Making It Right

– Valerie Lorient

Valerie Lorient

I am a Haitian immigrant and a nontraditional student. I have experienced domestic violence and had mental health problems as a result. My financial resources have often been limited.

It has been a long time coming, but I am finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel for my college career. 

I started college in 2010. Although I did not know what my major was going to be, I knew that I wanted to have a college degree and felt it was about time to start.  I started at community colleges (two in California and one in Pennsylvania) and finally earned my Associate’s degree from Butler Community College in 2017.  I am now nearing completion of my bachelor’s degree from Clarion University and plan to walk this May. 

Unfortunately, college has not been a cake walk. During these difficult periods I ran into problems because I did not have anyone calling or emailing to find out why I was missing class and/or assignments.  I know it’s not the job of instructors to hold the hand of their students, but being called to account for oneself is something that I needed and could have used.

I’ve also had some problems in the classroom when I’ve witnessed an instructor being derisive to another student.  Although it was not towards me, I felt the pain of it and it caused me to doubt myself because I saw myself as being no better than that student.  I’ve had other instructors who have demanded a lot from their students, but only because they believed in their students’ abilities. This was very empowering. I’ve also had instructors who have assigned a lot of work, but provided exact instructions as to how to complete the assignment – which made the workload manageable and more than doable. 

It has taken a lot of time management and personal attention to detail to get this far.  What has helped most has been attention from my instructors and their willingness to break down large assignments into little pieces.  It has helped that I’ve been encouraged by my instructors to see assignments through and that they have been available to hear out my thinking.  It was also helpful when faculty recognized and acknowledged the quality of my work – including as Psychology Student of the Month.

Receiving a scholarship from Mr. McFarland after a rough semester really showed his faith in my ability to do good work and increased my faith in myself at the same time.  And I wouldn’t have known to speak to him about a scholarship had it not been for my advisor, Dr. Slattery, who made herself available to me through it all.  Although she hadn’t reached out to me for my one bad semester (which would have helped a lot), her being available before and after really made this last semester possible. She helped me identify financial and emotional resources and provided me with options. 

Overall, the student body has been supportive of me and my learning – except for classes where I was told that I asked too many questions and felt threatened by a couple of students who made me doubt myself. 

But, I am finally on the last portion of my schooling and believe that I can make it through to the end.  I’ve had more wonderful instructors than not  – Dr. Ashcraft, especially – and that has really helped with my self-confidence. 

I am looking forward to graduating and hope that the future will contain more successes than failures.  I know that I could not have gotten this far without the helpful prodding of my advisor and those instructors who have bolstered my self-esteem and helped me identify the resources to continue through difficult times.

Valerie Lorient is a Sociology/Psychology major who graduates in May 2019. She lives in Brookville and love dogs (but doesn’t have any). French was her first language but is no longer the language of her conscious mind – English is. She loves to read fiction and enjoys mysteries, fantasy, and science fiction.

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Task-Based Instruction: Creating and Doing in the French Classroom

– Elisabeth Sauvage-Callaghan

Elisabeth Sauvage-Callaghan

As I am preparing to retire after some 30 years of having taught French at the college level (that is, if I count my years as a Teaching Assistant and Teaching Fellow at Pitt), I occasionally ponder over what is the most successful teaching strategy that I have used to make my teaching of the French language more effective.

And I always come back to task-based instruction. Well, you may ask, what is that?

Task-based language teaching relies on classroom activities that require students to complete meaningful, real-world tasks using the target language. More focus is given to the successful completion of the task, rather than to linguistic accuracy. A task-based activity would, for example, consist in deciding with a friend on a movie to go and see together. The completion of this task would require:

  •  comparing schedules to decide on a day and time to go see the movie.
  • finding a movie that is suitable to both partners by looking at online movie sites, and
  • “negotiating” each other’s preferences so as to come to a consensus.

Task-based activities are wonderful, because they allow students to use the target language as a means to a meaningful end. As such, they foster language acquisition.

As stated by Glisan and Shrum (2016), their pedagogical value transcends that of mere “mechanical drills and exercises that have limited value in contributing to language acquisition and in developing communicative abilities” (p. 233).  This makes sense as studies on aphasia indicate that structure drill and repetition are not processed in the same part of the brain as communicative language production (R. Donato, Personal communication, cf. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, 2017).

I will discuss here two task-based activities that I have used in my French classes:

  • Selecting two roommates.
  • Producing a cooking video.

Project 1. Choosing Roommates.

This project – which I have implemented as a “getting acquainted” activity in my French conversation classes, as well as in the Advanced French Grammar class that I teach for the Pitt in Nantes program – includes two tasks:

  1. Students produce a PowerPoint presentation in which they introduce themselves and set parameters concerning potential roommates.
  2. Students review all of their peers’ presentations, select two roommates, and produce a video in which they state and explain their choices.

Detailed directions for Task 1 are provided to students on D2L, and discussed in class. I also provide students with a model for the PowerPoint presentation, which gives them a realistic template for their own “introduction” and explanation of what they are looking for (and want to avoid) in a roommate. See Figure 1.

