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My Journey Toward Inclusive Teaching and Learning
Carol Reagan Shelton, R.N., Ph.D., ProfessorDepartment of Nursing
Rhode Island College
My recent experience as a NECIT (New England Center for Inclusive Teaching) Fellow has led me to reflect on my life as an educator. I am choosing that word to describe what I do and what I am, rather than similar words such as teacher, scholar, or professor. I like to think I am in the business of empowering students to explore ideas and theories in areas about subjects that include public health, nursing, public policy and women's health. I work to engage both nursing majors and majors from a variety of disciplines to become critical thinkers and develop confidence in their ability to analyze complex social and cultural issues. Because nursing is a practice discipline, teaching requires one not only to incorporate the necessary technical skills to care for the complex problems of those in need of health services, but to engage students to explore how the social and cultural problems of our increasing multicultural society impacts on people's lives and affects their health. Assisting students to engage in these ideas with intelligence, sensitivity and grace and challenging them to bring this analysis to their care-giving role is an essential aspect of nursing education as I have come to view it.
In the seminars associated with NECIT, we began to explore in writing our "pedagogical" autobiographies. Questions included "What are the influences that shaped each of us as we became, 'wittingly or unwittingly,' educators?" "How i s our confidence as educators linked to our personal backgrounds?" "How are our insecurities linked to these same factors?" "How have our educational philosophies been shaped by the cultural and social experiences that formed our identities?" "Specifically, how did race, socio-economic class, and our geographical roots form us as educators?" "How do these influences enhance and/or detract from our effectiveness in the academy?"
The process was murky and frightening. How much to share and reveal? How important were our backgrounds anyway? How tempting it is to pretend that one is privileged, that one's educational achievements were accomplished effortlessly. I am reminded of author Alfred Lubrano's book, Limbo, Blue Collar Roots, White Collar Dreams which addresses people like myself whom Lubrano calls, "straddlers." These are people whose roots are firmly in working class America, but who have found themselves among the elite, in my case, among the professorial class. The feeling of ambiguity that straddlers often feel is powerful. What follows is my effort to probe these feelings and these issues in an effort to understand myself as an educator.
My home was a third floor tenement house in Fall River, Massachusetts. It sat on a small lot, which included an exact duplicate of our house situated behind and to the left of where we lived. A metal fence surrounded the house. The yard (notice, not lawn or garden) around the house was not well maintained, but included a small rose bush and a lilac tree. Manicured lawns were part of other neighborhoods, not ours. Our yard was for running around and for playing. "Keep off the grass" signs were absent on Wilbur Street. Our rent was $4/week in the 1940's and I remember my family's financial difficulties when the rent was raised to $6/week after the house was sold. The property was first owned by Mr. Bilsky. He was a Jewish man who lived in the Highland section of the city. This section of Fall River was where wealthy industrialists, who built the early cotton mills in the city, settled. Because my mother worked in that section of town as a live-in maid for Jewish people from the age of 14, my earliest belief, yes "stereotype" regarding Jews, was that all Jewish people were wealthy. Thi s stereotypical idea in this case, associating wealth with an ethnic group, was firmly fixed in my mind for almost all of my childhood. It was reinforced by the fact that my mother spent her entire life working in Fall River's factories whose owners were Jewish. This stereotype eventually changed when my father's only sister married a Jewish man in 1951. My uncle Dave fought side by side with my Dad's brother in Germany during WWII, and after the war, he was a frequent visitor to my grandparents' home. It is where this unusual romance started between two working class people, one a Jew and one a Catholic of Irish/Canadian heritage. As a 14 year old I was invited to accompany Dave and my Aunt Rita to Hyannis on Cape Cod for a weekend. What I remember most vividly about the weekend was the fact that Dave borrowed his friend's driver's license. The license did not have a photo attached. Dave feared that his ethnic sounding Jewish name would present a barrier in securing lodging for the weekend. I would like to think that this experience was a moment of clarity and enlightenment about discrimination.
We were the Reagans. My father was born to an Irish-American father and a French-Canadian mother. He completed his education at the end of the eighth grade. He came of age during the depression and as so many others did during that period of time, he helped to support his struggling family by finding work. As a grammar school youngster myself I recall my Dad recounting many stories of the French school and the Dominican nuns who taught him, who according to him, were cruel and brutal. Family lore suggests that he was far from a model student. When he became a parent, he was determined that his children would go to the Irish Catholic school as the nuns at that school had a more benign reputation. There was little or no discussion about public school education. We were Catholics after all, and tuition for parishioners was free, as all the teachers were religious women.
