by Melissa Sue Sorrells '05
Question: What do 20,000 poets, a homemade animation film and a riparian buffer have in common?
Answer: They're all innovative teaching strategies supported by grants from the Center for Teaching and Learning during the 2008-2009 academic year.
Each semester, the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) awards several grants to faculty members who have designed a course that will transform the classroom and spark student interest.
"These grants provide resources for faculty who are interested in engaging students in learning while developing their own creative teaching skills," says Director of CTL Dr. Susan Pliner. "Innovative learning environments challenge and benefit students, but they also give faculty the means to stretch themselves as teachers."
By supporting innovative teaching, the CTL grants contribute to the overall academic rigor of Hobart and William Smith and highlight the importance of interdisciplinary teaching, demanding educational standards and experiential learning.
"Students learn best when they're actively involved in their learning," says Assistant Professor of English Lauren Alleyne, a recent CTL awardee who came to the Colleges in 2007 from Cornell and Chatham Universities.
The following are descriptions of some of the courses from the 2008- 2009 academic year that have and are benefiting from a CTL grant.
Just three weeks into the academic year, Alleyne used her CTL grant to place her students in the middle of nearly 20,000 poets during the annual Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey for four straight, full days of readings, panel discussions and workshops.
"The sheer immersion widened their scope of the power and possibility of poetry and has completely changed how they read - and see - poetry," says Alleyne.
"Dodge was poetry overload in a great way," says Jennie Seidewand '09. "As a non-poet, it helped me process the idea of political poetry and what it can do. It was such a positive, empowering experience."
Ben Michalak '09 had a slightly different experience. "It was completely overwhelming - I'm still processing it, months later. But, as a poet, it was invigorating. I wrote a lot while I was there and it felt great to be around the creative process."
Before the Festival, Alleyne's Political Poetry class had read works by Iranian poet Roger Sedarat. During the Festival, they had the opportunity to hear Sedarat read his own work live and, afterward, to interview him.
"Listening to Sedarat helped them understand the concept of voice in writing," says Alleyne. "But actually meeting him face-to face and being able to ask him questions helped them understand the concept of context. Afterward, Sedarat told me that he thought they were some of the sharpest undergraduate students he'd ever met."
"Meeting Sedarat was eye-opening," says Seidewand. "I learned a lot of things that I wouldn't expect. For example, I think of him as a really gutsy political poet, but he told us that he was afraid to say certain things in his writing and would consider publishing under a pseudonym."
In the end, the trip not only exposed students to new ways of thinking about poetry but also helped bond the class in a palpable way and made the classroom experience that much more meaningful.
"The festival was a great collective experience, and I felt like our sheer exhaustion and the awesomeness of it all brought us a lot closer," says Michalak. "Whenever students can bring a shared experience to the classroom, it makes the learning experience that much stronger."
At HWS, it's not out of the ordinary for faculty members to invite their students over for dinner, but actually traveling with undergraduates can be transformative, as it was for Assistant Professor of Psychology Jon Iuzzini, who used his CTL grant to take students from his Political Psychology course to New York City.
"Traveling together as a group was a great, unexpected experience," Iuzzini says. "It allowed us to immediately reflect in ways that wouldn't have been possible if we'd gone to a lecture on campus together and reconvened to talk about it the next day. It enhanced the experience."
During their trip, the class visited the Museum of the City of New York where they learned about the history of political campaigns. They delved into the philosophical and religious aspects of campaigns through lectures by activist and philosopher Cornel West and moral philosopher Susan Neiman.
"The trip added a great depth to our in-class conversations. We were able to make a real connection between what they saw and heard in New York and our readings," Iuzzini explains.
In his attempt to actively connect his students to the 2008 presidential election, Iuzzini brought many different disciplines to the table, another hallmark of a rigorous classroom environment.
"The class was totally interdisciplinary," says Nick Hecht '10. "We integrated the psychological aspects of a political campaign with different subject areas in our discussions and writing. As a class, we agreed to try to open it up beyond the limits of psychology."