Figure 1. Elisabeth Sauvage-Callaghan’s model

An important part of this process is my review of this model in class, during which I call their attention to its organization (components), to its linguistic features (vocabulary, grammar), and rhetorical devices (expository devices, use of humor, etc.). This is referred to by some experts on modeling as the “critical framing” of one’s model. Note that students do not “copy” the model. They TRANSFORM it – i.e., they use the tools provided to them in the model to create their own project. See Figure 2.

Figure 2. A student’s response to this assignment.

Students find a model useful in this first assignment. Here are two students’ reflections on their work:

I used the PowerPoint that you provided as a template for my presentation. I just used the titles, like everyone else did, and added my own personal information and pictures.

In order to produce my PowerPoint presentation, I followed your model. I used the same titles as you did for my slides as a guideline. […] While I was reading everyone else’s presentations, I saw many things that I wish I could have written on mine.

For Task 2, I review all of my students’ PowerPoint presentations, and decide on the two that I would choose as roommates. Then, I record a video of myself, in which I explain whom I chose and why, and why I discarded the others.

Again, I review my video model with the class, pointing out to them its organization, linguistic features, and rhetorical devices. Again, in producing their own videos, students do not “copy” my model but, rather, appropriate and emulate it. In their reflections on the process involved in making their videos, students mostly focused on how they had prepared for it, and how nervous they had been videotaping themselves.

To make the video, I watched everybody’s PowerPoint presentations and made a list of things that I liked about them and things that I wasn’t so crazy about. I took into consideration what they liked and what kind of activities they were into and compared them to myself. I also looked at their descriptions of their personalities and tried to imagine what it would be like if the other person and I were to get together and spend a lot of time with each other to judge whether or not we would be compatible.

The part that was most difficult was the video. I was nervous being taped because of my pronunciation and content of the project. I was nervous that my content would not convey the point that I was trying to make. It was also nerve-racking to think that my pronunciation can hinder someone from understanding my video. […]

This video was created by one of my Pitt in Nantes students a few years ago:

Project 2. A Cooking Video

The final product of this project – which I assign as part of our unit on food in my third semester French class – is a video, in which two students prepare a simple recipe. I break down this task as follows:

  1. Students prepare a complete script of their cooking video (formatted as a traditional film script – i.e., it must describe their setting, and every step involved in the filming of this video, and include what they will be saying.) Of course, that script is written in French. I also model that part of the project, and review my model with the class, making sure to go over the vocabulary and grammatical structures necessary for this task. I review the students’ scripts during individual conferences with each team.
  2. Students record their cooking show. I post my own cooking video on D2L, which I produced some years ago, as well as a few cooking videos done by students in previous years (I find it extremely useful to show students what their peers from previous years were able to do). I strongly encourage them not to read a script, although it is quite obvious that most of them are still reading a written document or cue cards. Students are typically quite creative for this part of the project, and a number of them even include bloopers at the end of their videos!

This cooking video was produced by two students – one of whom was a communications major, which explains its rather polished nature:

Concluding remarks:

Modeling tasks, and reviewing models with students provide them with:

  •    A clear sense of what is expected of them.
  •    Helpful guidelines for performing these tasks.
  •    The necessary linguistic tools for completing them.

I enjoy working on and reviewing these assignments. As one student comments here, they realize the value of task-based activities in improving their proficiency in French:

In general, I really enjoy these assignments.  It seems very practical and I like how what we do in class and before we have an assignment like this prepares us to do it.  It’s also interesting to prepare something instead of a paper or a written assignment.

Note: All students gave their permission for their work to be featured in this piece.


Glisan, J. L., & Shrum, E. W. (2016). Teacher’s handbook: Contextualized language instruction (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage.

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Inquiry Seminars: Am I Teaching?

– Paul Woodburne

Paul Woodburne

In the fall of 2018, I taught my first Inquiry Seminar on computer games.  I first discussed this class some years ago when Shannon Nix was still here. 

Usually when I start a class in a 15-week semester, the first couple weeks are hard on my voice.  I don’t use my ‘teacher voice’ in the previous summer or winter term, and my throat hurts for the first week or two of the new term.  This did not happen. 

Had I not taught this past term?  What had I done this whole semester? 

I have defined ‘teaching’ in my last 20 years as lecturing.  I am pretty good at condensing ideas, showing connections between those ideas and others that may not seem obvious.  I think I am pretty good at teaching.

This past term caused me to rethink the ways that I see myself and teaching.

Economics, as a field, is full of facts/data, correct interpretations, ideology, revealed knowledge, received wisdom, and ‘stylized facts.’  See Table 1. Near as I can tell, this is true in every academic field.  Most of our teaching is very top down, very authoritarian.  Faculty bestow our seal of approval when the learners have proven sufficiently adept in what we tried to teach.  As students progress, the goal of teaching is, in part, to enable students to apply and extend the field via research.  The method used in most fields is revealed while teaching content. 

Table 1. Differences between my standard courses and inquiry seminars.

This contrasts sharply with what goes on in Inquiry Seminars.  In these classes, the pedagogy – the method – is the content.  What would normally be considered the content of these classes, in the case of my course – monetization within video games and the proliferation of e-sports – is merely a vehicle to have students work in groups to learn about information literacy and source validity, to work collaboratively to conduct research and inquiry (asking of questions), to synthesize information and to present findings that answer a central question. 

