Holistic education group looks to sustain the ‘light and passion’ of teaching

NOTE: My involvement in the Holistic Education Faculty Circle has been an enlivening experience. It’s inspiring to be around compassionate educators determined to meet the needs of their students. This post originally appeared on Penn State News.

Long from its days as a vital branch on a mighty tree, it’s weathered and stripped of most of its bark. But it still has the ability to bring life to a room, especially when that room is full of educators, willing to bare their souls for a better understanding of what it means to teach as well as what it means to be human.

In late January, that stick was passed around the Holistic Education Faculty Circle, empowering each attendee with the opportunity to speak uninterrupted in the “council” discussion style. That morning, a fresh snowfall gave a bright glow to campus, and there was quite a lot of illumination inside a meeting space in Penn State’s Pasquerilla Spiritual Center.

Part support group, part meditation circle, part coffee talk, the gathering is the culmination of a few years of work to create something that acknowledges students as whole beings, shaped by so much more than just what happens in the classroom.

“It’s more than studying four years in a place and becoming competent in a certain area of study,” said biology professor Chris Uhl. “More than becoming skilled in a cognitive pursuit. As one of my colleagues (author and activist) Joanna Macy says — ‘We’re not just brains on a stick.’ And so, how can we cultivate all the things, all the potentialities that we’re born with as human beings — our potential, our capacity for imagination, for play, our emotional development, our capacity to really feel deeply, to express emotions and matters of the spirit?”

The mission of the group is still evolving, but a likely goal will be the creation of an holistic education minor that would be open to all students and/or circles for students that could be “incubators for birthing new ways of being,” Uhl said.

“The pervasiveness of this story that ‘I’m not enough,’ it’s just so deep,” he said. “It comes from the culture. It comes from ‘To be enough, I have to be better than …’ It’s not enough to just be.”

For now, members of the group are trusting the process, embracing the idea that to awaken the deepest understanding in their students they must be their best selves first.

“For so many of us, the light and passion that brought us to teaching and to creating a better world gets buried in busyness and obligation,” said Gaby Winqvist, instructor in the Kinesiology Physical Activity Program. “These circles are a way for us to connect, recognizing that our lights burn brighter in community, on the path of contributing to the inspiration and wholeness of our students and the entire Penn State community.”

January’s circle opened with a guided meditation before the stick made its way through three rounds of sharing. Participants reflected on gratitude, challenges and callings. Tears, hugs and words of encouragement were not uncommon throughout the 90-minute session.

“It is a gift to be part of a caring community at Penn State that is exploring a radically authentic way of being in this world,” said Kami Dvorakova, a doctoral fellow in compassion and caring. “Looking around, I see that all of us are craving meaningful and deep connections and interactions. In these circles, we take away the veils of our differences with the purpose to discover the common core values that we all share: love, compassion and connection. It is a unique opportunity to be able to bring these qualities into our professional work and academic communities.”

Although much of what’s done in the circle is abstract, several in the group are conducting research on the effectiveness of practices like reflection and meditation, particularly among teachers and students. Dvorakova and others in the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center recently published an article on how mindfulness practices can increase first-year students’ life satisfaction, and decrease depression and anxiety. Her work is made possible by an endowment from Edna Bennett Pierce, which is a part of a larger gift to the College of Health and Human Development by Pierce, Mark Greenberg and Christa Turksma.

For Uhl, it’s freeing to participate in gatherings that aren’t agenda driven — there are no chairpersons, no tasks to be carried out before the next session. At its core, it’s about “giving permission to be yourself.”

“It could be as simple as that,” Uhl said, “as powerful as that.”

To be added to the group’s email list, send a message to Siri Newman at sirinewman@gmail.com.


AEE 530: Workshop reflection

The workshop experience netted lots of suggestions for improvements — or “opportunities” in our class vernacular — but was still a success as a comfort level-expanding learning experience.

“Spinning the Classroom Web,” a look at how social media can maximize the interaction between instructor and student, included overviews of some popular platforms and research-backed suggestions for application of those platforms in the classroom.

As Penn State’s social media manager, one would think that a talk on social media would be in my wheelhouse but incorporating social media into a class is far different than using it to convey messages to the public. (Although many fundamentals — clarity, brevity — still apply.) The workshop took me in new directions, reading up on a use of social media that I hadn’t explored. 

Along with my partner Karly Regan, we used research and personal correspondence to bolster our argument and received praise during post-workshop reflections from the class for incorporating that research.

