CETL Podcast - Episode 23: Junice Acosta

Junice Acosta: Then I also teach linguistics classes- I'm a social linguist. So I basically study how people communicate in different social consensus. And so I do teach and do research here at SUU about those types of issues, you know how people communicate with other people, and what those have to tell us about their social characteristics and features. I teach Spanish at all different levels here. I also teach sociolinguistics, Hispanic sociolinguistics, and Hispanic linguistics.

Tony Pellegrini: That is wonderful. Thank you so very much for sharing. I was particularly interested with your focus and your attention and passion associated with communication. Can you talk to us for a moment or two and tell us- how do you make yourself available and accessible to your learners through communication? Is it all through just speaking, what are some other tools that you use to communicate and engage your learners?

Junice Acosta: By teaching what's known as a second language, sometimes it's challenging for students, you know, to engage with you at the same level. But I teach to use the target language as we call it as much as possible. So students can have that experience too. So I basically try to teach them not only the language- the communication part- but also, you know, teach them more than abilities through the language. I make myself available through you know, like, as we all, all of us do here at SUU, office hours, and I tried to speak as much Spanish as possible, because I think it is very useful for students to just get in the mindset of using a target language and just feeling that they're becoming bilingual speakers, that makes a huge impact on the learning process. As for my upper division students, they are usually more fluent or more advanced students. So it's also easier to communicate with them at that level. But I try to kind of like, identify what is the best way to communicate with them, either using English or Spanish or if writing is better for them to engage with me, both in the classroom and outside of the classroom.

Tony Pellegrini: Fantastic, you know, I'm really impressed with that desire and ability to speak a second language and to use two languages. I think it's a great role model for our learners to be able to see faculty engaging in those processes. And I'm just very impressed with and appreciative of that, of that activity, engagement. Certainly, you hear an issue, you mentioned this, in the learners that we engage with. You've seen a wide variety of learners, through your classroom through your activities, and the resources that are available here in Southern Utah University to help us engage all of our learners. How can you meet them? Can you talk to us about how you meet the needs of your students with referrals to the Disability Resource Center? Have you had some experiences that you'd be willing to share with us?

Junice Acosta: Yes, so I have some experiences with students with disabilities in Chicago, although there was a little bit different, because you engage with them during one semester, and basically, probably will never see them again. But here it is different, because you can see those students grow. And you can see them achieve their goals, you can see them graduate and pursue their careers. So you can see the whole process of how they grow. And you can be part of that process too. And that's why, since I started working here at SUU back in 2014, I started attending these trainings that are offered by the Disability Resource Center. And it's been a great help for me to become a more effective teacher. And also just like to identify what are the specific needs of these students. One of my main goals as a teacher, as a professor here at SUU is to make my classroom more and more inclusive. And so one of the ways of doing that is basically focusing more on what the individual needs of the students are and working with the DRC also helps you to identify in an easier way, what are those needs. I'm not, you know, required to go the extra mile, but I think it's all worth it. And so the first thing I do once I get a referral from the disability center office as we call it, is basically to determine how much support they need from me as their professor. And then I work individually one on one with the center to see what it is that I have to provide for those students to be successful in the classroom. Last year, I also applied for a CETL grant for inclusive teaching. And basically that grant will allow me to start redesigning my classes, so I can make them ADA compliant. And what that means is, I'm trying to make my classes more digitally accessible for students with disabilities. And with diverse degrees of disability. I think that's very important for making an inclusive classroom. It takes some time, but I think it's important and essential to be able to provide all students in the classroom with the materials they actually need and the ones that are going to work for them.

Tony Pellegrini: I'm just very impressed, Junice,  with that perspective of "all". All does mean all. Each individual that we have, and that inclusion, that invitation, that comfort level, I believe students do recognize that, realize that, and appreciate that- being recognized and valued.

Junice Acosta: They do yeah, I think. And I have this idea of teaching for all those who do not know. And that means basically that, you know, some students have had experiences that allow them to succeed in class, because they might have people who have guided him through the process of going to college, but there are some, some other people and you know, first generation college students, and being one myself, I know that it's hard to navigate academia, especially here in the US. And so those people, if they have somebody who helped them, you know, just like see how things can be achieved, how things can be, I wouldn't say easily because there's nothing easy. Well, you know, there are ways that you can actually go through things and through processes, I think that makes a whole lot of difference. Also, yes, gives them a lot of more confidence on the, you know, abilities to complete things. And to achieve goals, I think that it's essential to have somebody who has been through the same things as you just you know, showing you the different ways in which you can achieve your goals.

Tony Pellegrini: Well, and I love that success that you've identified, you see that success. Can take time to talk just about how you review their- your prior instruction- their previous successes, how you build on those foundations to prepare you for what's coming tomorrow, or next week in your class. What do you do? What are some of the fun things you do?