A child of Polish immigrants, Mom was less well educated. At age seven she was an orphan and spent a year in the tuberculosis hospital of the city where she witnessed the death of her mother, who died of the disease. After a year's hospitalization she was cared for by a family of distant relatives who provided her with basic physical care but never let her forget that she was not a member of their family. At age fourteen, at the completion of sixth grade, she left school to become a live-in servant for a Jewish family in Fall River. There were many stories about those years of caring for the children of the family and working in the kitchen. I remember hearing about how the family had to throw out a set of dishes when my mother mistakenly mixed up the meat and milk dishes of this orthodox family. She accompanied the family to New York City in the late 1920's and lived with them on the upper West Side. I remember stories about her escapades with the children to Grant's Tomb and to other places of interest in the city.
Our neighborhood was ethnically mixed, though not diverse socio-economically. Everyone was working class, although I never thought of myself as poor (despite the remarks about going to the "poor house" whenever money became tight). In our tenement house the children in each family attended a different school system. My sister and I attended St. Patrick's School from first to eighth grade, which was staffed by the Sisters of Mercy. The family on the second floor tenement went to the French School, St. Anne's, and Marilyn, who lived on the first floor, went to the public school in the community. Her family was not Roman Catholic. I, like many of my peers, harbored prejudices about ethnic groups and the schools they attended. We were very aware that children of French-Canadian ancestry often added an "h" at the beginning of words starting with a vowel and mispronounced "th." This made us laugh and we were always ready to make fun of such mistakes. A methodology of teaching at the time was to have each student read a paragraph from the history or geography text. Instead of paying attention to the reading, some of us would count down to the paragraph that the French girl or boy would have to read from, and we would look ahead to see what words would be read "incorrectly" or with an accent we found amusing. As I reflect now, I realize how cruel this was, but at the time it was a source of amusement. I don't recall messages from teachers about diversity, about respect or anything like that, and I don't know whether our childish antics were a cause of concern to our teachers. But now I wonder what hurt was felt by those fellow classmates and why messages of tolerance were not delivered, or worse still, not heard by me.
Because Fall River was made up of Irish, French, Polish, Italian and later Portuguese mill workers, the Church developed ethnic parishes often attached to schools. My school, St. Patrick's, had a larger ethnic mix than most, possibly because it was the place to enroll children who were born of ethnically mixed parents and because English was the spoken language. Those of us going to Catholic school were indoctrinated with beliefs about our religion, which made us smugly certain that we were more likely to reach heaven than our public school counterparts. We convinced ourselves that God was on our side!
I was a shy child. I don't remember being a child who was especially curious or eager to learn. I don't remember dreading school, although I don't remember being excited about it either. There were some books around our house, but I did not develop the discipline of reading regularly. As in many working class communities of the 1940's and 1950's, most children's activities took place informally and kid s spent a great deal of time in unstructured play. There was a playground across the street and I can remember many summers spending each day there. Camp, formal lessons in music, art and drama, which are "de rigueur" today, did not enter our parents' minds and, if they did, the lessons were probably unaffordable.
The Sisters of Mercy, who staffed the parochial school, were mysterious women. The long black habit, the starched white coif around the face, the white bib that hid the nun's chest, the cross stuck in the middle of the waist of the leather belt, the large rosary beads hanging at the side, were fascinating to me. These were exotic creatures. I remember an embarrassing moment in the first grade. Our reading group was sitting in a small circle at the back of the room. Sister Mary Faber was my teacher. I had gum in my mouth. Sister said, "Carol Ann, what do you have in your mouth?" That was humiliating enough, but at the end of the day the gum stuck so solidly to my nose that the skin came off, leaving me with what we called a "strawberry" spot for several days.
I moved from first to second grade with no problems. I rarely raised my hand, and was never chosen for school projects that included reading aloud, as I was considered shy and soft-spoken. I was often the angel in a pageant, preferring roles that did not require talking. This accommodated my shyness, yet let me be a participant in some activities.
I consider my third grade experience as a turning point in terms of learning. The sister was a bitter, old woman. She hit children and yelled a lot. An expression that she often used was, "You 'scutty putt,' I'll kick you in your back side." What exactly is a "scutty putt"?
