Curriculum Innovation for Transformative Learning: Transforming a Social Justice and Diversity Course Through Critical Action Research in a Creative Learning Community
November 19–20, 2020
The purpose of this paper is to reflect upon how one professor transformed her doctoral course, entitled Social Justice and Diversity in American Higher Education, through a variety of critical action research, curricular innovation, and the development of creative learning communities that transformed the learning experiences of both the instructor and her students.
Specifically, the objective of the paper is to examine the social tapestry of the higher education system through the lens of the intersectionality of social justice, diversity, and equity, to address how one social justice and diversity doctoral course was transformed through a combination of: 1) critical action research and intensive writing activities; 2) creative and collaborative learning communities; 3) selected strategically flipped class sessions to enhance collaboration and engagement; and 4) student-to-student and student-to-instructor accountability in their individual and group assignments, feedback, and check-in.
Clark Atlanta University (CAU) is a single, comprehensive, urban, private, coeducational, United Methodist-affiliated Historically Black College and University (HBCU) in the United States. The campus has 38 areas of study in four major schools, including arts and sciences, business, education, and social work. The university also has an award-winning Center for Cancer Research and Therapeutic Development, and enjoys more than 3,500 undergraduate and graduate students of diverse racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. CAU offers certificate, professional, and degree programs from BA/BS to EdD/PhD. In 2019, George T. French became the fifth person to hold the position of CAU president. CAU is one of five schools that compose the Atlanta University Center. The other four schools are Spelman College, Morehouse College, the Interdenominational Theological Center, and the Morehouse School of Medicine.
Dr. Mary Hooper, associate vice president for online learning and continuing education, has generously provided her time and talents for the benefit of faculty interested in educational technology. Tailor-made teaching and learning technology workshops are available for faculty at various stages of development. Weeklong faculty training is offered in the summer, with shorter training offered throughout the year. As members of one of the Faculty Resource Network (FRN) participating institutions, faculty can write proposals to attend professional development seminars, symposia, conferences, and summer residencies, sponsored by New York University in the winter, summer, and fall. This researcher has benefitted from these opportunities for the past few years. Dean Johnnie Turner and Associate Dean Barbara Hill continue to support my research endeavors and encourage my work in this area, not only with research, but also with curriculum development and professional practice. This article is an extension of a research presentation given at the virtual FRN Winter Symposium on November 20, 2020.
Before discussing the course, let me provide some operational definitions to clarify the context in which this foundation course was created. It is important to describe a few critical terms we dissect and deconstruct in our doctoral course.
The first is intersectional. As stated earlier, intersectionality is a term that is used quite often to explain all of the intersecting spheres surrounding privilege, discrimination, oppression, and domination. For purposes of this paper, intersectionality is defined as:
A framework for conceptualizing a person, group of people, or social problem as affected by a number of discriminations and disadvantages. It takes into account people’s overlapping identities and experiences in order to understand the complexity of prejudices they face. (Kort, 2019, p. 3)
In The Gender Question in Education: Theory, Pedagogy and Politics, Houston and Diller (1996) provide a framework and design around the positioning of “multiplicity of axes of power and privilege” (p. 4). Our positioning is key to how we face these forces, whether we attempt to camouflage our bias, power, or discrimination, and how we construct our own meaning, both in the classroom and in our professional and personal lives. For this particular social justice in diversity course, and also because it was at the doctoral level, it was very important for the professor to be very clear about the matrix of oppression and the way in which it identifies and describes all actors and their interactions with one another.
The matrix of oppression is our second term and requires a more comprehensive description. In the course text, Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice, 2nd edition (2007), the authors describe five different categories of this matrix (p. 47). The first category relates to social identity, including race, sexual orientation, class, and age. The second regards privileged social groups, which include white, bio med, heterosexual, rich, upper class, temporarily able-bodied persons. The third covers border social groups in the middle of this hierarchy, such as biracial and bisexual persons, middle class and possibly temporarily disabled young adults. The fourth category concerns targeted social groups, such as people of color; transgendered, gay or lesbians, working-class or poor peoples; persons with disabilities; and the elderly, just to name a few. The fifth category deals with all the “-isms,” such as racism, sexism, transgender oppression, classism, ableism, ageism, and religious oppression. These five categories clearly identify the “multiplicity of axes of power and privilege” (p. 4) described in the text, and which this course investigates in context, interrogates in analysis, and creates opportunities to address in practice through a culminating Social Justice and Diversity Conference that the students present as their final exam, along with a research paper.
The third and final term is cultural competency, the mastery of which is one of the objectives of the course. We know that cultural competency is very important and something that we want to strive for. It refers to an understanding, and to being able to employ a combination of relevant skills, knowledge, and awareness, relating specifically to different cultural groups, the differences among those groups and interpretations across groups. It also includes awareness of and respect for differences, and avoiding assumptions about everyone in one particular group holding the same beliefs.
