Share the story of your name

When I started this activity in my hybrid, freshman communication course I had already been doing a lot of activities to build community. Yet, I felt like the initial icebreaker just brushed the surface and left my students (and me!) with wanting to go a little deeper to get to know one another… Hence, the ‘birth’ of Share the Story of Your Name came to be.


My course is hybrid—about 40% is online and 60% is face-to-face. I have taken several semesters to hone a connected experience in this modality, but let’s be honest, a course is always a work in progress right? Particularly as we shift and change to best support the students that we serve.

Teaching a first-time freshman course that is required to graduate from the California State University can be tough, particularly because it is a course focused on public speaking… When I ask my students on the first day of class why the enrolled in the course, no one ever says “because I love to speak in public”, or “I want to learn how to speak in public”. This is the result every semester, year after year. Rather, in my early Getting to Know You Survey, about 95% of students confide that they have some level of fear speaking in public and are nervous/anxious/fearful of taking the course. So, in thinking about this context, my hope as an instructor is to create a brave space for students to practice their skills and make connections with their peers. I have found that these early connections not only help students engage with the course, but with one another that often continues beyond this one class. I have seen this happen many times where my previous students come back and visit and tell me that they made lifelong friends (or minimally, college lifelong friends) having met someone in my comm class.

The Activity

So, let’s get back to the Share the Story of Your Name activity…which by the way I conducted a formal study on this instructional strategy with positive results in terms of student belonging 🙂 On the first day of class (face-to-face), we spend about half of the 50-minute session with part one of our icebreaker that asks students to form a circle (we do this outdoors!) and go around the circle each sharing our name and something that we like that rhymes with or starts with same letter as our name, e.g., my name is Kim and I like kale. The next person then introduces the person before them and their ‘something’ and then introduces themself and the circle goes on. The last person in the circle may have a challenge remembering every person before them, but what is great is we help each other out.

Share the Story of Your Name is part two of the icebreaker that extends the in-class community building exercise to the online environment. Using VoiceThread to empower students’ voices, this activity is aimed at offering reflective time and opportunity to express one’s culture. I make a post about where my name came from and invite students to think about their own name, where it came from, what does it mean, how do they feel about it, and what aspect(s) would they like to share with their peers and instructor. They can choose any way to share, e.g., a personal story about their name, what they like about their name, where a nickname came from, etc. Each story is unique and helps students to connect to one another by listening to these stories.

What has followed is student speeches that will often reference either their own names or the name of a peer, but also speech topics that are deeply meaningful to each student. As we move into semester-long teams to support their learning and the social construction of knowledge, this starter icebreaker has clearly become a pivotal part of the students’ experience in terms of their sense of belonging.

In my study, findings indicated that 89% strongly agreed/agreed sense of belonging helped them learn:

  • Students felt a strong sense of belonging in this class 
  • Some shifts in grade distribution data compared to historical 
  • Student voice was powerful

One of the significant learning outcomes for me is that I feel more connected to my students, understand them more deeply, their lived experiences, and who they are. Every semester I am so fortunate to hear their voices and their stories through their speeches on topics that they are passionate about, particularly in their desire to change the world around them.

VoiceThread slide: “What’s in a Name By Any Other Name”

Moving Through Time…

So many thoughts and time is racing…
One of the things that sticks out the most for me right now was something I heard recently from Dr. Luke Wood: “We are in the midst of two pandemics: a health pandemic and a racism pandemic”. In so many ways this is (and has been) woven into my personal and professional life — the work that I am deeply passionate about, and am deeply impacted by every day. I write this speaking with the acknowledgement of the many privileges that I have as a white, educated, cisgender female who walks in the world having not experienced the historic and ongoing violence, oppression, and daily microaggressions that many people endure. My passion is to make change, use my voice, use my action to push against and dismantle. I feel a deep sadness and emotional exhaustion exacerbated by the health pandemic and the ongoing “racism pandemic” and yet it is my privilege to push through.

One of the aspects of education that I continue to reflect upon as I facilitate online faculty development in preparation for fall teaching and learning (and possibly spring, and what I would say ongoing pivot), is how many barriers have prevented and are preventing students from accessing and engaging in meaningful learning. Right now, more than ever I feel that the most essential thing we can do is to be there for our students. We can get caught up in what tools to use, how to prevent cheating online, how to get students to show up for a Zoom class, and every other detail in education, or we can spend time thinking about and planning for how we are going to connect to our students, support them, and care for them. This includes those 1-1 connections, connections to their peers, and connections to their lived experiences. This is one of the reasons that my exploration into humanizing has been so impactful for me as a developer/educator, but even more so as a human being. I will continue to unpack this in future posts.

red heart


As someone who deeply values video in voice in creating and sustaining connections in a digital world, I am beyond tired. Last week, we pulled some data on our campus Zoom use and apparently I am not only in the top 10 campus Zoom users, I am #2. I love Zoom, and believe it is an amazing technology, but eeek, the # 2 user on my campus is not something I would brag about. Like many people working remotely, the past six weeks have brought high levels of exhaustion and this pervasive feeling of being tired all the time.  I speak for myself, of course, but we’ve seen articles on the topic of Zoom Exhaustion –or I would even re-frame as “video exhaustion”- such as the recent article from the BBC on Why Zoom Video Chats are So Exhausting, and yet we keep doing it. Some, like myself use it all day long for work followed by using video technology to connect to family and friends. It’s taking a huge toll.  I am finding myself mixing my words, saying something that has absolutely nothing to do with a conversation that I am engaged in, and not to mention completely blanking (a lot).

