The Flourishing Academic

A blog for teacher-scholars published by the Duquesne University Center for Teaching Excellence

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Engaging Race in the Classroom Part 2: Writing About Race



Image courtesy of Carnegie Natural History Museum exhibit Race: Are We so Different? and

By Rachel Luckenbill, English PhD Candidate and Instructional Consultant for TAs

This blog post is full of confessions.

Over my nine years teaching at the college level, I have been conspicuously aware of my own discomfort when broaching the topic of race in the classroom. I often found myself worrying that I would accidentally say something offensive or make a student of color feel uncomfortable because of my own bumbling attempts to handle race dialogues. I think a part of me believed that my whiteness disqualified me from leading such discussions. I teach literature so there’s no way around it – race comes up all the time in my classroom. I’ve attended conferences on race, read articles, and my own research engages deeply with race and ethnicity in contemporary literature. But still I found myself feeling self-conscious and hesitant whenever the topic surfaced.

Last summer all of this began to change when I participated in a writing exercise that helped me to explore my past experiences with race and understand the roots of my discomfort. In this post, I will describe that writing exercise and suggest ways it could be incorporated into the college classroom.

During the summer and fall of 2014, I participated in a poetry workshop held in conjunction with the Race: Are We so Different? exhibit at the Carnegie Natural History Museum in Pittsburgh, PA. I signed up for the workshop precisely so that I could explore why talking about race makes me so anxious, and I was more than a little tempted by the opportunity to work with the facilitators, well-known poets Sheila Carter-Jones and Terrance Hayes. Approximately 30 of us gathered on two Saturdays and one Sunday for five hours at a time.

On day one, the facilitators encouraged us to share openly the reasons why we wanted to attend a workshop centered on the topic of “race.” The candidness with which each person confessed suffering, complicity, confusion, and more raised the comfort level I felt with revealing my own ambiguous experiences with race. Next, the facilitators then prompted us to identify our earliest awareness of race and then list in writing experiences from our upbringing that helped shape how we currently view race. This part of the workshop was quite a challenge because it forced many of us to record experiences we did not want to explore but it was also freeing, allowing us to discover the roots of our current perspectives.

After these writing opening exercises, together we toured the exhibit and learned about the science behind skin color, the social dynamics surrounding race in grade schools, the inequities facing veterans of color, and more. We were encouraged to spend considerable time in the exhibit reflecting on what we heard, saw, and felt. We left the first day with our writing prompts, all of which pushed us to reflect on what we learned from the exhibit and also what we discovered when we remembered our own personal histories with race.

Our second Saturday was dedicated entirely to workshopping our poems, each person in turn hearing feedback from the entire group after sharing what he or she had written. This was a scary experience for me.  My poem confessed that I grew up hearing older members of my family use racist language and I was afraid to out them, afraid I would dishonor them while making myself appear insensitive and ignorant. The fear and uncertainty that clouded my thoughts about race were palpable.  The facilitators set a precedent for listening to each person’s poem attentively and then honoring its strengths and identifying possibilities for improvement without invalidating any one person’s experience or perception. In the end, the participants encouraged me to tell the truth about my experiences growing up, not just the darkness I was afraid to admit but also the beauty.

The workshop concluded on a Sunday as all of us gathered for a public poetry reading at the museum. We were all anxious and feeling incredibly vulnerable as we prepared to share very personal reflections. Ultimately, the experience of reading our poems was transformative. We voiced our stories in the midst of a community characterized by understanding and a desire to grow.

The poetry workshop taught me many things about being a writer, but more importantly it taught me how to dialogue honestly about race. It helped me accept my own experience in the context of my family as one that was both complex and ambiguous.  I wouldn’t say that I now am entirely comfortable dialoguing about race in the classroom but I certainly approach these conversations with more confidence and less fear.

Here’s a suggestion for how this writing exercise can be translated into a multi-day lesson for the college classroom. It can be adapted to fit almost any discipline.

