The Methods Behind Moodle Madness: A TLT Expert Contextualizes Bethel’s Technology Choices

by Matt Putz

I have a confession to make. I have some patterns in my work-life for getting things done, and I like them. Maybe “like” is not strong enough. I like them a lot. I’m deeply connected to them. All right, fine – I’m obsessed with some of them. They took a lot to develop, they work well for me, and so please don’t make me change them. People who study how other people get complex things done call these developed behavior patterns “workflows.” I REALLY like my workflows. The trouble with my obsession is that I don’t live and work in a vacuum, and my workflows are connected to other people’s workflows, which I do not control at all. Sometimes someone imposes a change from outside of my system that requires me to change my workflow whether I want to or not, and on my worst days it makes me want to tear my hair out.

Take software upgrades. Occasionally I long for the good old days when I got to decide when I was going to plop my 16-floppy-disk Windows 95 install set into my three-and-a-half-inch disk drive and get my Windows 3.1 environment upgraded. (Actually, “replaced.” Back then, nothing really upgraded in the sense we would use the word today.) If I liked Windows 3.1 and didn’t want to switch, there was nobody making me. Windows 3.1 would run happily along on my computer for the next ten years (or so I thought), and there wasn’t yet anybody lurking who was going to create a virus that could scare me into applying a “security patch.” I had nothing but the carrots of lovely new functionality beckoning, and I could upgrade this year, next year, or never. (Right about now some of you want to get into the conversation about whether Windows 95 was EVER a good idea, but let’s stay on track.)

Now, I’ve got a mini computer in my pocket (AKA my phone) that reminds me every ten minutes that it automagically updated another one of the ten zillion apps I seemingly can’t live without. It also reminds me fifteen more apps need to be updated but can’t be without my explicit permission to allow them access to all sorts of information on my phone that is evidently important enough to ask me about but hasn’t yet become functionally important enough to get me to figure out just exactly what I’m giving the keys away to. It’s a dilemma. And then the update changes that one app that I use all the time and now I don’t know how to use it anymore, and BLAMMO. Somebody messed with my stuff (or moved my cheese, if that bit works for you).

It’s even worse when that app is web-based, like Gmail or Google Drive. Those are the sorts of apps that don’t even ask you if you want to update because they don’t live on your device at all. You go to bed one night and they’re one way, and you wake up in the morning and they’ve changed. Many of us who truly enjoy developing systems to deal with complex but repetitive tasks live in quiet, constant fear that those software features that are central to our workflows will just quietly go away some evening, leaving us stranded in You-Can’t-Get-There-From-Here-Anymore Land, also known as Now-Go-Do-More-Work-Than-You-Expected-To-Today Land. Nuts.

Can you identify with that?

In Teaching and Learning Technology, we work really hard to not do that to you any more than we absolutely have to, because we get just as irritated when that stuff happens to us.  It may not always appear so, but we are deeply concerned about that kind of stress, concerned to the point that we spend hours each month discussing how to assure the decisions we make cause you as little stress as possible.

The Challenge of Moodle

Take Moodle for instance. Moodle is a web-based application, meaning it lives on a web server, which is just a computer that “serves” all of the “clients” (our laptops and phones and desktops and tablets) that come asking it to do things for them, and people generally access it through some sort of a web browser like Chrome or Firefox or Safari. Gmail and Google Drive are also web applications, but the big difference between them and Moodle is that we at Bethel don’t control the web servers they run on or the code that determines how they operate. Google owns and takes care of all of that. We use those applications with Google’s permission. Moodle, on the other hand, is completely under our control. The software itself is open-source, and while a discourse on open-source software is beyond the scope of this writing, it essentially means that we have the right to use it pretty much however we like for no charge. One of the big reasons we moved away from Blackboard in 2010-2011 was because we were paying a lot of money every year to Blackboard, Inc. to use software that we had no control over, and we were frankly tired of both the quality (low) and pace (high) of change in that product. We wanted to make sure that we would have more control not only over what the Bethel community experienced, but also the pace at which that experience changed.

Having complete control of your own Learning Management System is a bit like Spider Man’s curse: With Great Strength Comes Great Responsibility. It means we have a wonderful opportunity to make this thing work the way we want it to. But it also means we don’t get to blame SomeCompany, Inc. for the problems we encounter. To people who like tweaking software, all that flexibility looks really interesting and fun. But I’m sure that bug zappers look interesting and fun to moths as well, so how do we go about making decisions about Moodle in such a way that our value of not introducing change for change’s sake and driving people unnecessarily crazy doesn’t get undermined by the tempting flexibility inherent in our technology?


First, we have to be careful about where we put (“host”) it. We value hosting Moodle in an environment that is as reliable as we can possibly afford (so our users can have the best experience possible), that uses our expert technical staff in the most effective way possible, and that gives us control over things we actually need to be able to control. In 2010, that environment was an external company that claimed to be expert at hosting Moodle. After three years of sub-par experiences with that company, including being denied access that we had previously been promised to our own software, we made the difficult decision to move Moodle back to a server hosted on Bethel’s campus where our own staff could manage it more effectively. We hosted it there until this past summer, when we finally moved it to Amazon Web Services, where Amazon staff make sure the hardware runs like it’s supposed to and our staff have full and unfettered access to the software and a whole range of management tools we couldn’t even dream of purchasing or developing ourselves.

So we’ve arrived at the best of both worlds where our staff get to manage the user experience rather than trying to track down broken cables, but it took a while for us to figure out where Moodle lives best. And every time we had to make a hosting change, it required a tremendous amount of coordination to make sure that everybody at Bethel experienced very little downtime. Even after the move to AWS this fall, we experienced a number of teething troubles. But we’re confident it was worth it, and we have high hopes that we’ve landed on a long-term hosting arrangement. Because of this, we may even be able to realize the dream of not needing any downtime for future upgrades.


Speaking of upgrades, we also have to be thoughtful about how we keep our Moodle instance up to date and supportable. Every six months, the folks at put out a major update, and they put out another 10 or so smaller updates in between those, which are mostly small bug fixes and security updates. This is a great example of how we have to balance the need to stay in sync with the rest of the world, but still do it in such a way that it causes as little pain as possible to the Bethel community.

We could choose to never upgrade our system, which would result in a very stable set of workflows for our community but which would also eventually leave us vulnerable to security problems and would not allow us to take advantage of changes in the system that have the potential to significantly change the educational experience for the better. On the other end of the spectrum, we could upgrade every time an update came out (and Moodle officially recommends that we do so), but that would constant workflow changes for Bethel faculty and students all throughout the year and at least some downtime every time we upgraded. So we compromised and made the decision to do one major upgrade once a year. Bethel never really takes a summer break, because our Seminary, CAPS, and GS never stop and CAS has summer courses, but summertime is still the least chaotic space for work like that, and so that’s when it happens.

