What I Learned In Class Today

Target Learners

This case study was created primarily for those who are involved in teaching in higher education (e.g., faculty, instructors, TAs) for their professional development purposes.

Learning Objectives

By the end of this case study activity, participants will be able to:

  1. Identify how to address and navigate difficult conversations in the classroom in the moment
  2. Develop strategies in designing and creating a supportive and productive classroom climate

Instructions for main facilitator:

Ahead of the workshop

  1. Review the case study scenario(s) and adapt them to your context if necessary.
  2. Review the talking points, which are suggested points for discussions. You may want to adapt the talking points (e.g., modify the language, make additional points) to your specific context.
  3. Consider how you would like to facilitate the activity by thinking of the following questions:
    • Would you like to identify people who are going to facilitate small group discussions ahead of time so that you have a chance to discuss key points to be covered in the small group discussions? Or will the session participant work on their own in small groups?
    • Will someone be taking notes during small group discussions? How can these be shared back with the whole group?
    • Would you like to have students read the case study and discussion questions ahead of time as “homework,” or do you have enough time to do that during your session?

During the workshop

  1. Divide participants into groups of 4 or 5. You may want each group to include a facilitator with knowledge of the issues discussed in the scenario, and who can help guide the conversation.
  2. Give groups 10-15 minutes to discuss the scenario. You may want to give each group a large piece of paper where they can write their response to the discussion questions and other additional thoughts.
  3. Debrief as a large group. Each small group shares what they discussed and debrief as a large group.

Instructions for learners:

Read the case study scenario. Take a moment to think about the discussion questions then discuss with your group.

You are teaching a second year political science class. At the start of each class, you open with a short discussion topic on relevant news in the media and its’ impact on Canadian politics as a way for your students to apply theory to practice. A student in your class, Karen, brings up the two verdicts of Colten Boushie [1]and Tina Fontaine[2] and how these two verdicts have been all over her social media. She mentions how the verdicts is another example of how unjust the Canadian justice system is and how evident it is that colonialism is still present in Canadian society. Another student in the class, Dane, responds to Karen by mentioning how the news stated in Tina Fontaine’s case that she had a track record of alcoholism and was involved with the “wrong people” that led to her death. Karen and Dane go back and forth about the two verdicts, until Karen opens up the discussion to the rest of the class. Everyone’s eyes turn to Jeanne, the only visibly Indigenous student in the class. As an instructor, you feel anxious about how this discussion quickly spiraled and you nervously make eye contact with Jeanne, waiting to see if she wants to respond. The room is silent. You quickly close the discussion by moving onto the planned lesson for that day and state that the class will return to this topic next week. The next class comes around and you realize that Jeanne didn’t show up for class.

  1. What are the issues highlighted in this scenario? What went wrong?
  2. How could you as an instructor have intervened
  3. What could you do in following-up with Jeanne?
  4. How would you frame and facilitate the follow-up conversation with the whole class?
  5. The next time you teach this course, what are some considerations you may be able to do to proactively prepare the class for a difficult conversation like this?

Materials for the facilitator guide are drawn from the educational resource What I Learned in Class Today.

The context for the scenarios in this project and the scenario above are different however the key issues that emerge are the same. The following themes Classroom Incidents and Tokenization, further discussion points and analysis are helpful to synthesize the impact of this scenario both on the instructor as well as the students in the classroom.  

Classroom Incidents

In this scenario Jeanne’s classroom experience illustrates why it is important for instructors to address incidents that take place in the classroom. The interactions between the course content and discussions that follow should be facilitated by the instructor however in this scenario there was a breakdown in this process and a lack of guided closure for the discussion. In this scenario, the class discussion, body language between students and vocalized stereotypes and assumptions have created a classroom environment that feels unsafe and uncomfortable.

Postsecondary institutions provide support services and resources that help students deal with the demands that are related to their postsecondary and graduate experiences; however, these resources are not typically effective in intervening in classroom incidents. Reports of these incidents may not reach these support services, as students may not take their experiences beyond the classroom due to the demands of their coursework, class schedules, and other life demands. Moreover, students who are involved in these situations where they are the target of hostile exchanges or microaggressions are often faced with revisiting a traumatic experience while taking on the burden of responsibility to seek out resolution for a racist incident. This often results in the incident going unreported, since it can require a substantial amount of time and energy on the students’ behalf in order to see a report through to a resolution.

