Academic journal article Journal of Developmental Education

Ideas in Practice: Building Bridges in a Multicultural Learning Community

Academic journal article Journal of Developmental Education

Ideas in Practice: Building Bridges in a Multicultural Learning Community

Article excerpt

We cannot simply stand on our favored side of the bridge and worry or fume about the many who have not yet passed over. A bridge must be anchored on both sides, with as much respect for where it begins as for where it ends. (Kegan, 1994, p. 62)

Developmental education can be thought of as a bridge between students' familiar worlds and the unfamiliar world of college they are trying to navigate. On one side of the bridge is students' home territory, including their family, work place, and peers (Beach, Lundell, &Jung, 2002). On the other side is the territory of higher education, which is shaped by rules, traditions, discourse, and values that may be very different from students' home world (London, 1996; Lundell & Collins, 2001; Rendon, 1996). As psychologist Robert Kegan (1994) reminds us in the opening quote, to help students construct bridges between their personal and cultural knowledge and that of the academic world, educators must be willing to learn from students' experiences and ways of knowing. There is often a tension, however, between the need to value students' personal and cultural knowledge and the need to meet institutional pressures for students to become more like the people who already "belong" in the academy. How can developmental educators utilize students' experiences and voices at the same time that they help them develop the tools needed to negotiate and contribute to the academy? How can we professionals help retain and prepare marginalized students for successful college careers?

One environment through which instructors can help students build strong, flexible, two-way bridges between home and higher education is a learning community, in which the same group of students is enrolled in two or more courses that are collaboratively designed and intentionally linked by organizing themes. Learning communities that employ active learning methods are particularly valuable in the first year of college because they offer social supports, provide multiple opportunities for feedback, validate students as thinkers, and encourage students to become actively involved in their education. Students share the curriculum as well as the experience of learning the curriculum together (Tinto, 2002).

Research shows that Ist-year learning communities promote both academic and social integration, which can lead to higher persistence rates and over-all satisfaction with college than those of students not enrolled in such programs (Tinto, 1998; Zhao & Kuh, 2004). Students report that this learning format fosters a safe environment to meet people and "build a network of peers" (Tinto, Goodsell-Love, & Russo, 1993, p.18) that functions as bridge between academic and social systems. In addition, students are less likely to skip classes, and, when surveyed, report that the campus climate is more hospitable.

Multiple Bridges for Learning

In an effort to find new ways to help Istyear students gain a sense of belonging at the university and to enhance students' academic abilities, the authors decided to create an interdisciplinary learning community. Although each of our courses met separately, all were shaped by our shared goals. Classroom work took place during Fall 2001 and Spring 2002 with two cohorts of students. Students voluntarily enrolled in the learning communities after learning about them during registration. Most of the students were participants in TRIO, a federally funded program for lstgeneration, low-income students. During the fall semester 20 students participated, and spring semester 16 students participated. The size of the cohorts was limited by the number of students who could fit in a computer lab for the writing class.

As we designed and implemented the learning communities, we met regularly to clarify our pedagogical commonalities and differences. Bruch teaches 1st-year writing, Jehangir teaches Multicultural Relations, and James teaches Creativity Art Lab. …

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