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Seaver College Faculty Collaborates to Create More Equitable Classroom Experiences for Students

Seaver College students - Pepperdine UniversityThroughout 2020 the Center for Teaching Excellence at Seaver College presented faculty with an opportunity to develop skills in equitable classroom practices. “Becoming a More Equitable Educator: Mindsets and Practices,” a course available through the Open Learning Library at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, provides educators with resources that help all students, especially underserved students, to thrive and feel valued. 

Spearheaded by Christopher Heard, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and professor of religion at Seaver College, the four other participating faculty members involved in the project completed the course readings and activities at their own pace and met for one hour each week for a duration of nine weeks to discuss what they were learning.  

“Although the course is designed for a K–12 setting, the five of us found it to be very helpful and easy to apply to higher educational settings,” says Heard, who explains that the course is structured around four pairs of mindsets: equity vs. equality, asset vs. deficit, aware vs. avoidant, and context-centered vs. context-neutral, which help to humanize the classroom experience.  

“Students are not widgets on an assembly line; each student has a unique set of prior experiences and current circumstances that enable and constrain their learning,” Heard continues. “As we become increasingly aware of these individual characteristics, we become less likely to make unwarranted and stereotypical assumptions. We become better able to give our students appropriate, targeted learning opportunities and support.” These frameworks have allowed Heard and his colleagues analyze the way their students learn and help them improve their techniques if they feel certain students are not being reached.

“The program helps educators think through the various mindsets we bring to the classroom,” explains program participant Christina Littlefield, associate professor of journalism and religion, Currents magazine adviser, and journalism curriculum coordinator at Seaver College. “With an equality mindset, we try to treat all students the same way. But an equity mindset recognizes that students don’t all have the same needs, and an instructor should make adjustments to meet students where they are. We often default to deficit framing, where students perform poorly because they don’t care or don’t study enough. But an asset framing approach encourages us to analyze what strengths or assets these students have that will help them succeed.” 

For Littlefield, the most impactful lessons from the program have been to always think of students’ abilities holistically, work with students to meet classroom learning goals, and to never lower standards for students, but instead help them meet existing standards.

“What I love about this program is that it allows us to help students take more ownership over their learning so they can build knowledge, skills, and confidence,” she shares. “Getting what they need to succeed makes them feel included and promotes a sense of belonging, and that frees them to let their own curiosity and interests fuel their inquiry.”

The integration of the course was fueled by the desire of several Seaver College faculty who have been involved with Pepperdine’s Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity (SEED) program, a peer-led, year-long professional development program launched in fall 2016 for faculty and staff that generates conversational communities to foster personal, organizational, and societal change toward greater equity and diversity. With more than 230 participants, SEED features personal reflections and testimonies, listening to others, and learning experientially and collectively. 

In 2017 Seaver College launched SEED 2.0 for alumni of the program, which maintains an average of 20 alumni participants each year. Created as a safe space for staff and faculty who have already completed the yearlong SEED program, SEED 2.0 promotes dialogue related to equity, equality, and inclusion within local, national, and global systems, while fostering continued fellowship among colleagues. During the fall 2020 semester, the cohort's first discussion was a podcast analyzing racial contract and how the pandemic disproportionately affects Black communities. Since transitioning their regular meetings to the Zoom platform during the pandemic, SEED 2.0 workshops have expanded to include participation from additional University faculty and staff.

Roshawnda A. Derrick, assistant professor of Hispanic studies at Seaver College, and Kate Suriyatip (’11), student services and administrative manager at the Student Employment Office at Pepperdine, currently co-facilitate SEED 2.0.

“We touch on current news and apply concepts that we learn through our group study sessions to our professional contexts at Pepperdine, both in the classroom and in our interactions with students and colleagues. Our goal is to ensure that SEED 2.0 is a safe space where participants can grow while sharing their thoughts and experiences,” they explain. “We hope that SEED 2.0 provides a time and space for participants to have discourse addressing issues pertaining to systemic racism and how to dismantle it.”