We also have to keep in mind that Moodle is software created by (fallible) human beings, and that the best way to guarantee you’ll become a human guinea pig is by deploying software that came off the development line yesterday. So we stay one version behind, meaning that in the summer we install the version that came out the previous December. By that time, that version has had six months of user input from people who are evidently less concerned about being experimented on than we are and most of the major bugs have been worked out of it. It’s also still new enough that it will be kept current until at least the next summer when we upgrade again.


Occasionally Moodle needs to be “fixed,” and we have to find ways to do this that cause the least amount of stress to the Bethel community, near-term (“How long is this going to take???! But don’t take the system down right now; I have class in 20 minutes…”) and long-term (“Did we fix it properly?”). The software is robust, but its implementation is complex, requiring a web application server, a database server, and a file repository to “talk” to each other and with Bethel’s other systems (some of which are in Amazon Web Services, some of which are hosted at Bethel, and some of which live other places) efficiently and effectively.

A great example of the need for a “fix” occurred just this fall when we found that our Moodle instance was simply not serving pages as quickly as it should have been, especially for pages requiring significant resources like gradebook edits. During a two-hour meeting between Teaching and Learning Technology and ITS, we determined the cause was the result of a database locking process meant to doubly guarantee the database was properly replicating and therefore protecting us from data loss in case of a disastrous failure of the Moodle server environment. The “fix” we agreed to involved giving up about one second of data vulnerability (meaning, worst-case, we could lose a maximum of one second of data in an emergency) for a 10-fold increase in speed for our users. That’s a really good compromise.


We also have to be appropriately sensitive to the large number of requests we get each year for changes to Moodle from the Bethel community. Over 8000 unique users logged in to Moodle at Bethel last year, and keeping them all happy requires a careful balancing act between the desire of the relatively few to have an environment that perfectly fits their expectations and the desire of the many for stable workflows. So whenever we get one of these requests, we ask some questions. OK – we ask a LOT of questions.

  • Would the change affect anybody else? (Usually this is a “yes.”)
  • Would the change involve a simple administrative setting change or the addition of additional code? If it involves additional code, does that code fit with how we see the system naturally evolving? Who maintains that code, how are they related to the broader Moodle community, and what are their motivations for continuing to maintain it? What are the chances that we would have to eventually choose between maintaining the code ourselves or dumping the feature? (Neither of those are good options.)

Even though we are able to, we don’t install many third-party add-ons in Moodle because taking things away can be more stressful than not providing them in the first place. We want to be reasonably certain that the major features we provide will be around for years to come so that people can rely on them to be central to their workflows. For instance, our plagiarism-detection system (Turnitin) and our enrollment and course-creation manager (LMB Module) are both third-party products with a long history and a reasonably predictable future, and we depend on that when we recommend their use.

  • Would the change involve an increase in individual freedom in the system? If so, would it allow people to create messes that are out of proportion with the good they might perform with this change? Would it allow people to do things that will make their courses more difficult to maintain in the future?

Moodle is a highly creative environment, with thousands of members of the Bethel community creating content in it every day. We want to encourage creative use of the tool while also keeping people from unknowingly doing things they will regret next month or next year. (For example, it may be that using seventeen different colors of text in your course-site isn’t the most sustainable way to develop a course-site that’s functionally accessible for visually impaired persons!)

  • Finally, coming around full-circle, would this change require faculty or students to unnecessarily learn another workflow, when there is clearly already one available that they are used to and that would work for the requestor as well?

We’re always asking the question, “How would this fix/change/upgrade/move affect over 8000 users?”

Help Us Change Well

Please don’t stop asking us to make changes in Moodle or other academic technology at Bethel that you think would be beneficial or even just fun. We love all of the creativity and ideas present here, and many of the good features and applications that are presently available to students and faculty here exist because someone not on the Teaching and Learning Technology team had a great idea that we were able to implement. Keep it coming.

And when you see announcements start appearing for our summer 2016 upgrade to the next version of Moodle, don’t forget that we started planning for that upgrade in December of 2015 (just a few days ago, in fact) because we want it to be as positive an experience as possible for you AND everybody. Even if some of MY workflows have to change – again.

The Christian Scholar as a Public Intellectual

by Chris Gehrz

Last week my personal blog welcomed its 300,000th visitor. While I started The Pietist Schoolman in June 2011 with very traditional scholarly goals in mind — thinking aloud about research, connecting with other scholars, refining my writing skills through regular practice — it has done much to reshape my vocation as a Christian scholar. Blogging has helped me learn to speak — and listen to — a broader public, to live out what Wheaton historian Tracy McKenzie calls the “dual vocation” of Christian historians: serving both the academy and the church.

Or as my fellow historian-blogger John Fea (Messiah College) argued last month:

evangelical intellectuals and scholars may be missing opportunities to speak to churchgoers on their own terms. This is a largely untapped audience for public intellectuals, but evangelicals will not just listen to anyone.  They are suspicious of secular voices and always will be. They will, however, be more open to listen to someone with evangelical credentials or someone who is one of them. We need more people to be “public intellectuals” in this world.

John does this as well as anyone I know: at his blog, on Twitter, and by contributing op-eds to print and digital media. But through Pietist Schoolman think I’ve been able to extend my work as a researching and teaching historian into a more public sphere, helping a wide array of fellow Christians (and non-Christians, to be sure) to think about faith, history, and higher education. To illustrate the breadth of my audience, I often point out two facts.

  • 20% of my readership lives outside of the United States.

  • Four of the top commenters at my blog are (1) our former colleague Roger Olson, (2) a doctor at the Mayo Clinic who’s also a lay preacher, (3) a member of my congregation, and (4) my mom.

(Truth be told, Mom would comment far more often — but she doesn’t want to embarrass me. Let’s move on…)

Now, blogging as often as I do is a massive time commitment even now that I’ve gone down from 7 times a week to 3-4, and so I rarely expect that I’m going to persuade colleagues that they ought to take this leap. Happy as I was to see our colleague Stina Busman Jost join the blogosphere recently, today let me describe another, easier way that I try to act as a kind of public intellectual. Here too, I’m on the same page as Fea:

When academic historians write and talk about using social media the conversation is always limited by the boundaries of the profession. Social media can help historians network. Social media can help historians share their work. Social media can help historians share resources (usually in the form of links) with other historians. All of this assumes that the people we follow or “friend,” and the people who follow and friend us, are all academic or professional historians.

My approach to social media has been different in the sense that I have not separated my professional life from certain aspects of my personal life. Yes, there should be boundaries between the two and I have tried to keep them.  But people who follow me on Facebook or Twitter will also have to deal with the occasional (or not so occasional) photo of my family, a post on the New York Mets, or the latest fan-boy commentary on Bruce Springsteen.  I tend to approach life in an integrated fashion–perhaps to a fault.

