Aired: February 29, 2020

Finding Classroom Success

College students in class taking notes. Image source: Tulane Public Relations Licensed by CC BY 2.0.

  • Friends with Benefits (11 min.)

    With: Madelynn Shell (UVA Wise)

    The first year of college can be stressful and disorienting, especially for shy students. But Madelynn Shell says shy freshmen who have at least one good friend report more life satisfaction and better emotional wellbeing.

  • Coming Home to Teach (17 min.)

    With: Christina Duffman (Eastern Shore Community College)

    While many students on the rural Eastern Shore of Virginia can’t wait to get out, one of their teachers couldn’t wait to come back. Christina Duffman grew up in poverty and now shares her inspiring life story with students who feel hopeless there.

  • STAR Power (13 min.)

    With: Leslie Whiteman (Virginia State University)

    Leslie Whiteman and her colleagues created a program called STAR (Successful Transition to the Academic Realm) to help minority students overcome science class challenges and pursue STEM careers.

  • Teaching with Tech (11 min.)

    With: Helen Crompton (Old Dominion University)

    Many teachers see cell phones in the classroom as a real problem, but Helen Crompton loves bringing handheld technology into student learning. Helen Crompton is a Virginia Outstanding Faculty Award recipient.









For a print-friendly version in pdf format, click here.

Finding Classroom Success, February 28, 2020.

Speaker key:

SM: Sarah McConnell, producer and host

MS: Madelynn Shell

CD: Christina Duffman

LW: Leslie Whiteman

HC: Helen Crompton

AS: Audio Sample



SM [music fades in] Watch a movie – pretty much any movie about college – and it seems what matters most are the friends you make along the way.

AS I, state your name…

I, state your name…

Do hereby pledge allegiance to the frat

Do hereby pledge allegiance to the frat

Er, with liberty and fraternity for all


SM And while whoever’s footing the bill might have priorities, research shows strong friendships help college students succeed.

AS Toga, toga, toga, toga, toga, toga, toga, toga, toga, toga, toga, toga, toga [fades out]

SM From Virginia Humanities, this is With Good Reason. I’m Sarah McConnell. Today on the show, from friendships to good teachers, the relationships that lead to college success.

AS And when I tell my story about my upbringing on the shore, some of my students ask me, “Why did you come back here? We want to leave here, and you’re coming back. Why?” And I said, “It’s because of you all.”

SM Our first guest has spent years studying shyness. Madelynn Shell is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia College at Wise. Her recent research looks at college freshmen and what it takes for them to thrive. Madelynn, you have studied the experience in middle school and college of shy students. We often talk about whether a small child is shy, and we see that as endearing. But I imagine shyness can also feel hurtful for young people. What do shy people go through?

MS Well, there are a lot of different types of shyness, but I think it’s important to distinguish shyness from something like unsociability. So, some people just would rather be alone and are perfectly content to be alone. In contrast, when we talk about shyness, we’re really talking about those individuals who do want some kind of interaction, but they experience a lot of anxiety about the process of making those connections with other people.

SM That’s so interesting – the difference between introversion and shyness.

MS Yeah, so, if we look at young kids, things that we see that kind of signify this are when we’re watching kids at recess or something like that, they will stand close to a group of peers and watch what they’re doing, but they don’t actually initiate interaction. So they kind of struggle to kind of make that bridge and connect with other people. And we call that onlooking behavior, and that’s very characteristic of these shy or anxious, solitary individuals.

SM Do you think we’re born with it?

MS Certainly, there’s some evidence that, in infants, you can actually identify some traits that predict children engaging in more of this inhibited or shy behavior. So I think there is certainly that inborn component. But there’s also a lot of evidence that things like parenting can play a big role. So parents who have more shy children who encourage their kids to try and interact with peers and provide support without being overbearing–their shy kids may grow up to be perfectly happy and have very positive social relationships. So, while there is this kind of predisposition to shyness, I think that it’s very very malleable depending on the environment.

SM What’s a very early sign, after birth, that a child may have a proclivity to be shy?

MS The classic studies looking at this–and we call it temperament when we’re looking at kids–young kids’ behaviors–was done by Jerone Kagin and he looked at behavioral inhibition and, in infants, when they are exposed to something like a new, very stimulating toy, kids who grow up to be more likely to be shy show a lot of physical activity. And so, they’ll move their arms and kick their legs and the thought is that that kind of indicates that this child is maybe becoming overstimulated by the world. And this later goes onto predict shyness.

SM Does shyness, as children grow older, create anxiety or even depression for them?