So, I thought, maybe I should write more. I love to write and am one of those people who thought that this would be a great time to engage in more writing. Writing has been even more challenging and this article from the Chronicle of Higher Ed speaks to this: A Side-Effect of the COVID-19.

I will say, I have been listening to Brené Brown’s Unlocking Us Podcast with a passion. She speaks to this level of exhaustion we are experiencing during this time of great uncertainty and how essential empathy and vulnerability are. This begins with self. And as we normalize our own discomfort in this time of uncertainty, we must stand in the center of it and be uncomfortable, vulnerable in ways that will help us grow. I am finding that now more than ever, I need to pause and know that if I step out to take care of me, my job won’t suffer, my family won’t suffer, I will bring back new focus and new ways of thinking.



Humanizing Online Learning & Teaching in Times of Disruption

While I’d like to dive into this topic more because it is so critical (especially now), I am going to come back to it in the next week after our campus rolls out 48 remote instructional sessions to support all our faculty in moving to online.

For now, I want to share a resource that I would argue is essential as instructors move their instruction to a digital environment: Humanizing Online Learning & Teaching in Times of Disruption

ESCALA…I Believe in You!

Last week, I had the amazing opportunity to be part of the ESCALA Education Summer Retreat and begin my journey in the Certificate in College Teaching & Learning in Hispanic Serving Institutions program with a cohort of colleagues from my campus. The core of ESCALA focuses on faculty development through a self-reflective framework. This builds throughout the retreat, by adding both concepts and tools to map one’s personal journey in meeting the needs of all students.

While there were many takeaways from my experiences in Santa Fe, New Mexico (a beautiful, very cultural town) both professionally and personally, some key highlights include:

  • having the opportunity to spend more time with colleagues outside of campus
  • deepening my understanding of cultural influences in learning (and teaching!) and how everything we do is woven with these patterns including the hidden rules/expectations of each
  • exploring context of cultures (framework for looking at culture); high and low context differences in the ways in which we engage, communicate, learn, etc.
  • building trust with students

Telling my students
“I Believe in You”

ós I gather the various nuggets of my experience at ESCALA, I plan to not only change a few activities in my course (and a few approaches), but am going to merge this work into a formal study in my classroom this year that is looking at a specific intervention to find out whether or not it influences a sense of belonging for first-year freshmen. My goal is to align this study with my ESCALA Certificate Project, which will include looking at equity data in my course (pre and post intervention). Deepening my own awareness/assumptions/biases/cultural contexts will help me to be more thoughtful and intentional about understanding and supporting all learners and the cultural capital that they bring to the learning experience.

In my faculty developer role, I am interested in how our institution might build on the ESCALA work and tools to create a sustainable model on our campus. I hear from faculty colleagues that have participated in ESCALA, that this framework provides a structure that motivates them in completing their project.

Key resources:

  • Classroom Cultural Context Inventory” to create a personal connection to the high/low context framework that will help educators connect their own contexts to the contexts of their students
  • Laura Rendon’s Cultural Capital List

The Practice and Design of “Humanizing” Learning Experiences

I was honored by an invitation from EdSurge to participate in a panelist discussion on How to Humanize Online Learning and Maximize Student Success (recording of webinar). I believe we had over 200 participants! As I reflect on yesterday’s panel conversation, and incredible participant comments and questions, I would have to say that my biggest takeaway around Humanizing is the word “caring”, as shared by my colleague, Di Xu. The concept of caring and empathy is woven throughout all the practices in Humanizing learning.

Given what the research tells us about the importance of Humanizing, intentionally and authentically humanizing the instruction is critical for students’ success.  In design, we can approach this through a variety of pedagogies, activities, and technologies that cultivate relationships and build community. I rely on many frameworks and theories, but one framework in particular is the Community of Inquiry (CoI) (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000), which looks at the intersection of teaching, cognitive, and social presence. I will speak to each of these through some examples.