Likewise, I use my Facebook timeline primarily to share two things: (1) links to my blog posts; and (2) pictures of — or funny comments from — my kids. Hopefully, I give people a more fully fleshed-out model of who “academics” are. But at the same time, I have family, friends, former students, and fellow church members occasionally reading what I have to say about Christian colleges, Pietism, World War I, teaching, and other subjects that might otherwise stay within more narrowly academic boundaries.

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One Sunday morning an older member of our congregation leaned over to me before worship and said how much she appreciated seeing me on Facebook in my role as a father — and then proceeded to ask me about a recent blog post of mine, on human sexuality in Christian higher ed.

If you don’t have the time or inclination to start a blog that would supply you with links to share in this way, you could just post links to what’s in your RSS feed. You don’t have to be the creator of content so much as its curator. This is what I primarily do with Twitter and my blog’s Facebook page, where I share links and typically add nothing more than a question, sample quotation, or brief comment.

Just recognize that the conversation doesn’t flow in one direction. Knowing that his Facebook friends and Twitter followers are “conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans, evangelical Christians and atheists, academics and aunts and uncles, Mets fans and Yankee fans, and everyone in-between,” Fea celebrates how social media helps him

to see what a diverse group of people are thinking about and how they are responding to the ever-changing world around them. The conversations that happen on social media–either on my sites or the sites of others–fuel my writing and provide me with ideas. Sometimes it is less about posting and more about sitting back and reading the posts of others.

Old School Creativity: 5 Classics on Innovation Still Stand

A batch of fresh-baked creativity books fills the oven. Creativity is all the rage.

Last year, in a set of articles in “The Atlantic,” William Deresiewicz and Robinson Meyer debated the cultural-historical arc from “artisan,” through “genius” to “creative.” Deresiewicz derides the last term, finding it more hipster than helpful.

I have some sympathy for Deresiewicz’s attachment to bygone definitions of artistry and innovation. Much of the contemporary school of creativity has taken a distinctly self-help, pop psychology turn. A turn patently unhelpful to teachers, especially in higher ed., whose efforts to engage and facilitate discovery must be reliable and reproducible.

While rock-star authors like Elizabeth Gilbert and business gurus like Pixar’s Ed Catmull get much of the ink (virtual and otherwise) now, some older explorations of creativity stand strong as time-tested research and rumination on promoting ingenuity and vision.

5 Throwback Books on Creativity to Add to Goodreads

The Creative Process edited by Brewster Ghiselin

Includes nearly 40 selections, many brief and potent, on creativity in the arts and sciences written by figures from Poincaré to Picasso, Stein to Einstein

The Mathematician’s Apology by G.H. Hardy

Accessible even to those outside mathematics, Hardy, a 19th century British mathematician—who believed “the creative life was the only one for the serious man”– explores the aesthetics of mathematics

Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland

Though anchored in the creation of visual art, Bayles and Orland address contextual influences on the creative process—the classroom, institutional demands, finances, criticism and good ole fear

Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Many educators know Csikszentmihalyi’s flow theory. Here he draws on interviews with creators from many backgrounds to examine flow in innovation

The Shape of Content by Ben Shahn

The first and last chapters, particularly, of this Harvard professor and painter’s reflections on creativity stare straight at the tensions between structure and freedom elicited by the liberal arts institution

If your grading load (or kids’ ages) won’t allow a book-length read now, head to the databases with one name: R. Keith Sawyer. Editor of the (literal) textbook on creativity– Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation—Sawyer also has several articles relevant to creativity and the classroom. These include:

  • “Distributed creativity: How collective creations emerge from collaboration.” With Stacy DeZutter in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts 3.2
  • “The Cognitive Neuroscience of Creativity: A Critical Review.” Creativity Research Journal 23.2
  • “Improvisation and the Creative Process: Dewey, Collingwood, and the aesthetics of spontaneity.” Journal of Aesthetics & Art Criticism 58.2

Connecting with Diverse Students: Scenarios & Cases

When I think of simulations in the fields of nursing or education, I often think of very expensive practice manikins with arteries and veins that students can practice poking with needles (Complete Left Replacement Arm $234.00) or classroom-management programs where graduate students are paid to act as avatars that talk too much in a simulated middle-school classroom. Although these are great learning resources for students, I don’t have the resources to purchase or design these complicated simulation tools.

However, I don’t want my students to miss the many  benefits of simulation-based learning.  Scenarios and case studies are known to create significant gains in the areas of moral reasoning (O’ Flaherity and McGarr 2014) and teamwork skills (Motola, et al 2013) as well as critical thinking (Milner & Wolfer 2014). I’ve been experimenting with scenarios and case-studies on a smaller scale, and have been pleased at the level of engagement students have shown–both with the material and with each other. In addition, I’ve been especially intrigued with how scenarios  and case studies can meet the diverse needs of students.

Here’s why:

Scenarios & Cases Give Students a Common Starting Point

It’s easy to assume  all students have experience with a particular situation or concept..  However, as our classrooms become more diverse, this assumption doesn’t hold up.  Wlodowski and Ginsberg (1995) discuss that one of the keys to motivating culturally diverse students is to build on prior knowledge. If students don’t have the prior knowledge to engage with a question, they will lose motivation. I want my students to approach a discussion on equal footing, regardless of their past experience. Therefore, I ground a big question in a specific situation,  using a background video clip, article, or anecdote that can allow all students to participate.

Even before we read the syllabus on the first day of College Writing, I want my students to explore the abstract question “What does it mean to know?”  To ground this big question, I start with a smaller one grounded in a specific situation: “Is it possible to really know someone if your only contact with them is through digital means?” Before we discuss the question, we watch a scene from the MTV show Catfish, in which people who have met online have the opportunity to meet in person (usually with disastrous results.) Everyone in the class, then, has some common background about a few of the common pitfalls and possibilities of online relationships.

Then I ask students to discuss the specific question with a small group. Each group must post three answers–a “yes, because” answer, a “no, because” answer, and an “it depends” answer. From the “it depends” column we build an answer to the more abstract question,  “What does it mean to ‘know’?” before moving into the ways in which college writers need to “know” their subjects in order to write well. (We also establish– for the most part– that we wouldn’t lend money to or marry someone that we hadn’t met in person at least once.)