MS Yes, so we know that shyness is very strongly linked to anxiety and depression. But, again, even as we grow older, we find that relationships–be it, parent-child relationships or peer relationships, can really mitigate that. And so, if shy individuals have positive relationships, that can really serve to protect them from that depression and anxiety that they might be more prone to.

SM You studied the importance of friendship for shy students in their first year of college. How important is it for them to have a good friend that year?

MS It’s very important. And what we found was that shy students did better in terms of, they had less anxiety and depression, less loneliness, and more satisfaction with life when they had a really high quality friend to support them.

SM It’s interesting, because the study you did was for a school–your own school–where most of the students are from that area. So, in their case, they might often have this good friend from high school–not necessarily someone they had to quickly become fast friends with at school, right?

MS Yeah so one of the things that we were surprised by, in our findings, was most students are saying that their very best friend is someone they knew before they came to college. So, it appears that these students are really very much hanging onto their high school best friendships. What we found was actually the opposite of what we expected to find. So we thought that students would switch friends, because we thought that they would kind of leave their high school best friendships to find new friends in college.


SM That’s interesting. What about your own experience? Did you look back on that and think. “Hey that was the same for me.”

MS Yeah, so, you know, this study was kind of prompted by one of my own experiences. When I entered college, I was in a dorm that had kind of pretty isolated floors. And the floor that I was assigned to, I really didn’t feel like I connected to anyone, and I became very aware of how much friendship is kind of dependent on your environment, and it’s kind of luck of the draw who’s on your floor and if you connect with anyone. So I ended up actually switching floors. And, on my new floor, I made a lot of very good friends that I’m still friends with today. And I think that this just really kind of cemented my interest in how friendships can influence our experience and how the environment can influence our friendships.

SM Did you find it was true for men and women–that shy men also greatly benefited from a good, close friend?

MS Yeah, so the patterns we found didn’t differ depending on gender. The only gender difference that we found was that women had higher relationship qualities in their friendships than men. I think that some of this has to do with just the kind of values that men and women place on their relationships where women tend to be more focused on intimacy and disclosure in their friendships. And those were the kinds of things that we asked about.

SM Do you find that there are any learning lessons for colleges when it comes to helping shier individuals transition to independent college life when they first get there?

MS Colleges might think about the values of those pre-college friendships, because they did serve to support especially those shy students. And also just being aware that shy students might benefit from greater relational support. How can we maybe identify these students who may be shy, and can we create some sort of social environment that really helps them feel comfortable and helps them establish the relationships that they need.

SM Are there also ways that structurally–I’m thinking back to your own experience–you moved from one floor to another, and everything turned around for you. Are there physical ways colleges can structure buildings, furniture, dorm rooms, so that shy students get to mix it up a little bit?

MS Yeah, I think that there really are. And I, you know, if I just think about the way that our building–our academic building is designed–we have a lobby, and I see a lot of our psychology students hanging out. They’ve got some chairs, they’re set up in a way to kind of encourage conversation and discussion and it seems like a place where students kind of bond. And I could see that being a place where, you know, a more introverted or shy student might be able to go and connect with some of their peers outside of the classroom. So, I think that those kind of common shared spaces can be really important in helping students make friends.

SM What do you think the best predictor of friendship is for finding someone you could be friends with?

MS I think that proximity is certainly a very important one. Just being around someone makes you more likely to be friends than if you don’t run into them. But another thing that we consistently find in the literature is similarity, is very important, in predicting any kind of relationship. So, if we think about how this might translate into helping students, you know, getting students together with other students who have similar interests or things in common, has the potential to make a big difference in terms of helping them make friends. We found that it’s the quality of friendship that matters, not necessarily who your friend is, if it’s the same or a different friend. So, if your friends aren’t giving you positive things, they’re not somebody that you can trust or rely on, students are much better off finding friends who can provide them the support, rather than kind of hanging onto a friendship that’s not really giving them what they need. [music fades in]

SM Madelynn Shell is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia College at Wise. Coming up next–moving back home to teach. Growing up on the eastern shore next to the Atlantic Ocean, Christina Duffman often felt isolated and separated from her community. She moved away for a while, but she’s come back to teach English and to help build a more inclusive community at Eastern Shore Community College. Before we start one note, Christina describes being called a racial slur and uses that word multiple times. Christina, you have a unique background in the rural community college where you teach. You’ve said there are lots of people who assume you’re not actually from there, but you are. Share a little bit about your upbringing and the background of your parents.

