Faculty recognized for authentic teaching, connected learning in COVID-19 era

PITTSBURGH – Recently, Carlow professor Harriet Schwartz Ph.D. asked her class to participate in a mindfulness activity.

“I asked them if they were comfortable sitting outside to identify five things they see and four things they hear – and to describe them all,” Schwartz said, naturally encouraging them to keep a 6-feet distance from anyone else during this time of COVID-19.

Schwartz, a professor in the Department of Psychology and Counseling and chair of the master’s of arts in Student Affairs, is, like most educators right now, conducting classes online.

“It’s a pretty noted stress and anxiety management approach,” Schwartz said of the mindfulness activity. “It’s a way to really get present and appreciate what’s around you – as a way to disconnect with anxious thoughts or stress.

“It’s an extra thing that I wouldn’t have done with students last year. Some (students) hadn’t been outside in a while and realized things were blooming and there were nice trees to look at. I think it was good for everyone,” she added.

Schwartz regularly uses and writes about innovative pedagogy to improve teaching and engage students, and says these measures are even more important during this pandemic as distance education is flourishing.

Her essay “Authentic Teaching and Connected Learning in the Age of COVID-19,” published this month in The Scholarly Teacher, has so far received nearly 2,000 views, and is one of the more well-read submissions on the blog – whose submissions emphasize teaching improvements. It’s an online publication of the International Teaching Learning Cooperative Network

Stephanie Wilsey Ph.D., Dean of the College of Leadership and Social Change, said she’s not surprised about the good reception Schwartz’s essay received.

“She’s an expert in relational cultural theory and prominent in that field, publishing and engaging in a lot of networks,” Wilsey said.

In May 2019, Schwartz published a book along the same concept: “Connected Teaching: Relationships, Power and Mattering in Higher Education” through Stylus Publishing LLC.

Wilsey said Schwartz decided to use her expertise to unite the scholarly side of her research with helpful principals to follow in everyday life.

“It’s a very merciful approach that blends rigor as well as awareness of your relationships with other people and what that means with how we’re teaching in this age of this pandemic,” Wilsey said.

Wilsey said she shared the essay’s link on the Carlow College of Leadership and Social Change’s Facebook page, and it’s the top story of the year.

Schwartz’s essay’s opening line says it all: “How we are with our students throughout this pandemic will teach them at least as much as the content of our courses.”

“My research interest is in connected teaching, and I do a lot of work around how relationships and interactions are essential in teaching,” Schwartz said. “Teachers can be a solid presence in (students’) lives right now and provide consistency. Everything seems unstable and changing. But these are classes that started in January, so I’m hoping when they connect online for class, it allows them to return to something that was there before Covid started taking off, so it’s more of a stabilizing experience.”

She said that teachers role model leadership.

“Part of what I hope they take away is they see me as someone who is solid and supportive during this stressful time, and that they see that as something they will try to do for others when they’re in leadership positions,” Schwartz said. “Also, be honest with them. I acknowledge I’m stressed and get tired and it’s harder to focus. I don’t present as if I’m stress-free, and I use it as a teaching moment.”

She said, however, there’s a line between self-disclosing and over-sharing.

“If I was in a really low moment I wouldn’t share,” Schwartz said. “I wouldn’t want them to need to take care of me. That’s stepping out of my role as a teacher. But sharing helps them also share and see that everyone is struggling and dealing with stress; it’s not just them.”

She said teachers need to understand that every student is in a different situation at their home or apartment, including themselves.

“You need to take a minute to get present with yourself and the class so they can see you being focused with them,” Schwartz said. “If they can tell I’m still showing up and caring about their learning, that helps them get themselves more motivated, and I get positive energy back from that.” 

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