Step 1:  Set the tone by laying the ground rules for dialogues about race so that every student knows they will be heard and respected when they speak.

Step 2: Prompt students to identify in writing their earliest awareness of race and then to write a list of experiences that contribute to their current understanding of race. These can be from their childhood or they might be from their current experiences in college. Invite students to share what they wrote if they feel comfortable doing so, making sure to model listening and respect.

Step 3: Give the students a common learning experience. If you want to stay in the classroom, you could offer a brief selection of readings on race from your discipline or if you have the resources to venture outside, take students to a relevant museum exhibit, play, or other event that foregrounds race.

Step 4: Have your students talk about what surprised them or interested them most during the common learning experience. Hearing what other’s think can prompt students to new realizations and deeper reflection.

Step 5: Give a writing assignment that encourages students to craft a response both to their own experiences and what they discovered from the readings or field trip. They might discover intersections between the two or contradictions. This can take the form of a poem but it can also be a letter, editorial, memo, story, journal entry, or an essay.

Step 6:  Have students share excerpts from what they wrote with the rest of class. For the poetry workshop, even though this was the part of the experience that made us feel most honorable it was also one of the most pivotal components. Sharing our work with each other gave us an opportunity to offer support, affirmation, and sometimes empathy. Keep in mind that you should only do this if you announce at the very start of the activity that you will want students to share the final product with others. This gives students the ability to control how much they are willing to share with their colleagues. This is part of what it means to build a safe and respectful learning environment.

The exercise I’m recommending will not work for every class. In fact, I think it’s well-suited for classes where a particular unit or the entire course is focused on race. Whatever your discipline, having students begin engaging with race by writing about it offers all students, the shy and the outspoken, an opportunity to articulate their thoughts about a topic that often stirs up fears and insecurities.

Have any of you already experimented with having your students write about race? We invite you to share those experiences in the comments below. Feel free to describe other assignments that have successfully challenged your students to engage race in the classroom.



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Engaging Race in the Classroom

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Over the next couple weeks, The Flourishing Academic will be exploring race in the classroom. Here’s the first post in our miniseries:

By Allie Reznik, Teaching Fellow and English PhD Student at Duquesne University

In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s latest novel Americanah, she presents an American undergraduate classroom where the main character Ifemelu, a transplant from Nigeria, watches Roots. After the film ends, a “firm, female voice from the back of the class, with a non-American accent, [asks]  ‘Why was ‘nigger’ bleeped out?” (168). What ensues is a dialogue between a diverse body of students in the classroom, as Professor Moore, “a tiny, tentative woman with the emotionally malnourished look of someone who did not have friends,” begins to cower into a corner, as “a vague terror was freezing her features into a smirk-smile ” (169). Of course, Adichie creates the situation as both a tense and comical one. Yet, more importantly, Adichie highlights and critiques the professor’s role in this exchange, as Professor Moore is unwilling to release her authority to engage with her students and their experiences.  The first key to discussing race, and its intersections with class, gender, and environment in the undergraduate classroom, is to courageously speak and listen.

Stories, including yours and your students’ and what appears in news media, films, scientific reports, literature, among many other cultural texts, all play a powerful role in the construction and understanding of race. In order to talk about race, we as educators need to be able to courageously speak and listen to stories, but also model how to interpret those stories and how they can be used to empower or oppress. In “The Danger of a Single Story,” Adichie’s powerful TED talk (~ 19 minutes, please consider watching!), Adichie offers an incredibly useful paradigm that equips students to theorize and think critically about their experiences by situating them in larger conversations. Adichie’s paradigm also positions the professor in a place of learning, rather than authority, through stories. The medium of stories is a pivotal place to begin to speak, listen, and learn. I touch on a few of the quotes from her talk here, and elaborate on methods that I use in my classroom.