With pedagogies, which is really about teaching presence, instructors can apply strategies that develop empathy and human connections. Essentially, this is about being authentic. A couple of examples that support this are:

  • Creating a welcome video where the instructor tells their story of who they are and perhaps their own experience as a student and how that has shaped their path.
  • Providing regular ‘touches’ or interactions with students. A personal example is in my online doctoral program where my instructor used video feedback. As a student, watching and listening to him, I truly felt like he was invested in my work, my growth in the course, and overall success. This was also conveyed in his non-verbals that can often be missed online

Along with pedagogies, we also humanize through the design of social learning activities. This emphasizes both social and cognitive presence. Creating opportunities where learners can collaborate with one another can connect them with one another and advance the learning outcomes because as construct meaning through shared purpose. This is also where instructors have opportunity to discover who their learners are, which is essential in connecting that cognitive element. Extending this to how they can inspire and reach them. An example of asocial learning activity is something I use in my blended, first year freshman course where humanizing is ever so important in creating a sense of belonging as these students transition into college life. In the first week, students participate in an online, asynchronous activity where they each “Share the Story of Their Name” supported by VoiceThread technology. Through video or audio they each share some aspect of their name, (e.g., where it comes from, what it means, background, nicknames, etc.) and reply to another another. I also share the story of my name as a way to connect to each of them. This is not only an early opportunity to bring themselves into the learning experience and share a bit of who they are, but it is also about celebrating and acknowledging the unique backgrounds and experiences that they each bring to the shared environment.

Finally, through the intersection of the pedagogy and the activities/content, we can leverage technologies to support the learning and connections. This is about how can we use digital tools to create opportunities where students feel like they belong in a community. One example is using digital technologies such as Issuu and Canvas to create an online, asynchronous “virtual conference”. (Remember the feeling you had at that great face-to-face conference where you networked others, shared your work, and walked away feeling inspired?) This is the premise behind the virtual conference where students present their culminating course experience/knowledge/skills by bringing in opportunity for peer-to-peer connections, insightful feedback, and a real-world interaction that shares their work more broadly.

Moving forward with Humanizing are these many opportunities to intentionally and authentically engage with our students. What are some of the things you do in your courses?


Another nugget that Dr. Xu shared from her research, were the five things that students want from their online instructor:

  1. Clear expectations and instructions
  2. Timely responses
  3. Feedback to keep them on track
  4. Rubrics and checklists
  5. Weekly communication

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based
environment: Computer conferencing in higher education model. The Internet and
Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.


Creating Equitable and Inclusive Learning Environments

One of the challenges (and opportunities!) of a Center for Teaching and Learning is to find its place within the landscape of various efforts and initiatives at their institution, their system, and within broader education communities. Last week, our Center joined other campus teams from each of the California State University (CSU) campuses for the CSU Institute for Teaching and Learning on Equitable Learning Environments. One of the most significant takeaways for me was the inspiration and deep sense of commitment from colleagues across our large system. This is the kind of inspiration and commitment that leads toward significant change. The outcomes of the retreat were to share Center programming and resources that focus on inclusive, equity-minded teaching through various approaches, frameworks and theories of change; and create capacity at each campus through strategic partnerships.

Our goal as a team was to engage in conversations and activities around Center programming from across the system in order to re-think and re-imagine the work within our own campus contexts. Each team created a “Dream Team Plan” that highlighted significant takeaways informing an action plan that would move this deep work forward.  We focused on our Center’s role within the campus equity landscape and how HSU can continue to move toward equitable outcomes that shift the learning paradigm in substantive ways. Given our goal of meeting educators where they are, we are taking a multi-faceted approach that respects their time and autonomy, while maximizing authentic opportunities to engage and reflect on their practice. We look to align Center programming with existing efforts through new and/or reconfigured approaches with the goal of creating systemic change within our campus learning environments.

Plan for Creating Equitable Outcomes and Shifting the Learning Paradigm

Our Plan for Creating Equitable Outcomes and Shifting the Learning Paradigm

Varying approaches to course design

It’s been an extraordinary week (and even weeks before) of our Course Design Institute. We approached course design/redesign with a very different set of frameworks than the more traditional course design sessions. Knowing that it is not realistic to do a complete course design/redesign in one day or even one week, we took a blended approach (part face-to-face and part online) but began with framing the context of the Institute with a  map.

Goals. Two bubbles that read: Stated Course Design Institute Goal, Teaching Goals Inventory goals (1-2 goals). Factors. Three bubbles that read: Our students, Course Data, Student, Instructor, Content Logic. Actions. One bubble that reads: Content, Pedagogy, Technology . Equals Your Action Plan.

Your Goals + Factors + Actions = Your Action Plan

The map of our course (re)design journey began with each educator’s Goals, including what they stated in their proposal, followed by their Teaching Goals Inventory (Angelo & Cross) goals. Then, in session we explored the various factors that inform our choices;  what we know about our students, what we’ve learned about any trends in our course data (dive into historical course success data), and considerations around the three logics/perspectives (student, instructor, content and all the assumptions and questions around these). From there, we focused on how their content, pedagogical, and technological choices inform/influence all of these factors. Finally, their Goals + Factors + Actions = Your Course Re(design) Action Plan. As a framework to guide thinking and action, we designed a Course Design “Action Plan” Template (sample included).

We provided grounding in the face-to-face session and followed with one-week of online, asynchronous exploration into how their goals, factors, and actions can provide a solid approach to a customized course design/redesign. It’s been amazing! More detail to come