Scenarios & Cases Allow Students to Take New Perspectives

Although I work to make my classroom a safe place to discuss controversial issues, many students feel pressure to conform to a particular Christian point of view.  Students who come from underrepresented communities may feel that they need to speak carefully as they are representing their communities in every class discussion.  With these constraints in place, sometimes it’s difficult to discuss controversy. The work of Griffith (2012)  indicates that when discussions get heated, students often withdraw, defeating the purpose of the discussion and causing more fear and awkwardness around these difficult topics. A simulation can encourage students to shed these constraints and enter into a ‘third space’ (Cook 2005) where ideas can be more fully explored as well as offering multiple entry points (Gelbach 2007). Students can more easily shed constraints and enter the situation as someone other than themselves.

In my juvenile literature class we read the textbook chapter on censorship, which insists that all censorship in books for young readers is wrong.  Although this stance works in a textbook chapter, most people who work with young readers know that this issue is much more nuanced and complex than the textbook indicates.  Students come to class after reading that chapter with very strong opinions about this issue.

I ask students to set their personal opinions aside and take on the role of a participant in a simulated school board meeting to decide whether students should read the first Harry Potter book as part of the seventh grade curriculum. I encourage students to choose a speaker role they feel is not representative of their actual view and I give time to go back into the textbook and other resources to plan what they will say based on their assigned role. This class session is always full of surprises. Quiet students often become more vocal and those that have spoken up frequently speak less as they filter their words through their assigned role. The “school board” members genuinely lead, asking better probing questions than I ever do in class discussion.  Students’ written reflections show they are surprised in the power of this experience. One student wrote, “I was expecting judgment in class today and instead I got grace.”

Scenarios & Case Studies Contextualize Abstract Concepts

The work of Giamellaro (2014)  and other science educators indicates students often grasp difficult concepts more easily if they are contextualized, “situating a concept in a particular time and place” (abstract).  This becomes even more important when students have different cultural backgrounds, as Teaching Tolerance recommends instructors provide experiences “that show abstract concepts are drawn from and applied to the everyday world.”

One of my challenges in teaching Introduction to the Liberal Arts is helping students care about Bethel’s history–a concept that perhaps isn’t relevant to new students in the first week of school. However, after listening to all of Chris Gehrz’s podcasts on pietism this summer, I was keenly aware of how Bethel’s unique way of framing issues and problems and grows out of history. Before students read the first two chapters Becoming Whole and Holy Persons, we examine a real-life scenario. Students read the Washington Post  article by a Christian,  incoming student at Duke University who refused to read the graphic novel Fun Home for religious reasons.

Of course, many of my students had an immediate opinion about whether the author of this article was right in making this choice. Several of them immediately commented, quoting Bible verses and girding themselves to “win” the argument.  However, instead of discussing it immediately, I gave them a list of possible Christian responses, some of which agreed with the Duke student’s stance, and some of which disagreed.  We looked at them together, agreeing that all of these were responses that a Christian could reasonably make. When I sent students home to do the reading, I asked them to identify different aspects of Bethel history that might contribute to a discussion of this dilemma. In our next class session, I asked students what words should characterize a discussion of this issue at Bethel, considering its history. They chose words like “respectful,” “Christ-centered,” and  “considerate” and connected these concepts to the historical events in their reading They had entered into a context in which these historical roots became important.


Faculty members like you and me are the value-added in the classroom. We have the background, the experiences and context that can’t be provided by textbooks or video lessons.  How might you use scenarios or cases to share the richness of your experiences to meet the needs of our diverse range of students?



Center for Research on Education, Diversity and Excellence.  (n.d.)  Five standards for effective pedagogy.   Teaching Tolerance.  The Southern Poverty Law Center.  Accessed at

Cook, M.  (2005).  A place of their own:  Creating a classroom ‘third space’ to support a continuum of text construction between home and school.  Literacy.  39:2.  85-90.  DOI: 10.1111/j.1741-4350.2005.00405

Gehlbach, H. (2011).  Making social studies social:  Engaging students through different forms of social perspective taking.  Theory Into Practice.  50:4.  311-318.    DOI: 10.1080/00405841.2011.607394.

Giamellaro, M. (2014).  Primary contextualization of science learning through immersion in content-rich settings.  International Journal of Science Education.  36:17.  2848-2871.  DOI: 10.1080/09500693.2014.937787

Griffith, L.M. (2012).  Bourdieu’s game of life:  Using simulation to facilitate understanding of complex theories.  College Teaching.  60:4. 147-153.  DOI: 10.1080/87567555.2012.660710.

Milner M. & Wolfer, T.  (2014) The use of decision cases to foster critical thinking in social work students, Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 34:3, 269-284, DOI: 10.1080/08841233.2014.909917

Motola I., et al. (2013).  Simulation in healthcare education:  A best evidence practical guide. AMEE Guide No. 82. Medical Teachers.  35: e1511-e1530.

O’Flaherty, J. & McGarr, O.  (2014).  The use of case-based learning in the development of student teachers’ levels of moral reasoning.  European Journal of Teacher Education.  37:3.  312-330.  DOI: 10.1080/02619768.2013.870992

Usherwood, S.  (2015)  Building Resources for Simulations:  Challenges and Opppotunities.  European Political Science.  Sep2015, Vol. 14 Issue 3, p218-227. 10p.

Wlodkowski R. & Ginsberg, M. (1995).  A framework for culturally responsive teaching.  Educational Leadership 53:1.  17-21 Accessed online at

Open access for students, scholarship and publishing

International Open Access Week is coming on October 19-25, 2015. You may have heard this term “Open Access” before but what does it really mean? Why should this matter to you? This 3-minute video quickly clarifies open access:

Open Access 101

Open Access 101

Open access for your students

Open access is an important movement that seeks to ensure access to the scholarly literature your students need for their studies. They may use Google and run into paywalls or they may search library databases and come up empty because we can’t subscribe to the resource they need.

Libraries are working to close this gap locally and internationally. Locally, we communicate with you to make the best purchases we can from the affordable scholarly literature and making that as accessible as possible for your students through reference, instruction and technological services. Internationally, libraries like the National Library of Medicine’s PubMed, provide open access to scientific literature for the whole world including this 16 year old researcher who found a new way to treat cancer. Even though he didn’t know it at the time and initially credited Google for his findings, he realized through his conversation with Director of the NIH, Dr. Francis Collins, the NIH’s Library and movements like Open Access enabled his discovery.

Open access for your research

As the video references, you, as scholars and researchers, run into the same barriers as students do with paywalls and lack of access to scholarly literature. There are certainly effective ways to deal with this through interlibrary loan, colleague relationships at other institutions,  but even these are limited. Even universities and libraries with the largest budgets, like Harvard, cannot afford to purchase access to all the journals their community needs.

There are two major versions of open access that address these problems.

  • Repositories Based on Institution or Discipline (Open Access Green)

This kind of open access is based in an institution like Harvard’s, the University of Minnesota’s, George Fox’s, or at Bethel.

