By Inés Vañó García
“First, that all education is political, and second, that all knowledge is “interested””
by Pennycook, Alastair. 
If anything, this year has reminded us that education is not neutral: let’s have this in mind while we reflect upon our teaching this semester. Yes, finally, the semester is almost over. Most of us had the shared goal of surviving this Fall 2020; getting through every single day under these unprecedented circumstances has been enough. This semester has been difficult, but it has also enabled us to rethink our teaching and learning practices. At CUNY, we have come across multiple strategies to engage our students in virtual classes, questioned the ethical impacts of our use of our educational technology, and acknowledged the mental health implications of the current situation, among many other issues. Our accomplishments must be recognized alongside our struggles; since the Spring semester will be online and will (again) be difficult, now is a good time to share what we have learned in order to build on our experiences, bring meaning to our daily teaching and learning practices, and value insightful pedagogical reflections.
We know that each learning experience is unique, and the remote learning environments in which we are teaching right now have been forced upon us; we have not chosen to teach online, and our students have not made this choice either. However, despite the sudden and challenging circumstances that led to these teaching conditions, many faculty have found ways to teach meaningfully and effectively. Although ethical and accessibility issues pertaining to digital pedagogy should be constantly present in our conversations and are an ongoing concern, it is also true that digital environments have broadened the teaching and learning spaces that we have within our reach. In Designing for Care: Building Inclusive Learning Communities Online, Jesse Stommel affirms that “Online education should be designed for collaboration, where possible drawing together local communities, disciplinary communities, and broader publics.” Online instruction could be the means to reimagine our teaching spaces where social writing and reading, and collaborative exploration, for example, forge the path to create unique and meaningful learning experiences.
Last semester, despite the challenging times, many CUNY educators were able to create a meaningful environment by establishing teaching and learning communities. Prof. Michael Yarbrough and his students at John Jay College of Criminal Justice developed COVID-19 at CUNY: A Class Project, a collaborative group project by Law & Society majors for their capstone class. Instead of writing a traditional senior thesis about law’s role in society, they created, in their own words, a “group project about the impact of COVID-19, while experiencing it in real-time. We focused our research on the experiences of CUNY students and our communities. Our work helped us come together as a community and discuss the things that were most important to us during this time.” The project archives not only students’ personal experiences, but also chronological updates of their institution’s encounter with COVID, as well as citywide and national perspectives, and even how their work itself became part of the discourse with an op-ed by Prof. Yarbrough. The multimodal timeline is presented along with the students’ reports about the research and findings on how COVID-19 affected the CUNY community in the following areas: Anxiety & Coping, Work & Money, Health & Health Care, Work & Money, and Education & News.
The impressive community building, thoughtful inquiry, and collaborative work conducted by these students, along with their critical thinking and content delivery skills during these challenging times, take my breath away.
Another terrific project created by CUNY members, and also launched last spring, is the Homeschool Coop, an initiative led by Karen Miller (Graduate Center & LaGuardia Professor) and Emily Drabinski (Interim Chief Librarian at the Mina Rees Library). This group of individuals, almost overnight, established an online community to offer free online classes for kids, teenagers, and adults, run entirely by volunteers. This online community has been growing since last March, offering classes and workshops in many different topics ranging from painting and drawing to debate discussion, history lessons, and lego competitions (even during the weekends!). It has also given rise to the immensely popular “Cat chat,” where participants Zoom with each other and meet each others’ cats. Just take a look at their schedule and you will see the multiplicity of opportunities that Homeschool Coop is bringing to people’s homes.
Finding a Meaningful Pedagogy During these Challenging Times
The flexibility and effectiveness of Homeschool Coop encouraged me to get creative, too. While redesigning my class this summer, suddenly, I made a connection. One of the requirements for my Elementary Spanish for Heritage Speakers (Spanish for Bilingual Speakers: Challenging Power Structures) students is an oral presentation where their speaking abilities are assessed. But what if this presentation could have a real audience (outside the class) and have a purpose beyond mere assessment? I immediately contacted the Homeschool Coop and I shared my interest in having my students participate in their initiative as volunteer presenters/educators.
After a collaborative class brainstorming ideas for potential topics/themes that students would like to teach (which resulted in a very ambitious and creative list!), we took time to explore the Homeschool Coop, discover who they are, and the type of classes that they had been offering up to that point. My students were drawn to the practical component of the classes, i.e. that participants were learning by doing, as well as the immense variety of topics and the diversity of the audience that was accessing these classes. Students formed small groups based on topics they wanted to present on. Then they worked on narrowing the scope of the ideas/themes, before officially submitting their proposals to the Homeschool Coop. Students designed their own lesson plans and created multiple assignments, including games, and presented their ideas and progress to the whole class during each step of the process.
What had seemed really overwhelming at first gradually took shape, and students delivered terrific presentations: from language related topics such as colors and numbers in Spanish, to advice on organizational skills while taking online courses. Students became the experts and engaged with the audience by sharing their knowledge, playing games, and collaborating in practical assignments. Their innovation and creativity while designing their lessons was truly insightful and, although I provided some guidance through scaffolded assignments, their peers’ feedback was much more meaningful and constructive since they are able to report back before and after their class, and share with their classmates what worked and what did not.