CD My father is Caucasian and my mother is Chinese-Thai. My father, William, was drafted into the Vietnam War while he was attending Virginia Commonwealth University–his first year. ANd he was stationed in Thailand. ANd one of his experiences was meeting my mother. And falling in love with her. And eventually he married her in Thailand. My brother was born there. ANd then he was sent home. My father wanted my mother to come back to America where he was then stationed in California where I was born in Fort Ord military hospital. Then, eventually, he became homesick, and he wanted to move back to the eastern shore of Virginia. Unfortunately, my mother was not welcome, nor my brother, nor I for that matter, were welcome with open arms, because we looked so much like the enemy at that time. Again this is a rural area surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean–the Chesapeake Bay. And during the late 70s and early 80s, there were not a lot of Hispanics or Asians for anyone who looked similar to my mother. This is how terrible it was–my grandmother, my paternal grandmother, did not want my mother to step inside her house. She had to spend her first couple of nights camped outside with my father because she was not welcome into my father’s home.

SM It’s so interesting and shocking to hear you describe this. But, not so long ago, Virginia, and so many other states were so much less international, so much less diverse than they are today.

CD It’s amazing to see the changes. It’s a different place from the one I had known. And I love that the people on the shore have changed in terms of accepting more diversity into the area. That’s something that I want to see.

SM But people on the eastern shore of Virginia are still primarily Caucasian–they’re rural white people for the most part.

CD Yes. Right. On the eastern shore, there are still areas of isolation where you have a predominantly white area, right, and you have a predominantly African-American area, where you have, maybe some Hispanic in this section. Or–there are not many–the only place that I can see where we all fully interact with one another is at the college–Eastern Shore Community College.


SM So the students in your community college classes – are they primarily rural, white or very mixed?

CD It’s very mixed now. And I don’t just mean in terms of race. I have military students, I have students with disabilities, I have LGBTQ students who are willing to share what makes them so special. I love that. I love that more and more of my students, in terms of diversity, are coming out and speaking about what makes them special.

SM How do you discuss race and difference in a classroom?

CD I like to think I have an advantage. Because, growing up on the shore, and I still do, there were some people who have been racist toward me or called me a racial slur, and I’m big enough now and I know enough now that it’s because of their lifestyle and the way they grew up and that’s their worldview. I feel sorry for those people but, having been through all that, okay, as a child, and even now, as an adult, I feel like I’ve gained enough perspective to discuss racism. Because, if we don’t discuss racism, how else will people become educated about other cultures, about other races? Because, from my perspective, most people who made these racial slurs–sometimes, they don’t know better. They don’t know any better. They repeat what they’ve learned from home, right? Or from their friends. And they don’t educate themselves. And I feel like it’s up to me–excuse me, I’m sorry–but I feel like it’s up to me to put everything on the table. And let’s just discuss what makes us different. And why are people–or why are some people adverse?

SM Do you find your students love this open conversation where it’s–it’s easy and okay to talk about this difference?

CD Yes, yes. At first, it was like, wow! Some of the students’ faces were like–their eyes–oh my gosh, so bewildered. They were like, “Wow, we’re going to talk about this? Okay. Let’s talk.” And I have an example. This is a story I normally open up with my students when we begin talking about racial stereotypes. Back in 2005 I was teaching at Tidewater Community College in Norfolk, Virginia. I will never forget this–I had a student walk into my office before class. And she said, “Is it okay if I have a friend come to your class? I have to take her to the airport so she can fly back to New York.” And I said, “sure, no problem.” So I walked into the classroom and my student, she sits right in the first row, and I’m calling out the names on the roster. And while I’m calling out my students names, I can hear her friend whisper to her–okay, they were sitting close by–right in front. Her friend turned to her and said, “oh my gosh, your teacher has some pretty chinky eyes.” And, I don’t think anyone else in the class heard what she said, but I know I heard it. And I thought to myself, “What? Did she really say that?” And then right when I was just going to dismiss it thinking, “Maybe she didn’t mean to say it,” she said it again. She said, “I’ve never seen someone–a chink–with those eyes.” And I said, “Okay” This is what I was saying to myself in my mind, “this is a teachable moment–I have to stop and just address what this student, what this girl is saying.” So I walked up to my student’s friend. And I said, “did you happen to say the word chink?” And she goes, “yes.” And she, without fault, okay, you’re a young girl. She said, “yes! You are–you have such amazing eyes for a chink.” [laughs]

SM Oh no.

CD And I said–no, no listen. So I said, “okay, let me put it this way. Chink is actually a racial slur. And you shouldn’t say that to another Asian person or really say that at all.” And, I said, it’s basically equivalent to the n-word. And this student was just blown away. And she says, I’m so sorry. I did not mean to offend you. And I said, this is actually a teachable moment. I was just surprised that you were so open with using that term. And she said, honestly? I heard it in Chinatown because that’s how the Chinamen would refer to one another. She thought it was a term of endearment and it wasn’t anything–because they were saying it to each other. That’s why I thought it was so great–it was a teachable moment.