Adichie explains that her American roommate had “seen and heard different versions of the single story” regarding Africa, which led her to assume that Adichie could not cook on a stove and listened to “tribal music.” She follows up with humor, explaining that her roommate was surprised when she brought out Mariah Carey, yet she points to a larger issue of how stories that we consume shape and solidify assumptions about people. Moreover, this interaction emphasizes the need—no matter how awkward or painful—to address those assumptions and move forward to a deeper understanding. This insight is an incredibly useful way to get both students and professors thinking about how their lives are impacted by racial identity. Each of your students experienced a new place when they arrived at university, so the opportunity is ripe to push them to think about the single stories that they enacted or had to react to.


A huge obstacle that students face when discussing race in the classroom is that they don’t have the language. Adichie explains that “…the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes, is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” Some students will not know what a stereotype is, or think they do but are confusing it with something else. The single story is in itself a stereotype based on one representation that is incomplete. To counter stereotypes and model cultural consciousness, offering students scaffolding is incredibly useful. For instance, the film Ethnic Notions traces black stereotypes both before and after slave emancipation to show how the “Uncle Tom” and “Mammy” stereotypes reinforced the notion that slaves were content in the slave system to reinforce and justify its existence, while “Jezebel” and “Zip Coon” stereotypes proliferated after emancipation to emphasize the social consequences of freeing blacks. These stereotypes highlight that race is highly contextual and constructed based on the historical moment, and calls students to see real world consequences of these stereotypes that continue to resonate in culture today. Defining terms is essential to creating students and citizens who can engage in meaningful conversations in the classroom and beyond. I’ve even had to define race versus racism in my classroom, so find out where your students are and meet them there.


How else can you get students to engage and critique the single story and understand how power operates? Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” is an accessible and engaging text that moves students towards thinking critically about the single stories they encounter and consume in their lives so they can begin to think about the large systems that they operate within rather than feeling burdened or shy because of their personal identities. Focusing on white guilt won’t do anything for a discussion, rather opening students up to learning about cultural differences in addition to interrogating how others are treated differently because of race, class, or gender begins to make the theoretical connections and material consequences more clear. bell hooks, a renowned cultural critic celebrated for engaging with complex theories of class, race, and gender via popular culture, spells out the theoretical scaffolding of power with her term “white supremacist capitalist patriarchal forces” to understand how race, class, and gender intersect in regards to how power circulates.


Adichie also emphasizes, “it is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power.” The single story is a single representation of a people that has been historically exploited to disempower and stereotype. Those who have the political and financial strength to create and circulate the stories (think, Hollywood, government) have power over whose voices are heard. Regardless of discipline, historical contextualization is highly useful when discussing race since it is so engrained in historical systems of power. Katy L. Chiles’s Transformable Race: Surprising Metamorphoses in the Literature of Early America offers an incredibly fascinating perspective on the scientific and literary intersections
of how the narrative surrounding race shifted from the 18th century understandings of race, when it was considered an exterior social symbol, to 19th century in America, where conceptions of racial interiority were perpetuated to uphold the system of slavery: this even carries into today (7-8).


Adichie offers another way for students to challenge the single story. Consider “how they are told, who tells them, when [are] they told, how many stories are told” to spell out how power operates. Push for you and your students to ask questions, not seek static answers. Release your authority and push for students to interrogate the representations in a literary text, commercial, historical document, or scientific report. Moreover, channel hooks and push beyond the limits of academic texts to popular culture. Be like a sponge and absorb everything so that you can push your students to think critically about the world they live in. For instance, last week I saw an article on colorism regarding Wiz Khalifa and Amber Rose, where her parents wouldn’t attend the wedding because he was “too dark.” Also, you may recognize Adichie’s voice—Beyoncé samples her definition of feminist in her song “***Flawless” from her latest album, which begins to move beyond racial difference to other urgent issues regarding gender that connect everyone.


