Faculty Focus


Reimagining Classroom Community, Assessment, and Our Own Self-Care

Students with masks form inclusive community

As I reflect on my teaching since last year and review the pedagogical lessons learned, I have started to reimagine my teaching practices and shift in small ways to ensure that upcoming semesters are aligned with my intention to encourage and empower the learners in my classroom—including myself—throughout these transitional times. Through this reflection, three areas in need of my attention have emerged: cultivating an inclusive, compassionate classroom environment; offering flexible and creative assessments; and creating a foundational daily wellness practice.

An inclusive, compassionate classroom

When we are together in a physical classroom without masks, building relationships often happen easily and organically. In our new reality, I welcome remote students, engaging them in casual conversations on the fringes of our class meetings. While chatting with my in-person students at 6-feet apart, I attempt to get to know them behind the masks. I even require individual meetings. Often I learn students are overwhelmed with work and isolated from their peers, and as a result, I listen more and engage students within their small group conversations. I intentionally respond with kindness, compassion, and empathy, using students’ names so students know they are seen, heard, and belong. I also build trust by being generous with my time and attention. I encourage lingering after class, both in person and online. I invite students to designated student hours in which I answer questions but also encourage informal conversations to build community and belonging.

As in the past, I give students a short learning inventory and ask them about their study habits and their preferred ways of learning. However, now I collect data from the learning inventory, not only to drive my instruction but to provide ideas for creative and flexible assessments that are tailored to students’ learning preferences.

Flexible and creative assessments

Offering flexible and creative assessments is one of the most compassionate ways we can support our students. My most substantial change offers students the opportunity to collectively start a student-led podcast—available on several platforms—in which they work collaboratively on Zoom, having meaningful conversations about the resilient practices studied throughout the semester in our course. This assessment, inclusive and supportive of students’ growth, offers a flexible due date. Creating podcast episodes in teams allows students to have the socialization that they crave while offering an authentic experience to their listeners. Students are each responsible for their own episode, yet each team supports one another in their discussion-based conversations, and part of their overall individual grade is based on the degree they support their colleagues in the process. Students report they don’t feel alone and feel invested in their teams since they have built relationships working together over several weeks. To our surprise, the fall 2020 students who worked on this podcast received the Interdisciplinary Award at University of Hartford’s College of Arts & Sciences First Year Seminar Symposium. Moving forward, students enrolled in my current and future first-year seminar courses will add to this podcast. While this project has some built-in adaptability, as this project progresses, I want to infuse more flexibility and offer multiple pathways of gathering evidence of learning.

Additionally, I have started to offer different delivery options for the same assessment and have also offered different methods of assessment for the same assignment. The one question that keeps me on track during assessment revision is: Does this assessment still align to the learning goals? As long as the learning goals and new assessment are in sync, I make the modifications.

One simple change is to offer different delivery options for the same assessment. In keeping with my intent to remain flexible and compassionate to students’ circumstances, offering them choices for how they will submit the assignment may be the flexibility that some students need to be successful. For example, when assigning small groups the task to create slide presentations using a shared document, I can give students choices on how they will deliver their presentations. Groups could post the presentation on the discussion board with audio, they could present live to their class on a web conferencing platform, or they could present to only the instructor during online office/student hours. Offering these simple choices creates the freedom in delivering their presentation in a way that works best based on each groups’ preference.

When we offer one exam to the entire class, we are unintentionally evaluating talents expressed through that particular method of assessment. Instead, we can create a menu of assessment options all aligned to the same learning goals and objectives, which allows students to choose the format in which their strengths will shine. Here are some ways to become creative with assessments:

  • Conversational exams
  • E-book of word problems and solutions
  • Photography, artwork, poetry, high-interest nonfiction text sets
  • Infographics and posters that lead to a virtual symposium on shared documents
  • Movies/Vlog, podcasts, blog posts
  • A mid-semester evaluation that gauges students’ needs
  • Spoken final reflections
  • Writing conferences via shared documents
  • Student-created videos of themselves talking through their thought processes

Instead of usual poster boards, I ask students to get creative on Canva constructing infographics, posters, and even ebooks that can be saved as PDFs. Some students opted to create a blog post or Vlog instead of a poster. Students appreciated the choice and creative aspects of the project. Giving students options will engage and empower them to succeed. However, in order to support our students and make pedagogical changes to our teaching practices, we must be at our best and take care of ourselves.

A daily practice of wellness and self-care

One of the pandemic’s gifts showed us that we need to care for ourselves in more substantial ways in order to show up fully in the world.  After reflecting on my struggles to do this, I implemented a foundational, daily wellness practice highlighting areas that will help me be my best self. I have learned that when I integrate these practices into my daily life, only then can I show up fully for my students and for myself.

This year I am hydrating and resting more, moving my body every day—preferably outside, and eating more vegetables and less sugar. These seem easy and straightforward and what most of us try to do. However, following them daily with intention has been intense on some days—I realized I sat on my chair all day teaching and writing, barely drinking a sip of water and never reserving five minutes for a stretch in the fresh air.

I also started a practice in which I track my best moment of the day—even our worst days have a shining moment. This practice has led to creating a happy list, a list of what I love to do. Some items on the list are from my best moments of the day and others are what I love yet rarely do. According to my happy list, I should find ways to kayak, climb mountains, and walk on beaches. Glancing at the list each day helps me plan my time and serves as a reminder of what is possible even on challenging days.

My final daily practice revolves around self-compassion, which is basically giving myself permission to be human and having realistic expectations for myself. It’s about showing up and doing my best, which changes from day-to-day. It’s also acknowledging that taking two steps forward and one step back is a part of our humanness; we are not machines. I realize that self-compassion is needed in order for me to cultivate more compassion for the learners in my classroom. Sharing these practices, especially self-compassion, with students shows a deep level of care for them.

High levels of self-compassion are linked to optimism and gratitude. My hope is that we appreciate the small, ordinary moments and that we remain optimistic about our teaching practices—reflecting, reimagining, and refining during these ever-changing times.

Julie Sochacki, JD, is a clinical associate professor of English and director of the English secondary education program at University of Hartford. Julie is a life-long learner and has been experimenting with active, collaborative learning in the classroom for 26 years. Follow Julie on Twitter: @profjulies or contact her at sochacki@hartford.edu.