What Do They Learn?

Celebration of Learning

At the Celebration of Learning, where all Inquiry Seminar posters are presented at the end of the semester, I heard some faculty deriding some presentations: students did not clearly delineate between a continent made up of many countries and various countries within the continent, or made, perhaps, too sweeping statements in their summaries.  Others rebuked the presentations for being shallow (interviewing grandparents or 20 fellow students about a topic) and the like.  I think that this sort of critique often misses the point (misses the forest for the trees), and is made without recognition that these students are freshmen, and without appreciation of the place from which these students started upon entering Clarion. 

All fields have their method of analysis, and their own important issues.  Often I am ignorant of the importance of their issues and am likely to deride these issues as not being important.  I have to remind myself of the time when Sarah Palin ranted about wasteful government spending, on “I kid you not, on fruit flies” (Siegel, 2009).  It turns out that at least three Nobel prizes have been won in fruit fly research.  It is also the case, something I had not known, that fruit flies can be used to research Alzheimer’s and autism, among other diseases.  It is easy to miss the consequences of someone’s work in a quick overview.

I urge my colleagues to take these students, classes, and presentations where they are.  My students, for example, wrote in their reflections that they were glad to find out about the Library’s EBSCO portal where they can do research and can filter it by academic work, as well as by important and valid popular sources as well.  They were used to simply googling and accepting the first five things that popped up. 

It is true that many freshmen show fairly limited research in their projects, and that their questions and answers can be superficial.  It is also true that the themes of some of inquiry seminar classes are better suited to this kind of research/inquiry seminar class than are other classes.  However, we hope that these freshmen will bring skills that faculty will notice in their own sophomore level classes.  Faculty should ask themselves “how are these students compared to previous years of students?”  I don’t believe their work will be perfect, but I do believe it will be better than it has been. 

Was I Teaching?

Three of Paul’s students

I began this piece by reflecting on whether I really taught anything in the fall.  I did not lecture in my normal style, that is for sure.  However, I did teach nearly 50 students how to use the library’s research portal to do better research than they have ever done.  I did guide students to ask and refine questions, to create an argument for why some sources were good, and why others were not.  I showed nearly 50 students to do an admittedly simple annotated bibliography.  (I did not have to do even a simple version of one until graduate school).  I got students to think about the economic concepts of price discrimination and market power in a framework they would not otherwise have been exposed to.  They were able to meet and interact with these topics in a milieu (video games) where they lived.  Students did four presentations in front of their peers.  They evaluated each other’s work, and evaluated their own work within the group, and the group’s work as a whole, at the end of each presentation.  Two of the presentations were electronic (PowerPoint or the equivalent), and two were poster presentations where each member of the group had to present the entire thing, and could not rely on groupmates to bail them out. 

I do not think I can teach my principles or intermediate level economics courses as an inquiry seminar.  I can, however, use aspects of the freshmen inquiry seminar in my intro and intermediate level classes.  Particularly useful will be the methods I used to teach question creating and source obtaining and checking.  The inquiry seminar brought home to me just how much time I have to devote to building research skills, if I want them to exhibit high-quality work. 


Siegel, V. (2009). I kid you not. Disease Models and Mechanisms, 2(1-2), 5–6. Retrieved from

Paul Woodburne is an associate professor of Economics at Clarion University. He challenges his students to think critically and deeply about economic issues. He has written an intermediate money and banking text that he uses in his classes. About six years ago two freshmen in the dorms heard horror stories about how difficult his classes were and got together for mutual support and study. They found they liked each other and, having graduated and gotten good jobs, are now happily married.

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Race in the Classroom

– Jeanne M. Slattery

Jeanne Slattery

When I first started teaching in the 1980s, I was well-intentioned and, per discussions on campus, had begun addressing race in my classes. Doing so, it was argued, should help address issues of retention and graduation. I don’t have these numbers for that period, but our current 6-year graduation rate for White students is 53% – and appallingly low for Black and Hispanic students, respectively 17 and 28% (Institute of Education Sciences, 2018).

After class in about 1987, one student (kindly) noted that all of my examples had been negative in tone. Shortly after that I had a dream where I was talking to him. Naked. Clearly, I believed he had seen through me in a way that I hadn’t understood myself.

Since then, I have tried to identify more successful ways of considering race. Our daughter is biracial, which has helped me see/understand race on a more intimate level. I am a member of my state association’s Committee on Multiculturalism. I have written two books that directly focus on race (among other things).

I am still, however, trying to identify more successful ways of talking about race. These are some of the things I’ve been considering on this journey.

Can our students see themselves in our courses?

Can our students “see themselves” in the stories, pictures, authors, and issues discussed in class? My colleague, Brian, teaches August Wilson’s play Fences in his Drama as Lit class. Fences explores how race and racism impact a Pittsburgh family. Can his African American students see themselves in this play? Almost certainly. In Forensic Psychology, my students discuss the roles of race and racism in the criminal justice system – how Whites have difficulty making accurate eye witness identifications of Blacks, how Blacks are over-represented in traffic stops and prisons and receive disproportionately more severe sentences. Failing to mention these issues would likely make my class feel irrelevant to my African American students, who know that one in three African American males end up in prison at some point in their lives.