Adichie meets her audience where we should meet our students: we all agree that everyone deserves dignity, which makes talking about race so incredibly urgent. She explains, “…the consequence of the single story is this: it robs people of dignity…it emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.” History again can offer an effective lens through which students can consider the linguistic consequences of defining racial difference. While it is important to expose students to specific cultural norms that they might not have had access to or never had to think about—this was true for hair culture and colorism while I taught Americanah—they also need to be aware of the power of language and narratives.

Just as Adichie explains how she experiences the consequences of the single story based on her American roommate’s assumptions about her, she self-consciously identifies where she also enacted the single story on others. Based on her consumption of American news, she made assumptions about Mexicans and immigration, but discovered that this single story was incorrect and incomplete when she arrived in Guadalajara. Based on her mother’s description of their house servant Fide, she assumed his life was horrible until she went to his house and discovered that his family were highly skilled artists. In this active self-reflection, Adichie offers an effective model for educators to facilitate dialogue rather than merely relay content to your students in the classroom. To fruitfully discuss race in your undergraduate classroom, don’t be a Professor Moore. Instead, “regain” in your classroom what Adichie refers to in her TED talk as “a kind of paradise” by cultivating the strength to courageously speak and listen.

How do you engage race in your classroom? Please share here and join CTE for the panel, Exploring Race and Pedagogy at Our Predominantly White University, this Wednesday, February 25th.

Allie Reznik is a second year Ph.D. student in English studying the intersections of race and music in American literature. She writes #TSWBAT blog at and tweets about food, music, literature, and popular culture at @alliebgolightly.


Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. “The Danger of a Single Story.” TED. July 2009. Web. 19 February 2015.

—. Americanah. New York: Anchor Books, 2014. Print.

Chiles, Katy L. Transformable Race: Surprising Metamorphoses in the Literature of Early America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Print.

Cultural Criticism and Transformation. bell hooks. Dir. Sut Jhally. Media Education Foundation, 1996. Film.

Ethnic Notions. Dir. Marlon Riggs. California Newsreel. 1987. Film.

McIntosh, Peggy. “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” 1989. Web. 19 February 2015.

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Academic Motivation

By Rachel Luckenbill, Instructional Consultant for TAs At Duquesne’s Center for Teaching Excellence

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

When we first started dating, my husband Mike and I quickly realized we would each have to do some work in order to learn about the other person’s interests. He had trouble appreciating my passion for music, seeing little purpose for it in his life, and I perceived physics as inaccessible, too difficult and hypertechnical for me to understand. While we both wanted to learn more about each other, we felt a level of reluctance dedicating time and energy to exploring subjects that felt inconsequential to our respective lives. But we liked each other enough that we began to adopt practices that made the pursuit of each other’s interests manageable and even fun. I explained connections between particular songs and meaningful emotional and spiritual experiences I remembered having, and Mike began introducing me to the complexities of physics on an elementary level using YouTube videos and object lessons. Pretty soon we were each voluntarily scheduling “music” and “science” dates, both having realized that learning about the other’s interests has a strong payoff; it can contribute to a lasting and meaningful relationship.

Without realizing it, Mike and I were putting into practice key concepts from B. D. Jones’s model of academic motivation. In his article “Motivating Students to Engage in Learning: the MUSIC Model of Academic Motivation,” Jones (2009) suggests that five principles, when applied to course design, can facilitate increased motivation among college students. These principles include empowerment, usefulness, success, interest, and caring. While some of these concepts are best implemented before the semester even starts, many of them can be incorporated in the middle of the term to inject new life into a class that feels tired or unmotivated.

Jones begins with empowerment. He writes, “a key principle in [self-determination theory] is that individuals enjoy activities when they believe that they have control over some aspect of them” (274). For me, this is the most difficult of the five concepts to employ because it means trusting that my students will be responsible with the level of control I give them. But that trust is precisely part of what makes empowerment so impactful.  Jones suggests giving students “meaningful choices” regarding the structure of the course. For example, if you require students to complete 10 writing journals or quizzes throughout the course of the semester, offer three dates on which they are due instead of scheduling each one of them. This allows students to work at their own pace (274). In a recent Flourishing Academic post, Dr. Jerry Minsinger of Duquesne’s School of Education also suggests involving students in creating course policies. Mid-semester you can use an informal evaluation to ask students what practices they would like you to adopt or change. Incorporating their feedback is one way of helping them experience a level of control over their education.

