Today, in our Progressive Pedagogy Group, we recognize the superb classroom and institutional innovations of Professor Cristy Bruns, Associate Professor of English at LaGuardia Community College, CUNY. Professor Bruns teaches first- and second-semester composition, and her teaching innovation gets first-year college students accustomed to speaking and participating in class.
After many years teaching as an adjunct in English departments at a range of institutions, Professor Bruns is now settled teaching composition and literature full time at a large urban community college where the student body is majority immigrant and majority low income. Her scholarship focuses on the experience of reading fiction and the teaching of literature. Professor Bruns is the author of Why Literature? The Value of Literary Reading and What It Means for Teaching (Bloomsbury, 2011, formerly Continuum).
Professor Bruns writes: "The activity that makes the biggest difference in the learning environment in all my classes is a simple thing I do in every class I teach. I start out each class meeting with a "warm-up question," an icebreaker that prompts students to talk to one or two of their classmates. The question is always open-ended and relatively easy to answer, and it's designed to help students get to know each other, start thinking as class begins, and grow comfortable speaking with their classmates and ultimately with the class as a whole. The question prompts students to think about a skill for success in school (How are you at asking for help?), or connects class with their own experience (What have you researched lately, outside of school? or What have you learned in life about communicating well?), or serves just to check in with each other (How are you holding up? What's helping and what's not helping?). The regular prompting to talk with classmates transforms the atmosphere of the classroom from one of anxiety and awkwardness to one where even shy students grow comfortable and feel like they belong. That feeling of belonging is especially significant where I teach, with a student body who are majority low income, immigrant, and people of color, students who may have grown accustomed to feeling unwelcome and unheard. This practice, and my effort overall to make the classroom a safe place for students to contribute and participate, has led several students recently to remark that coming into our classroom feels like coming home. That feeling of belonging frees students up to engage more fully with the work of the class and learn more deeply because they no longer have to spend much of their emotional energy protecting themselves from the humiliation that schooling often produces.
My teaching has been most influenced by Paulo Freire's work. In whatever class I teach I strive to invite students to become contributors to our learning together. One central challenge in that effort is overcoming students' learned passivity which means undoing their expectations for what being a student requires. Over some decades now I've been experimenting with ways to create a learning environment that asks students to step into a new role in which the contributions of everyone in the classroom matter for the learning of us all."
The featured image is courtesy of Professor Bruns, who took this photo on the first day of the first class she taught at LaGuardia five years ago.