Learning community helps Brandywine faculty create more equitable courses

MEDIA, Pa. — A multi-disciplinary professional learning community at Penn State Brandywine is supporting faculty efforts to create classes that are equitable, inclusive, engaging and embrace a diverse world.

The initiative — now in its second year — is part of Penn State’s Equity Pedagogy Network, which supports and enhances the racial equity work of faculty, staff and administrators across Penn State by developing a community for resource sharing, collaborative inquiry and reflective practice. According to its website, the Equity Pedagogy Network serves as a central hub to connect Penn State initiatives and professional learning communities oriented towards institutionalizing equity pedagogy and culturally sustaining curricula. The Network was funded by a strategic plan seed grant for transforming education.

Brandywine Director of Academic Affairs Wiebke Strehl said the purpose of the professional learning community is to encourage and develop faculty members who will adopt more equitable and inclusive pedagogical strategies and practices.

“The emphasis is on creating hands-on, practical approaches to more inclusive classrooms,” Strehl said. “Academic research demonstrates that culturally responsive and inclusive pedagogy leads to stronger performance, satisfaction, and retention for undergraduate students, specifically for first-generation students and students of color.”

During the 2020-21 academic year, a group of 10 Brandywine faculty met every few weeks to discuss assigned readings, hear from guest speakers and participate in workshops. Goals for the program included learning about culturally responsive and inclusive teaching practices, assessing practices and approaches to teaching, and developing new practices based on a model of inclusive and equitable teaching. Participants chose one course syllabus and one major assignment to assess, evaluate and revise, based on inclusive and equitable pedagogical practices. They also provided feedback on other participants’ syllabi and class sessions. Faculty received a stipend to support their professional development through the professional learning community.

“We have a diverse student body at Brandywine, and we want every one of them to feel included, supported and have every opportunity for success.”

—Daniela Martin , associate professor of psychology

“We started off by looking at our own disciplines and the practices that are seen as normative in the disciplines,” said Daniela Martin, associate professor of psychology and Brandywine’s campus lead for the program. “Then we looked at the main critiques and new ways of thinking to make our classroom content and the materials more inclusive. And then we started looking at our syllabi and our teaching practices, and the way we assess our students’ progress, which brings us to the question of what is success, what is progress?

“We started from the theoretical points and then went to hands-on work, where we evaluated our own teaching in particular courses,” Martin added.

At the end of the semester, the group members presented their revised syllabi and shared reflections on their learning process.

“The group discussed much more than a syllabus,” Martin said. “It was really a starting point to addressing, creating, and designing a course, including the goals of the course, the way these are communicated in a syllabus, and the various formats through which we communicate with students. We talked about assignments and how they're structured, and we talked about the classroom dynamic.

“So basically, at every level of the teaching process, we tried to get at the question of ‘How can I be more inclusive? How can I, in my own teaching practice, promote more equity,’” she said. “And it was framed in a de-colonial framework, which is one of the current ways of speaking about equity, diversity and inclusion. “

Decolonizing pedagogies essentially refers to subverting the oppressive power structures that typically govern what takes place within a classroom and what is considered “knowledge” within that classroom, said Angela Putman, associate professor of communication arts and sciences and co-facilitator for the initiative.

“This includes, but is not limited to, encouraging everyone to understand and recognize the implications of colonization, decentering dominant and oppressive sources and structures as the natural authority on knowledge creation, recentering Indigenous ways of knowing and being in the world, and creating a space for shared knowledge, shared power, and shared responsibility for making positive change in the world as a direct result of our learning and unlearning,” Putman said. “There is a lot to learn on this subject, and I knew that the Equity Pedagogy Network would be a great opportunity to not only continue my own education, but also to hopefully expose my colleagues to what might be a new subject for them that would make all of our classrooms better spaces for our students.”

“I wanted to learn ways that I can make my classroom more welcoming to all students and foster racial equity by adopting inclusive pedagogical content and approaches.”

—Anna Sigmon , assistant professor of chemistry

Anna Sigmon, assistant professor of chemistry, said she was interested in the initiative because there is a demonstrated need to make the field of chemistry more inclusive, which includes the way that chemistry is taught.

“I wanted to learn ways that I can make my classroom more welcoming to all students and foster racial equity by adopting inclusive pedagogical content and approaches,” Sigmon said. “Ultimately, I want to create a classroom culture wherein everyone can have a sense of belonging in chemistry.”

Martin, Putman and Sigmon agreed the program’s inaugural year was a great success and offered many benefits to the faculty who participated.

“We met 10 times throughout the year with 100% attendance at every meeting, and we took full advantage of our time together to engage in dialogue, learn from guest experts, and discuss the materials and resources we utilized outside of our meeting time,” Putman said.

“I hope that last year’s cohort will incorporate many things they learned into their own pedagogies and will also share some of this knowledge and experience with colleagues who were not able to participate,” she added.

The program has continued in the 2021-22 academic year, led by Sigmon and Professor of Psychology Pauline Thompson, with 10 new faculty participants. This year’s group is focused on putting equity into action by implementing and assessing inclusive practices in the classroom. Faculty will be working in teams to observe each other’s strategies and discussing various approaches. Overall, this program aligns with Goal 2 of Brandywine’s Strategic Plan: Create an equitable and inclusive environment for Penn State Brandywine’s diverse campus community to support and sustain the holistic development and well-being of our people.

Martin said the ultimate beneficiaries of the initiative will be Brandywine’s students.

“We have a diverse student body at Brandywine, and we want every one of them to feel included, supported and have every opportunity for success,” she said.