in life.

Ana Ceballos is a Counselor Faculty member at Porterville College.  Ana was born in Michoacán, Mexico and immigrated with her family to the United States at the age of five.  She attended Porterville College, earning an AA degree in Social Science, before transferring to CSU-Fresno and earning a BA in Psychology and an MS in Counseling, Student Services option, as well as the Pupil Personnel Service (PPS) Credential.  For over 15 years, Ana has dedicated her energy and time in working in the field of education, including the K-12 system as a Substitute Teacher for Fresno Unified School District & Project Specialist for Fresno County Office of Education, and at UC-Merced as K-14 Education Preparation Specialist.  She has also served as a facilitator for Parent Institute for Quality of Education (PIQE) and Parent Empowerment Program (PEP), and the CSU-Fresno College Assistant Migrant Program (CAMP) and Educational Opportunity Program (EOP).  For the past 8 years Ana has supported students at Porterville College as a Counselor for EOPS/CARE & CalWORKs, the Student Support Services (SSSP) program, undocumented student support services, online counseling, and the Teacher Education program. She has also served as Counselor lead for AB705 and assisted in its 2019 implementation. Ana finds it rewarding to work alongside great colleagues at PC who are passionate about providing equitable opportunities and a safe, welcoming, and resourceful environment to all students.

Rethinking My Teaching Policies: What I Learned From the Pandemic

By Rebecca Baird

In March of 2020 I, like so many other instructors, packed up my classroom and left for Spring Break, not knowing that I wouldn’t see this group of students in person ever again.  My office, with its remaining graded midterms and papers for students to pick up, would sit empty for the rest of the semester.  As I walked the last students out of my classroom that March day they expressed fear and anxiety over the growing pandemic, but also hope that we would return to normal in a few weeks’ time.  Little did any of us know at that time that those weeks would stretch into months, semesters, even years. 

While the pandemic certainly upended life, it also gave me time to reflect on my teaching philosophy and the strategies I used in my classrooms, both in-person and online.  For me, the pandemic and the chaos it wrought created a space for me to re-evaluate some long-held teaching styles, policies, and ingrained beliefs about best classroom practices.  Ultimately this self-reflection helped shift my teaching style and enabled me to enact changes in my classes that would benefit both my students and myself. 

One of the big changes I implemented in my online classes centered on due dates.  For a long time, I believed that my goal as an instructor was not only to impart knowledge but also to make students understand the necessity of due dates and to learn time management skills.  I had a zero tolerance late policy, meaning late work was not accepted in my class (outside of certain documented circumstances) and students who missed an assignment would receive a zero.  But as the Covid-19 pandemic progressed, this policy seemed increasingly untenable and frankly rather cruel, given the number of students getting ill, caring for ill family members, or dealing with the myriad of obstacles associated with moving class online or just dealing with the Covid-19 crisis in general.  That first semester, as students (and myself as well) grappled with the constantly changing circumstances, I received a steady flow of emails asking for extensions; by early April I had revised my late policies entirely to allow students to turn in late assignments without having to ask first.  In Spring 2020 it seemed like a small gesture to help us all get across the semester finish line without punishing students for living through such tumultuous events.   

The pandemic also required me to be more connected with my students, working closer with them to better understand their needs and the variety of issues they were facing in their lives.  Although we were now physically separated by the pandemic, in some ways we were closer than ever before, drawn together by our shared anxieties, fears, and struggles.  When a student told me it was difficult to find space to work where they wouldn’t be interrupted by their younger siblings, I thought of my own difficulty finding space and quiet in my home.  As students expressed enormous fears about the state of the world, I heard my own fears echoed back at me.   

I used the Summer of 2020 to reflect on my course policies and consider the ways they impacted students.  One of the questions I really began to ask myself was whether I wanted my students to focus on due dates or the course content.  Clearly there were students who were unable to achieve those due dates and now received a zero and could no longer turn in the work.  Was it that important to me to punish them harshly for missing an assignment? Or was it more important for them to learn about Reconstruction, or World War II, or the 1960s, albeit slightly past the due date?  What were students learning from my zero tolerance late policy, and how was it affecting their performance in class long term?  Could a student still keep or raise a grade after missing a deadline?  Did they lose motivation to continue working hard in the course after missing an assignment?  I began to develop a new framework for my course policies, one that will last even beyond the pandemic and will help address both student equity and completion in my courses.   

In the end, it came back to my desired course goals and outcomes, all of which related to History content – the due dates were really secondary to content.  My new policy takes off a slight deduction for late work, which increases day by day, but also has a limit, all of which is managed automatically by my Canvas grade book.  In the semesters that followed I found that students responded really well to this small change.  Students who missed an assignment would still turn it in late 99% of the time.  Usually students were only a day or two late, so it also did not make grading any more difficult for me – in other words, I was not getting a hundred late assignments in the last week of the semester.  And even better, once I made the new late policy very clear, I no longer had to deal with the weekly emails from students begging for mercy, as some measure of mercy was now built into the course policies. 

Best of all, students still were getting the course content and were doing better in class overall.  I have found fewer students giving up mid-semester, and more students making it to the end, often in spite of tremendous personal obstacles.  Students have much more of a safety net now, and one small incident in their personal lives or in another class won’t blow up their whole grade in my class. 

For me, the pandemic has really thrown into sharper focus the variety of challenges our students face on a daily basis and how those challenges impact their work in my classrooms, both virtual and face-to-face.  Knowing these challenges has helped me redevelop my courses to better engage with students and their needs, to grow with the changing times, and to help ensure student success without sacrificing rigor or content.   

Rebecca Baird is Professor of History at Porterville College. Before joining Porterville College in 2013 she worked as an adjunct at community colleges and universities in Connecticut, New York, and Arizona. Rebecca holds a B.A. in European History from UCLA, an M.A. in History from the University of Connecticut, and a Ph.D. in U.S. History from Arizona State University. Her doctoral dissertation centered on health care and the 1960s counterculture in Los Angeles. Before becoming an historian, she worked at veterinary hospitals in Connecticut and Los Angeles, and still has a house full of animals. In her free time, she enjoys reading about history, visiting historic sites, and learning historical sewing techniques.