It was in the third grade that I began to cheat on tests. A friend and I would exchange answers to math questions. In retrospect, I see third grade as the pivotal period of what began to be a loss of confidence in my own ability to learn and solve problems. It is a year I remember with regret and it began a pattern of behavior that lasted through high school. It is strange that in the context of a Catholic school environment I started this destructive and dishonest habit. The following rationale worked for me. I was not trying to get A's, I just wanted to get by. If one cheated and received an honor, I would consider that to be really cheating, but not the furtive exchanges that I and countless other classmates had for many years afterwards. I remember cheating as very widespread and common. As an adult and watching my own and other children at the age I was then, I find it hard to imagine that children as young as I could be capable of such deviousness.
As I look back on my years as an elementary school student, I think of the key people who I feel influenced me, not with the motivation to value intellectual thought, but people who assisted me on a personal level, people who liked me and valued me as a person. Perhaps the person I think of first is my sixth grade teacher, Sister Mary Charles Francis. She was friendly and fun. She was in charge of the choir and I joined. We spent time helping her after school. I still have a note that she sent to my mother to explain the fact that I was getting home late after helping her clean the classroom. It said, "Carol was helping me today. She certainly is a good girl." I remember cherishing the note. Girls that age fell in love with the nuns and I was in love. Among the jobs I considered for myself during the sixth, seventh and eighth grades included a lawyer, a journalist and a nun. Becoming a nun was the most appealing. As a matter of fact I remember going to the library and checking out a huge volume which identified every religious order in the United States, with pictures of the habit associated with every community. The choices that I considered had to do with the attractiveness of the habit rather than the work of the community.
In 1951 I entered high school. I went to a Catholic girls' academy. The tuition was $75/year. The $7.50 my parents had to pay each month was a sacrifice for them. I was a lazy student. My habits of study were poor. Unfortunately the Sisters of Mercy teaching the college prep courses at the Mount at that time were probably not the best educators in their religious community. The Sisters of Mercy staffed two highly reputable high schools in Rhode Island and it seemed to me that the school in Fall River got the less well-prepared teachers. The courses I took in French I, algebra I and chemistry were mostly opportunities to have fun and do nothing. I won't begin to share the tricks we played on our chemistry teacher. I remember taking chemistry tests with the textbook open on my lap. When I took a chemistry course in college, I remember that my knowledge of the elements was limited to H, O, and CL.
But there were two exceptions to these bad academic habits and they had little to do with my college prep courses. Music was a core academic subject at the Mount and in my freshman year we took a course taught by Sister Mary Verona. Sister was a marvelous teacher and a disciplinarian. I absolutely would never have considered cheating in that classroom. During the year we had to listen to symphonies and operas and study the operatic stories, learn how to recognize the various musical instruments within the framework of the symphony, and learn to appreciate classical music, a value far from my working class family's experience. A second course in which I excelled was shorthand. The teacher was Sister Mary Dionysius, a stern and demanding teacher who expected perfection. It is fascinating to me to think about how the two academic tracks at the school produced business students who took jobs as secretaries and bookkeepers and who were very ready for the real world of work following graduation, while those of us in college-prep either married shortly after graduation from high school, went to nursing schools, or entered the convent. Most of us needed more education and training before we would be ready for the real world. For those who were married shortly after graduation, there was simply the on-the job training. Very few of us in my class went to a four-year college.
I became a nun. I and seven of my classmates entered the convent of the Sisters of Mercy in September of 1955. It is hard to understand what led me in this direction. The women who taught me had a profound influence on me personally despite their inability to tap into my intellectual needs. Perhaps I never lost the romance that I felt earlier about these mysterious women and the lives that they lived. Not surprisingly in 1955, the year I entered the community, the majority of postulants, the term used to describe the first year of probation, were mostly of white, Irish descent. The majority of us would eventually become teachers in the many Catholic schools in southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
We became students in what was then called Mercy College, and our academic program included courses in English, algebra, philosophy and religion. I changed my bad habits and actually became a serious student. After so many years of not studying and developing very bad habits, I began to have an intellectual life. I remember being taught by a brilliant woman, Sister Mary Siena, who made Dante's Inferno come alive, and who was wonderfully dramatic as she read the poetry of the romantic poets of the 18th and 19th centuries. My academic and intellectual transformation began. I remember this period as a turning point and I began to realize how much time I had wasted in high school. My regrets and guilt became less important, however, than the satisfaction I found in great literature and grappling with profound ideas.
In 1958, after two years of academic work and a year called the "canonical" year, in which the focus was prayer, contemplation and manual work, I was ready to profess the temporary vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and commit myself to the work of the Sisters of Mercy, whose mission was the care of the poor, the sick and the ignorant.