The second principle Jones identifies is usefulness. Students are more likely to approach class content with energy and purpose if they understand “the usefulness of the task in terms of [their] future goals” (275). All too often, we as instructors assume our students understand why our course is important for their career, but this should never be implicit. I recently spoke with one instructor at Duquesne who periodically asks his students to write a brief reflection on how they might use the knowledge from his class in specific future situations. I like to highlight usefulness by connecting course content to the community outside the class, helping students see that a well-crafted argument can raise awareness about a critical issue or even persuade city government that change is necessary.

Third, Jones argues that “instructors should design all aspects of courses such that students can succeed if they obtain the knowledge and skills and put forth the effort required” (276). Perception is a powerful tool. Jones notes that “students who believe that they are likely to succeed at an activity are more likely to . . . put forth more effort . . . persist longer . . . [and] be resilient in the face of adverse situations” related to that activity (276). Setting students up for success does not mean making your courses easy. It does mean making the requirements manageable. Jones suggests “divid[ing] longer and more complex learning activities into manageable sections that challenge but do not overwhelm students” (276) and offering students regular feedback measuring “their level of competence” and helping them identify “attainable (but challenging), short-term goals that lead to longer-term goals” (277).

Fourth on Jones’s list is interest. Most of us who teach naturally find the content of our courses interesting but students don’t necessarily share our passion. Drawing from research by Hidi and Renninger (2006), Jones notes that while a student’s interest is piqued by “hands-on activities,” hot button issues, humor and more, that interest will diminish if not cultivated into “individual interest,” a state during which a student has “obtain[ed]” and now “value[s]” knowledge. This transformation happens as instructors build on attention-getting activities with content specific instruction (Jones 278). In last week’s blog post, Dr. Susan Hines makes a similar suggestion. She recommends beginning by “awakening students’ current knowledge” and then building on that connection by “adding new knowledge.”

And finally Jones contends that caring is central to engaging students.  He doesn’t call on instructors to become “good buddies with the[ir] students” but he does recommend demonstrating that you care “about their learning” and “well-being.” Accomplishing this can be as simple as paying careful attention to each student’s progress and contacting any of them who appear to be struggling (279) or offering grace when a student encounters an extraordinary situation and needs an extension (280).

For Mike and I, caring and interest came first and the other steps made learning about music and physics not just doable but desirable. Since those early years, each of us has developed a sustained interest in the other’s favorite subject. Mike invites me to concerts and I stage science experiments in the kitchen. The fear of a subject being too hard or a lack of connection to it does not have to prevent your students from engaging deeply with course content. It’s possible to craft your class so that students not only become interested but also work hard to gain a deeper understanding.


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My Secret Weapon to Creating Effective Learning Experiences

This week we welcome  our first guest blogger, Dr. Susan Hines of St. Mary’s University of Minnesota! In October 2014 Dr. Hines traveled to Duquesne University for a workshop on designing effective adult learning experiences. You can see a synopsis of highlights from that workshop in an earlier Flourishing Academic post. Today we’re excited to offer you a post written by Dr. Hines herself! Here she gives us concrete ideas about how we achieve effective learning outcomes.

By Sue Hines, Ed.D., Director of the Center for Excellence in Learning and TeachingSusan Hines
Associate Professor in Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota

There is a well-kept secret that I believe needs to be shared with educators around the world.  I’ve known about this secret for well over a decade and have used it in all my courses and faculty development workshops.  It has resulted in high ratings from my learners and effective learning outcomes.  Whenever I use this secret “weapon”, I can see that they “get it”. How? I see it happen in front of my eyes.  It doesn’t matter if we’re face-to-face or online.  The result is the same.  Learning happens and I see it.