In the educational resource What I Learned in Class Today Topic 3: Classroom Incidents, What I Learned in Class Today[3], a similar classroom incident is shared. A student describes an instance where an instructor’s response was considered inadequate, and as a result, had significant and harmful consequences to the student. In this situation, the student was forced to take on the burden of intervening in a classroom incident. She took a significant risk in responding to another student’s comments, resulting in, among other things:

  • A direct confrontation with him, and with another student;
  • Leaving the classroom as a result of feeling frustrated and unsupported;
  • Faced with the burden of soliciting a response from the instructor;
  • Anxiety over returning to the classroom;
  • Alienation from the classroom and other students as the “troublemaker”;
  • An inability to resume her coursework for that class;
  • A troubled relationship with the instructor.

In addition to fully engaging and addressing a situation in class, it’s crucial to address an incident when it happens. As shown in Jeanne’s experience and in the scenario provided from What I Learned in Class Today Topic 3: Classroom Incidents, both situations intensified as the instructor’s response was delayed. If the instructor had responded immediately, it may have helped to minimize the consequences for her personally and professionally, her relationship with the instructor, and for other students in the class. Of course, the question is, how to effectively intervene.

Source: Topic 3: Classroom Incidents, What I Learned in Class Today

"Indigenous as expert"

In this scenario Jeanne was put in an uncomfortable and inappropriate position as the “expert in the room” because of her identity as an Indigenous person. Jeanne was also tasked with having to quickly respond to a comment from her classmate that was uninformed and touched on sensitive issues. The instructor in this scenario scanned the room to look for an exit strategy rather than taking on the responsibility to unpack the conversation. This student’s commentary suggests that the instructor’s actions could be interpreted as being consistent with the assumption that Indigenous people are “experts” to be consulted in reference to Indigenous subject matter.  The “Indigenous as expert” assumption presumes that any Indigenous person has knowledge of, and is willing to speak to, issues and information regarding Indigenous peoples and history. In Jeanne’s scenario, she did not identify her heritage to the class, nor did she volunteer to speak about her heritage or on behalf of Indigenous peoples. When Jeanne’s classmates turned to her to have a response on the two verdicts, it singled Jeanne out expecting her to have all the answers. The “Indigenous as expert” assumption also falsely presumes that a single person could be knowledgeable of a vast array of material and diversity of peoples, cultures, and histories because he or she is Indigenous.  This assumption can unfairly place the burden of the discussion on one or few students, though the classroom discussion is not their responsibility – it is the instructor’s. That does not, of course, mean that Indigenous students may not have something of value, or a unique perspective, to bring to the discussion: the question is rather the terms on which they are to be engaged. This situation raises an interesting issue: when an instructor calls on a student of Indigenous heritage in regards to Indigenous subject matter, what is the instructor risking in terms of how the student perceives their actions, and how other students perceive the same? What might the students take away from the classroom as an idea of appropriate ways to conduct a classroom discussion?

Source: Topic 2: Tokenization, What I Learned in Class Today

We wish to acknowledge the contribution of Adina Williams for the original concept of this scenario.

  1. For more information on the Colten Boushie case:  https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2019/01/20/colten-boushie-gerald-stanley-and-a-case-thats-hard-to-defend.html
  2. For more information on the Tina Fontaine case: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/raymond-cormier-trial-verdict-tina-fontaine-1.4542319
  3. Visit http://www.whatilearnedinclasstoday.com/ for further information on the What I Learned in Class Today project
Some rights reserved Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document according to the terms in Creative Commons License, Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0. The full text of this license may be found here: CC by-sa 4.0 Attribution-Share-a-like

When re-using this resource, please attribute as follows: developed by Amy Perreault, Erin Yun and Adina Williams, Indigenous Initiatives at the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology at the University of British Columbia

source: https://wiki.ubc.ca/Documentation:Title:_What_I_Learned_in_Class_Today

Post image:  By Nathan Dumlao via UnsplashUnsplash License.