SM So you were born in California, but you spent a lot of your childhood on the eastern shore where you teach now. What was your childhood like? How young were you and your brother when you went with your parents to the eastern shore?

CD I was about five years old and my brother, eight years old, and my sister, Angie, was born two years after we moved to the eastern shore. My father suffered from, you would call it shell shock, or back then they called it shell shock, and we all know it today as PTSD. And he couldn’t cope with civilian life. And, unfortunately, he–he went away. We lived in a trailer park–in a dilapidated trailer in Only. Only–it’s a little town of…I would say two to three hundred. Okay, very small town. We were situated next to a very nice Mexican family who ended up helping us in terms of providing food–giving us food and providing a job for my mother to work in the fields. Because my mother didn’t know English at the time. She didn’t have a way to stand on her two feet. And it wasn’t until Social Services caught wind of us that they became involved and they started taking us in and–especially when we started school.

SM What jobs did they help her find?

CD Working in the field. Many nights, many days, and sometimes it would seem into the evening hours, where she would just work all day long. It was a pretty dire situation. We didn’t have a lot to eat. I can remember days and nights where my brother, sister, and I would hover over this near empty peanut butter jar with one spoon and we would just each scope out whatever we could out of this jar. But it wasn’t until later on where we taught my mother how to write in English and to speak in English. She finally got a job at a local McDonalds and that’s when things started looking up for us.

SM Isn’t that amazing?

CD Yup, that’s where she got her start. And so now I am proud to say that my brother went to Hampden-Sydney College in Farmville, Virginia and graduated, came back to the eastern shore of Virginia, and he was able to purchase some land in a little town and he had a house built for my mother. And that’s where she is now. It’s great, it’s great.

SM How did you and your brother learn English?

CD Oh my goodness–Sesame Street. [laughs] Oh yeah Sesame Street, Sesame Street, oh my gosh. I have to tell you this. Oh my gosh. I’m remembering–it’s making me laugh. At the primary school we both attended, I was so nervous because I didn’t know how to speak English. We spoke Thai, Thai-Chinese, Chinese growing up. And my father was scared to death that when we started school here we would fall behind. And so he said, you are going to watch Sesame Street. That is going to be your assignment. And I did, and I loved it. And I think I loved it too much, because [laughs] school started in September and I was still the quiet, shy girl and I so badly wanted to answer the questions my teacher was throwing out. And I just didn’t feel confident enough until about November when the teacher asked this very important question. She asked the class, “Who here can count from one to ten?” Back then, you had to stand beside the desk to recite your answer–raise your hand of course. Right? And the teacher called on you–you had to stand beside your desk to recite the answer. So, hands shot up in the air as soon as she asked that question. She saw mine. I know she was thinking, “Wow, Linda”–which is my middle name–”Linda never raises her hand. Linda, go ahead and count, count one to ten.” And I stood up and I was so happy, I was so proud, and I said, “okay.” Everybody was so quiet. And I looked around the classroom, took a deep breath, and began counting, “One–ah ah ah–two–ah ah ah–three–ah ah ah” [laughs]


SM What were you doing?

CD “Four–ah…” [laughs] So all the way to ten, and everybody was laughing, because they knew. Who counts like that? The Count, right?

SM Oh! [laughs] One–ah ah ah

CD Two–ah ah ah [laughs] And everybody was laugh–and I thought, “Oh I’m a hit! I’m such a great hit.” But I thought that’s how you were supposed to count.

SM That’s so great.

CD But I love it, I love it, that’s my–that’s my, uh, my favorite part.

SM Eventually, a local, was it a congressman or another politician–noticed you and your brother.

CD Yes, delegate Robert Bloxom. He started this program called Project Horizons, which is a two year college mentoring program where certain individuals are chosen–high risk individuals, let’s just say, students–are chosen to attend college. We had to keep our grades up to an A or a B from the sixth grade on up to attend the community college for free. And that’s exactly what we did. We had a woman who no longer is with it. But in the name of Jean Brookshar, but who was the liaison for the Eastern Shore Community College. And I’ll never forget when she approached me and said, “look,” you know, “you have so much potential. You need to keep your grades up.” And I thought, “lady.” And this is growing up on the streets, right? I was like, “who are you fooling?” You know? What–it sounds too good to be true. It really did. I was like, “Okay, great, that’s nice. Are you saying I’m going to go to college for free? Okay. I don’t have to pay anything? Okay. That’s a nice pipe dream.” So, I finally believed her, okay, when my brother graduated from Nandua High School. He attended Eastern Shore Community College for free for two years, and then transferred to Hampden-Sydney. But he would not have been able to do that without the help of Project Horizons.