So what is this secret weapon?  I’ll tell you. But you have to promise to pass it on to all the teachers you know.  We can’t keep it secret anymore. Shift from planning what to teach to planning an experience. A learning experience has 4 parts: awaken current knowledge, add new knowledge, practice new knowledge, and apply new knowledge. Sounds simple? Well it is.  It’s also fun to create and even more fun to implement.

Here’s an example.  Imagine you’re teaching a course called Introduction to Management. The topic for next week’s class is management styles. The learning goal for the class is “to be able to analyze and apply management styles.” You need to have a learning goal for my now-not-so-secret weapon to work.

First, awaken the learners’ current knowledge about the topic. Doing so allows you to draw out what they already know and begin to make meaning through their knowledge. This can be done in a variety of ways. For this example, ask the learner’s to write a response to the following question, “Think of a great manager you worked for. What made her so great?” After writing their response, have the students pair up and discuss, then share out as a large group. Capture the key ideas on the board.  I typically mind map their responses. Then debrief on the “findings” to discover key themes being sure to tie it back to the topic and the assigned readings.  It never fails; the knowledge they already have dovetails nicely with the principles you’re trying to teach.

Second, add new knowledge. Now that the “pump is primed,” immerse the students into the key concepts and skills you want to add to their current knowledge. One way to do this is break the class into small groups. Assign each group a management style from the readings. Ask them to create and share out a 5-minute mini-presentation on their assigned management style. Debrief after the presentations being sure to pull out the main ideas and facilitate corrections in thinking when necessary. However you when add new knowledge, the key is have the students involved in teaching the process. Avoid lecturing as much as possible.

The third step is allow time to practice. Given their new knowledge on management styles, give the class a scenario of a real world management challenge. Have each small group develop an approach for addressing the challenge using their previously assigned management style.  Share out to the class. Afterwards, facilitate a class critique of each group’s work. Practice is essential for embedding and guiding newly gained knowledge.

Lastly, have the learners apply their new knowledge. It’s best to apply the learning to an upcoming assignment. Ask them to write a brief reflection on how the management styles apply to their personal roles and rationale. This reflection will be applied to their Management Profile paper that is due in two weeks. Application of the new knowledge is critical for transferring new knowledge to relevant contexts.

I have used this learning experience design for 60-minute to 5-hour sessions.  The key is to adjust each phase to the time allowed.

Now for my final secret. If you are from the field of education or psychology, you probably figured out this approach is a simplification of David Kolb’s experiential model.  Kolb reminds us that humans naturally learn through life experiences. So why not teach our learners in a way that mirrors how we naturally learn.



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Lessons Learned and Taught

By Dr. Jerry Minsinger, School of Education Adjunct Faculty, Duquesne University Jerry Minsinger

Education students often cite classroom management or student behavior as a source of concern and anxiety.  This is understandable given the social context and fractured relationships in many communities.  They wonder, “Will I be able to ‘control’ the class?”  As a former school principal, I have observed, consulted, and learned from master teachers.  In my current capacity as an adjunct professor and student teacher supervisor, I have the opportunity to share my learning and “hands-on” experience with aspiring future teachers.

Quality teachers have taught me many lessons.  They use similar practices, regardless of students’ age or grade, to manage the classroom climate and engage students in authentic learning.  These strategies include having a mission or purpose, continuously building healthy relationships, and actively listening.  My hope is that these ideas will lead others to reflect, question, discuss, and gain new insights about “student management.”

The purpose for teaching provides the foundation of effectiveness.  Why do you choose to teach?  Master teachers begin with this focus.  Think of it as a “bumper sticker” posted on your classroom wall for all to see.  One example of a classroom mission statement:

Our classroom is built upon the pillars of courage, respect, love, hope, empathy, and self-discipline.  We care for our mind, body, and spirit through study, exercise, and reflection.  We care for others by listening, helping, and sharing.  We accept personal responsibility for the choices we make and the actions we take. 