It may be easy for students to see themselves among the criminals we discuss in class, some, like Richard Cotton, falsely accused and later exonerated, but what do students take from such discussions? If we want our course to be seen as relevant to our racial minority students, I believe we must present both positive as well as negative images. I include Bryan Stevenson’s moving TED talk, but not until the end of the semester, when we’re discussing the death penalty. What does that say to my students? Is this enough to counter all of the negative images presented in class?

Is this an inclusive image?

I gave a well-received workshop at a community college in New Jersey, where one of the participants came up during a break to comment on a photo I had used (on the left). I had chosen that particular photo because I believed it had a diverse group of students in the photo – by my count, probably five of the ten students. He argued that at a very diverse school like theirs, he would choose a much more representative photo than this one. Sometimes you can’t win, even when you try – yet, I also understand his concerns about this photo.

Similarly, my friend Melissa observed that one White student complained that “all the authors are Black” in the first section of her composition course (in fact, four of seven were). Does making space for minority students necessarily come at the expense of White students? Can we help each feel heard?

These are not easily resolved issues.

Do students believe we listen to them?

Another strategy for addressing race and increasing graduation rates is to consider how we communicate with our students. Do our students – all of our students – believe they can ask questions, be heard, and receive help?

As we were discussing perceptions of being heard or not, an assertive African American woman with a QPA near 4.0 talked about having her hand ignored or sometimes dismissed in a science course. How might such an experience influence how she saw the class material, herself, and her future success? Would she see our university as a good fit for her?

We can review our syllabi and ask ourselves to what degree our syllabus communicates that we will show genuine respect for students and a belief in their abilities (Finley & McNair, 2013). Do we communicate that we expect our students to succeed? Do we offer opportunities to succeed? This is from my online Abnormal Psychology course:

 I am looking forward to working closely with you this semester, and you can expect me to play an active role in our course. Our correspondence will be primarily through the Discussions and Announcements areas. I will post announcements regularly, answer questions in the Virtual Office Hours Discussion Board in D2L, and provide detailed feedback on major assignments. I will email you when there is a time-sensitive issue.

If you have a general question, post it in the Virtual Office Hours Discussion Board so everyone can profit. Answer each other’s questions if you get there first. If your question is more specific, email me. I generally respond to email within 24 hours. If I don’t, I missed your email – try again. Please reach out if you need help—that’s why I’m here!

I will set up in-person meetings – for those of you in or near Clarion – and meet with you on Zoom. If you would especially like to “talk” with me make sure that I know when works for you. If your group wants to talk, identify at least two options for times and let me know. I’ll try to make this work.

Pro Tip: I check the Virtual Office Hours and Announcements regularly! I want to help you stay on track!

Are our classes relevant to their goals?

Another way of responding to this issue of addressing race in the classroom is to consider whether students will likely perceive our classes and assignments as relevant to their future goals (Finley & McNair, 2013). I know why my students should complete my assignments, but do they see them as important and relevant? Do they understand what they will gain from them? Of course, addressing relevance is not the same as catering to a simplistic perception of college as only job preparation.

How can we help our students recognize that their goals and ours are consistent? As I’ve considered this issue, I’ve begun consciously identifying my goals in class and on assignments. This, for example, is from my media analysis assignment in Forensic Psychology:

Why this assignment? The ability to think critically about what you read and see is an important skill that will benefit you in many different parts of your life, not just in your understanding of the court and prison systems. This assignment will help you build this important skill.

Some final thoughts

Although I’ve been talking about our minority students, these strategies seem likely to increase our White students’ success, too. All of our students need to be seen, to be heard, to find their education is relevant to them, to believe that their professors expect they will be successful, to believe they belong (Escarcha, 2019).

We can’t make everyone succeed, but we can increase the likelihood that our students will be successful. What do you do to help your students – majority students or otherwise – become successful?


Escarcha, K. (2019, January 24). 5 inspiring messages every student needs to hear. EAB. Retrieved from

Finley, A., & McNair, T. (2013). Assessing underserved students’ engagement in high-impact practices. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges & Universities.

Institute of Education Sciences. (2018). IPEDS. Retrieved from

Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She loves teaching and learning and describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has published three books, Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy; Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill; and most recently, Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Translating research into clinical practice. She can be contacted at

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Thoughts on Horses, Students, and Teaching



Kathleen Welsch in her last photo with Casey

– Kathleen A. Welsch

Horses and students are a lot alike. To the average individual that may seem a strange comparison, but it’s one I learned to recognize from working with my thoroughbred, Casey, and one that has contributed to my effectiveness as a teacher. Let me explain.

When I met Casey, he was the craziest lesson horse I had ever seen. He did everything wrong: his pace was too fast, his balance off, his head too high, his posture stiff. “Who would want to ride a horse like that?” I thought, as I watched riders struggle with him. Then one day, my riding instructor told me I needed the challenge of riding that horse. Initially, I approached him as other riders had: as a recalcitrant horse that needed strong handling. Yet despite the difficulties we encountered when I was in the saddle, we had great chemistry on the ground – so much so that I decided we’d benefit from a trainer teaching us to communicate better and work as partners. As training began to unravel our difficulties, I began to perceive the parallels between Casey and my students.