Four strategic course activities
For this doctoral course in social justice in diversity, there were four primary strategic activities. I will share numerous examples of the activities and assignments in this course, aligned with each of these four strategies: 1) critical action research and intensive writing activities; 2) creative and collaborative learning communities; 3) selected strategically flipped class sessions; and 4) student-to-student and student-to-instructor accountability.
Critical Action Research and Intensive Writing Activities
The first task for all students was to complete a pre-test of social justice and diversity terms; they were asked to match these terms with roughly 40 definitions. Then critical action research and intensive writing activities were required throughout the course, including both individual and group assignments and projects that employed critical thinking, critical problem-solving, and intensive, concise writing.
One of the earliest actions was to revise the structure of the course to better align with the actual conceptual framework, which is grounded in critical race theory. For example, one assignment required students to watch Gloria Ladson-Billings lecture on critical race theory, discuss their insights, and write an individual reflection essay. Ladson-Billings is the author of the critically acclaimed books Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children (2009) and Crossing Over to Canaan: The Journey of New Teachers in Diverse Classrooms (2001). The professor put a great deal of emphasis on both individual and group projects because this was very critical to the whole notion of social justice and diversity and intersectionality. Students need to understand where they are situated in their minds, hearts, and spirits, before they can really look at others around themselves and be comfortable within their own space. Some of the activities came directly from the course book and others were created by the professor.
Another assignment included the entire class watching together the Story of Aaron Swartz. The documentary film depicts the short life of a computer programming prodigy and an early internet developer, who challenged capitalism and the elite, while questioning the equity and impact on civil liberties of sharing data. This documentary won numerous awards and continues to generate questions surrounding social justice. After we viewed the movie, there was a brief class discussion with talking points designed to nurture critical thinking, resulting in an 800- to 1000-word reflection essay. The essay required an introductory paragraph with topic sentence, supporting paragraphs, transitions, and an insightful closing paragraph, and had to examine examples of -ism’s, equity, identity, justice, diversity, race, gender, age, and disability.
Creative and Collaborative Learning Communities
The second set of strategic activities nurtured creative and collaborative learning communities. The professor created spaces for student learning communities on platforms they were already familiar with, such as Facebook Live, on which students worked together before being required to conduct their own major studies. This enabled them to connect with each other and share resources, making them more engaged, helping to support their learning, and making them more comfortable to share their experiences and even make themselves vulnerable as they reflected on their own biases. A variety of videos and media clips provided clear visual examples of social identity, privileged groups, targeted social groups, and -isms, as well as hands-on concepts, such as intersectionality, matrices of oppression, and cultural competence, to serve as models for their work.
Some of the activities included rotating assigned roles when debating subjects; each student was responsible for taking a side and debating with another student. Another activity took the form of a class field trip to the Center for Human and Civil Rights (CCHR), where the class sat at the lunch table, listening to people calling others names, threatening them, and spitting and throwing glass at them. After returning home, the students answered individually and in groups a series of questions based on what they saw, heard, and witnessed, including the pictures of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. leaving the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis and the funeral procession for Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., pictures of the open casket of Emmett Till, the footage of President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade in Dallas on the day of his assassination, and many historical national and global artifacts and presentations.
Many of the group questions involved: 1) students’ thoughts on the impact of the intersectionality of two or three factors—such as race, class, and gender—on certain groups of people; 2) which -isms they could identify and how they were manifested in relation to the distinct identities and positionalities of oppressed people; 3) examples of inequity of access to basic needs and resources; 4) discussion of the real social and economic disadvantages oppressed people face in society, in addition to the psychic hardship of oppression; and finally 5) recommendations for strategies to foster social justice with an inclusive mindset and to resist hierarchies of oppression.
Individually, students needed to submit more personal observations. Topics included: 1) How their visit to the CCHR changed or affirmed their views on social justice in America; and 2) What they will do differently as a result of this experience, in terms of addressing social justice in their daily lives, personally or professionally.
A second assignment was the class watching A Walk in My Shoes: Social Justice in Education, which presents the professional and personal experiences of five amazing educators whose passion for social justice helped them to overcome critical barriers to inclusion, equity, access, and quality learning. Students were not required to write a paper or essay. They were simply asked to put themselves in the shoes of one of the five teachers and explain similar thoughts and feelings, and to identify the terms that would apply to them if they were in the shoes and circumstances of these educators.