There is also a model of open access based on discipline like the one for physics and other natural sciences,, and the Social Science Research Network.

  • Peer-Reveiwed Journals  (Open Access Gold)

These journals are classified as “gold” because they meet the criteria of being peer-reviewed, freely accessible, available online, and able to be used in further research without restriction. The Directory of Open Access Journals is a stringently-vetted collection of scholarly open access journals organized by language and discipline.

Open access for your publishing

Where can I publish my work?

Once you’ve decided to publish your work you evaluate your options and select a publication that best fits the content of your work and promotion goals. With open access journals, this process remains the same but with particular resources to can help you navigate open access publications. The Directory of Open Access Journals is a great place to start.

Don’t people have to pay to publish?

In the majority of cases the answer is “no.” Some open access journals do charge fees, but the frequency and amount charged varies by discipline. In a 2013 study of 9,000 open access journals in the Directory of Open Access Journals, only 28% charged author fees. The natural sciences like chemistry (43%), physics (48%),  and genetics (77%) are more likely to charge a fee than disciplines like philosophy, history, or literature (all 3%).

Aren’t there concerns about quality or ethical business practices?

Beall’s List of open access publishers attempts to evaluate and identify open access journals and publishers that are “potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers.” This list can be helpful but is also a subject to criticism over the criteria, which is publicly available, or the process of appeals to be removed from the list.

What if I do have to pay an author fee?

Sometimes this option can be written into a grant or larger institutions provide a budget to pay these fees. Unfortunately, at Bethel’s size and scale we don’t have that option. However, the Faculty Development or Faculty-Alumni Grants could be one way to get funding to cover these fees.

Further Resources

Hopefully, this post has clarified some of your questions about open access and has opened up some new options or opportunities for you. If you want to know more you can consult me, the Library guide on open access, or a post from this blog last year about a publishing opportunity in Open Access for the Humanities.

A Faith-based Context for Culturally-Responsive Instruction and an Experiment in Application

As  Christ followers, how we treat others directly reflects on our faith. James’ epistle discusses how our treatment of others is related to our faith. According to Stulac (2003), James 2:1-7 indicates showing favoritism is inconsistent with our faith. Stulac states that, “If they were to show partiality toward certain people because they are rich, these Christians would be acting as if high position came by wealth instead of faith. In that sense, favoritism is a clear contradiction of faith.”  Furthermore, James 2:8-13 emphasizes that favoritism is not limited to how people are treated in terms of their socioeconomic status: “Favoritism is the sin of extending special favor to some people for self-serving purposes” (Stulac, 2003). In terms of education, this could include factors such as race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. As educators, then, it is imperative we show no favoritism and create educational environments that engage all learners.

In this regard, culturally-relevant pedagogy (Ladson‐Billings, 1995) provides important foundational elements. Ladson-Billings (1995) defines culturally-relevant teaching as a “pedagogy of opposition” that is committed to collective empowerment and is grounded on three propositions:

  • (a) students must experience academic success,
  • (b) students must develop and/or maintain cultural competence; and
  • (c) students must develop a critical consciousness through which they challenge the status quo of the current social order (p. 160).

First, in order to be involved participants in our society, students must learn the necessary academic, social, and political skills. According to Ladson-Billings it is essential that teachers create an educational environment that encourages students to choose academic excellence. In addition, educators must create or make use of curriculum that is relevant and meaningful to the students.

Second, teachers must interweave academic excellence with cultural integrity so that students can become and/or remain culturally-grounded (Ladson-Billings, 1995, p. 161). Ladson-Billings explains, “culturally relevant teachers utilize students’ culture as a vehicle for learning” (p. 161). Certainly, an important consideration of antioppressive education is reaching the students in the margins in a meaningful way. Kumashiro (2002) maintains that in order to teach the “Other,” the complexity of defining the “Other” needs to be considered (p. 37). Kumashiro contends that to do this, teachers must get to know the students and make a continuous effort to connect with those students on the margins. Kumashiro indicates that “rather than assume that a student’s class background or community has no bearing on how he engages with schooling, educators could acknowledge the realities of day-to-day life that can hinder one’s ability to learn” (p. 36). He reasons that educators should not “ignore the differences in their students’ identities” and should instead “learn about, acknowledge, and affirm differences and tailor their teaching to the specifics of their parent population” (Kumashiro, 2002, p. 36). He makes it clear that antioppressive educators take the time to learn about their students’ lives, backgrounds, interests, communities and cultures and use that information to inform their practices. In a similar way, Delpit (1995) states that, “We must keep in mind that education, at its best, hones and develops the knowledge and skills each student already possesses, while at the same time adding new knowledge and skills to that base” (pp. 67-68). These authors make clear the importance of drawing on the culture of the communities in which the students live, but also find effective ways to build on that knowledge.

In a similar way, James reminds us that “If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right.  But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers” (James 2:8-9).  Stulac (2003) make the case that:

Loving your neighbor as yourself requires an openness to friendship with any neighbor–regardless of that neighbor’s wealth, position, status, influence, race, appearance, attractiveness, dress, abilities or personality . . . The royal law absolutely prohibits the Christian from joining in the favoritism. The follower of the royal law will reach out to any neighbor.

Christian educators are indeed called to teach all students. To do this effectively, teachers need to take the time to get to know each student and differentiate accordingly.

However, despite the efforts of even well-intentioned educators attempt to address issues of diversity in their teaching through the use of the cultural and background information of students, their approaches to teaching and learning can still marginalize students. Davies (2003) claims that, “despite the multiplicity and variability of teacher knowledges” students often lack the freedom to challenge, reject, or reinvent the interpretations presented by the teacher (p. 41). She reasons that while student experiences and background knowledge are often welcomed and used by educators that mean well, “what is brought must conform to tightly set knowledge boundaries and to acceptable forms of saying or knowing, and will be subjected to teachers’ authoritative scrutiny, interpretation, and evaluation” (p. 41). In this regard, Kumashiro (2002) contends that, “Antioppressive educators have an ethical responsibility to reflect constantly on students that they may be disposing of, and on how to rework their practices” (p. 203). Said another way, teaching must be informed by how students learn and not based on the expectation that students learn by adapting to our instruction (Noguera, 2003). Clearly, in addition to the use of cultural and experiential information, the foundational and structural aspects of approaches to teaching and learning are critical.

The third component of culturally-relevant pedagogy according to Ladson-Billings (1995) is that, “Students must develop a broader sociopolitical consciousness that allows them to critique the cultural norms, values, mores, and institutions that produce and maintain social inequalities” (p 162). In addition, Ladson-Billings argues that students must become agents of change, equipped to challenge institutional and societal injustices. Likewise, Kumashiro (2002) reasons that simply discussing differences is not enough and is one reason that the education system continues to be oppressive. Kumashiro states that, “We resist learning that will disrupt the frameworks we traditionally use to make sense of the world and ourselves” (p. 57). To move forward, the practices of educators must challenge the current system that privileges certain identities, social relations, and worldviews.

