National Writing Project

Oklahoma Site Helps Community College Adjuncts Address Burning Questions

Date: July 11, 2007

Summary: Community college adjunct faculty members tend to have limited collegial support, so, funded by an Urban Sites Network minigrant, the Oklahoma State University Writing Project designed a mini-institute for adjunct faculty at Tulsa Community College to help foster a growing professional learning community at the college.


You might say that adjunct faculty members have the loneliest jobs in education.

Many are new teachers who not only teach at more than one school, but teach to different grade levels. As their professional moorings shift from day to day, they frequently feel marooned in their classrooms, isolated from other faculty, and unable to find a mentor to ask even the simplest advice as they do their best to reach the diverse group of students in the urban setting where they work.

But being part of a vital community of teachers is crucial to being vital in the classroom. That's why the Oklahoma State University Writing Project (OSUWP) recently hosted a mini-institute specifically geared for adjunct faculty at Tulsa Community College (TCC), "Professional Educators Working Together to Identify and Address Burning Questions."

The mini-institute, funded by a 2005–2006 minigrant from the Urban Sites Network, was one part of an ongoing professional development series that OSUWP designed and implemented for TCC. The series, heading into its fourth year, aims to foster a growing professional learning community at TCC along the lines of the model Ann Lieberman and Diane Wood detail in Inside the National Writing Project (2002)—a haven for continuous reflection, inquiry, writing, and sharing that spawns lifelong learners.

Working with a New Community of Educators

Building even the beginnings of a community among adjunct faculty hasn't been an easy task, however. "Several participants admitted that they were resistant initially," said Britton Gildersleeve, director of OSUWP. "One participant told me that she brought her knitting with her on the first day because she didn't feel like she was going to get anything out of it."

The collegiality that was initiated during the institute has provided the members of our professional community with true and enduring professional connections.

Gildersleeve and colleagues at OSUWP were more interested in "sewing" than knitting: They aimed to have the eight participating adjuncts stitch together their collective teaching experiences, narrating how they approached their classroom work.

Participants' teaching styles tended to follow the "sage on the stage" model—a teacher at the front of the room dispensing wisdom. While most students are accustomed to this traditional approach to teaching and learning, facilitators of the institute wanted to help these teachers understand that this method isn't one that necessarily resonates with the variety of learning styles present in almost all classrooms.

Introducing a Variety of Teaching Strategies

To open participants up to different strategies—and demonstrate the research behind strategies—participants all read Paula Rutherford's Why Didn't I Learn This in College? (2002). The book provides collaborative learning techniques that K–6 teachers might take for granted, but many community college educators had not been exposed to—such strategies as pair sharing and chunking—strategies that can be used for a number of purposes including help in comprehending complex texts.

Many of the participants were realizing for the first time that good teaching strategies can translate to any grade level or content area. This revelation may have been due to the fact that many of these college faculty members had taken only a limited number of education courses.

In Gildersleeve's opinion, "The most pedagogically astute faculty at TCC were those who were teaching in K–12 environments in addition to their work at the college and often drew on their K–12 backgrounds to provide theoretical frameworks for the work at TCC."

Addressing Issues of Equity in the Community College Classroom

Those early discoveries were important as the participants delved into an array of challenging issues they faced teaching in an urban environment—challenges that included large classes, a lack of knowledge about working with English language learners, and too few opportunities to share concerns and successes with colleagues.

Although Tulsa is on the smaller side of cities, with a population of approximately 400,000 people, it is experiencing many big-city challenges as its growth is fueled by an influx of recent immigrants. The city has more than 30,000 illegal immigrants and 60,000 non–native speakers. People of color make up approximately 30 percent of its population.

However, institute participants were all white. That's why OSUWP opted to prioritize the exploration of critical urban issues such as multicultural education, working with English language learners, and motivating resistant learners.
Participants delved into these issues by reading portions of Sonia Nieto's (1999) book The Light in Their Eyes: Creating Multicultural Learning Communities, which "elicited a fascinating, if sometimes sensitive, discussion of race, gender, culture, and class within the classroom framework," according to Gildersleeve. Many found that they were not alone with their classroom challenges.

"Listening to the TCC people reminded me to keep pushing even when students aren't doing the reading or showing up to class or meeting me halfway," said Ben Bates, a co-director of OSUWP's summer institute and a facilitator at the mini-institute. "It buoyed me up to hear others engaged in the same struggles as me."

"Community colleges represent an important entry point of equity and access because students of color impacted by financial poverty, in large part, end up at these higher education institutions," Gildersleeve said. "This may be the first introduction to college that these students receive, which highlights the importance of supporting quality teaching grounded in pedagogical theory at community colleges."

Measuring Success

Although Gildersleeve had hoped to build bridges between adjunct and tenured staff with the mini-institute, the true success of the program was the tight community that the adjunct professors formed among themselves.

Judy Johnson, an adjunct faculty member who participated in the institute, summed up her experience: "Since adjunct faculty members do not interact with TCC's full-time faculty, the collegiality that was initiated during the institute and that continues to blossom and deepen has provided the members of our professional community with true and enduring professional connections."

Gildersleeve recognizes the institute as a successful venture into almost virgin territory: "Community colleges are an untapped niche for writing projects. The teachers-teaching-teachers model is especially useful here. I don't know a more effective way to achieve change."

Lieberman, A., and D. Wood. 2002. Inside the National Writing Project: Connecting Network Learning and Classroom Teaching. New York: Teachers College Press.

Nieto, S. 1999. The Light in Their Eyes: Creating Multicultural Learning Communities. New York: Teachers College Press.

Rutherford, P. 2002. Why Didn't I Learn This in College? Teaching & Learning in the 21st Century. Alexandria, VA: Just ASK Publications.

For Your Information

The institute included sessions on writing workshops, graphic novels, and teaching grammar, among other topics. For more, please download these documents from the institute:

PDF Download "TCC Mini-institute Application and Information"
PDF Download "TCC Summer Mini-institute Agenda"

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