During the workshop, we demonstrated the utility of three free digital platforms. We asked the class to text their definition of social media for a real-time Poll Everywhere collection and display of answers. We used a smartphone, a tripod and the Periscope app to make a live broadcast of our talk. Viewers could like the video and type questions. When I wasn’t speaking, I monitored the “scope” for questions. We also encouraged tweeting with the hashtag #AEE530, displaying that discussion stream at the end and addressing a question posed in a tweet. Audience members also used the hashtag to tweet additional resources and helped promote our Periscope broadcast.

At the conclusion of the workshop, we gave each student two Post-It notes and asked that they write what they liked on one of the notes and what they felt needed improved on the other. In addition to the citing of research, we were also complimented for using Periscope, encouraging live tweeting through #AEE530 and offering “valuable definitions of different types of social media.”

As for improvements, attendees wanted more discussions and activities, a better explanation for how Periscope works and less background on each platform. Topics that they wanted addressed included how to grade assignments related to social media, how to get students engaged digitally but also ensure that they attend class, and how to combat some people’s tendency to loose their filter and be meaner when commenting on social media.

I benefited from an experience that forced me to be a bit “entrepreneurial”: promoting, presenting and giving added value in the form of a tips sheet.  But for a talk about engagement, we should have strived for offering a more interactive, lively experience.

After all, the mind can only absorb what the butt can endure.


AEE530: Microteaching reflection

My microteaching experience was extremely beneficial, allowing me to tweak a lesson that I first presented to journalism students in fall 2015. Whereas that lesson was a lecture followed by an exercise that only engaged two students, I’ve found a way to make the lesson more engaging and stimulate the thinking of more students.

Journalists put so much time into researching a story and crafting the right questions for an interview, yet a difficult interviewee can throw a wrench in the works. My lesson is meant to give students tactics to salvage an interview if it’s knocked off course by a person who’s quiet, hostile, patronizing, etc. The obstacle amid all that preparation can be especially jarring, and it’s crucial that the reporter remain calm and not take anything personally in order to have the most effective reaction.

Previously, I presented a description of each personality type, giving three tactics to counteract their behavior. In my microteaching exercise, I described the difficult personality and then asked the class for suggestions in how to deal. I was impressed with the resourcefulness of the students and realized that by getting them involved, students confidence can be increased before they go out on an interview – throughout the course, students will be interviewing dozens of sources for multiple stories. “I was quick on my feet, so I’ll be good dealing with a jerk during an interview,” is the takeaway.

Previously, I ended my lecture with a role-playing exercise. Two of my most engaged students volunteered – one played a reporter, the other adopted some of the difficulty personality traits. After exchanging several questions, they switched roles. I was impressed with how game they were for the exercise, the composure of the interviewer and the creativity of the “difficult” person. The entire class watched the interaction, and I pointed out went well, but ultimately, it only engaged two students in practicing their approach.

By introducing an exercise that paired students together and tasked them with reactions in three difficult scenarios, I could get everyone involved in the learning and boost confidence.

Leaving my microteaching lesson, I felt better about engaging my students, making a crucial lesson far more dynamic and making the principles easier to recall when students are out in the field.

I enjoyed the experience and appreciated my classmates’ willingness to get involved and put themselves in the shoes of a journalist. I was also impressed with my peers resourcefulness in engaging students in learning, both through smartphones. They also did a good job of hitting the basics on topics they’re well versed in.

I aim to be an engaging, dynamic instructor but was made aware that I’m moving two much. I’ve been told about this during some public speaking experiences in the past but never really thought about it much in the classroom. The excessive movements – along with frequently putting my hand in my pocket – are habits I plan to be extra careful about. Plus, times when I stand firm, can make an impact on students as enforcement that this is extra important – take note.

I plan to incorporate more reflection during my next teaching assignment. I regularly collected Post-It notes with student feedback frequently during my first semester but did little in regards to self-reflection. I plan to keep a journal of some quick notes after each session and regularly post reflections and lessons learned on LinkedIn. (I modified my lesson plan assignment in a recent blog post.

AEE 530: Reflections on the TLT Symposium


The Teaching and Learning with Technology Symposium on March 19 was a simultaneously jarring and reassuring experience.

Rapidly expanding technology is disrupting the system, making the status quo untenable. However, there are scores of Penn State faculty — like the 500 TLT attendees who devoted a Saturday to professional development — taking a measured look at multiple advances and doing so with compassion and concern for their students.

An especially eye-opening discussion revolved around ways students cheat in class, with an emphasis on clickers and how students are getting friends to click them in on days they skip. I also learned more about the “black market” for course notes as well as the “hostile” environment that can emerge during large classes that can get as big as 1,400 students. I thanked my lucky stars that my classes are capped at 20.

During the cheating talk, an instructor said students must realize that poor ethics on their part is bad for their school’s brand and thus bad for the them because their diploma is devalued. It was stressed that unethical students will go on to be unethical employees, who may eventually be fired for misdeeds. There was an emphasis on reporting to the proper authority within a college when cheating is suspected as well as emphasis on keeping students informed through the process and giving them the opportunity to state their side.