SM It’s so wonderful to hear–it really truly made a difference. Just wasn’t some bureaucratic program that someone dreamed up. It touched you.


CD It touched me, but it works. And it’s still working today. That program is alive and well today, which is one of the reasons why I wanted to come back to the eastern shore and teach at the very college where I was inspired to become a teacher. And I want to be able to reach out to these students, not just to the Project Horizon students, but to all the students who feel, sometimes, hopeless. “Why am I going to college? How will this benefit me?” Right? Or, “I come from this broken home or I’m a first generation college student. Is this really worth it?” And when I tell my story, about my upbringing on the shore, some of my students ask me, “Why did you come back here? We want to leave here, and you’re coming back. Why” And I said, “It’s because of you all.” I said, “you may not be able to understand it now. And, as a matter of fact, you should leave the shore. You should leave the shore and get some perspective. Okay? And then, you may want to come back or you may want to stay where you are. But at least get some of that perspective.”

SM Well, Christina, congratulations, and thank you for sharing your insights on With Good Reason.

CD Thank you very much, Sarah, thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it. [music fades in]

SM Christina Duffman teaches English at Eastern Shore Community College. [music fades in] Welcome back to With Good Reason from Virginia Humanities. I’m Sarah McConnell. When we think about college level science, beach balls and scavenger hunts don’t usually figure into the equation. But at Virginia State University, they might. A new peer led program there helps minority students overcome the challenges of freshman bio. And, later in the show…

AS And the principle said, “You know, don’t run.” And we said, “Well, we’ve got to get to class! We’re learning mathematics!”

SM Professor Helen Crompton on teaching on tech. But first, freshman year of college is a tough transition for everyone. But it’s especially tough for STEM majors. Leslie Whiteman is a professor of biology and Virginia State University, and she got concerned so many students at that historically Black university came in majoring in math and science, but it didn’t stick. So, she and her colleagues Sheryl Tally and Brian Sare did something about it. Leslie, of the students who enter college thinking, “I’m going to major in physics or math or science,” the STEM careers, there is a big drop off.

LW Oh yeah so that’s a problem, essentially nationwide, and it’s not unique to just the underrepresented students. It’s more so because it’s a transition–you know, going for high school to college, it’s–you’ve got some growing up to do, you know, becoming an independent learner, thinker, you don’t have mom or dad or grandma saying, “Hey, did you do your homework? Did you go to class?” So you’ve got a lot of things that you’ve got to learn how to manage on your own. So, when you’re going into a STEM field, you have the challenge of the content but all students have the challenge of just being ready to be on their own and to be learning in a new environment. And we pay a lot of attention to that first year because of the transitional period.

SM I’ve heard that more than half of all students who are thinking about majoring in STEM discard that idea in college.

LW Well, you know, what happens is in college, in that first tough STEM class, you know, the national averages 50 to 60 percent may need to retake the class–may not get through with a passing grade. And so you have that for many students, the first failure. And, you know, having resilience to get back up once you hit that wall is something that–it’s a skill that we can teach our students to have. Because many of these students, they come to college and they were the top of their high schools. They were the top students in, you know, everything they had done in the past. And so many of them now come to college and it’s a different kind of challenge. And, so, they fumble their first time through. And, so, for many students, their first instinct may be, “Okay, maybe this is not for me.” Right? And so we got to talk them down off the ledge so often. They’ll say, “Okay, this is what we need to do.” And so, hatching these students is the tricky part because you also have to deal with–at most of these universities–those first year classes are the biggest classes. You came from a classroom where there were only 20 students and now there are 50, 60, 70, and no one is really paying attention too closely, whether you came to class or you turned your homework in, or how you responded to that first C, D, or F on the quiz. And you can fall through the cracks.

SM But, how can you help them turn it around? If you’re not already really good in high school physics of calculus, isn’t it too late by the time you’re in college?

LW Oh, absolutely not. There is something that we do at our university–it’s called S.I., supplemental instruction. All it is are structured study groups, where students outside of class are working with other students to learn. And there’s an upperclassman who’s already taken the course–they’ve passed the course, they’re very successful in it, and they’re there to–not teach–but they’re there just to facilitate the learning. They’re making sure that students are sharing and going over concepts and giving correct answers to each other. And they come up with all kinds of fun things that I would never really do in my classroom, but they come up with some crazy ideas, things to do in these study groups that make learning fun.