Most of us expected to continue our education preparing to become teachers in the elementary and secondary Catholic schools in southeast Massachusetts and Rhode Island. But each year two sisters were selected to become educated as nurses. The Sisters of Mercy administered Salve Regina College in Newport, Rhode Island, a small liberal arts college, which included a department of nursing. The hope was that these young women would eventually join the faculty of Salve Regina and become professors of nursing. I believe our entire class was asked to prioritize our "career" choices: Did we wish to teach, nurse or do domestic work? I must have chosen nursing as that is what I had planned to do toward the end of my high school career before I decided to enter the religious community. And to my amazement, I was selected to study nursing.
In August of 1958, the entire group of newly professed sisters (persons who have taken temporary vows of poverty, chastity and obedience) moved to a new convent, St. Mary's Bayview in East Providence. In September, those of us who were selected to study nursing became commuters to Salve Regina in Newport. Despite our two years of mostly liberal arts and theology, Salve offered us courses in chemistry, biology and the necessary science building blocks preparing us for our nursing education. I was a far different student during these days than I had been in high school. I was conscientious, focused and curious.
I loved my life as a nun, a commuter student and a member of a supportive community of which I felt myself to be an integral part. During the summer of 1960, however, while taking summer courses at the college, the group of Sister of Mercy nursing students had a visit from our "Mother Provincial," the head of the Province of Providence community. She explained that pastors of new parishes were expecting the Sisters of Mercy to staff a number of new schools in the coming year and there were insufficient sisters available. She was asking us to forgo our nursing education for the next two years in order to teach. There were four of us at the meeting, two of us had completed two years of nursing and the other two had completed three years. In the summer of 1960, each of us would become a teacher. This is what it meant to take a vow of obedience.
I and one of my nursing student colleagues were assigned to teach high school. Neither of us had completed a bachelor's degree, but we were young, enthusiastic and willing to try. The religious habit sometimes provided us with an air of authority not available to our lay counterparts. It was a cover to some degree for our lack of experience in teaching. My assignment was to teach Physical Science, Biology and English. I know the religious milieu creates a sense that God will provide, that God will see you through. That simple mentality was one of the things that got me through the two years I spent at this high school. That and the incredible support of the seasoned teachers provided me with what I needed. They were outstanding teachers, and wonderful and creative women. They were women with broad intellectual interests and they were my earliest mentors.
I can't say I loved teaching during these two years. I was well aware of my intellectual deficiencies, and my lack of preparation. But I struggled, learned and tried my best to teach (although I have to admit that my work was more of the "cover the content" approach than it was interpreting complex concepts for inquiring minds).
In 1962 I returned to full time study in nursing, graduating in 1964 with a BS degree. Following a period of working as a staff nurse in public health I was sent off to the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis to study public health nursing at the Master's level and to prepare myself to return to Salve Regina as a professor in nursing.
I enjoyed graduate school and I especially loved the interdisciplinary learning that occurred in the School of Public Health. Interdisciplinary work has continued to be an important element of my approach to education. There is so much to learn from people in different disciplines whose perspective on a subject is different from my own. In teaching public health nursing, for example, I have learned that my ability to make the history of public health come alive provides students with a way of understanding contemporary problems. Probing the history of this field is equally as important as understanding contemporary health issues. Public health cannot be understood without an analysis of the politics, so political science theory must be understood and communicated. Literature too is a resource for exposing nursing students to the hardships people endure as they become ill and prepare to die. To limit one's educational resources to the discipline of nursing alone is to narrow students' understanding of the human condition. It was the interdisciplinary approach to graduate education at both the Master's level at the University of Minnesota and later at the doctoral level at Brandeis University that shaped my approach to teaching the discipline of public health nursing.
My teaching career started in 1960, but there were many interruptions during the ensuing years as I practiced public health in neighborhood health centers and visiting nurse agencies. The late sixties and early seventies were tumultuous times not only for the community at large but also for religious communities. During that period of time, while teaching at Salve Regina, four of us Sisters of Mercy experimented in an alternative living situation. We were granted permission to leave our home convent and to set up a living situation at the Hartford Park Housing project in Providence. Religious women were engaged in trying to address the problems of racism and poverty in our communities and the idea of living and working where the poor lived was an idea that we took seriously. We were the first in our community to experiment in this way. During that period of time I taught public health nursing to students from Salve Regina, using our living room as classroom and the housing project as our clinical setting. Social justice and community health were carefully intertwined and students had an opportunity to see the health problems of the poor in intimate ways.
