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In the middle of the Spring 2020 semester, the entirety of academic offerings at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC/CUNY) — a college of more than 24,000 students —was shifted to distance learning.

Dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and a state-mandated quarantine, faculty rose to the occasion, redesigning their courses to be delivered through the web conferencing application Zoom, which allows for group meetings and breakout rooms, as well as other platforms.

To reflect on that abrupt dive into teaching online as they prepare for their Fall 2020 courses — the majority of which will be taught online — more than 400 faculty are taking part in a series of Resilient Teaching workshops developed by Associate Professor and Open Knowledge Librarian Jean Amaral, Professor and Faculty Director of the Teaching Collaboratory John Beaumont, and Center for Excellence in Teaching, Learning and Scholarship (CETLS) Director Gina Cherry.

The Resilient Teaching workshops are also supported by a facilitation team that includes E-Learning staff Thomas F. Harbison and Eliza Osae-Kwapong, as well as faculty such as Anthony D. Bishop, one of three Resilient Workshop Zoom facilitators for July, and Brielle Buckler, Shenique Davis, Christina Neubrand, Angela Polite and Rosario Torres.

The goal of the workshops is tofocus on the resilience of both faculty and their students, says Cherry. “For better or worse, all of our faculty gained experience with distance teaching during the spring semester, and we wanted to provide a space for them to build on that experience. We set out to create a community of practice around trauma-informed, culturally sustaining and other pedagogies.”

With those pedagogies enacted, what might “resilient teaching” actually look like?

Jean Amaral leads a staff development workshop before March 2020, when the campus switched to distance learning because of the pandemic and state-directed stay-at-home directive.
Jean Amaral leads a staff development workshop before March 2020, when the campus switched to distance learning because of the pandemic and state-directed stay-at-home directive.

“It’s the faculty member who calls office hours ‘Quarantine Café,’ providing students the space to connect with and support each other,” says Amaral. “It’s the faculty member who offers students different options for completing an assignment, a principle of Universal Design for Learning, and who is flexible with deadlines — a trauma-informed teaching practice. It’s the faculty member who, in choosing technologies to use for their course, considers that many of our students complete their coursework on their phones and weighs what the implications of this might be.”

Gathering to strategize around successful online learning

The Resilient Teaching workshops provide a mix of synchronous (Zoom) and asynchronous (Blackboard) spaces. Participants discuss pedagogical goals, and share activities ranging from icebreakers and alternative assessments, to technologies that create community in their classes.

“Through the Resilient Teaching workshops, we wanted to take full advantage of this rare opportunity to bring hundreds of BMCC faculty together around a virtual table to talk about teaching and learning at BMCC and to discover ways of serving our students in these challenging times and beyond,” Beaumont says, adding that he sends “a special shout out of deep admiration of and appreciation for BMCC’s adjunct faculty, who have generously shared their experience, insights and time with minimal recognition and no pay for this work.”

There has been an unusually high level of participation in the workshops, Amaral says. “We have immense gratitude for all that our faculty are bringing to this work, their considerable time and effort as well as compassion and caring, with no compensation, which is extremely difficult for our adjuncts.”

The workshop units cover topics such as building an awareness of trauma-informed teaching and learning, course design, culturally relevant and sustaining pedagogy, Open Education Resources (OER), the range of tools to facilitate student assignments and activities, community building, and assessment in the online environment.

Balancing the focus on technical skills and pedagogy

“Even though I went through the certification to teach online a couple years ago and have taught hybrid courses a few times since, when COVID hit, I still did not feel entirely prepared to teach 100 percent online,” says Professor Hollis Glaser, a participant in the workshops.

“The great thing about this training is it starts with pedagogy, not technology,” she says. “We have readings and assignments that are thinking first about what the students need and how to teach them online. Then it moves into the functions of Blackboard, which they model in the training.”

Another professor, who requests to remain anonymous, would prefer that the workshops were more about technical skills and less about pedagogy.

“While I appreciate the deep emphasis on culturally sustaining pedagogy and universal design in the Resilient Teaching workshops, I have studied these topics extensively through other faculty development trainings at BMCC, and I utilize them as my framework for teaching,” she says. “My expectation coming into this course is that I would receive much needed help with technology.”

In the midst of these critical issues, the workshop participants have kept student success front and center as they apply the precepts of resilient teaching to their classroom practice.

Bishop says the Resilient Teaching workshops “provide a virtual safe space for faculty to enhance their design skills for producing learning content in an online platform and provide students with the best online learning experience possible.”

Supporting student strengths in a season of uncertainty

In one large group following their break-out sessions, participants shared observations about distance teaching, which Professor Angela Polite puts into historical context.

“As a country, we continue to live through a global health crisis, COVID19,” she says. “We are also grappling with how to, once and for all, kill the beast of systemic racism. These two things coupled together have made for a season of uncertainty, fear, anxiety and a loss of hope. These trying times have certainly laid bare the urgent need for resiliency.”

Polite teaches SPE 100 and says she wants to continue teaching her students “not just how to present five speeches, but how to move through course work and life with grace, endurance and strength. It is these things that will have a lasting effect on them in years to come.”

Tim D’Agostino says that while the Resilient Teaching group spans many disciplines, “We share a lot of similarities, and a lot of stress. In terms of expectations, trying to make the most of this learning platform for the students, trying to build as much new technology into it as possible, can be stressful. We have to stay mindful of our own psychological and physical health.”

Eva Kolbusz-Kijne told the larger group that someone in her breakout group said their syllabi should be “written with a pencil.”

“That is going to help me feel more emotionally and intellectually nimble when it comes to my class,” she said. “The second thing I’d like to say is that it is very helpful, the opportunity in the breakout groups to meet colleagues from different departments, not only hearing their advice and their experience, but realizing we are all in the same boat, that we share the same concerns as a community.”