Strategically Flipped Classes
The intent for strategically flipping selected classes was to enhance the collaboration and engagement of students and the professor, in order to transform learning by enhancing the student experience, thereby improving learning outcomes. In a traditionally flipped classroom, the professor utilizes class time for hands-on work that students would usually complete at home, to reinforce and model what students must master on their own. These objectives were aligned with the standards for the course and the required course assignment deliverables.
One assignment was for the entire class to watch 5 Broken Cameras, which is a documentary of how one Palestinian man broke five cameras filming what was happening to himself, his family, and his land in the midst of the Israeli occupation on the West Bank. This was a very revealing and poignant class assignment, because we had several Saudi students in the course and one student whose family lived in Israel.
A second assignment was for students to read “A Call for Unity” and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” prior to small group discussion and debriefing with the entire class. Then students were required to select four of six short essay questions to respond to and share with the class. This was a very powerful assignment as well, because many students had never ever read “A Call for Unity,” which is an open letter from diverse clergy. There were some students who had already read the Dr. Reverend MLK’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.”
A third assignment was for students to watch The Freedom Riders, a PBS documentary, and complete their choice of two of the five or so questions from each of the seven comprehensive sections of the free online study guide. The quotation most students felt compelled to write about was, “Sir, you should know, we all signed our last wills and testaments before we left. We know someone will be killed. We cannot let violence overcome non-violence” (The Freedom Riders, 2010).
Student-to-Student and Student-to-Instructor Accountability
The final strategy was ensuring generous student-to-student and student-to-instructor accountability in all individual and group assignments. Continuous and comprehensive feedback and regular check-ins were very critical throughout the course. The professor created an intentional structure for the course that included: 1) easy-to-follow weekly discussion forums with questions organized by topics and assignments; 2) transparent expectations and clearly defined instructions upfront with respect to the role of the discussion, to the quantity and quality of posts/responses each week, and to the logistics of when and how to post; 3) collaborative space in the discussion forum exclusively run by students to build community; 4) a separate discussion forum to encourage professional socializing via introductions and ice-breakers meant to define the parameters of the discussion forum, where students could create topics and moderate and facilitate discussions (Learning objectives were listed weekly and clearly aligned with the discussion forum and specific course learning objectives. When designing the discussion forum, it was important to create meaningful discussion topics and questions to help students understand that the content was not busy work.); 5) using the discussion forums as a space where students could collaborate on small-group projects that align with the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy; and 6) ensuring that the instructional goals drove the design and use of Discussion Forums.
Student-to-Student Collaborative Engagement and Accountability
The professor utilized a platform that the majority of students were already familiar with, Facebook Live, for students to work together on group projects before working on their own for a final grade. Some of the strategies were to use pair-and-share resources to engage and support learning. Before COVID-19, some activities included small interactive groups, such as pizza nights. Students also worked together on components of all activities using the actions described under Bloom’s Taxonomy: explain (remember); understand; explore (apply); identify (analyze); recommend (evaluate); and assess (create), which is the highest level.
Student-to-Instructor Accountability Using Multi-Media
In this course, it was critical to have significant student-to-instructor engagement though a variety of activities. Some activities were developed and borrowed from the web, such as a variety of videos and other media clips. Students were able to submit their work for early feedback, without a grade, as well as participate in periodic, one-on-one, student-faculty check-ins. Zoom sessions also provided opportunities for the professor to conduct mental health check-ins with students, summative evaluations of group work, and knowledge checks using a variety of classroom assessments.
As an extra credit assignment, students were given the opportunity to read an article in Qualitative Studies in Higher Education Journal entitled “The Cultural Constructs of Race, Gender and Class: A Study of How Afro-Caribbean Women Academics Negotiate Their Careers” (Gregory, 2006). After reading the article, they were asked to answer five questions, including: 1) What is the relationship between the race, sex and class identity of the women interviewed?; 2) How have the women negotiated and/or sacrificed their identities and lives to reach academic success?; 3) How did the women differ in their strategies to negotiate their careers to reach academic success?; 4) What was the greatest source of tension for these women in the academy? and; 5) What was the greatest source of tension for these women in their personal lives?
The intellectual merit of this article relies on the growing roles and responsibilities, challenges, and opportunities of faculty who are committed to creating and sustaining a truly inclusive, diverse campus community of learners, while engaging their technologically advanced students who are studying remotely due to COVID-19. Research shows that students often feel isolated in online courses (Croft, Dalton & Grant, 2010). Therefore, it may be more important that online courses include ample student-to-student and student-to-instructor communications to counteract this problem. Mitchell-Holder (2016) argues that through the use of meaningful communication-based assignments, students can be actively involved in an online course and build connections with peers and the instructor. Although online courses can suffer from reduced communication and student engagement, when faculty incorporate multiple opportunities for teacher-to-student and peer-to-peer interactions, and for student involvement, student learning outcomes can further improve.
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