Their reflections and self-evaluations on their own work illustrate how this assignment was different from the more traditional presentation to which they are accustomed. Above all, it reminded me/us of the need for joy, as many students pointed out:
“También siento que cuando tenemos presentaciones en la clase, we forget to be creative and have fun. It was a nice change.” | “Era muy divertido. Me gusto. I like to try different things and create new experiences. I feel like it broadens my horizons” | “I feel like a presentation in the class would have been so typical and presenting to a whole different audience gave this project such a twist. I feel like we did something nice for children to enjoy in such hard times with this pandemic.”
Yes, it is about learning, but let’s not forget to have fun too! 🙂
Students’ Knowledge and Impact Beyond the Class
As Jody Rosen and Maura Smale explain in this piece about their work on Critical pedagogy/Open Digital Pedagogy at New York City College of Technology, our pedagogical approach must conceive of students as authentic knowledge creators while creating opportunities to question the traditional teacher-student hierarchies. In this project, students controlled their projects/presentations from the beginning; they made decisions, took risks, solved problems, and improvised when needed. This student-driven learning process gave them an opportunity to share their knowledge in a public-facing setting with an audience outside our class, and have an impact in the real world. In students’ own words:
“I think this is useful because if this is what life will be from here on out, it gave us insight on how it may be if we were in a teaching role.” | “I liked that we were able to interact with other people and teach them something that we worked on.”
Decision-making, negotiation, and problem-solving skills were developed during the project, along with new digital literacies—both transferable skills that students will be able to use in other coursework and throughout their careers.
“I do think it was helpful because many people will encounter speaking in front of strangers sometime in their lives” | “it will help me academically and professionally because it taught me i don’t have to be afraid of anything” | “I really enjoyed it, I had a lot of fun teaching younger students. It really is a whole different environment, you really have to be engaging to have their attention, but overall I had so much fun teaching them.” | “Learning how to stay calm and focused in these types of situations is helpful.”
In addition to gaining transferable skills in a practical setting, this assignment and its digital context allowed students to connect with a broad audience, an interaction that even went beyond NYC in some cases. Positive feedback from participants was deeply encouraging to my students—for example, we heard back from Lucinda who, after the lesson on numbers, started practicing while her family was playing board games (to count the spaces!) and is definitely more aware of and interested in reading Spanish words. In this context, we were thrilled to learn that these lessons prompted a conversation with some parents about the lack of existing options for bilingual Spanish instruction in their school district, beginning a conversation about possible steps to take to change the situation.
Getting Ready for the Unexpected
Of course, we cannot control everything and failures and missteps are inevitable. But that’s ok. We are afraid of failure and, as educators, we may tend to over prepare to avoid it in our teaching; we aim to structure our lesson plans until the last intricate detail to reassure ourselves of some control and/or prepare an extra assignment for the “just in case” scenario. However, failure is part of the learning process, and acknowledging this in our current challenging environments is crucial for ourselves and for our students’ mental health. We must build upon the concept of failure and mistakes as a generative as well as creative process of experimentation and learning for the community in which, through constructive and active engagement and a culture of inquiry and discovery, feelings of defeat, frustration and disappointment become moments and spaces for self-reflection practices and growing opportunities.
Since this semester more than 60% of the students were nursing majors, some of them clearly expressed their interest in working on issues related to the current pandemic. Although we noted that the Homeschool Coop did not cover this topic in their previous lessons and workshops, students were committed to it and designed a creative, fun, hands-on workshop: Make a cool mask and learn how to be safe! However, they were not able to deliver the workshop since, even though there were a couple of participants registered, none of them showed up. As an instructor, I helped to mitigate a feeling of failure by building reflection, no matter what happened, into the assignment. These students who were not able to give their presentation still had the opportunity to reflect and make visible how this is also part of the learning experience:
“What I did learn from what my group experienced was to expect the unexpected […] I learned that things won’t always go as planned.”
The world has struggled, mobilized, and reacted to these challenging times, and CUNY has been no exception. We at the Teaching and Learning Center would like to hear from you: How did you find meaning in your teaching and learning practices this semester? How do you expect to find it next semester? Feel free to share your ideas, feelings, assignments, and other issues with us! Our goal is to create a space where these initiatives are shared within the community and we are able to build on our shared experiences in order to expand our toolkit for next semester. We will make available different opportunities within the Mid-Winter Institute in January to continue this conversation.
Lastly, I would like to dedicate this post to my students from Elementary Spanish for Heritage Speakers at Lehman College (Fall 2020) and thank them for joining me in this experiential learning journey: Jose Carlos, Olga, Fernanda, Ray, Nicholas, Hillary, Valeria, Frances, Carleni, Alyssa, Christian, Tiffany, Penelope, Xiomarie, Alexa, Katherine, Heyly, Angelique, and Magaly. Thanks for a terrific semester!
Inés Vañó García is a Ph.D. candidate in Latin American, Iberian, and Latino Cultures (LAILaC) at the Graduate Center and a Fellow at the TLC. Inés has taught language and linguistics classes at CUNY, most recently at Lehman College, and at LaGuardia Community College as part of the Mellon CUNY Humanities Alliance (2017-2019).
Pennycook, Alastair. “The Concept of Method, Interested Knowledge, and the Politics of Language Teaching.” TESOL Quarterly 23, no. 4 (1989): 589-618. Accessed December 6, 2020. doi:10.2307/3587534.