SM Give me an example of some of the creative ways you’ve seen them do that.

LW They–I had, one of my leaders asked me one time to get her a beach ball. And so I’m like, okay, alright, what–where’s this going? So I got her the beach ball, and I’m not supposed to be in the study sessions. It’s what we call a safe place for students. So, they can be as right or wrong or they want. There’s no professor leaning over their shoulder and frowning at them. So, faculty aren’t in the room. But, I did peek. [laughs] So I peeked. And she had the students up standing in the room in like a circle. And they were throwing this beach ball at each other, and where the ball landed, where their hands landed, there was like a question or concept and they had to answer it based on where their hand landed. And, so, it was a fun way to kind of, you know, review concepts of things.

SM Have you seen personal evidence that the approach is actually working and students who came unprepared in some of these STEM courses are really turning around?

LW Yeah, we have convincing evidence. We’ve been able to demonstrate that students have taken what they’ve learned in S.I., and been able to apply it in other classes. So, what do I mean by that? So, S.I. stands for supplemental instruction. Cause the intention was, this was an outside-of-class, an outside-of-class event that’s to help students understand the lecture that they received from their professor. I like to show my students at the beginning of the semester, this pyramid, it’s a triangle, it’s a learning pyramid. And it has, at the very top, the very least effective way students learn. And at the base of the pyramid, the most effective way students learn. And it’s a little bit insulting to faculty, but the least effective way for anybody to learn anything is to listen to a lecture. I tell my students, I could give the Nobel Prize winning lecture of the century, and you’ll walk out this room, and a day later, you might know five percent. But at the base of that pyramid, the most effective way for people to learn is to teach each other. That’s the most effective way, because now they’re actively involved. So, anyway, we’ve been able to show with S.I. that students who went to S.I.–they not only performed better on tests and in the final grade for the courses…we compared their performance, their GPAs for that first semester…so that’s more than the biology course–all the other courses they were taking. And we saw a pattern–that those students that attended S.I. in biology–their GPAs were higher than those students that didn’t attend regularly. So you might go, “what in the heck is happening?” Well, that’s actually part of our ongoing research is to really understand what’s happening within those sessions outside of class. But what we believe, or at least we hope, is that they’re not only learning how to study biology–they’re not only learning content. They’re learning how to be a successful student. And so they can apply that into other areas–not just in the course where there’s S.I.


SM Do you often get students that come to your office and say, “I am not dealing with this major anymore. It’s too hard. I’m going to step down to something easier?”

LW Oh yeah. We get those all the time–like I said, we gotta talk them off the cliff quite often. So, if they come to me–if they’re my advisee, and they wanna do a change in major, so I try to get them to talk to me about, “Okay, you’re going to change this. What are you going to do with it? Have you talked to anybody in that department? What does that involve?” So, to get them to kind of, like, alright, take a deep breath. What do you want to do with this as opposed to just hopping from major to major.

SM You must end up feeling so close to many of these students.

LW Oh yeah, well we become kind of the–we go beyond teacher, we become counselor, mother, you know, priest, you know, we kind of firmly believe in what we call intrusive advising. We’re kind of all up in your business. You kind of do get to know the students, you know, pretty well. And we care about them so–it bothers us when they’re not successful. And it bothers us when you’re doing the same thing–or if you do the same thing semester after semester, and it doesn’t work. It bothers us. And so I’m lucky to be in a department [laughs] I tell people–my–faculty members involved, they’ll try anything. They’ll try anything once if they think it will be, you know, useful, helpful for students to be successful. Students coming to us today, they’re unique. They got their own way of doing things, so we kind of have to adjust to their new way of thinking. But we need to bring them into–bring to them successful strategies so that they can be very successful.

SM As a person of color–a woman of color–who is successful in the field of science, in biology, what was your experience like when it comes to this? Did you have obstacles that your young students are experiencing?

LW Well, I’m lucky. I guess I’m blessed, because I’m at Virginia State University, and I’ve been here since I was two, because my parents were faculty here at the university. So I was raised on a campus, essentially, and, you know, my babysitters were college students and I grew up seeing students in an academic realm. But, I went to a majority institution where I was one of very few minority students at the university period, but certainly in STEM. But I had that–I had what we call the cultural capital–I had family who knew how to support me and could provide me with guidance. With that being said, being a Black female in microbiology, when I went to graduate school, I was only the second Black student to come through my area which was microbiology and immunology and I was the first Black female to graduate.

SM With a PhD?

LW Yeah, and that was–I finished in ‘88. And so, you know, I got used to–early in my career, you go to conferences. Nobody else looks like me. You learn to adapt. But we have to give those strategies for being able to adjust to that, deal with that, to our students, so that they can still cope.