Can you imagine how relationships, student management, and the classroom climate might be affected by living this mission daily?  What if this statement was included on each assignment or class project?   I am reminded of a Hindu Proverb, “There is nothing noble in feeling superior to some other person; true nobility is in being superior to your previous self.”

Another practice that contributes to the creation of healthy relationships is sharing responsibility with students.  Students will “own it” if they have a part in it.  Rather than create rules, present them, and expect students to adhere to them, teachers develop an “agreement” or establish the “norms” with students’ active participation.  This process requires time to discuss, listen, and process students’ thinking.  It is truly a collaborative effort.  Here is an example that can be adapted based on the students’ grade and age level:

  1. Position yourself as a learner, respect others, and demonstrate personal responsibility
  2. Avoid distractions, off-task discussions, and use of technology during class
  3. Contribute to class: ask questions, listen, promote discussion, and work cooperatively
  4. Attend class regularly, be prompt and prepared, and submit assignments on time
  5. Agree to disagree respectfully, keep a positive attitude, and a healthy sense of humor

These “norms” were developed by students.  Some teachers establish the agreement with a “signed contract” including both teacher and student signatures.  As a result, classroom climate and student management are enhanced, increasing the time for learning.

Once a purpose and norms are established, taught, and reinforced, highly effective teachers become active listeners to maintain a climate that is engaging and cooperative.  When you model good listening skills, students follow.  Becoming a good listener is complex.  Students are given time and space to speak freely in a safe classroom.  I have observed teachers show interest, empathy, and patience with children.  They do not “cut in” the conversation or “overpower” others with their own thoughts.  They take care not to judge, criticize, or argue.  Rather, they listen intently and ask questions to clarify the concerns of students.  How will the students know you care about them?

Becoming a quality teacher requires a multitude of skills and takes years of practice, study, and reflection.  There are several domains a teacher must master.  Knowing your purpose, building healthy relationships, and actively listening are attributes of effective teaching.  Can you imagine a classroom devoid of disruption and distractions?  Can you create this classroom?  Will you partner with the students to make your dream a reality?


Jerry Minsinger served 38 years in the Pittsburgh Public Schools; as a principal at various school levels for 25 years.  Currently, Jerry serves as an adjunct professor and supervisor of student teachers in the School of Education at Duquesne University.





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Celebrating Staff Achievements

Erin Rentschler is the program manager here at Duquesne’s Center for Teaching Excellence. She is also one of the editors who participates in the review process for articles posted on The FlourishingErin Rentschler Academic.  Today we want to recognize and congratulate Erin on her receipt of the K Patricia Cross Future Leaders Award for 2015! We know firsthand at CTE that Erin cares deeply about the faculty and TAs she serves and the students she teaches, and we’re thankful for her leadership. Stay tuned for a reflection on race and pedagogy by Erin – we will publish it on the site in March.

Here’s an excerpt from the DU Times article announcing her receipt of the award:

“Rentschler’s leadership style is based on respect and ethical principles, said Dr. Magali Cornier Michael, professor of English and Rentschler’s dissertation director, who nominated her for the award.  ‘One of Erin’s many strengths is her ability and desire to connect with others and to interact with them respectfully, including a keen attention to those who are disempowered,’ Michael said. ‘Her leadership style promotes cultural and racial sensitivity and an ethics of care that is clearly shown in her roles as a teacher, a mentor, an advisor and now program manager with the CTE.'”


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The Pygmalion Effect

By Dr. Steven Hansen, Associate Director for Faculty Development at the Duquesne University Center for Teaching Excellence

Image courtesy of Self Leadership International at

Image courtesy of Self Leadership International at

I’m saddened whenever I hear a group of faculty members complaining about the abilities of today’s students. While I realize students are not flawless paragons of learning and that honesty about the challenges students bring to learning is necessary to address the current situation, I also know that how I think about students and their abilities influences how I teach them. Be careful of those jaded student-bashing conversations, not because students are perfect, but because research shows that your perceptions about students’ abilities influence how you act toward them.