The flight from the cloister to the city brought religious women, priests and lay people together to work on social change. We marched and picketed for fair housing, in support of the farm workers and against the war in Vietnam. I met a priest in this context. We fell in love, eventually married and became a family of seven. My dispensation of vows took place in 1970.
From 1979 until the present, I have devoted myself to nursing education at Rhode Island College. The college has provided me with the opportunity to develop myself as an educator. Having been an intellectually mediocre high school student, I try to tap into the resources I've found useful to stimulate the intellect of students who sit in class perhaps as I did, not engaged and not confident in their own abilities. An intellectual hunger was not awakened until talented teachers scratched my sleeping brain and made me wake up and notice that ideas were interesting, that learning was fun and that what you know should lead to behavioral change. Educators call this kind of engagement "critical teaching." This theoretical framework arises out of the work of Paulo Friere (1993). Its underlying philosophy focuses on knowledge, reflection and action, all of which leads to social change (Nieto, 1999). The contemporary cultural struggles that divide our country suggest that the actions arising out of reflection may not lead us all in the same direction. My life path has led me to actions that address the problem of poverty and its effect on community health in ways diametrically opposed to government policies currently in place. The challenge for an educator is in leading students to probe the intellectual resources available to them, to be open enough to let the students explore any avenue to social change that is intellectually honest, even when it conflicts with one's own personal and political viewpoints.
And yet I struggle still. Teaching is not easy and not every student I teach leaves my classroom or clinical setting intellectually enlightened. I face many of the challenges that others face. I often find myself intimidated by some students who question my pedagogical approach and who see for example, health and health care in market terms, questioning some of the perspectives that I espouse, particularly regarding issues of social justice. I struggle with students whose language and poor educational backgrounds make success such a challenge. I want to nurture them through the educational maze with all its barriers and difficulties, but I don't want to spoon feed them or patronize them. I struggle to be fair yet I find the rubrics that we design limited in scope, giving a group of students, for example, a collective grade that not all of them deserve. Sometimes when students question my judgment, especially regarding grades, I want to be secure enough to say, "Because I said so…Because I have been teaching for 40 years and I have the experience to know!" But I am more apt to say, "Let me look at what I chose as the answer and let me consider the argument you pose." And I do. Does that make me weak and less sure of myself, or is that an acknowledgement of the fact that students are smart and sometimes the question I've asked has more than one answer?
I didn't expect to be struggling with these issues more than 40 years after I walked into my first classroom as a teacher. It isn't that I have learned nothing over the years, but that I have learned so much. I have learned that a student does not have to have been an honors student in high school to succeed in college. I have learned that adult learners and their thirst for knowledge are among the most rewarding experiences a teacher can have. I have learned that students who have emigrated from Africa, Central and South America, and Southeast Asia, students of African-American descent, and second generation Latino and Portuguese students bring to our classes and to their classmates an educational richness that would never be possible if their education were limited to learning about diversity from films and textbooks. And I have learned that my approach to educational philosophy and theory has been greatly expanded and enriched by a cadre of colleagues whose commitment to students has been nothing short of spectacular.
I'm not sure how one creates a thirst for knowledge in students. I recognize that it was tapped for me when I entered religious life at age 17. Perhaps it was a commitment to a lifestyle that required me to become a more serious student or maybe it was Sister Siena's magical reading of poetry or the philosophy teacher's insight into human nature. I wish my thirst had been tapped earlier so that I could have had the advantages of others who have read widely since grade school. But I mention this less as regret and more as a challenge to myself that it is never too late to learn. Recently I was listening to a thirty-some year old friend of mine, Sara Archambault, executive director of the Rhode Island Committee of the Humanities. Sara is in touch with scholars and artists all over the state and mentioned in a public address that the most delightful aspect of her job is someone coming into her office saying, "I have an idea!" That, very simply is what educators are expected to do: stimulate students to develop the intellectual tools to generate creative ideas, to think independently, to challenge the status quo which often may include questioning the paradigms of those of us who call ourselves educators, teachers, scholars.
Friere, Paulo. 1993. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Trans. Myra Bergman Ramos.
20thanniversary edition. New York: Continuum.
Lubrano, Alfred. 2004. Limbo: Blue Collar Roots, White Collar Dreams. N.J.: Wiley.
Nieto, Sonia. 1999. "Multiculturalism, Social Justice and Critical Teaching." In Shor, Ira
and Caroline Pari. Education is Politics. Portsmouth NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers.