Blog Post

Purposeful Pedagogy at the CUNY Graduate Center

On Friday, May 1, Natalie Oshukany, Evan Misshula (in absentia), and Rachel Oppenheimer modified their Life Barriers & Persistence “Mapping the Futures” class unit for a session at the Purposeful Pedagogy Conference, held at the CUNY Graduate Center. Now in its fourth year, this one-day intensive pedagogy workshop was conceived by a group of former public school teachers, graduate student adjuncts, and full-time faculty, who saw a crucial need for formal training and support for CUNY adjuncts. This workshop was generously supported by the Graduate Center’s Office of Career Planning and Professional Development.

In essence, the group distilled 4 hours to 1.25, drawing out the key take-aways and key modeling exercises necessary to convey the importance of structuring equality in the classroom. Given the unique population that CUNY teachers serve, they contextualized these strategies within the diverse CUNY student landscape--one in which the workshop participants were already, or soon would be, immersed to varying degrees.

The workshop development process was an important educational exercise in itself. It enabled Evan, Natalie, and Rachel to further discuss and build on their ongoing “Persistence and Life Barriers” conversation [which, it should be added, is never lacking —  we often have to refocus ourselves multiple times to get back to “work,” because we are constantly setting off light bulbs for one another and the bright ideas never find a natural pause…], while providing critical practice in modifying, enhancing, and refining facilitation skills and tightening the session as concepts and audiences changed.


For me, Rachel, this workshop was a valuable opportunity to integrate coursework and professional work, and to collaborate with my Mapping peers to bring our ideas on the importance of classroom equity to the broader GC community. It was wonderful to learn from from the input and contributions of the session participants. Their additions and comments on classroom structure, equity, and student engagement and equality concerns helped us to build on and deepen our work with classroom equity and to grow our knowledge on the topic.  

For me, Natalie, this workshop was a rewarding experience on multiple levels. Being able to continue this work with my incredibly dedicated groupmates was a welcome change to my often self-oriented research. Also, having the opportunity to meet and converse with other CUNY teachers and share this work was productive, and it allowed us to incorporate multiple voices and perspectives into the conversation. The insights and concerns of all those involved on May 1 truly spoke to the relevance of this topic for college educators.


For the structure and content of the session, Life Barriers and Ethics: Structuring Equality in the Classroom, we did as follows:


Handouts included: CUNY Student Demographics and Strategies for Structuring Equality in Classroom and “Structure Matters,” by Kimberly Tanner




In the GC’s Sociology Lounge, we set up the chairs in a circle and asked that everyone join it. In welcoming the group to the workshop, we talked briefly about the workshop’s origins in the Mapping course and the Futures Initiative’s work. We also set the stage by sharing that we designed this workshop to be both content and form focused, meaning that we would be discussing the what and how of Classroom Equity, but we would also be modeling the how. We asked that the group be aware of this modeling in the activities we were doing. We also asked that all participants be mindful (mindfulness!) of their speaking and participation time, contributing more if they were normally quieter, or restraining more if they tended to lead in vocal participation.


1) Warm-up: Think-Pair-Share in response to “What does classroom equality look like?”

Participants spent about a minute writing their initial thoughts on index cards, and then another couple of minutes sharing with a partner.

After the partner share, one member of the pair was responsible for collating their key ideas and writing them on larger chart paper.

Next, Natalie and Rachel read off these Classroom Equality concepts and asked the participants to add any comments or explanations to what they wrote, if they wished. We capped comments at 1 minute as needed, though almost no one needed the reminder.

Responses included:

– Ensuring a safe space for students to not feel judged

– Allowing room for debate in class, and encouraging and accepting multiple opinions

– A classroom inclusive of relevant and diverse content

– Making room for all student contributions and different modes/methods for student participation

– Breaking down student/teacher hierarchy

Classroom Equality (Photo by Katina Rogers)


Before moving on, we asked everyone to introduce themselves – their name and why they’re here at this workshop. These introductions helped group members to get to know one another and to start forming a community on equal footing. The circle formation also challenged classroom/group hierarchies, and fostered more conversation between participants.


2) So why does classroom equality matter? Because:

– As Instructors, we are responsible for EVERY student’s learning

– To ensure every student learns, we need to structure our courses with the goals of student engagement, student validation, and student participation equity

– When students are engaged and validated, they develop the academic identities and confidence necessary to learn, succeed, and persist


3) And what does the research (CCRC 2011) say?

– CCs enroll nearly 1/2 of all college students in US, but less than 1/3 receive a degree or certificate within 3 years

– For commuter students (CUNY 2- and 4-year schools), most of their experience is classroom-based

– Faculty validation predicts students’ ‘sense of academic integration’ and intent to persist

– Formation and maintenance of student’s academic identity is key


4) Doing the right thing as a teacher:

We showed a portion of the Samuel Delaney clip.

“Every time you do not answer a question… you’re learning how to make do with what you got… you’re learning how to take it… You need to teach people that they are important enough to say what they have to say.

– Samuel Delaney


5) Life Barriers and CUNY Student Demographics

We reviewed the eye-opening and grounding facts about the resource, financial, and time barriers, as well as the family situations that the vast majority of CUNY students are faced with.


6) Classroom Equality Reflection, Discussion, and Take-Aways

With about 30 minutes left in the session, we asked the participants to individually write on index cards about a classroom experience, either as an instructor or a student, where…

  1. Classroom equality was well structured and successful OR

  2. Classroom equality was lacking

Next, participants counted off into groups of 4 or 5 members each. At the start of group formation, we let them know in advance that one member would be chosen at random as the group’s ‘Reporter,’ and thus everyone should be prepared to report out on the following:

  • Discuss your scenarios, focusing on:

    • Strategies employed to foster equality OR

    • Strategies from which an unequal scenario may have benefitted

In groups, members shared with one another their experiences of successful or problematic classroom equality experiences. Again, they were asked to remain mindful of their speaking times and their fellow group members’ participation.

While groups were in conversation, we went around and had each group member pick a card at random (cards had the letter A, B, C, D or E). It was announced that D would be the Reporter!

Finally, each “D” reported for up to 2 minutes on the strategies their group discussed. After the reporting, anyone from the other groups could raise their hand to respond for up to 1 minute. Everyone was incredibly mindful of their own speaking time and kept to time. Only a couple of time did we have to move the conversation on by saying “We’re going to move on” or “Thank you.”


Strategies brainstormed by the groups included:

– Establishing norms and values of respect and caring at beginning of semester, with student involvement and leadership in this community-building process

– Re-arranging physical space of classroom

– Being aware of students’ limitations, with time and resources, when creating assignments

– Managing due dates and lateness policies with flexibility, consistency, and fairness

– Mandating student-teacher conferences where they can talk about anything

– Cultivating genuine student-teacher supportive relationships, so students feel they can approach instructors and admit fallibility


7) In conclusion, we pointed to the strategies and teaching techniques (and more) that we’d included in conference handout.


There was great enthusiasm and feedback from the group of participants. It was exciting to be able to really model the strategies with this group of peers, who were potentially not used to doing things differently (as our Mapping class is). So many conference presentations talk about innovative work, yet continue to do it through lecture.

Further, the responses we heard from many of the participants were grounded in important and relevant theory, demonstrating both the depth of their concern with this issue of equity AND the need for this type of pragmatic, practice-oriented, “real life” workshop. All of this to demonstrate the timeliness of all of the Futures Initiative’s work!


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