Lesson 1: History Shapes What Happens in the Classroom

Before being demoted to the lowly position of a lesson horse, Casey had been a show horse trained in various disciplines. Yet in spite of his years of show experience, there were elements of equitation that didn’t come easily for him and which he truly hadn’t mastered. When asked to do something he wasn’t particular good at, he would get so anxious about making the mistake that he’d make the mistake. “Now that,” the trainer said, “tells a story about his previous training.”

Just as Casey brought a history of lessons, instructors, riders, successes and failures prior to the moment I climbed into the saddle, students arrive in classrooms with a variety of previous experiences. Of course, I “know” that, but I’d never considered its effect on students in the present moment in my classes. College students, we hope, arrive with a foundation of skills and knowledge they will build on in their college courses. While they may possess a sound grounding in some areas, deficits may exist in others and mis-learning in still others. It’s not surprising then that some courses are easier for some students than for others and that some courses are downright frightening.

As someone who teaches first-year writing courses, I’m well aware that students perceive writing courses as very scary. (Math courses, I think, also fall into this category.) It’s the rare student who says they like writing and is eager to begin. More likely, students describe themselves as terrible writers, incapable of organizing their thoughts, having anything to say, or mastering the accuracy of grammar and punctuation. When people say: “I don’t know how you teach those classes!” I hear myself thinking: “Who would want to ride a horse like that?”

Students are surely smarter and more capable than most of them imagine; it’s the history about themselves as learners that creates such doubts and shapes their approach to learning. In a first-year writing class, they are skittish, anxious, fearful of failure and looking stupid. At those moments, they remind me of Casey. I don’t know the details of their history and they don’t know me. Yet I am climbing into the metaphorical saddle with them and asking them to trust me as I encourage them to let go of negative histories and their grip on the high school five-paragraph essay. They’re not sure what it means to use their thinking to define the shape and length of an essay. “Try a new approach,” I say. “Go slower, plan, be more methodical and the result just might surprise you.”

Revising a history of learning experience is not only a challenge for students, but also one for the teacher. After years of classroom experience, we’ve learned to trust our professional judgment as we size up situations and categorize students quickly. And yet that history can lead us in the wrong direction, too. Quite a few years ago, I identified a student as recalcitrant. No matter what instruction I gave, he refused to follow it. His essays appeared to have no rhyme or reason to them. By the time I returned his second essay with a failing grade, we were at an impasse. He thought I was just unreasonable and because he was a little older than a traditional college student, male, and from a Middle Eastern country, I thought he was resisting a female teacher. When we finally sat down for an extended conversation, I learned that he was a successful writer in his native language and was following the patterns of thought valued by his culture. Those patterns, however, didn’t translate into a successful, linear American essay. Once we established the difference in expectations, he was the kind of talented writer who could shift his pattern of thinking to achieve a different kind of success. I, too, had had to shift my pattern of thinking. Where I had thought he needed strong handling, what he needed was my attention to his history.

Lesson 2: Fear of Admonishment Can Produce Mistakes

As a lesson horse, Casey had been continuously ridden by riders with any range of experience: from inexperienced ones banging around on his back and yanking at his mouth to experienced ones who used force to make him comply. Because the methods and demands shifted from one rider to the next, expectations regarding his performance also shifted.  Given the circumstances, it wasn’t surprising that some of his equitation skills didn’t reflect his level of experience. As I watched Casey struggle to relearn certain basic skills, I realized that it required him to trust that he wouldn’t receive the same admonishments he had in the past – that he needn’t be anxious – that a mistake merely meant let’s try again.

Students, too, have encountered a range of methods and instructors that can result in confused learning and insecurity in basic skills. When you’re a college student, knowing you’re weak in skills everyone assumes you should have developed long before arriving in college – writing, reading, study skills, math computation – is particularly painful and humiliating. Fear of being discovered, embarrassed in front of peers, or punished, and producing low/failing grades are all too real – even for strong students. So rather than seek out the professor during office hours or use support resources offered by the institution, they struggle alone, cheat, stop attending class, or drop out. Like Casey, they produce the negative outcome they were so fearful of creating.

In my first-year writing classes, students have regular, short writing assignments before tackling an essay. This allows me to learn who they are as writers, identify and address weaknesses, and encourage them to repeat specific successes. In this way they are also practicing and developing skills needed in an extended essay. During one fall semester, a student whom I knew not to be a strong writer turned in an essay that didn’t reflect the voice or skill level demonstrated in daily homework. When I pointed out the discrepancy to him, he sheepishly admitted that his girlfriend (who was very good in English) had “helped” him – only help in this case was clearly a case of collusion.

I could have punished the student severely, but his attempts to complete daily assignments to the best of his ability and his willingness to own the truth of the essay’s composition were not evidence of a cheater. He was embarrassed by his lack of skill, fearful of failing, and – now – worried about the repercussions of his actions. As with Casey, rather than punishment, we proceeded by trying again. For the rest of the semester, instead of going to his girlfriend, he met with me several times in the planning and drafting stages of writing essays. In the process, he developed both skill and confidence. He wasn’t a great writer, but he’d become a competent one.

