Alumnae Bulletin May 2008

THE POWER OF LEARNING TOGETHER
By Dorothy Lehman Hoerr
Illustration by Esther Bunning



Every day on the Bryn Mawr campus, students, faculty and staff pass each other on the sidewalk, or smile at one another over a cafeteria counter or desk. They see each other but don't know each other. Except, that is, for a growing number of people who have participated in a program called the Teaching and Learning Initiative (TLI).

It was founded on the idea that when we get to know each other as individuals we are freed from the limitations of our prescribed roles and empowered not only to fulfill those roles, but also to transcend them. The result is a community in which everyone is a teacher as well as a learner.

TLI is a cluster of programs launched in January 2006 with a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. While teaching and learning centers exist at many colleges, Bryn Mawr's administration was looking for a more innovative way to advance this aspect of the College's mission. Chief Administrative Officer Jerry Berenson, Chief Information Officer Elliott Shore and others collaborated with Associate Professor of Education Alison Cook-Sather to create a unique program of community involvement.

"We want to re-define community as more inclusive," Cook-Sather says, "creating spaces in which people can share their different angles of vision, experiences and expertise. It's a model of teaching and learning as co-constructing knowledge."

Students as Teachers and Learners

One of the most innovative of the TLI's several branches is the Students as Teachers and Learners program (SaLT), in which students serve as consultants to faculty members by observing their classes, conducting interviews with their students, or a combination of the two. Neither evaluative nor remedial, the program is voluntary for faculty, who have embraced it enthusiastically. Cook-Sather says, "I offered this as an option to faculty, and many took it up right away. It's inspiring how open they were to thinking about students as partners."

To date, 44 faculty members and 26 students have participated in SaLT. "Faculty participants range across academic division, across rank and role, and from brand new to the College to those with more than 30 years of experience teaching," said Cook-Sather. "Student consultants, sophomores to seniors, major in different fields and have varying degrees of preparation in education."

The partnership begins with a meeting to identify the pedagogical issue on which the faculty member asks the consultant to focus. According to Cook-Sather, facilitating effective classroom discussion is a perennial choice, as is making classrooms "more responsive to diverse learners" and "how to use technology in a meaningful way."

"These are not issues that are going to be resolved once and for all," Cook-Sather points out. "They have to be addressed in an ongoing way."

SaLT, building on the pedagogical concepts of reflective practice and student voice, centers on the idea that the student perspective on what works in the classroom and what doesn't is a valuable resource for teachers. Since student consultants are not enrolled in the courses they observe, they occupy a unique position outside the dynamics of the class power structure. They bring to their observations not only their considerable experience as students, but also what they know of the faculty member's goals for the class. They see the classroom from both angles, a perspective that couldn't be obtained by a professor's colleagues.

Chuck Wooldridge, lecturer in East Asian Studies, puts it this way: "Often conversations about teaching overlap with conversations about students—they are these Others that we are trying to understand. And if that aspect of the conversation becomes too dominant, you wind up stereotyping students. What strikes me about this program in particular is that including students in the conversation means that conversations about teaching are conversations in which students are engaged."

For the student consultants, this engagement has extended beyond their specific faculty partnerships to positively affect their education in general. Tiffany Shumate '08 relates a typical experience. "In one class," she recalls, "we were talking about ethnic identity development, and all of the students of color were speaking and the White students were not. I mentioned that to the prof that evening, and she divided us into groups the next day and changed the reading—she included an article that was about White ethnic development. So that got the class talking." Shumate describes the effects of SaLT as "being aware that I am a student and there are things my prof might not see; that I have the right to say 'Hey, did you notice this?'"

Having faculty members listen and respond in concrete ways to consultant input makes a profound impression on students. As part of her work with SaLT, Maggie Powers '08 interviewed members of a class she was observing. "I found the students to be very responsive and especially interested since they felt their feedback would really be listened to and because it was confidential. After I reviewed the answers with my faculty partner, I was able to observe the professor implement numerous changes in the classroom in response to the students' comments. It was exciting to see students' suggestions really take place and then to have increased student participation and satisfaction with the course."