The work of Rosenthal and Jacobsen (1968), among others, shows that teacher expectations influence student performance. Positive expectations influence performance positively, and negative expectations influence performance negatively. Rosenthal and Jacobson originally described the phenomenon as the Pygmalion Effect.

“When we expect certain behaviors of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behavior more likely to occur”  (Rosenthal and Babad, 1985).

In terms of teaching, faculty who gripe about students establish a climate of failure, but faculty who value their students’ abilities create a climate of success. What kind of learning climate are you creating through your expectations?

Pygmalion in Tradition

Pygmalion in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Book X) was a sculptor who fell in love with an ivory statue of his own making. Enamored by the beauty of his own making, Pygmalion begs the gods to give him a wife in the likeness of the statue. The gods grant the request, and the statue comes to life. George Bernard Shaw adopted Pygmalion for the title of his play about Professor Henry Higgins whose sense of self-efficacy is grandiose:  “You see this creature with her curbstone English . . . in three months I could pass that girl off as a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party.”

Pygmalion Research in the Classroom

The original research of Rosenthal and Jacobsen focused on an experiment at an elementary school where students took intelligence pre-tests. Rosenthal and Jacobsen then informed the teachers of the names of twenty percent of the students in the school who were showing “unusual potential for intellectual growth” and would bloom academically within the year. Unknown to the teachers, these students were selected randomly with no relation to the initial test. When Rosenthal and Jacobson tested the students eight months later, they discovered that the randomly selected students who teachers thought would bloom scored significantly higher. Rosenthal insists that the Pygmalion effect also applies to higher education: There’ve been experiments looking at college algebra classes at the Air Force Academy, a study of undergraduates in engineering; there’ve been lots of studies at the college level since the book came out confirming the findings . . . In fact, the original research conducted when I was at the University of North Dakota was all done with graduate students and under-graduates (Rhem, 1999). Why does the Pygmalion effect occur? “If you think your students can’t achieve very much, are not too bright, you may be inclined to teach simple stuff, do lots of drills, read from your notes, give simple assignments calling for simplistic answers”  (Rhem, 1999).

Pygmalion on the Department Level

Susan McLeod argues that the Pygmalion effect can infiltrate departments. She describes the potential impact on a composition writing program where the faculty have developed a culture of low expectations, “Departments and institutions develop their own cultures; the prevailing attitudes of teachers toward students tend to become organizational norms. If most teachers in the department have a low sense of efficacy and tacitly agree that certain groups of students (sometimes even all students) can’t learn to write, then newcomers are pressured to accept the same low sense of efficacy and accompanying low expectations” (McLeod, 1995).

Practical tips:

1. Never forecast failure in the classroom. If you know a test is particularly difficult, tell your students that the test is difficult but that you are sure that they will do well if they work hard to prepare.

2. Do not participate in gripe sessions about students. Faculty members who gripe about students are establishing a culture of failure for their students, their department and their own teaching.

3. Establish high expectations. Students achieve more when faculty have higher expectations. When you give students a difficult assignment, tell them, “I know you can do this.” If you genuinely believe that your students cannot perform the assignment, postpone the assignment and re-teach the material.


  • McLeod, Susan. “Pygmalion or Golem? Teacher Affect and Efficacy.” College Composition and Communication 46 (3): 369-386.
  • Rhem, James. “Pygmalion in the classroom” NTLF 8 (2): 1-4.
  • Rosenthal, R, and L. Jacobsen. Pygmalion in the classroom: teacher expectation and pupils’ intellectual development. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968.
  • Rosenthal, R., and E. Y. Babad. 1985. Pygmalion in the gymnasium. Educational Leadership 43 (1): 36–39.

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