Creating Community, Creating Connections, and Yes, Covering Some Content

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Day in the Life of a Faculty Developer

Last Wednesday was a special Wednesday that stood out from all the other Wednesdays of this long and strange five months. That day, Luther College faculty, staff, and students began our first ever September Term.

We have worked so hard over the last few months to prepare for this date. Our Facilities Services department has measured rooms and air flow, set up physically-distanced classrooms, and installed plexiglass shields all over campus. Student Life has reimagined orientation and what the co-curricular life on a physically-distant campus might look like. Our ITS department has been in triage mode since March, training faculty and staff on Zoom and ensuring students have the hardware and software they need for success even when they were home. And our faculty have attended workshops on running synchronous discussions, creating classrooms that are trauma-informed, and reworking whole courses so they are resilient to disruption.

It has been a lot of work that made this summer very different from summers before. So I’m a little embarrassed with how mundane my day actually was. I got up, let the dogs out, made a fresh pot of coffee, got my highschooler set for his day of online learning, and then I sat down at my desk in my home office, scheduled faculty development workshops, and answered emails from my first-year advisees for a couple of hours.

Then I logged off email and logged into Zoom for my regular Wednesday morning yoga class with Molly Gallagher from Decorah’s Yoga Studio. It’s a one-hour class from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. that I try to squeeze in over an early lunch break.

Practice Connection and Connection Practice

I’ve been studying with Molly for almost seven years now and selfishly, one of my biggest worries as the world began to go pear-shaped this spring, was that I was going to lose my weekly yoga class. The Iyengar method is slow and exacting. There is lots of feedback and verbal correction over the course of the class. We do poses over and over and hold them for long periods of time. These weekly classes are one of the only spots in my life where I find myself wholly focused and wholly present. Even though I didn’t know what life would be like living in a pandemic back then, I kind of had a suspicion that maintaining a mindfulness practice would be pretty key to my mental and physical health. And I worried how I would find that mental space without regular yoga in my life.

But Molly did what all of us needed to do. She figured it out. By her own admission, Molly is not tech savvy. Her teaching style is very hands-on. She greets everyone in the class when they walk in the door. She tells us why someone in our class is missing. She makes space for community grieving when someone in our studio loses a loved one. She makes space for community celebration when someone in our studio celebrates a life milestone. Her practice is not just Iyengar yoga. It is a practice of community and a practice of connection.

When we moved online, she threw herself into mastering Zoom and importantly acknowledged to the class that even though she was still learning, she was going to try to create the same sense of community in our digital classroom.

Fast forward five months. This morning in class Molly did what she has done every morning on Zoom. She welcomed us by name as we entered the Zoom classroom, she smiled when our pets wandered into our little squares. She thanked us for making time for our yoga practice. She reminded us that just showing up is good work and that she had a plan for the content of our class that day, but that we needed to check in with ourselves and do for ourselves what ourselves needed us to do.

Intentional Course Design

As I’ve been working with faculty all summer preparing for our fall terms, I have kept my yoga classes in mind. Does learning at a distance need to be cold and impersonal? Can connection be made six feet apart or through a computer screen? What of the human connections and sense of belonging that makes learning meaningful and sticks beyond the confines of the classroom, the semester, the college experience? What about those high-touch interactions between members of a classroom community that make the Luther College experience so special?

The underlying theme of all of our faculty development work this summer in the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) at Luther has been redesigning courses for fall 2020 with connection, communication, and community, as well as a bit of content, at the forefront of our minds.

In our four week course redesign institutes we worked through ways that faculty can replicate those important first five minutes of class where professors normally roam the classroom, ask students about their weekends, check in about progress on long-term assignments. Faculty solidified learning goals and then developed supporting assignments and activities that were high-impact and flexible, and able to pivot to an online environment, should that become necessary. And they developed clear communication strategies, building in those high-touch, high-impact moments of connection many of us lost last spring.

All of this is important because we know Luther students missed the Luther community dearly when we had to send them home last spring. We also know that students learn course content best when they feel valued, when their presence is noted and appreciated, and when their voices are heard and amplified. Intentionally creating moments for this to happen is of the utmost importance whatever the modality we will be teaching in this fall.

Don’t worry, the professors also figured out how to cover all the content that they need to. But during this semester, connection is going to come first. Learning will follow right behind.

After yoga last Wednesday, I logged back on my email, worked on a few documents and waited for the emergency emails to roll in. They didn’t. Things went pretty smoothly the first day of our first ever September Term in this strange new world. Faculty were ready and the students were overjoyed to be back at it, whether they are here in person or taking their September term courses online.

I’m not going to say that this semester is going to go perfectly, but I do believe that if we remember what is really at stake—creating community, fostering connections, and yes, covering some content—our students this year can thrive. They’ll certainly have stories to tell and experiences to share, albeit ones that no one could have imagined this time last year.

Molly Gallagher '01, owner of The Yoga Room, Decorah, leads a class through an Iyengar sequence via Zoom.

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