Category Archives: Fall 2016

Lessons Learned

Lori Conn
Professor, Nursing Program

I have learned that my first impression of a student is often not the correct impression and have challenged myself not to be quick to make assumptions about students, but get to know them first.  Kim was the first English as Second language (ESL) student that I encountered as a Clinical Nursing instructor several years ago.   In my initial interactions with Kim, I found her difficult to understand due to her strong accent and she did not display confidence in her abilities.  It was very important for her success in her clinical rotation to be able to communicate effectively and be able to demonstrate confidence.  I was concerned that her lack of these abilities would impact her success in the course.

As the first few weeks of clinical progressed, Kim remained quiet and did not ask many questions.  She continued to struggle in her communications with me and with the patients assigned to her.    I really wasn’t sure how to help Kim with these issues and draw her out of her shell.   I knew that I needed to discuss these issues with Kim in order for her to be successful; however, I was not sure how to go about it. I was concerned that in confronting her she would feel offended or singled out and it may make the situation worse.   I decided to approach her in an open manner to discuss my concerns with her.   At first, she looked down from me and remained silent.  I felt that my fears were true.   I told her of my experiences as a nursing student and how nervous I felt, and that I could imagine this was much more difficult with a communication barrier.  This helped her to open up.  I learned of the immense pressure placed on her by her family to succeed and the enormous amount of time she spent to just understand her readings and be able to apply it.  I also learned that her culture did not question teachers.  That by doing so, showed disrespect to them. Through her written work I did learn that she was very intelligent and given time, she could apply concepts taught to real world situations and was able to be successful in the clinical setting.

I felt this experience helped me to grow in coming out of my shell with students, especially those of different cultures and backgrounds.  It helped me to overcome my own fears of offending or singling out students.  I now understand the value in understanding each student’s own unique identify and how it can enrich the learning environment.



Flight. Risk.

Karrie Waarala
Adjunct Associate Professor of Writing

I learned early in my teaching career to appreciate the military veterans in my classes. They tended to be focused, responsible, unafraid to ask questions, and helpful in group work. And they inevitably earned high grades, even if writing wasn’t their strong suit.

Kevin did not fit this profile.

He showed up in my Creative Writing I class, solitary, quiet, giving nothing away about himself as he murmured through his shaggy beard. His poetry was distant and stiff, his fiction all high fantasy, and while the rest of the tightly-bonded class continued with me into Creative Writing II, Kevin vanished without a word.

So imagine my surprise a year later when a clean-cut Kevin showed up not only in my Creative Writing II class, but my Lyric Writing class, too.

“I needed to focus on getting a job, so I took Aviation classes this past year. It didn’t go well. My wife got fed up and told me to change my major to Creative Writing since that was the only class I enjoyed,” he explained. I learned more about him in that one answer than I had throughout my entire first semester with him. He was married? He’d liked my previous class??

Midway through Creative Writing II, Kevin taught me just how important these classes really were to him. In a stack of fiction assignments were two pieces of his writing. They weren’t stiff and distant works of fantasy. They were about the war in Iraq. They were full of pain and fear and fury. And they were clearly not fiction.

“Let’s talk,” I wrote below the full points possible. “These don’t meet the assignment guidelines, but I think they were incredibly important for you to write.”

It turned out this was the first time he’d let himself write about the war. His hands shook as he decided to choose one of the pieces for his Capstone Revision Project, which involved diving deep into a piece of creative work. The piece dealt with the repetitive patterns of following his brother into the military and circled around on itself a lot, so I suggested that if he was up to a challenge, he could turn it into a sestina.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“A form of poetry I’ve been struggling to write for years,” was my answer. “It’s tough.”

I’ve never been prouder to be beaten to a creative writing goal. Kevin’s sestina was carefully crafted and emotionally charged. The formal structure gave him freedom to take risks, and the last night of class, he informed me he was planning to revise his other piece into dactylic hexameter, the meter of epic poetry. Which was not a topic we had even covered.

I haven’t seen Kevin since, but I think of him often, proud that he took the risk to let his words take flight.


Isis Arsnoe
Assistant Professor, Biology

VJ was one of my first “military” students and I could quickly tell he was eager to be a part of a new community but was struggling to find his stride.  He was punctual for class, always smiling, encouraging others, and excited to be a part of the group – sometimes maybe a little too excited.  Searching to establish a team, he quickly learned the names of his classmates and jovially greeted them each day.  The semester was off to a great start.  By the third week, something had changed and VJ’s behavior became disruptive, negatively affecting our classroom atmosphere.  He stopped participating in discussions, was constantly distracted by his phone, and rather than taking notes, he began taking photos of the lecture material.  One afternoon, he made a noticeable exit in the middle of class.  I was frustrated, I thought I was going to have an ally in VJ and now it seemed as though he would be one of my most challenging students.  How did things turn so quickly?  How was I going to handle this?  Later that day I decided to email him to let him know I had noticed a recent change in his behavior and wanted to make sure he was doing alright.

Two days later during a class field trip, VJ dropped back behind the group as we walked along the tour.  “I got your email.  I’m okay, just going through some rough things adjusting,” he said.  We talked about residual challenges from his service, his determination to do well in school and his strategies for class notes (the photos).  I thanked him for sharing with me and added, “You know that it’s really important that you set a good example in class, we really look up to you as a leader.”  He thought about this for a few minutes as we headed back toward the bus and finally asked, “What did you mean by the class looks up to me as a leader?” I explained to him that he had personal qualities, experiences, and training which primed him with leadership skills that are hard to come by.   I also expressed that I was counting on him to be a mentor in our class.

VJ’s behavior changed drastically after our conversation that day and he has risen to the challenge.  He keeps track of our class counting heads on field trips and making sure everyone is safe and with the group.  In class, VJ is kind, participates and tries his best to be a good student.  I really did need VJ to be a leader in our class and he needed me to be a leader too, but he also needed for me to trust him and not give up on him.   A few weeks ago, in a class survey, VJ wrote “You’re a great teacher and an even better leader.  Don’t change that about yourself.”  As I read that I thought about our journey to this point and realized that VJ has taught me much more than I have him.  As VJ would say, “never leave a man behind.”

Sending Students On

David Shane
Associate Professor, Physics

My favorite thing about teaching Physics is showing students that it is, literally, everywhere, perhaps to their chagrin!  But what I enjoy most in-classroom is getting to know my students and learning about their lives in the ways that have little to do with college life.

That said, it is quite difficult to pick any one student who totally changed how I understand my job as a teacher – but let’s pick on one student, whom I shall call John.  I met John not in a classroom setting, but when I was tutoring Physics in our former Academic Resource Center.  He was a driven student, to an extent perhaps not healthy – the sort who might forsake eating and sleep until an assignment was finished.  I especially got to know him through his involvement with The Early College robotics team, where he was an eager jack-of-all-trades helping with design, construction, and even our public relations effort, such as it was!  I eventually helped him acquire a (temporary) job in his scientific field of focus, helped him understand some of his new tasks as he read through my doctoral thesis (my graduate school advisor was amused), and he still sends me the occasional Physics question by tweet.  It has been good to see him doing well.

What did I learn from working with him?  Perhaps better to ask what he made me remember – we have many experiences in life that don’t exactly teach us something new, but do bring to our minds something important we already know, and that also is valuable.  I remember the founder of Khan Academy saying on one occasion that he was surprised to discover how much interest there was out there from people who just wanted to learn.  John met with me outside of class to talk about stuff that had nothing to do with class – take note, sometimes jaded teachers! Our experiences with the robotics team (for all those students) were a visual testament to the excitement generated by comprehensive education, and his employ was obtained through community connections, both things community colleges strive for.  Seeing him continue in academic life over several years now, I have watched some of the weaknesses I noticed when we first met disappear, while aptitudes have strengthened.  It has been my pleasure to know him.

I Told the Truth

Jenifer M. Bourcier, PhD
Assistant Professor of Microbiology

I became aware of Jacob early in the semester before I knew all my students’ names well because this student was consistently turning in well-articulated, concise yet correct, answers for the post-lab assignments.  He really did stand out from most student from the very beginning.

Imagine my surprise, then, when Jacob approached me about whether or not to drop my course!  He was taking on a lot of new responsibilities and expressed concerns about continuing successfully.  As most instructors, I couldn’t tell him to stay or go because I have no crystal ball.  Although, I did something that I have never done before: I told him how surprised I was that he felt that way because he was doing so very well already.  And, I told him that he probably didn’t have to work as hard as he had been working to still be successful in the course.  I was hinting at the fact that he could probably coast some, focus on his other responsibilities, and still do well in the course.  Again, I never have made such an insinuation to a student, but he was just so outstanding from the start.

I never did see Jacob coast though.  To the end of the semester he would come to campus early and study the labs, work efficiently, contribute to his group’s work, and he would hand it homework that was often the bar to which other students were compared.

He asked me for a letter of recommendation to the Nursing Program at U of M Flint. The above paragraphs composed much of the letter, and I gave him a copy that was not in a signed-sealed envelope. Truth is, I had printed a bunch of copies because I kept finding mistakes, but I told him it was because “sometimes it’s nice to know, and you don’t always get to read what’s written about you.”  Maybe that’s really why I did it…I mean, I could’ve just shredded them and not given him a copy.

He surprised me later with an email telling me that he got into the program. That wasn’t the surprise though; the surprise was when he told me he had been second-guessing whether or not he was “cut-out for the program,” and reading the letter I wrote “greatly encouraged” him to continue on the path.

But the thing is, I just wrote what I saw. I didn’t jazz it up. I told the truth. How could I have known that my words would’ve meant so much to someone? I guess you never know…