This is in line with our commitment as followers of Christ. Anderson (2011) indicates that the words justice, just, or justly are used 530 times in the English Bible. Isaiah (Isaiah 58:6) speaks of fasting from injustice, rather than fasting from food. He states: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke” (Isaiah 58:6). In a similar way, Micah was calling the Israelites, as well as Christians today, to live in a way that is fundamentally different than from the worldly standards (Gilliard, 2013). The Israelites were being challenged to confront the injustices of their institutions and of their society; God was expecting more than religious rituals and sacrifices. Both Micah’s (Micah 6) indictment of the treatment of the marginalized populations in Israel and Judah and Isaiah’s bold words should be a call to action for all educators. Gilliard (2013) states that,

Most believers today acquiesce to societal injustice because we do not feel convicted when we see or learn about them. We act apathetically because we know how radically different our lives would look if we were to intentionally step outside of our comfort zones into the faithfulness to which Scripture calls us.

According to Gilliard, Micah is challenging us to step out of our comfort zones in order to address injustices that marginalize individuals not just on an individual level, but on an institutional and societal level. For educators who are followers of Christ, this takes on a dichotomous nature. First, are called to address societal and institutional injustices. Moreover, we are called to prepare our students to be aware of injustices as well as equip them to extinguish those injustices.

In the end, culturally-responsive pedagogy allows educators to live out their faith in real and meaningful ways. This is accomplished through laying a foundation that is built on the expectation of academic excellence for all students, by designing an environment where students will continue to mature as culturally competent individuals, and by creating the expectation  that students will develop an awareness of injustices in the educational system that prompts them to action.

An Experiment in Application

As a Christian scholar at a Christian university, I attempted to  incorporate culturally-responsive pedagogy in my courses. Initially, I used Ladson-Billing’s (1995) three propositions of culturally-relevant teaching as a framework for course development. Within this framework, Brookfield’s (1995) lenses for becoming a critically reflective teacher are used to inform the creation of the outcomes, assessments, and experiences for teaching and learning that make up the course. Brookfield lays out four critically reflective lenses through which we can view our teaching: (a) our autobiographies as learners and teachers, (b) our students’ eyes, (c) our colleagues’ experiences, and (d) theoretical literature. My experiment in developing curriculum using a culturally-relevant teaching framework and Brookfield’s critically reflective lenses produced four touch points, and a variety of practical applications, that may provide inspiration to other teachers seeking to implement culturally-relevant instruction:

My experiences as a teacher and learner provide grounding for my approach to teaching and the structure of courses. These experiences encouraged:

  • Making use of materials and resources which are relevant, rigorous, and practical.

  • Including materials that draw on a diverse collection of perspectives shared through various types of media.

  • Building on the background experiences of the students in the course in order to engage students in meaningful ways.

  • Creating a space for students to analyze and reflect on material before they come to class.

  • Designing a collaborative classroom environment that is built on the reflections and thoughts of the students.

  • Meeting with each student early in the semester for 15 minutes for an informal conversation in an effort to start building relationships.

  • Taking the time to learn each student’s name during the first or second session and being able to pronounce it correctly.

  • Building trust with students prior to engaging in tough conversations


Culturally-relevant instruction draws on the perspectives of students in a number of different ways including:

  • Having numerous conversations with a diverse group of former students about their experiences in a given course.

  • Asking former and current students for feedback related to areas of strength as well as ideas for improvement and growth.

  • Learning about each student in the class early in the semester by meeting with students for 15 minutes for an informal conversation.

  • Committing to making one or two course modifications based on the feedback from a midterm evaluation tool such as the Learner Perspective on Instruction.

  • Making course revisions based on the student responses on the IDEA evaluation.


Initiating conversations with Bethel colleagues, both in and outside of my department, as well as other practitioners or stakeholders, provided crucial information to inform my instruction. These insights included

  • Encouraging students to seek out relationships with individuals who are different than them (i.e., in terms of culture, race, gender, socioeconomic status).

  • Creating a classroom environment that challenges all students to excel and achieve academic excellence.

  • Developing a critical consciousness in students that leads them to see societal and institutional injustices around them and spurs them to appropriate action.


Immersing myself in the theoretical literature revealed the importance of

  • Using culturally-responsive instruction to inform overall course design.

  • Using Visible Thinking Routines (Ritchhart, Church, & Morrison, 2011), or similar tools, to encourage students to think about, discuss, interact with, and dissect articles, blogs, podcasts, and video clips in order to address all three principles of culturally-relevant pedagogy.

  • Providing a space for students to engage with and process the material before unpacking the concepts and ideas in a classroom environment with peers and the teacher.

  • Having students post their responses ahead of class so that the teacher can make use of student insights and perspectives during in-class discussions.

  • Having students work in collaborative groups to interact with the material in meaningful ways.

  • Creating an active learning environment that is beneficial for all students including those that are sometimes marginalized in traditional classroom settings (e.g., Blacks, first generation college students, females; Eddy & Kelly, 2014).


In the end, the use Brookfield’s (1995) four lenses of critical reflection are proving to be effective tools to guide and inform the design and the teaching of a course that embodies the three principles of culturally-responsive instruction (Ladson-Billings, 1995).  This involves creating an environment where students are expected to work to the best of their ability in a way that honors the words of Paul (Colossians 3:23-24):

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.

It also entails getting to know every student and using that information to personalize activities for teaching and learning. Moreover, it necessitates providing a structure that inspires students to move beyond their comfort zone and spur them to be agents of social change to eradicate institutional injustices. Our culturally-responsive work with the next generation is essential and part of our own work of being change agents.



Anderson, L. (2011). Act justly. Unpublished manuscript, Wooddale Church, Eden Prairie, MN.

Brookfield, S. (1995). Becoming a critically reflective teacher. San Francisco, CA: Josey Bass.

Davies, B. (2003). Shards of glass: Children reading & writing beyond gendered identities. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Delpit, L. (1995). Other people’s children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York: New Press.

Eddy, S. L., & Hogan, K. A. (2014). Getting under the hood: how and for whom does increasing course structure work? CBE-Life Sciences Education, 13(3), 453-468. doi: 10.1187/cbe.14-03-0050

Gilliard, D. (2013, March 23) What does Micah 6:8 really mean? [Web log post].

Retrieved from

Kumashiro, K. (2002). Troubling education: Queer activism and antioppressive pedagogy. New York, NY: Routledge Falmer.

