My approach to teaching was built in the most inspiring and challenging of situations. I began my teaching career at an adult literacy center in inner city Baltimore, where most of my students were returning to school, often coming back after having faced failure or fear due to disability, economics, or the distractions of complicated lives. We worked on basic skills, making small steps toward a GED, with a shared understanding that all progress marked a victory. The indomitable motivation these students possessed to put themselves through school inspired me to pursue my passion for teaching, despite the obstacles in my way. This experience led me to obtain a “teaching in the two-year college” certificate along with my master’s degree in English at DePaul University. Training to teach English and writing courses at both DePaul University and Harold Washington Community College, guided me to request my doctoral teaching fellowship post at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), CUNY. In these urban community college systems, students were coming from disenfranchised school districts, most learning English as a second (third, or fourth) language, and many commuting each day from neighborhoods plagued by violence and poverty. The diversity of experience each student brought to the classroom taught me to adapt my strategies to meet the varying needs of each individual, and led me to encourage my students to learn from one another. My research agenda grew from my experience in the classroom. I wanted to know more about the tools I was asking students to engage with, and investigate the deeper issues at work behind the interfaces. I continue to apply this philosophy of student-centered learning and “collaboration-by-difference” in my teaching career, while developing innovative methods to bolster digital literacy skills and media fluency.
Working to find open-access tools to support my students’ research and communication skills creates a positive feedback loop; it helps the students learn, it helps me to teach. Now, at Stevenson University, the students span such a diverse set of experiences that I must weave together previous approaches and find new solutions tailored to their needs. As a result of this evolution I have experimented with a wide-array of tools – from clay tablets and letterpress, to interactive timelines and 3D printing. Students in my courses write in journals, tweet, read print texts, and compose blogs, all depending on what is best suited for that specific class and the goals of the assignment. However, for this to be successful each assignment is scaffolded with readings that contextualize the tool, and time to reflect on their experience. For example, in my first-year writing course, “Composition and Writing with Sources,” students begin by reading literacy narratives from Fredrick Douglass, Matthew Kirschenbaum, and Doug Eyman. They then use the readings as inspiration to create their own “digital literacy narratives,” which are posted as multimodal texts on our blogs, presented in class, and commented on in the digital space. Then, students read a series of articles on digital reading and multitasking (updated each year): students crowdsource their annotations of these texts, and produce a formal rhetorical analysis of one text. This leads to an in-class debate and persuasive essay addressing the question “How should our education system adapt to digital technology?” (assignment available on our public course site). Next, we read fictional depictions of future technologies in novels, short stories, plays, and film to inspire students to engage in the work of “design fiction” by developing, pitching, and collaboratively designing an application of their own creation. Over the past two years we have read Ready Player One and The Nether and watched Black Mirror as a way to investigate issues surrounding Virtual and Augmented Reality. Using Google Cardboards and the HTC Vive, we experience over a dozen currently available VR simulations. Students then use their personal expertise and interests to pitch an idea for their own educational VR application. The class works in groups (each student is assigned a specific role) to create four prototypes, using their diverse perspectives to ensure they address the needs of a wide audience. Librarians, faculty from the School of Design, and members of three local VR companies give presentations and provide mentorship throughout the process. Finally, students compose formal proposals and present their final products to the Chief Operating Officer of Mosaic Learning, who selects a winning project to fund as a full-fledged VR application. Students move from consuming technology, to creating it; reading literature, to writing it; considering criticism, to engaging in it, and emerge with a meta-awareness of their own process.
I extend my focus on process through my assessment strategy by scaffolding course projects through low-stakes assignments and by grading students on their participation and effort portfolio-style. Assessing work that is collaborative, multimodal, and experimental, while encouraging students to “fail forward,” remains a challenge. Although intimidating to students, and difficult to assess, I integrate group work into every course and introduce a variety of new tools into each assignment because I believe that this will prepare them to succeed both inside and outside the academy. I know this to be effective from feedback on student evaluations: for example, students feel “better prepared for the rest of my college career” and claim that “[Dr. Licastro] helped me a lot in my journey of writing,” and “made it easy to learn.” Which is reinforced by faculty observations that reiterate, “I believe she wants all of her students to succeed.”
A participatory learning environment thrives on differences in perspective created by diverse student backgrounds and varying levels of experience. This means breaking down the novice-expert roles, and learning from our students and peers. I am constantly trying to improve my approach to teaching. My syllabi are a collection of ideas I adapted from conference presentations, workshops, my colleagues, and through the community of educators I follow on social media. I reciprocate this access to knowledge by sharing my materials through my blog (http://digitocentrism.com/), in pedagogical workshops, and through discussions with fellow instructors both online and off. As is evident by my list of publications, both existing and forthcoming, I also go further by explicating the pedagogical theory used to design my curriculum, and critiquing the tools and results of each experiment, in my scholarly writing. My research will continue to be propelled by the experiences I have working with students in the classroom, and by helping my colleagues across the disciplines integrate technology into their pedagogy.