Lesson 3: Willingness to Try an Alternative Approach


Casey using the bitless bridle

Since Casey never knew who was going to be climbing on his back in a lesson or what would be expected of him, he developed the habit of grinding his teeth on the bit as soon as it was put in his mouth. He did this for years, even after he had become mine and I was his sole rider. What could I do to relieve him of that anxiety? Doing some research, I discovered a “bitless” bridle. Instead of giving commands through a metal bit in his mouth, this bridle applied gentle pressure to his cheeks for specific cues. It did the work of a bit but in a more soothing manner.

Students, too, develop anxieties regarding any number of academic demands, and how we choose to approach them can make all the difference. Early in my career, I viewed first-year writing courses as “gate-keeping” classes: if students couldn’t pass a college-level writing course, then they shouldn’t be in college. It was my equivalent of using a harsh bit on students. What I came to see, though, from work with Casey was that I can be demanding and hold students to high standards without taking a harsh approach.

Over the years, I’ve shifted my perspective of entry level courses from gate-keeping to gateway. I imagine myself holding a large ring of keys, each of which – once mastered – allows students to open the door to the next level and so on. It’s up to the students to decide whether they will master them. If they don’t, they don’t move forward but I have done my best to show them the way. Some might think this a simple trick of semantics, but it’s more than that when it shifts how you see students and think about the best ways to teach them.

This same shift has helped me address testing in content area courses I teach. Without a doubt, test anxiety ranks high among students so what alternatives are possible? One that I use is the open book/notebook test. Because the questions require students to apply their understanding of key concepts, they won’t find answers in their notes. However, permitting them to refer to course materials to construct responses is still an academic challenge and alleviates test anxiety. Another alternative I sometimes use (this one learned from retired Sociology professor Bob Girvan) is giving the students the option of taking a test individually or with a partner. In this scenario, students receive a list of test questions ahead of time. They may create a set of notes to bring to class with them for reference. What they don’t know, however, is which of the questions they will be asked to address at test time. This means they have to be prepared for all of them. I admit I was skeptical about this approach at first, but watching it in action convinced me it was a productive review and learning experience. It also alleviated test anxiety as students felt they had a degree of control and didn’t need to cram.

Lesson 4: Observation

Anyone who has ever had the care of an animal knows the value of observation since animals can’t tell us in words what we need to know. Unlike small animals, you can’t just run your horse to a veterinarian and farm calls are expensive. The key to caring for Casey was daily observation and remembering similar situations or behaviors and how they were dealt with so that if they appeared again I knew what to do. In some instances, Casey conveyed very clearly what a problem was, like dropping his head and waggling a sore foot at me or drawing himself up to his full height as I approached with a bottle of fly spray that irritated him (but which I hadn’t yet noticed), and staring pointedly at it and then at the hives on his flank.

Teaching, too, requires careful observation of student behavior, and just like Casey, sometimes students let us know outright what they need and other times not so clearly. Looking out into a sea of faces daily and noticing facial expressions and body language tells me whether someone is paying attention, drifting and needs to be brought back into focus, is confused and requires further clarification, or has a response and needs to be called on even though their hand isn’t raised. I can ignore the student who is in her seat on time but tearful, or I can approach her before class begins to make sure she’s okay or needs to be excused for the day. I can ignore the student who never hands in homework – after all, it’s his grade, or I can take him aside to address the issue.

For life-long academics, the world of the university is familiar terrain where we take much for granted. For a great number of Clarion students who are first-generation in college, however, it is foreign territory they haven’t yet learned to navigate. Asking for assistance by raising a hand in class or going to a professor’s office hours may feel daunting because, just by being here, they assume that everyone else assumes they know what they’re doing. This is college so they need to appear smart – whether that means fumbling about without guidance or attempting to look smart in classes in bumbling ways.

I see the latter a great deal in first-year writing courses: students writing in what they imagine to be an academic voice and inaccurately employing unfamiliar vocabulary. I could simply be critical of these efforts and grade them harshly, or recognize them for what they are: insecure writers attempting to produce what they imagine as university language. I had a discussion once with a student about the need to trust his own voice when he wrote rather than trying to write “fancy.” He was so relieved that he could use his own words that, for the rest of the semester, he joked about how he’d try to write “all fancy.” When students attempt to “do” college in the myriad ways they do, we can best help by remembering that this is new terrain for them and observing the cues their attempts reveal about what they need in the way of assistance.

Lesson 5: Compassion

Casey, like all animals, lived in the present moment, which challenged me to be in that moment with him. And since he, like all horses, could recognize and respond to facial expression and voice tones just as humans do, it meant letting go of the day’s baggage and seeing the world simply as it was when we were together.

Maybe in Plato’s perfect classroom it’s possible to teach in the moment free of the crush of deadlines, professional and daily living demands, and the messiness that is human behavior, but in reality we, students, and the space of the classroom are anything but perfect. On any given day, all we can do is our best and extend that same understanding to students, who try our patience, make dumb choices, and are juggling a range of responsibilities of their own. How we choose to present and extend ourselves to students shapes the type of relationship we have with them.