"The experience helped me better understand the power of incorporating different disciplines into my teaching," Iuzzini says. "I teach psychology, but bringing in other ideas enriches the classroom experience for everyone."
Opening the course up to different disciplines also had an impact on Assistant Professor of Russian Area Studies David Galloway's classes, two sections of a First-Year Seminar titled Tales of the Village Idiot.
The sections met independently on Monday and Wednesday to read and discuss Russian folklore, but both classes met together on Fridays for an extended period to work on a 6-inch scale, 11-minute film retelling of a Russian folktale.
Galloway split the classes into groups to work on different parts of the project, from writing a complete soundtrack and creating sound effects to building tiny sets and figures and recording all of the dialogue in Russian.
"Making the movie was fun, but it also helped us process what we were learning in class about Russian life and allowed us to explore other subject areas," says Melissa Warner '12, who worked in the costuming group. "For example, I met with upper-class art students to learn more about sculpting foam and bringing our little figures to life, and the sound effects group met with faculty from the music department."
The then recently-opened Rosensweig Learning Commons also acted as a resource for the budding filmmakers: members of the CTL staff helped with costuming, members of the library staff assisted with background research, and staff from Instructional Technology taught students how to use the Colleges' digital video and editing equipment.
In the end, the film was a success, receiving a standing ovation during its campus debut during finals week. It was also recognized as a finalist in the animation category during the local G-13 Film Festival. "When I, as a teacher, want to be in the class instead of running it, I know I'm doing something right," says Galloway.
Having fun while learning was literally a topic of conversation in a course taught by Assistant Professor of Psychology Julie Kingery. This semester, her CTL grant enabled Kingery to add a twist to her Child Psychology course: a visit to the Strong Museum of Play.
"The trip gave us an opportunity to see the theories and concepts we're reading about in action," says Kingery. "It also gave students the opportunity to use the observational methods we've talked about in a real life situation. It's something I think they'll all remember, and I couldnt have provided this unique experience without the grant."
"It was so beneficial to be able to observe children in this setting," says Shana Allen '11. "Watching children play confirmed what we have learned about the stages of motor and cognitive development and gave me a better understanding of how children learn through play."
Seeing classroom concepts translated to real-life gave the students in Assistant Professor of Biology Meghan Brown's Conservation Biology course a new understanding of lakefront preservation.
After learning the biological basics of conservation, the class visited undeveloped lakefronts on Canadice and Hemlock Lakes.
They were able to take photos, collect data and test hypotheses during their visits, and then returned to the classroom to compare that with Geneva's developed lakefront property around Seneca Lake.
"I wanted the class to observe conservation in action," explains Brown, who used the CTL grant to fund the trips as well as provide cameras and canoes. "All of the principles of conservation biology they'd learned over the course of the semester came into play as they explored the biological impact of developing a lakefront property."
After setting the stage with trips to local lakes, the students prepared grant proposals of their own, each designed to conserve a local habitat, and presented them to the class as part of their final projects.
"This course was not only engaging, but it also helped me realize my true calling as a biologist and my true passion for ecological activism," says Melissa Gaydos '09. "Professor Brown held us to the highest expectations in the classroom and in the field, and in doing so, she helped me realize the kind of person I have the potential to become."
Associate Professor of Biology Mark Deutschlander's CTL grant course, Origin, Oration and Ornithology, is also helping students realize their potential.
After analyzing research about the physiology of migratory song birds collected by the Braddock Bay Bird Observatory, the nonprofit observatory where Deutschlander serves as president of the board of directors, the students will present posters about their findings during both the annual meeting of the Wilson Ornithological Society in Pittsburgh and the HWS Senior Symposium.
"There's a huge difference between when a student reflects on their work and when they are asked to present it as an authority on the subject," says Deutschlander. "If they can explain their findings to other scientists, I'll know they understand the material."