This program clearly realigns the power dynamics of the classroom, so negotiating these changed relationships is a major focus of SaLT. When consultants meet weekly with Cook-Sather for support and guidance, communication is often the topic of discussion. "How to give feedback to faculty in a way they can hear" says Cook-Sather, is one of students' challenges, the goal being to create a dialogue that is respectful of all parties. This requires openness on everyone's part. According to Kim Cassidy, professor of psychology and provost of the College, "It's not just a one-way delivery of critique. In this project, there's some recognition on the part of everyone that nobody's the expert, so you just say what you think, and that's all that we can hope for. And I may choose to believe you or not believe you, but there's not a right answer that you are charged with coming up with, no magic solution; it's just a conversation, part of a process."

The development of the SaLT program itself is likewise a process, one that is shaped largely by the participants. This evolutionary aspect is what drew Maeve O'Hara '08 to the program. She was excited by "the idea of having ownership, being a colleague in creating a program, doing something that hadn't been done before." Cook-Sather explains how the program "started with some initial ideas that we had, but it's evolved in response to student, faculty, and staff input and feedback."

The Empowering Learners Partnership

Such inclusiveness, at the heart of the Teaching and Learning Initiative, is nowhere more obvious than in another of the TLI programs, the Empowering Learners Partnership. Described by Alice Lesnick, senior lecturer in education and director of the Bryn Mawr/Haverford Education Program, as the most "radically reciprocal" of the TLI programs and "the most organically generated by the specific individuals involved," the ELP grew out the College administration's desire to see that all staff had access to the College's electronic communications system. In the spring of 2006, Lesnick was teaching a course called Empowering Learners, designed to help students succeed in and learn from extra-classroom teaching situations like tutoring.

"About five days before the semester was to start," Lesnick recalls, "I found myself in a meeting with Alison Cook-Sather, Elliott Shore, and Jerry Berenson." They wanted to know whether the Empowering Learners course might serve as a launching point for students to mentor staff in computer use. "At that meeting, I said, 'That sounds great'." Lesnick told her colleagues, "If I'm going to take it on, I'd be interested in contributing a model that took the idea of empowerment as far as possible."

So two options were taken up: a traditional approach of students serving as computer mentors to staff (a program now in its third year), and a more innovative pairing of students and staff in reciprocal relationships where each taught the other something from an area of personal expertise or interest. "There was a precedent for this," Lesnick explains. In a senior seminar in education she had taught, she had asked students to pair up to teach one another a skill or area of knowledge of their choice and then to explore the implications of this experience for curriculum design and pedagogy. One student taught her partner to ride a bike. Another learned about the observation of Jewish holidays. "I have a long-term interest in breaking down the hierarchy of teacher and student ," Lesnick says, "to legitimate the different kinds of knowledge and practice people have to offer and create structures that enable exchange and collaboration."

Several of these reciprocal relationships were set up within the Empowering Learners course, but Cook-Sather says the program "grew so quickly and there was so much support that it expanded beyond those confines." To date, there have been 33 student/staff partnerships, with students from a variety of majors, and staff from Housekeeping, Dining Services, Facilities, Public Safety and Transportation, and Wyndham. Students and staff have taught each other such topics as Greek cooking, the Italian language, Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint, principles of Islam, crafts, baking, and jazz appreciation. Students Amanda Root, McBride Scholar '08, and Maggie Powers '10, have helped lead, assess, and represent the program on campus and beyond.