Casey and I never achieved perfection either, but we did learn to work together as partners because I chose not to see him as a “dumb” animal that needed to accept my authority. In my 41st year in the classroom, he’s still very much alive in the lessons he taught me about students and teaching.

Kathleen Welsch is a professor of English at Clarion University and also teaches in the Women & Gender Studies Program.  She challenges students in all her classes to consider issues of power of language, gender, and class. Her areas of specialty are composition-rhetoric and women’s and working-class literature. She has edited the book Those Winter Sundays: Female Academics and Their Working-Class Parents.  The passions in her life include teaching, writing, and life with equines and felines.

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What Teaching and Professional Triathlon Have in Common


Kim Schwabenbauer Photo by @mattgreenphoto

– Kim Schwabenbauer

I never wanted to become a teacher.  I saw my mother put in long hours during weeknight evenings and weekends during the semester, preparing her lectures and grading assignments.  I often asked her why it was worth it, and she always talked about preparing future generations to be successful or improving the lives of others, neither of which were very important to me during my self-absorbed high school years.

As life would have it, I took some very twisty roads to arrive in front of a class as an adjunct instructor at the very school my mother had spent over twenty years of her career.  I had done so after running my own business and competing all over the world as a professional triathlete.  After that class, I realized that my mother just MIGHT be on to something: I felt a fire in my belly when a student grasped a concept or came to me with a new idea for a paper.

With both parents as college professors, teaching was in my blood.  I could tell that was the case as I started creating new ways to engage the students and get them excited about nutrition.  I had spent over fifteen years committed to understanding how the body utilizes nutrients and developing my own expertise.  “Surely teaching wouldn’t be that hard,” I thought as students were clearly sleeping in the front row of my first class.  That was when it occurred to me that I had much to learn about this new endeavor.  Now, as an assistant professor, I have come to realize the parallels between my former life of swimming, biking, and running and my current teaching endeavors.

Strive for Balance While Planning Your Season

The semester has some very distinct phases, just like the triathlon season.  In the early season, there is the preparatory phase, which usually involves lots of long cycling rides on the indoor trainer because it’s still cold outside.  Your time is spent staring at the wall trying to figure out why you just aren’t getting anywhere even though you’ve been training and sweating for hours.  It takes tenacity, grit and a long-term vision to keep your pedals turning when you know the rubber won’t meet the road for months.

Teaching requires this same preparatory phase as well when it comes to planning the semester and researching new materials, videos and activities.  While time-consuming, and sometimes tedious, I’m always thankful that I have spent this extra time preparing during the semester so the students can benefit from and enjoy their time in class.  When the rubber meets the road, you’ll want to be ready!

Embrace the Grind


Photo by @mattgreenphoto

During the middle of the triathlon season, you’ve been racing for months and the travel, training and tri life start to take their toll.  While you should be gearing up for the championships, you’re struggling not to throw your bike off of a cliff and just drink margaritas all day.  Similarly, during the mid-terms of the semester, with finals seeming VERY far away, the mental and physical exhaustion can start creeping in.  Whether I have been training the 28+ hours required to race 140.6 miles at a breakneck pace or keep the pace with all of the committee meetings, class preparation, grading and community contributions that this career path requires, this phase requires special motivation.   I strive to focus on embracing the day instead of dreading it.  During training, I’ll pull out that motivational “Chariots of Fire” movie that always gets my competitive juices flowing or I’ll take a couple of down days to sleep more and think less.  I find it to be energizing, giving me the extra boost for an early morning jump into a cold pool or the will to push my heart rate up for the fifth hour of the bike ride of triathlon training.  I’ll change up my route and attempt to see something new that invigorates my love of cycling.  Sometimes I will ride or run with a friend and talk about what’s going well and what I know I can do better going forward.

Do not be afraid to watch the motivating teaching movie, take the couple of days away, look at things from a new perspective or get some support from a colleague.  It is better to be prepared with some strategies to “embrace the grind”!

Know Your Why

In every race, there is a point when I want to walk off the course and go home.  The pain seeps into your body and your psyche is screaming “UNCLE!!!”   At this point, I’ve always told the athletes that I coach, it is important to “know their why,” or their reason for racing.  Steve Prefontaine once said in one of my all-time favorite quotes, “to give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.” I have always believed that our abilities are nothing if they are not shared with others to improve their personal journey.  By racing through my own limitations, I’ve learned about my core values and what I’ve found to be most rewarding in my life.  I enjoy sharing this gift with others by helping them achieve their dreams, to do something they, and the world, originally saw as impossible.  It has allowed my clients to achieve things for the rest of their lives that they couldn’t conceive at the beginning of their journey.

The same is true with teaching.  The more clarity I have about my own “why,” the more often I can navigate the situations that challenge me and would normally make me want to throw in the towel.  The good news is I’ve never regretted making it through those difficult moments, in triathlon or in teaching.  It reveals to me my true character and helps solidify my foundation.  I would encourage you to take a few minutes to jot down your “why” before the semester begins and revisit it throughout.  I think you’ll find the path clearer in the moments of occasional frustration and remind you why you started your own journey in the classroom.

