Why is it so hard to do the right thing? ADA compliance and web authoring software.

So I’m working on building my syllabus, lesson plans, handouts, etc., and I want them to be in accordance with the American with Disabilities Act. Fortunately, my college’s Learning Management System supplies ADA compliant html templates. And if you upload them into the LMS, you can edit the templates in the LMS web editor. Only . .  Continue reading “Why is it so hard to do the right thing? ADA compliance and web authoring software.”

On how I’ll give away my course (and keep it from publishers).

Some faculty share their syllabi freely, others are niggardly with them. As I’ve noted, this project will share not just the syllabus but the lesson plans and sources for the entire course. I still haven’t figured out how to bundle the materials (or created the materials – gasp). But I have figured out the correct type of Creative Commons license I’ll be using. It’s call an Attribution-NonCommercial copyright and will allow anyone to “remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms.” I’m wondering if there’s a GitHub of pedagogy? 

I’m grateful today for two former students who shared by email and in person suggestions for how to improve my course for poor students. Their insight is invaluable: thank you Phil and Grant. 

Does poverty matter more than race and gender?

From Mary Hermes writing in the Spring 2005 issue of Critical Inquiry, I note her analysis that “poverty and socioeconomic oppression are larger day-to-day factors in students’ ability to concentrate and succeed in school than are the differences between Native American and white cultures.” Hermes wrote about secondary level Native-American kids and their white instructors. This idea that poverty dominates over other identities reminded me of Studs Terkel quipped that Hyde Park was the one neighborhood in Chicago where Black and White lived united against the poor. I’m also put in mind of Sancho Panza’s pithy counsel to Don Quijote that hunger is the best sauce in the world, making all foods tasty. Trained in the analytical trinity of history (race, class, gender), my response to these insights are less scholarly and more visceral. If a student is hungry, what matters their race or gender? How that student experiences hunger may be situated in identity, but poverty seems the greater uniter than the divider of human cultural constructions.  Mulling that one today. 

Safe home. 


I’m a big all over the map right now, but mostly it’s all small ball.

I know I’m behind in my project, especially in talking with folks about suggestions. I got 0 comments on my last post, leading me to think I’ve either a hidden-setting blocking comments, or this blog is read even less than I thought (hard to conceive as I can see the single-digit stats). 

Still, as much as this blog records process, I should note that I’ve been reading both poverty and digital history works lately. Bejamin Levin has perhaps the best quote of the week in his article an Educational Responses to Poverty” from the Spring ’95 Canadian Journal of Education. He wrote “Schools cannot solve problems of poverty, and should say so publicly.” Writing about K-12 education, Levin nonetheless reminds me that any attempt to address poverty in education is a question of percentages, not totalities. For Normandale, I’d like to see our Pell-eligible students succeed at the same rate as our non-Pell-eligible students. That’s not a cure, more of a palliative measure, but way better than a placebo.  

Better than a medical reference, I think a better symbolic representation of an anti-poverty pedagogy  is what’s called small ball in baseball. Small ball in baseballs trying to get runners on base, and then driving them in with base hits. Small ball is not swinging-for-the-fences heroics. It is knowing that a ball hit between 1st and 2nd has a better chance of scoring a runner on third base. Small ball isn’t sexy and it can make the game slow, but it works for many situations. Community College is one of those situations. We aren’t looking to place as many students as possible at an Ivy League school (while then neglecting everyone else). We aren’t looking for glory, MVP awards, or titles. What we want is for the students to score, to get their degrees, transfer, and get “home.” So, what I’m looking for are little things that advance my students, consistently. The Gates Foundation is the epitome of a home-run education philosophy, one big idea that can reform higher ed. My aims are much smaller, but also with less risk for my students. 

Safe home

And now it’s your turn: help fix my course.

So, I’ve been talking with many about what I could do to help my poor students succeed in my courses. I’m at the point that I want broad feedback, so this post invites all to offer suggestions for how to improve my courses.

[Addition] You can leave a comment, or use the hashtag #fixmycourse on Twitter with your suggestions.

Before you click on “Leave a reply” to offer a suggestion, please read both what I already do and what I can’t do.

Things I already do:

  • Highlight resources at Normandale poor students might use, such as our food shelf.
  • Keep food and toiletries in my office for any student who needs a snack or mess kit.
  • Maintain a small lending library of textbooks for short loans, free of charge.
  • Put copies of all books I use on reserve in the library.
  • Use only free software or websites when assigning digital history work.

Things I can’t do:

  • Offer students any significant resources (snacks I can manage, paying for tuition I can’t).
  • Offer poor students options that differ from the rest of the class. For example, poor students can’t get extra time to work on projects.
  • Lower academic standards.
  • Restructure the institution at which I work or the funding received from the state. I can structure my class: that’s it. I don’t get to hire, fire, build, fund, or defund.

What I’m looking for are endings to the following statements from poor students:

I wish my professor would have done X, that would have allowed me to succeed in this course.
I wish I had known X about college or this course before I started.

All of the things I do already were suggested by students. In keeping with Freire’s notion that any good pedagogy should be with its students, I’m emailing as many of my former students as possible. Comments will be moderated, but I will post all that aren’t spam or vulgar.

Give me your best ideas. If I ever write up anything beyond this blog, I’ll credit everyone who posts with their legal names. One student in Spring 2013 gave me one idea about loaner textbooks and that idea directly helped a student pass my course this semester.

Poverty is not easy.

My recent work has been away from the tech parts of my project, focussing instead on the literature on poverty and teaching. Surprising to me, most work on how to address poverty in the classroom comes out of k-12 research. For example, Paul Gorski’s approach in this article comes closest to the “get it done now and in the classroom” approach that I’m advocating.

Most of the research on poverty in higher ed focusses on student aid (restructuring Pell Grants, for example), support services (early intervention instruments) or psychological interventions to bolster student confidence. All approaches are worthy, though not exactly what I’m doing.

I did reach out to Sara Goldrick-Rab to ask if she’d heard of anyone else working on something like my anti-poverty pedagogy course design principles. Kindly, she responded quickly, noting she wasn’t familiar with any similar projects and offering her encouragement and possible assistance down the line. The kindness of strangers . . . .

I did find one though-provoking model of a course-design document titled ” Check List for Class Bias and Some Recommended Books” (referenced in Gorski’s article above). Published in 1982, the document betrays much of the early culture wars, seeking to root out rather than unpack racist, classist, and sexist texts. Still, the list is structured as a series of open-ended questions, which I like, rather than a bulleted “did you do this” check list. So, if I put my course principles in this format, they’d read something like:

1. What steps have you taken to ensure your electronic resources are available to poor students with uneven access to high-speed internet?

And then I could link examples of responses to this issue. It feels more respectful of the reader to ask a question than to offer an imperative, especially as I won’t be able to test if my ideas work until after I’ve published the course principles. I realized after communicating with Goldrick-Rab that I should be thinking about testing these anti-poverty course design principles, otherwise I’m just working for self-validation, rather than my students’ success. The idea that my education ideas could be tested (and found wanting!), well, that bedevils me emotionally. Still, if what I do doesn’t work, but to fail fast and move on.

As for poverty and ease, well, there’s a special little hell for rich people who read and work on poverty while slurping $4 coffees. Real poverty is harder, I’m not comparing, only pointing out the incongruity I face sometimes. Still, I suppose my analogous life is the one I want my student to have the opportunity to live.

Safe home.