SM Well, Dr. Leslie Whiteman, thank you for sharing your insights with me on With Good Reason.

LW Well, thank you, I enjoyed speaking with you. [music fades in]

SM Leslie Whiteman is a professor of biology and Virginia State University. The program she co-designed to help students learn science and pursue STEM careers is called Successful Transition to the Academic Realm, or STAR for short. Coming up next, teaching the so-called unteachable. Many teachers think cell phones in the classroom spell only trouble. Then there’s Helen Crompton, an associate professor of Instructional Technology at Old Dominion University. She says phones, tablets, and games aren’t hurting students’ ability to learn–quite the opposite. Helen, tell me how you came to embrace technology as a powerful teaching tool in your own teaching. Where did you start out?

HC So, I started out in the U.K. and out of all strange places, it was a school for severe behavioral problems. These children were called the unteachables. They literally came from three schools–they were expelled from three schools before they reached our school. So, these unteachables were often angry, angry at the world, angry at what they’d seen so far. And I have some terrible stories of what I saw of families without homes, without windows in the homes, all sleeping on a mattress. And they came into school and they didn’t want to learn. When I woke up in the mornings after night, I didn’t want to go into school. I was tired and I had a beautiful upbringing and I had a beautiful home. These came from horrendous backgrounds, and technology started to come in around that time. And I thought, well let’s give it a go. Let’s try using it. And the students were suddenly turned on by the fact that, “wow, we can use technology for learning?”

SM And what was it you had? You had a single early computer in the classroom and they would take turns trying to run this little game?

HC Yeah, they had a simple computer, you know, one of the big boxy computers. And they just basically went onto this program, did this game about mathematics, and they would wait their turn…not often patiently, because they were desperate to get onto take their turn, but yes, they were very focused on learning for the first time ever.

SM So, when this lightbulb went off in you, for this experience of ‘wow, a computer program, even a simple one, lit up something inside these students.’ Where did you go from there personally? You eventually left England and came to teach in the United States, or come to study?

HC I came over to teach in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, as a classroom teacher. I did that for three years, and it was very interesting because I brought a lot of the ideas over. We had interactive teaching programs which were, again, very mathematical, and they were so shocked at how we taught in this different way, that I was actually told that that wouldn’t be allowed in some schools. And then others, I actually got an award for teaching mathematics because the students were so excited. One was caught running along the hallway one day, by the head teacher, by the principal. And the principal said, “you know, don’t run!” And they said, “well, we’ve got to get to class! We’re learning mathematics!”

SM Wow, wow.

HC They found it so shocking that they all decided to have a look at what mathematics looked like in the classroom.

SM So were you–you must have been using a lot of technology, not just a smidge.

HC So this doesn’t have to be a lot of technology. It can be very minimal.

SM What were you using?

HC So this was a whiteboard, an instructive whiteboard. But we used programs that helped them understand mathematics and see it, not just be told about it. So you have building blocks that you can kind of put cubes together and do basic addition. But, for example, one of the hardest things, if you’re parents out there, you’ll understand this, that, how do you understand that, when he gets to ten, that one mat goes to a different column. You have a one and a zero. You know, how did that happen? And this, literally, physically showed them, and it showed them by having all those little counters, and it showed them merging together and moving to the next column. And you’d have all these students going like, “ooohh, that’s what’s going on.”

SM So everybody was looking at a single board up at the front of the class? They weren’t manipulating their own iPads.

HC Yes, correct. They weren’t doing iPads or anything. iPads weren’t available at that time, when I came over. But, since then, there was this transition to movable technologies–non-tethered–meaning they don’t have a cable. They stick in a wall. And they have to be stopped to a certain place. THis meant that all of those field trips and things that I loved, you know, if you’re learning about ponds, take them to a pond. Don’t just let them imagine and kind of work through it. Take them to a pond. But what’s great is that these kinds of technologies could come with you. This is, you know, phenomenal. This has been a huge game changer. We’ve gone from the factory model to, okay, let’s all sit in rows and let’s just hear from the teacher that’s filling us with knowledge–like vessels with marbles and pieces of knowledge–to now, wow we are self-learning in many ways, facilitated by the teacher, that we can go out and find these things.

00: 45:51

SM What percentage do you think of classroom teachers are really adept at using technology to make the lesson plan come alive?

HC Few teachers, probably across the world, 20 percent may really know how to use technology in the classrooms. But this isn’t a teacher’s fault. They get people in, they get principals to come into the classroom and it’s like handing them a violin and go ‘oooh’ i spent a lot of money on this violin, I want to give you this violin. And not only that. I want to give you one for each of your children in the class.