Don’t Be Afraid, Failure is Only the Beginning

In thirteen years of racing triathlon, there has only been one race I did not finish.  During my first professional Ironman race in Lake Placid, NY, I had stomach issues that eventually got the better of me, and I was transported to the medical tent at mile 136, 4 miles short of the finish line.  It was demoralizing and disheartening, as I questioned my reasons for even becoming a professional.  My coach explained that failure is inevitable when taking on any upper level activity.  It was not a question of if it would happen, it was a question of whenThe process, he explained, is the valuable part.  With time, the learning that takes place during the process turns every day athletes into champions.  I subscribed to not being afraid of the process or of failure, and in fact, I learned to welcome it with open arms by trying new things and not being afraid of the outcome.  I became obsessed with the mastery of each individual element and it pushed me to continue to learn and grow as an athlete.

On the heels of a teaching retreat featuring the book Small Teaching, by James Lang, I have committed to incorporating at least three new strategies in my class sessions this semester, “minute thesis,” “retrieval practice,” and “leveraging peer learning power.”   I’ve tried other approaches that haven’t had the desired impact I’d hoped, but I’m excited about using some new techniques that may turn on the light bulb for students and help them in their journey to academic excellence.  I enjoy employing proven methods with my own creative spin in my process of long-term mastery in this new discipline.  While it may take the students out of their comfort zone of passive learning, the goal is better critical thinking not just a grade or a credit.

I hope that by sharing how triathlon has helped shape my teaching, you’ll find that a few of these ideas may be applicable to your teaching strategies as well.  Remember, there is no finish line in learning!

Kim Schwabenbauer, MS, RD, LDN, CSSD has over 16 years of experience as a Registered Dietitian.  Her work as a triathlon coach, professional triathlete and Board Certified Specialist in sports nutrition drove her to found her personal sports nutrition counseling and endurance coaching business, “Fuel Your Passion.” As an assistant professor of nutrition at Clarion University, Kim shares her love and passion for health and wellness with the bright young minds of tomorrow.  Kim has appeared on national TV as a dietitian and coach for the hit show, MADE, and in 2014, she was ranked among the top twenty female professional triathletes in the world.

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My Jenga-playing class.

– Jeanne M. Slattery

I walked into my Introduction to Counseling class last semester and, after doing announcements about upcoming assignments, set up a game of Jenga. I didn’t introduce it, didn’t say what we were doing or why. I didn’t even say what I expected my students to get out of it.

This is a class of 27, most of whom are junior and senior psychology majors. We played a spirited game with lots of Ooh-ing and Ah-ing as people attempted to make a risky move and peers suggested better moves. This class is a good and supportive community, so even when the tower fell, no one complained.

We played two rounds, then spent the rest of the class debriefing: Why did we do this?

My students spent 30 minutes talking about the role of social support, the importance of drawing your own metaphors, and the challenge of change and risk-taking. These explanations largely match my own goals.

However, my students went further than this. They also talked about how different it was to actively engage with the material than to be lectured at. Kaitlyn considered the importance of those Oohs! and Ahs! and what it would have been like if everyone’s backs had been turned, and they had been silent. They talked about the places where people – including faculty – had criticized their comments in class and how that criticism affected their motivation for an assignment or class.

Melissa observed that I hadn’t introduced the game to the class; instead, I just said that we were going to play Jenga. She observed – as did Kaitlyn – that my not saying anything got them wondering why we were playing. What were my goals? Logan noted that she has been increasingly considering her “why” and what she wants to get out of a situation and how that has affected her process of preparing to go to graduate school and related this to my frequent questions about why we’re doing what we’re doing throughout the course.

Notice their active reflection?

I like to lecture and enjoy working with PowerPoint. However, sometimes less is more. I want my students to learn to write, think, take different perspectives, gain in empathy, analyze research, and work effectively in groups (and more). These are not skills easily built in passive students. They have to get in and engage with the material. They have to get  their hands dirty. I can’t tell them what they learned playing Jenga, but I can support their active search.

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Figure 1. Teacher- and student-centered classrooms.

I’m reading Maryellen Weimer’s (2013) Learner-Centered Teaching. Weimer discusses a wide range of strategies that help students become active, questioning, and engaged, students who identify what they want to know, how they want to get there, and how they might apply those ideas. In teacher-centered classrooms, we have to do all the work: we faculty bring the knowledge and experience to the classroom. In student-centered classrooms, students are encouraged to work individually and collaboratively. See Figure 1. While we continue to bring knowledge and experience to the classroom, students are also expected to be active contributors to the learning process.

It’s easier for many of us – including me – to lecture, to tell our students what we want them to learn; nonetheless, I suspect that I am more successful in meeting my students’ goals – and my own for them – as I step back and away from lecture mode. This was the major reason we played Jenga: I want them to recognize how powerful the change process can be when we step away and our clients step in to take responsibility for their change.

It takes a lot of trust to step back and believe that my students can rise to the occasion, but this class, this day has me trusting.


Weimer, M. (2013). Learner-centered teaching: Five key changes to practice (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She loves teaching and learning and describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has published three books, Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy; Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill; and most recently, Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Translating research into clinical practice. She can be contacted at

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