Ladson‐Billings, G. (1995). But that’s just good teaching! The case for culturally relevant pedagogy. Theory into practice, 34(3), 159-165.

Noguera, P. (2003). City schools and the American dream: Reclaiming the promise of public education. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Ritchhart, R., Church, M., & Morrison, K. (2011). Making thinking visible: How to promote engagement, understanding, and independence for all learners. San Francisco, CA: Josey Bass.

Stulac, George M. (2003). IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Vol. 16). Leichester, England: IVP Academic. Retreived from



Summer Reading & Viewing: Recommendations from the faculty development team

When grading subsides and parts of your brain regain normal functioning, consider engaging faculty development resources you may have missed in the craze of the academic year. The faculty development team suggests these highlights:

Keith Brooks recommends:

  • Leah Fulton and Sam Mulberry’s Interviews with Students of Color (Short and Full Versions) These exit interviews provide great insight to some of the easily-overlooked issues relating to human dynamics. This is relevant in regard to changing demographics nationally and locally, and addresses our ongoing task of being a place that communicates effectively across cultures.

Kathy Nevins recommends:

Jay Rasmussen recommends:

  • Making Thinking Visible & Selected Harvard Thinking Routines Over the last several years a number of faculty have been using selected Harvard Thinking Routines to make thinking visible and to create a culture of thinking. When learners speak, write, or draw their ideas, they deepen their cognition. Thinking routines jump-start and make thinking visible so students can direct and improve their thoughts. This narrated PowerPoint and the related routines provide a good starting point.
  • Grouping for SuccessStrengthening Our Use of Groups & Group Contract Form Group work within the college classroom has the potential of being a powerful learning experience for students. Unfortunately, group work often turns into a less-than-desirable experience for students and professors alike. This video shares how groups can be successfully structured and used within a variety of instructional settings.
  • Using Flow Theory to Promote Engaged Learning Flow Theory, as developed by Mihaly Cskszentmihalyi, explains why humans fully engage in certain activities to the point of being fully absorbed, completely focused, and unaware of passing time. This narrated PowerPoint explores the origins of Mihaly’s research, conditions typically present when flow occurs, and how the theory can be applied to an instructional setting.
  • Power of Formative Assessment & Formative Assessment Strategies The use of formative assessment is one of the most exciting developments in the field of education in recent years. Used effectively, formative assessment has the power to double the speed of student learning. These resources provide an in-depth look at why to use formative assessment, guidelines for providing formative assessment, and specific formative assessment strategies.

April Schmidt recommends:

  • Schedule Like Beethoven: How to organize your workday like a genius One of the gifts of the academic calendar is an opportunity to re-approach our work each year with fresh strategies. This DIY Innovation Studio session is chock-a-block with wisdom from geniuses of history and tips and resources from Bethel profs. for making the most of your work day. Take a strategic, proactive approach to next year’s workdays and equip yourself to maximize efficiency and prevent burnout.

Sara Wyse recommends:

  • Top 21 1/2 Teaching Tips If you are short on time and want a great overview and synthesis of the research literature and what we’ve learned through Learner Perspectives on Instruction, check out the 21 1/2 teaching tips.  From course design to interacting with students, these tips will help energize you when you begin to transition back to thinking about teaching come August.

Making Finals Fun:Using novel finals for learning and levity

As the school year nears its end, if you are like me, managing the last few weeks of “class-culminating” projects, other end-of-the-year demands, and, of course, spring fever (mine as well as the students’), can be overwhelming. One way I have dealt with these end-of-year stresses is to introduce some creativity and levity into the mix. I try to plan at least one “novel final.” A novel final is any final class activity, other than a test or paper, that gives students an opportunity to demonstrate what they have learned, and allows assessment of that learning. Here is an example:

The novel final for Theories of Personality (N=40) involved recording group discussions (N = 8 ) of the personality characteristics of “Bob,” Bill Murray’s character in What About Bob? Students in each small group were randomly assigned different theoretical viewpoints. The groups watched a 20-minute clip from the movie and then had an hour to discuss Bobfrom their differing points of view.  The discussion ended with the group deciding what theory best explained Bob’s personality, which they reported to the rest of the class at the end of the final.

Invariably students would leave laughing and invigorated by the experience. They had fun, and so did I.

So what are some things to consider in designing a novel final?

  • Make it novel but not too novel. You want the experience to energize and challenge, but not terrify and overwhelm students.  This can be helped if you draw on the skill(s) students have learned, and the material they have been studying/practicing.  In Theories of Personality, being evaluated based on one’s contributions to a recorded discussion was highly unusual.  Having a final that had a collaborative element built in to it was unique for its time.  Yet, students had already been involved in discussion groups.  They had had practice viewing the same case study from different theoretical viewpoints.  And, we had a practice session.  It probably also helped to temper anxiety  by holding the final in an informal setting  (dining center), with free coffee and snacks!

  • Novel finals should give students a feasible and familiar way to communicate what they have learned.  It would have been unfair for me to demand students present dramatic interpretations of Bob’s personality from different theoretical perspectives (at least not without training and practice).   At the same time, the mode of communication can be innovative. I could have asked students to produce a schematic diagram of the relationship of different personality theories (with labels).

  • Novel finals should be fun to grade. I realize that what might be fun for me to evaluate may not be for someone else, and vice versa.   Regardless, a thoughtful, applicable rubric for assessment will make the process go better for students and for you as you are evaluating the experience.  In the example given above, the rubric made it possible for me to take about 6 hours to listen to all the discussions, and evaluate each group member.  Compared to reading 40 papers, [12+ hours], grading group discussions was more time efficient, and more fun. I enjoyed hearing the groups starting to relax and enjoy the task, and I got more than a few chuckles out of hearing how they thought Freud [or some other theorist] would characterize Bob.

  • Last, novel finals should be memorable. That is, both you and students will look back on that final and be glad for the experience. Not long ago, a former student (now colleague), unsolicited, recalled the final, similar to the one described above, that I had designed for a course she had from me—nearly 20 years ago.

Novel finals, designed, executed, and evaluated well, can make the end of the school year just a little more, well, fun….


New Model and Opportunities for Open Access Publishing in the Humanities

The Bethel Libraries joined an international partnership of 33 colleges and universities, including Baylor University, Carleton College, Duke University, Macalester College and the University of Pennsylvania, to support peer-reviewed humanities research through the publishing platform called the Open Library of Humanities (OLH). It seeks to serve Humanities research based on the successful model of the Public Library of Science (PLOS) series of journals for the Natural and Life Sciences.

Bethel Supports the Open Library of Humanities

Dr. Martin Paul Eve, one of the founders and academic project directors of the OLH, welcomed Bethel:

I am delighted to welcome Bethel to the OLH Library Partnership Subsidy group. The response we’ve had so far has been brilliant and reflects the hunger among institutions for new models for open access that may work better in the humanities disciplines. With the help of institutions like Bethel, we will make this a reality.