SM And nobody knows how to play it.

HC Exactly, and by the end of the day, you’ll probably all be playing sweet music, and it’ll be phenomenal. So they felt like they just bought this new technologies, the violin, they should all be able to use it. But that’s not the case.

SM I’ve heard people say that, for the most part, America is still sort of saddled with an industrial age education system. What does that even mean? And are you countering that?

HC Yes, it’s very much–I call it the factory model. I think we’re very much holding on to old practices that we try and keep, and do what we’ve always done. That’s the problem with technology going wrong in schools today. You get people wanting to use it, but they put it on things that they’ve already done before, like those digital worksheets. They should be non-existent. Why are we having those digital worksheets when you can do it with paper and pencil? You know, they’re trying to replicate old practices. So, we’re really trying to use these 21st century amazing technologies for factory model teaching, which is not the way to go. If you walked in for surgery. And if you walked in and they had all these tools. You know, they had a saw there, they had pliers, they had various things like they used to do in the past, you’d be worried. And you walk into classrooms today and you see old practices and it’s kind of like, “oh okay. Yeah that’s how I used to see it when I was younger.” That’s not okay. We can provide so much to the children these days. Not just in how we teach but in how they can be empowered to learn themselves, cause we don’t just want to have them learning in school. We want them to be lifelong learners, lifelong to focus on, “wow that’s interesting. Let me learn more.” It doesn’t just stop when you finish school, and we shouldn’t prepare them for that model.

SM So, do you think this next generation coming up is going to automatically incorporate really good technology into the classroom, as these teachers who’ve grown up with technology are using it? Or is it something we have to be a lot more thoughtful about, even with younger teachers?

HC We always have to be thoughtful about technologies used. And there is a major misconception that younger teachers are very tech-centered. You know, they focus on technology and they know what they’re doing.

SM Don’t they?

HC They definitely don’t. They know how to use it for social networking. They know how to use it themselves, but they don’t know how to use it for learning. And, even worse is the fact that many of these young teachers came through schooling at a time when many technologies, like mobile technologies, were banned. So they became such good students, came through, they loved their teacher, and their teacher was telling them, “yes, put the technology down. Technology’s not for learning.” That was their favorite teacher that they listened to, you know, that they kind of adored. And so when they come into teaching, it’s kind of like, “yes. We put those away. They’re not for teaching. They’re not tools for doing that,” when it’s the very opposite. A lot of older teachers have not had that experience, because technology was not there at that time.

SM Yeah, but if you give them access to the internet and complete access to their phones and iPads, they’re going to be totally distracted. They’re going to be playing Minecraft.

HC If the teacher allows that to happen in the classroom, although Minecraft can be a great one for learning. But, the expectation is, yeah, they’ve got the internet, but, surprisingly, they have the internet at home. What do they do at home? We need to prepare them in schools for what to do with the technology, what to do with the internet–what to look at, what not to look at. We need to be, as teachers, preparing them to use the tools. Just like, the way I always think about these–and people say to me, technology is doing terrible things. Technology didn’t do anything. It’s an inanimate object, you know, they don’t do these things. It’s like a hammer. Nobody says, oh hammers are terrible. They kill people. Yes, they do, but they also build houses, they do a lot of fun, positive things that we want to do with these tools. It’s how we choose to use these tools that is important, and we need to kind of focus on that a lot more.

SM Helen Crompton, thank you for talking with me on With Good Reason.

HC Thank you very much for having me [music fades in]

SM Helen Crompton is associate professor of Instructional Technology at Old Dominion University. She was named an Outstanding Faculty Member by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. Major support for With Good Reason is provided by the law firm of McGuireWoods and by the University of Virginia Health System, With Good Reason is produced in Charlottesville by Virginia Humanities. Our production team is Allison Quantz, Allison Byrne, Matt Darroch, and Jamal Millner. We had help this week from Georgianna Reid and from Todd Washburn of WARV. Some of the music is by Blue Dot Sessions. For the podcast, go to I’m Sarah McConnell. Thanks for listening. [music]


2 Comments on “Finding Classroom Success”

  1. Verna Lamb

    When introducing the story about SI at Virginia State University – black students at a HBCU are not minorities.

    1. Alison Byrne, WGR Associate Producer Post author

      Good point, the students are not minorities at VSU! The program description for STAR (Successful Transition to the Academic Realm) specifically mentions “minority” students, and professors have created and implemented it for VSU particularly because of the large number of students in ethnic minorities there.
      Thanks for listening!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

XHTML: You can use these tags <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>