Last semester in my journalism course, I suspected that a student did not attend a speech she had written an article about. I was at the event and didn’t see her. However, I was busy in supporting the presentation and couldn’t be absolutely sure. Her article could have been pulled together from news and social media coverage of the event. I did not investigate, and I regret not confronting the student. If I had a do-over, I would have spoken with the student and filed a written report if I was still suspicious.

I also made note of Smeal College of Business senior instructor Ron Johnson’s EAP model for evaluating students: Excellent performance, Academic Integrity and Professional Behavior. I liked his holistic approach.

Some other best practices I jotted down during workshops:

— Share the best papers from past semesters so students have a model for best performance

— Explore methods of online discussions so students are more comfortable and talks go deeper

— Consider a no-tech policy in class. My class is in a computer lab, but I could encourage the group to push their chairs away from the machines during lecture and discussion times.

I’m excited to take what I learned into the classroom and to see what some of these talented instructors come up with to meet the teaching challenges of the digital age.

AEE 530: Reflections on Lesson Planning

When teaching COMM 260: News Writing and Reporting last year, my approach to each lesson boiled down to: keep the text on my PowerPoints at a minimum and maximize the chances for students to share their thoughts and flex their reporter muscles.

I’d open each course by revisiting some course logistics – list due dates, respond to concerns shared in the anonymous, Post-It note evaluations at the end of the previous week, etc. Quickly, I tried to get students engaged. I usually showed a brief YouTube video that offered insight into the life of a journalist and then opened the floor for students’ thoughts. In the weekly evaluations, students had expressed a need for more guidance on writing better story leads, so each class I’d also present five leads from stories across the country and lead a critique of each with the students. I looked for opportunities to have discussions about reporting that encouraged students to think like writers and editors as well as human beings. If a question didn’t generate input, I’d reframe it or pose a new one – sort of like what I’d do as a reporter. One of our most lively discussions revolved around the shooting of two journalists on live TV and how various outlets reported on the event with the use of that footage in some way. The students were full of opinions on how they would have handled the situation as editors with some treating it with the utmost sensitivity and others opposed to presenting news to the public with any sanitized filter.

COMM 260 is a hybrid course, featuring a Web module consisting of a lesson and quiz, so in-person classes, considered “labs” by the department, should not be straight-up lectures. It’s a time for collaboration structured around the theme of the Web module – sort of with the instructor as editor and the students as his reporting team.

My Lesson Plan Design assignment reflects a discussion and exercise that shows my approach. In the final weeks of the semester, I spoke to the students about some of the difficult personalities they’ll encounter while reporting – The Jerk, The Rambler, etc. – and how to get the information you need from these folks. After my talk, I asked for two students to role play in the front of the room. One of them was the reporter, the other was to be one of the aforementioned difficult types, playing the role of a typical Penn State student answering questions about their life. Two of my most engaged students jumped at the chance. After about five minutes, I had them switch roles. They both did a wonderful job, giving me several positive observations to drive home my lesson.

In the lesson, I was able to make students active learners and support my points with experiences from nearly a decade working as a reporter. I feel it’s important for me to share stories from my reporter days to illustrate the real-world application of the lessons. Often, I feel my notes from the field also make larger statements about journalism. For example, that reporting can surely be exciting but is often mundane compared to what you may see in movies and TV. Someone is probably not going to bribe you with an envelope of cash in a dark alley, but they may offer you freebies and patronize you during an interview.

I used this assignment to improve on the lesson, which was very enjoyable for me and was acknowledged as useful by students in their weekly Post-It evaluations of the course. I aimed to make it better by offering more students the chance to roleplay and more time for me to point out the tactics that worked and what needs to be improved.

AEE 530: Reflections on the Syllabus Revision assignment

My syllabus revision assignment focused on a plan for COMM 467: News Editing and Evaluation in Spring 2015. It has the detail and clarity that you’d hope to find in a document aimed at future journalists. Plus, it does an exceptional job of explaining what the course is about by listing concentrations, objectives and “course ground rules.” The syllabus really cuts to the practical value of the course, noting that changing markets have led to fewer copy editors checking articles before publication, making it that much more important that journalists produce efficient and effective work.

However, I did find a few points where the students could benefit from expanded information, and I tweaked the course schedule in a way that I felt drew more attention to the preparation, quizzes and assignments associated with each session by using a bolder, chunkier font and capitalizing every letter in words like quiz, due, post and pick up. 