Our very own Rhonda Gilbraith explains why it is important to us:

We are pleased and honored to play a small role in supporting efforts like these to provide high quality open access resources to the scholarly community.

Here is a preview of upcoming themes from the 2015 Calls for Papers :

  • May 1st – Teaching and Learning in Antiquity
  • May 1st – Religious Subcultures in Unexpected Places
  • May 25th – Healing Gods, Heroes and Rituals in the Graeco-Roman World
  • August 1 – American Literature and Transnational Marketplace
  • August 25 – Multifocal and Collaborative Approaches to South Asian History

They are also seeking editors with the following academic expertise areas:

  • History
  • Theology & Religious Studies
  • Literature & Languages
  • Modern & Ancient Languages
  • Philosophy
  • Cultural Studies & Critical Theory
  • Film, TV & Media Studies
  • Musicology, Drama & Performance
  • Classics
  • Art, Design & Art History
  • Legal Theory
  • Digital Humanities
  • Politics & Political Theory

If you are curious to learn more about why libraries, and Bethel University Library in particular, is supporting OLH or about its relationship to open access and scholarly publishing you can contact Rhonda Gilbraith or Kent Gerber.

Fighting Over Narrative in Curriculum: Who gets to decide United States American history?

Recently, my students had an insightful discussion after viewing a clip of Schoolhouse Rock “Elbow Room”. I guided them through some key questions:

Where were the people of color during these time periods?
Why did they minimize the removal of land from Native and Latin populations?
Who actually built most of the railroads?
Why are Native Americans viewed as the primary aggressors?
Why did manifest destiny justify violence?
Why were the White Americans viewed as hard-working peaceful settlers?
What if you didn’t have any bootstraps to use?
What about people who were brought to the U.S. against their will?

Our students were learning to analyze what is being communicated and what is also inferred, with factual support and thorough research. These are skills that most colleges and universities claim they like to see in applicants and graduates.

However,  one school district in Colorado and one legislator in Oklahoma are making attempts to remove this sort of critical thinking process from advanced placement history courses. There have been quite a few protests over the past year, mostly over tension related to racial inequity with law enforcement. A recent pattern has emerged most visibly in public high school settings where some school board members and some legislators desire to remove certain aspects from history.

These events have been ongoing from September 2014 to the present, and some say it’s always been a struggle over the narrative. As an avid historian, my lens is socialized to view past events along racial lines because the narrative of people of color has been disregarded, dismissed and/or distorted. In essence, it’s as if people of color are invisible and do not have a story unless it’s a certain month of the year or told from the perspective of people who do not represent the population.

Is it ironic or coincidental that one of the states  caught in this curriculum battle recently had a fraternity signing a chant, ‘There Will Never Be A N***** In SAE’? The discussions around this situation show conflicting understandings of the place of narrative in teaching history. One proposal suggests

“ giv[ing] the committee the authority to identify materials in the curriculum that “may reasonably be deemed” objectionable, and another that could give the committee discretion to choose instructional materials to “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-enterprise system, respect for authority, and respect for individual rights.”

Some parents, teachers and students, addressing board member Julie Williams’ proposal, asserted :

Williams’ proposal is a politically motivated attempt to push through a revisionist version of American history that glosses over the uglier parts of the country’s past. One district high school teacher posted on the “Support Jeffco Kids” Facebook page that the proposal would “require teachers to completely ignore certain aspects of American history rather than teach the entirety of American history.”

Supposedly this proposal wants to ensure  patriotism and downplay civil disobedience. Do predominately White colleges and universities also risk offering curriculum that omits or avoids the historical narratives of people of color? Removing these narratives, and the topics they present, means deleting most of United States history, as well as international occurrences. Proponents of the Oklahoma proposals feel as though students are just learning about mistakes and teaching them to hate their country. But whether information makes us feel good or sad, who are we to manipulate factual information?

Last month, the proposal to review the curriculum was stopped in Colorado. In Oklahoma, Rep. Dan Fisher is pushing a similar proposal to remove funding for AP history. To Fisher, it currently has a framework that emphasizes “what is bad about America” and doesn’t teach “American exceptionalism.” Can we have one without the other in any context: marriage, friendships, faith, challenges, opportunities, new ventures, exercising, aging, etc.? How would Minnesotans know how to appreciate the summer without the winter? A better question is who defines what’s good or bad, as opposed to, what just is? There are things I appreciate about the winter that summer could not teach me.

Whose story is it anyway? Who has the right to tell the story, or in these specific scenarios change the story? Can a person change facts? Maybe a person can if they omit some very important details that are relevant to the context. Contextual teaching is one of the most effective approaches because it highlights and provides meaning for not only the learners but also the facilitator.

Personally, I told my students, who are future teachers, last week, “If you don’t love to teach, you won’t teach with love.” Without a context to explain the statement, you as the reader can take that in a number of inaccurate directions.

The context was getting them to reflect on being called to teach. Furthermore, the students are more important than anything I am trying to teach them. It’s not about me as the professor (as some make it), but more so about what is generated and created through the journey together as teacher and student/s: the discovery that takes place, the rapport that is developed, the intellectual inquiry increased, and the growth (teacher and student alike) that hopefully is evident are residual effects. That was the context, that teaching is the people-loving business, and that if I don’t have some level of understanding of the social, political, cultural and lived realities of my students I run the risk of not being as effective as I could be.

I don’t enjoy talking about racial issues. I also do not ascribe to the approach of race-bating and reverse racism does not exist. However, I feel compelled to address these issues because of the level of impact they have on our daily lives collectively. Whether one admits it or not, where we choose to live, shop, who our kids play with, where we worship, attend(ed) school, work, volunteer, or associations we join have a subconscious or conscious racial factor involved.

For example, author Rich Benjamin who writes about whitopias claims that White Americans view cleanliness, high property values and friendliness of all-White communities as indicators of a “good healthy community”. Many people take these things for granted without thinking about how our communities from east and west coasts, north and south have been strategically through policy and practices became and still are racially segregated. The effective teachers dive deeper to explain these phenomena– not as a weapon to make on population look bad for past decision-making– but to help students understand how we have arrived to this current status. The effective teacher explains redlining, blockbusting, housing covenants and sundown towns. To omit these terms and consequential actions is to have a puzzle with missing pieces. As a result, we don’t have an opportunity to see the complete picture.

When most of my students exit my class they usually have a desire to continue the dialogue, but they re-enter a campus and larger society that doesn’t embrace reflection individually and collectively at this level on cultural and racial issues. I teach my sons that a half-truth is a whole lie. I wonder what we tell our students.