"Every Day They Were Ready To Go:" PWR Teaching in LSP and Horizons

"Every Day They Were Ready To Go:" PWR Teaching in LSP and Horizons

While most PWR instructors spend their summers away from campus, several stayed put to teach condensed versions of PWR courses to pre-freshman students through two programs: the Leland Scholars Program (LSP) and the Horizons scholars program within Stanford High School Summer College. While both fully-funded programs bring high achieving, low income students to Stanford, LSP is a four week program for incoming Stanford freshman, while Horizons is for rising high school seniors from California who are just beginning their college application processes. This past summer, PWR instructors in LSP were Drs. Ashley Newby, Meg Formato, Jennifer Johnson, and Ruth Starkman. Teaching in Horizons were Drs. Tesla Schaeffer and Mark Gardiner.

To get a better idea of how PWR is represented in these programs, I spoke to Dr. Ashley Newby, who taught in LSP for her second time, and Dr. Tesla Schaeffer, who taught in Horizons for the first time—and indeed, during Horizon’s very first year! Both Ashley and Tesla described outstanding teaching experiences shaped by outstanding students—Tesla described her class as “one of the favorite classes I’ve ever taught in my whole life,” and Ashley also said she “probably had one of my best teaching days ever this summer.” Both instructors resisted taking credit for their outstanding teaching and instead attributed their successes to the students themselves. Ashley told me, “I don’t know how to even describe it. The energy between them, the group as a whole—they were in class early, they were ready and engaged and, let’s go. They just had such a thirst and such a desire to talk about everything and anything and to gain all the knowledge they could.” Tesla also described an extremely motivated and curious group of students. “You know when you have those classes that come together in really special ways?” she asked. She told me, her students developed “really supportive relationships with each other” which emerged out of “similar experiences with their high school writing.” Tesla described her Horizons students as “ambitious and smart and wonderful, but also in touch with important things going on in the world. Without much prompting they wanted to use their writing to make the world better.”

Since the students in LSP and Horizons were all first-generation and/or low-income (FLI), both instructors felt this commonality shaped the bonds between students and opened up classroom space for more authentic conversations about writing and college life. In preparation for this first summer of Horizons, Tesla worked with fellow lecturer Mark Gardiner and Associate Director Christine Alfano to create the curriculum for the 4-week class. They ultimately decided on a loose theme of “People & Places,” Tesla explained, “which emerged because we wanted them to think about communities. This was a moment that they were moving communities, so we wanted to enable them to think about that critically.” Modeled on a college writing class, Tesla and Mark each met with their sections of 12 students twice a week, and had students write a mini-Rhetorical Spatial Analysis and a mini-Research Based Argument, a process that was modeled on the college experiences the students would have in earnest in a year. Tesla told me that her students’ research seemed to emerge out of either their home communities—with projects developing about immigration, personal family stories, injustice around college admissions and standardized testing, high school curricula—as well as from other, potentially future college interests, with projects on scientific topics, popular culture and hobby communities. Within Horizons, Tesla told me, the students’ writing course was just one of two electives they were taking, which could range across much of the university’s offerings, and students also went on some field trips and other activities as a whole group.

Group photo of 2018 LSP students. Photo taken by Michael Spencer.

LSP, by contrast, was more structured and immersive—all students took writing and chemistry, went to a range of Friday lectures and field trips, and instructors like Ashley were more present for meals and activities. Beyond these two courses, LSP students participated in cross-section “poster groups” that were responsible for creating independent, collaborative research projects. Ashley mentored two such groups on music, hiphop, and identity. Reflecting LSP’s history with chemistry—PWR has only been part of the program for three years—other groups included projects on healthcare access; pharmaceutical design; ocean conservation; science, tech, and ethics; language and culture in medical contexts; and speech communities. The integrated approach, Ashley told me, allowed for a deeper level of mentorship and relationship-building between faculty, staff, and students. “The way that LSP is structured,” she said, “see the fact that we have kids, that we have whole lives outside the classroom,” which is powerful in humanizing faculty and also seeing faculty as someone students could be some day. Students, Ashley said, “come in with all this preparation and these ideas about what school is supposed to be like, but there’s so much stress. Yet people act like everything is cool, right? Yet being able to be transparent with them in knowing what it’s like to be in a similar position to them – ‘that sucks, I understand, here’s how I dealt with it... being able to stop and have a conversation about grad school, and what grad school looks like as a mother, or as a person of color – its’ a space where they know that everyone in class is in a similar position to them, they feel more comfortable asking those questions.” For Ashley, recognizing the realities of impostor syndrome and “Stanford duck syndrome”—where you look calm above water but are furiously paddling underneath—made even more important to her the opportunity to make LSP students’ “first experience with a professor at Stanford a positive one.”

Ashley and Tesla both remarked on the values of close coordination within the program and the ways both programs are evolving. Given that Horizons was in its first year, Tesla said she and Mark deeply enjoyed the co-teaching elements of the program as they worked on their curriculum together, but wanted to pursue even closer coordination with the rest of the program in the future, so that assignments could be better tied in with what else they were doing during the summer. “We should be looking to the Leland Scholars for ways we can more closely integrate the experience they have in the writing portion with the experience they have in the rest of the program,” she told me. In the meantime, though, there was so much value, both for Horizons and for her school year teaching, in the reflection time that summer teaching afforded. “From a pedagogical perspective, Horizons was a great opportunity to look backwards at PWR one,” Tesla told me, remarking that she learned so much about the PWR 1 curriculum through “teaching mini snapshot versions of it.” She reflected, “I’ve always loved being on college campuses during down time and to see what happens when the space is at rest and have a bit more breathing time to reflect and make decisions. I’m just continuing to think about who our students are and what experiences they’re bringing to our classes. I’m thinking more and more and more about them as not in a college space yet when they come to us, especially in PWR 1. They’re in this interstitial space of moving from somewhere to somewhere, and how to harness that for critical thinking and research skills.”

Meanwhile, Ashley said she saw great progress in how LSP was incorporating rhetoric and writing for the third time. A highlight was the common reading shared by LSP students, one of Stanford’s “Three Books” summer readings for all incoming freshmen—Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World. A Mexican novel translated from the Spanish, Ashley’s students especially loved their edition’s “Translator’s Note,” which became a crucial metaphor for the summer. “You’ve done this, right?” she said, referring to her students as expert translators within their family and school contexts. “So let’s think about how what you’ve already done is applicable in an academic setting, and how you can take your voice and insert it into academic spaces and what that means.” Scaffolding out from student expertise was one of Ashley’s favorite parts of teaching in LSP. She told me, “one of the downsides in LSP is that it’s so expensive that it only accepts sixty students, and there are more than sixty FLI students that come into Stanford every year. But the great thing about LSP is that it doesn’t operate from a deficit perspective. The programs are very intentional about not acting like these students are coming in with a deficit, but recognizing their knowledge and expertise and their abilities. We’re not trying to catch you up, but show you how brilliant you are. And any deficit that happens is on the institutional level, it’s not on you.”

Horizons program students at work (above) and at play (in header image). Photos by Tesla Schaefer.