The instructor explains that ANGEL Course Mail will be the means for updating students with information during the course, urging that students “Get in the habit of checking it.” In my syllabus for COMM 260: News Writing and Reporting, I also advised students to forward ANGEL messages to their email so messages aren’t overlooked. ANGEL’s default is not to forward messages to student’s campus email. So, I added the line “You may also want to set your User Course Mail Preferences in ANGEL to ‘Forward to Internet E-mail’ to better ensure that you’re aware of any messages.”

On Page 5, the instructor inserts his home phone number for “extreme emergencies.” I think this is generous and that tucking it in the middle of the syllabus will ensure that only serious student with legitimate concerns will call. I did make the instructor’s office phone number easier to identify — it appears next to the office location without an area code.

Students are also urged to become regular newspaper readers and one of the assignments involves a graded critique of the Centre Daily Times. The syllabus notes that several papers are available to students for free on campus, but I expanded it to let students know where and how they can get papers.

I also added detail to the Sweet Tweets assignment, which requires students to identify effective use of Twitter in sharing news. I felt a need to clarify that students do not need Twitter accounts to peruse Tweets, however I urged that students explore the platform because of its utility to journalists.

Although the syllabus is described as an “elastic document,” I also clarified that major changes would be announced well in advance.

No major overhaul was necessary for this syllabus, just some tweaks making it a bit easier for students to get in the mix and start learning.  

Create a big conversation with hashtags at your small conference

Now at a conference, it’s nearly as ubiquitous as a name tag and agenda — the hashtag.

Screen Shot 2016-01-17 at 9.55.22 AMA means to drive conservations and spread knowledge beyond the banquet room, the conference hashtag is now a crucial piece of the experience, alongside the keynotes, networking mixers and swag tables. But generating a lively hashtag goes beyond just slapping #whatever all over the place. It takes planning and execution, especially at a small event.

We recently organized our annual Social Media Summit, a gathering of about 120 communicators working in social media at Penn State. The one-day conference, garnered 239 uses of #PSUsocial on Twitter, setting off a stream of discussions, shout-outs and connections. Although, #PSUsocial was just a whisper in the Twittersphere, it’s becoming a key piece of the summit, enriching the professional development value to conference goers.

Read the complete post here. 

Sticky notes on improvement: How mini evaluations led to big insights for a first-time instructor

The following is my most recent LinkedIn post on the importance of regular assessment for first-time instructors. 

In the weeks leading up to my first college teaching experience, I explained my situation to others as one of excitement and terror. PostIt

Teaching an introductory news writing course in Penn State’s College of Communications, I knew that a fulfilling exchange of knowledge awaited — as well as a crushing obligation to not woefully prepare the next generation of reporters and PR professionals. It felt careless to wait until the formal mid-semester evaluation. Was I sage of journalism, stirring a passion for digging and delivering the news? Or was I floundering? I asked the students for feedback: weekly mini assessments, jotted down on Post-it notes. What I received kept confusion out of the excitement/terror mix.

Once a reminder to do something, the Post-it has become a means to uncover the things I didn’t know needed done.

Read the complete post at http://ow.ly/TwHK5.

See your campus anew: Dig for compelling soical media photos amid the familiar

The following is my most recent LinkedIn post on the intersection of social media and higher education.


Creative types can’t afford to submit to a routine.

Daily rituals are unavoidable — have a cup of coffee, eat breakfast, brush your teeth — but inspiration won’t be found by those on autopilot, slogging through the day-to-day wearing blinders. By seeing the world anew, the ordinary becomes less run of the mill.

This can be put into practice through photography — by exploring fresh ways to present the familiar, by seeing a compelling image where others see the usual scenery. Can you view your house, backyard, office, route to work from a new perspective? What details often get overlooked? What’s lurking in the background or the foreground?

The daily stroll to my office in Old Main, Penn State’s administrative building, presents an opportunity to be engaged with my surroundings, to search for subtle and not-so-subtle changes in the same ol’ thing. The following tips and snapshots will help you realize that the ordinary can be anything but.

Read the complete post at http://linkd.in/1OhMWNI.

When out of your element, attitude is key in social media event coverage

A_PitStopWhen worlds collide — let’s say higher education and auto racing — covering an event through social media requires a bit of extra effort when you’re in new territory. The right attitude and preparation are key. 

For one day, Jeff Gordon buzzed around Pocono Raceway in a Chevy SS that doubled as a speeding billboard for Pennsylvania State University. I was in the social media passenger’s seat.

Gordon’s racecar, fire suit, helmet and pit crew were decked out in Penn State blue and white – the university’s insignia was inescapable June 7 at the Axalta We Paint Winners 400. I made myself a fixture at race weekend – my first time at a NASCAR event.

Read more at http://linkd.in/1IC6SGS.