IT Teaching Resources

Alvin Pearman on the importance of centering the needs of students

Alvin Pearman talks about amplifying student voice and setting up a culture of active engagement

Structuring and streamlining content

Alvin Pearman is an Assistant Professor in the Graduate School of Education. During the quarter of Spring 2020, he taught EDUC 390: Gentrification and Schools. Pearman’s pedagogical approach and his expertise as a researcher of this topic contributed to the success of this course.

Key points

  • Provide students with clear expectations and a detailed week-to-week schedule
  • Prioritize active student engagement through the use of multimedia
  • Be flexible while considering students’ varying circumstances
  • Establish norms for discussion at the beginning of the course and continue to build classroom culture
  • Center student voice and challenge students to deeply understand both sides of a debate

“At the heart of my teaching is a desire to foster deep learning–the type of learning that transforms a student’s engagement with the world. I have found that facilitating this type of learning in an online environment requires structuring activities and discussions in ways that promote active engagement and critical reflection.”

How has the experience been teaching online?

Dr. Pearman: “There were a host of challenges associated with realigning course objectives in ways that would promote the types of learning I desired given the new constraints of online teaching. With the support of Kyalamboka, my Digital Ambassador, we were able to set up a model where I felt fairly confident moving into the quarter. This took a lot of time and preparation, but the final product was one that emphasized student voice and active engagement not only with the content but also through in-class activities. In the end, I felt good about what we were able to accomplish and what students were able to learn.”

How have you been able to build classroom community and trust?

Dr. Pearman: “Given the subject matter of the class, issues related to race and class came up frequently, which can be difficult topics to navigate. Consequently, it was important early in the quarter to establish a clear understanding about the nature of our classroom discourse. We discussed expectations for this discourse at length during our first session together. This was important because students need to feel safe and empowered in these discussions, and a lot of this safety and empowerment is based on common understandings about respect and a personal desire to be a meaningful participant in a diverse community of learners.” 

Can you tell me about an activity that you used to promote student voice?

One way that Pearman centered student voice is by incorporating student-created discussion questions in every lesson. During class, students were invited to respond to the questions asked by their peers and have a generative conversation, centering students’ academic and personal experiences as valuable sources of knowledge. “The discussion questions, which students submitted prior to class, required students to clearly articulate aspects of the readings that were unclear to them. Ideal questions were ones that dealt with themes or tensions that existed in the readings. Requiring students to submit discussion questions before the start of class allowed me to integrate the questions at strategic points to promote deeper learning or to serve as segues to new topics.” 

A student submitted this question to be discussed in class during the week dedicated to exploring social and educational policies in gentrifying cities. 

Can you tell me about an activity that you used to foster active engagement?

During week 5, Dr. Pearman structured a highly interactive, multimedia debate to allow for an alternative form of engagement and enhance students’ ability to argue multiple sides of a particular policy. “During times in which energy is low in the classroom, I have found that incorporating a debate can bolster some of that energy. I found that to be especially the case this quarter, where staring at a computer screen seemingly zapped everyone’s energy.” He continued: “There was a core tension in one week’s reading that I thought was really important for the class to grapple with. And we did that by way of lively classroom debate. Essentially, everything that I would have otherwise covered in a lecture I was able to cover in a student-led way that was energetic, fun, and memorable.”

Structure of the debate conducted in Week 5 of the course. 

Can you tell me about the process of putting your course on Canvas?

Dr. Pearman used modules in Canvas to clearly communicate with students the expectations for tasks to be completed before, during, and after class. “There were a lot of moving parts that were streamlined by adopting a modular format. Modules gave students a clear sense of how they needed to engage the course each week. Students can feel disoriented over a quarter’s worth of Zoom meetings in terms of due dates and deliverables and what needs to be done now versus later. Using modules on Canvas gave students a lot of confidence about what week-to-week engagement needed to be. There were no surprises for students, and I found it to be really useful.”

Each module in Canvas shows students what is expected before class, during class, and after class.

Advice moving forward

Dr. Pearman: “It is important to remember that there are many variables at play shaping students’ engagement in the course, both in real-time during zoom sessions and terms of how students are able to engage with assignments. Being as clear as possible about expectations is always good, but equally important during moments like these is erroring on the side of grace with your students and doing what you can to make their learning experience more manageable, especially as new, unexpected, and unforeseen issues arise. Flexibility is key.” 

About the author

Kyalamboka Brown is a doctoral student at the Stanford Graduate School of Education where she also works as a support staff member for the YouCubed program.