For a year a half, Powers has partnered with Lisa Peterman, House Manager, Pen Y Groes. Both have benefited from their collaboration. "I'm proud of it," Powers says of their relationship, "because it's something we both put a lot of energy into. In many ways, she's become like a second mother here." Powers is gratified by Peterman's new confidence in her computer skills. "I can literally see her computer literacy skyrocket," she says. Peterman found it satisfying to build a reciprocal relationship with a student. "As staff," she says, "we are here to support these students and make this College the very best experience it can be for them who are some of the best and brightest young people in the world." But Peterman also sees a broader purpose in the program: "For them to get to know and appreciate the work we do on their behalf…so that they may go out into this world and impact it in a positive way."

Peterman is working toward Microsoft certification in Excel; another ELP participant is working toward a degree at the College with the support of computing skills gained through the TLI's Empowering Learners and Computing programs. This too, Lesnick says, is one of the goals of the TLI, that "staff who have been away from formal education for a while might find their way back." Cook-Sather points out that the administration supports this furthering of education, whether it means that staff members take on new roles at the College or "move on to other life ambitions." Students also benefit academically from TLI participation as they hone their skills as facilitators of adult learning and explore new areas of knowledge through the partnership and through weekly reflective discussions led by Lesnick, co-coordi­nators Powers, Root, and Darla Attardi '06, coordi­nator of staff education.

As the ELP grows, it is beginning to take on new dimensions, with this semester seeing the first group partnership. Lesnick explains, "This semester for the first time, the Facilities Department is working with us. When they came on board, they suggested working in a group setting. As we got to talking, it turned out that two of the three have daughters bound for college and one has a daughter in college." The group then decided that, in return for learning the inner working of all things mechanical on campus, the students would advise their staff partners on how to help a young woman through the transition to college.

Relationships like this are what Maggie Powers is talking about when she asserts, "I think what is amazing about the TLI is that everyone involved benefits."

Building community: in college and beyond

"I think too often staff here don't get the chance to get to know very many students," Peterman reflects. "We are often separated from one another, each busy with our own day-to-day responsibilities. By bringing us together, the ELP has given all of us the chance to get to know one another better and to see why we are all here."

The benefits of the TLI have been felt by not only its participants but its coordinators as well. Cook-Sather says, "Now I know a lot of people I didn't know before. What they bring to the campus enriches everybody's experience." Lesnick agrees, "I've literally gained dozens of colleagues," she says, "to visit them where they work—to find out where they work."

Another ELP participant, Ibrahim Edwards, utility kitchen worker, sums it up: "The purpose of the program is to build a sense of community among the people who bump into each other every day so it's not a bunch of comfortable strangers."

The TLI's success in building that community is a source of pride for all who've contributed to it. Lesnick says, "None of this could happen without the work of literally everyone who's been involved with it. The program enjoys support both from the College's leadership structure and from the grass roots." To this end, several cross-campus advisory groups oriented to different TLI projects consult regularly with TLI coordinators.

But the effects of this program are not confined to the Bryn Mawr campus. As student participants leave the College, they take with them a unique experience and perspective. "Students have an awareness and skills to go into other contexts and do this kind of work," Cook-Sather says. She feels that students gain "an expanded sense of people's capacity and their experience and knowledge that is untapped."

The empowerment that people gain when that latent knowledge is sought for and shared is a central aspect of the TLI. Participants—students, faculty, and staff alike—describe feeling more included, more respected, and more confident in themselves. "Both the teacher and learner have power positions," O'Hara points out. "I've had to really understand that dynamic." The TLI, she says, is about "distributing power, distributing knowledge, distributing ownership of the relationship."

Erica Seaborne '09, another TLI participant says, "TLI has really helped me think of the College as a learning community—it has helped me conceptualize how learning can move from just students to other members of the College community."

As the Teaching and Learning Initiative grows, that community of learners will continue to expand, so that instead of merely recognizing faces as they cross campus, students, faculty and staff will recognize each other as equal partners in the mission of the College.

Dorothy Lehman Hoerr is a freelance writer and college English instructor residing in Reading, Pennsylvania.