"I have never done any indepth research like this, but I find it fascinating," says Bethany Bashaw '10. "I am also very excited about attending the Wilson Conference - it's a rare opportunity for an undergraduate to be able to highlight their own work at a professional conference."
While at the Wilson Ornithological Society meeting, Deutschlander hopes that his students will come face-to-face with the scientists whose work they've been reading. "I want them to be able to see scientists in their element," he explains. "I hope they get a sense of the social aspects of science because one of the most important things we do as scientists is come together to talk about new ideas and give each other feedback."
Educating others and providing environmental leadership are cornerstones of Restoration Ecology, a CTL grant course taught by Assistant Professor of Biology Susan Flanders Cushman '98. Her students are promoting awareness of restoration to students from the Canandaigua Academy Ecology Club.
In addition to creating fact sheets about riparian buffers for the high school students, Cushman's class is also planning a daylong community restoration event, where both groups will come together to rebuild a riparian buffer, planting trees and shrubs along Sucker Brook in Canandaigua to restore the ecology of the watershed.
"My goal is to have them take a leadership role," says Cushman, who has traveled to the planting site with her students several times to scout the site and learn more about their impact on the stream. "If they can explain restoration ecology to high school students, they'll become environmental stewards for the rest of their lives."
Figuring out how to make a lasting impression on students was a big factor for Assistant Professor of Writing and Rhetoric Neeta Bhasin as she planned her CTL grant course, Immigrant Experiences.
"My goal was to humanize immigrants for the students. We have to understand why immigrants come here and what they face before we can begin to debate the issue," she says. "I wanted to make sure that they walked away with a clear and memorable understanding of immigrant life."
The grant allowed Bhasin to take the group to the Tenement Museum in New York City, where the class donned costumes and became a (very large) Greek immigrant family in 1916, meeting other immigrant families and trying to find employment and a place to live.
"The Tenement Museum is not your average 'stand and look' kind of museum; it's more active," explains Sarah Canavan '12. "We were shocked by how immigrants from different cultures treated one another. They wouldn't help us at all, and the living conditions were just shocking. We visited some apartments where there were 11 or more people living in a space the size of my room on campus."
In addition to their trip to New York's Tenement Museum, Bhasin was able to bring in guest speakers from La Casa (a local migrant shelter), Farm Workers Legal Service, NY Civil Liberties Union, Migrant Health Service and the Rape and Abuse Crisis Service, giving students another kind of first-hand experience.
"I can stand up in front of the class and say whatever I want, but when we heard from immigrants or people who work with immigrants on a daily basis, it made things very clear," Bhasin explains. "The reality is that many of these stories are very sad, and you can't intellectualize it. We had to deal with our emotions because the facts weren't going to go away, and that brought real depth to the course."
The CTL grant helped Assistant Professor of Dance Michelle Iklé bring depth to a field that many of her students had already encountered: somatics.
"The field of somatics encompasses eastern and western approaches to mind-body wellness," says Iklé. "I ask my students to Google it, and they quickly recognize how vast the field is while also identifying modalities that they may already be familiar with. My goal was to simultaneously broaden and deepen all of our knowledge of this field."
Unlike other courses in the dance department, the intermediate technique and theory course in somatics isn't about becoming a better dancer; instead it's about the experiences of the human body in everyday life.
"This course isn't just for dancers; it's for everyone," says Iklé. "It's about learning to make better choices about how we move."
By welcoming experts from five different areas of somatics, Iklé hopes to explore the subject with breadth and depth.
"My own somatics training is very broad, so bringing in various practitioners, like a cranialsacral expert and a teacher of the Alexander technique, to give an indepth, hands-on training session is a great educational benefit," she says.
Her students, in addition to practicing somatic techniques on themselves and each other, will work with members of the campus community, imparting the somatic training they've learned, as part of their final projects.
"Applying the material we've read to my real life and the real lives of the people around me truly enriches and enhances my understanding of the concepts," says Kathryn Bowering '11. "When we work with the practitioners, I can physically feel what we were studying, and that's a really effective way of learning."