Junice Acosta: So my classes are never like a one day lesson. It's more like a continuum. So basically, language classes, for instance, you give them some input, you model the activities, or the exercises, then you practice with them. And then finally, we asked them to produce some output. So in my classes, I just design them in such a way that there's never like a one day lesson, you have a one day lesson, and then you have another day to practice- do like applications of the content you saw in class. And then the next day, you also review and apply what you saw in such a way that you have like a transition and a smoother transition between one topic and the other. It's more like a continuum to continue teaching. I will say like, in the transitional way. So you go from one topic to another. And basically you make them see that they are able to make connections in you know, in the larger picture. I think that's a very useful ability they can actually not only like to see, okay, we'll learn about this topic today. And then tomorrow, whenever something's different, it's more like, Okay, how can we connect these two things? How do they work in the larger picture? And how can you basically make those connections yourself?

Tony Pellegrini: Thank you so much. I'm very impressed with that concept, that metaphor of the continuum of a continuing conversation that you have with your learners. And certainly, that leads to- you have to, at some point, make some assessment to help you direct where that continuum is, where that conversation goes. How do you use assessment efforts to inform your academic learning support planning practices to come to continually improve your student learning outcomes? Talk to us about that. 

Junice Acosta: Yeah I'd be happy to. So I found out that end of the year evaluations are fantastic, but they're not very useful for the people in the class that semester. So I think that they have great value to improve your classes in the long term. And I do that every semester, of course. But I think that having partial evaluations of how the class is going, is more useful for students actually in the class. So what I do is basically, I do assessments in three different- at three different points in the semester, so students can tell me, and I do that anonymously, so they feel like, you know, free and confident to say, whatever is working, what is not working. And so I asked them to tell me, what is working for them, how he improved the classes, what modifications might need to be done for the class to be more suitable for them. And so it's a little bit more work, but I think it works better, because then the adjustments can be made in real time. It's just like, if this is not working for you, then it might not make sense for me to continue doing that, like, I will do a lecture, but then you don't learn well through lecturing, you learn better using other strategies. So I try to focus on those comments that students make that will just make the classes I wouldn't say better- I would say more effective for them. And of course, those same comments, I use them for improving the class in the long term. Along with the final end year evaluations, it's been working great. And even though it's a little bit more work doing those evaluations sometimes, you know, all of the issues in the classroom, or all of the things that are going well, I think it's a good way of determining what is going on and how students are receiving the content you are trying to teach them. 

Tony Pellegrini: What a wonderful example of student centeredness. Maybe as you've identified, it's not necessarily the easiest, or the fastest or the most comfortable way for you. But it is a way that is very student centered. And by receiving that assessment feedback, you know, how to meet their needs.

Junice Acosta: Yes, and I think that I also asked different questions at different levels. If you ask the same questions over and over, then that might now work that well, either. So what I do is at different levels, and then give them some sort of like responsibility, like this is your learning process. I'm here to guide you, and to help you through a process basically, your responsibility. And so I asked them questions also. So they can realize that, okay, this is my responsibility. So, I am the one who needs you know, I'm the one who needs to do the work to learn this. And so the professor is here to support me as much as I need to. But really, this is my process. So I asked them questions that show exactly those, like that switch, like, from expectations at the beginning to what are you doing to, you know, just make your process more efficient for you to, how did they work in general for you at the end of the semester?

Tony Pellegrini: Fantastic. I, you know, with that student centeredness, I really see that you are having a great deal of respect, concern, I'd say, courtesy, for your learners. What suggestions would you have for your peers, to help us be more respectful or demonstrate that concern. Are there any other ideas that you would share with us? 

Junice Acosta: Well, I, you know, I think that's important for all of us to show- and I think that most of us probably do this- just to show that we are, even though we are in this environment, we are able to have differences, but at the same time, we are able to professionally or respectfully discuss different things and still not agree on everything, but you know, just respect each other's point of view. I might not agree with many of my students' opinions, but I still respect them, and value that they share those opinions with me and the rest of the class. And I have a diversity, equality and inclusion statement. And I specifically and purposely, you know, say that it is important for me to be respectful and to respect and value diversity and equality and inclusion. And so I said that from the very beginning, and I talked to the students and I talked to them about how important it is that all of us understand those ideas. I also insist on talking about the importance of creating, and also maintaining, after you create that environment, creating and maintaining this respectful and open environment. And in that environment, all of the students want to feel valued, they should feel that their opinion is important, or at least, that their opinion is respected, and that they can share that openly, and just feel comfortable doing that. And I tell them my concerns in different ways, right. So one of the ways in which I show that I am concerned with them, it's by observing them, because some students sometimes are going through difficult situations, and their behavior changes in the classroom. So when you see that student is doing well, or very well, and then changes that behavior, suddenly, that might point to the fact that something might be going wrong. So some of the students just stop coming to your classes, because, you know, life happens, and they have lots of difficulties. And so in some cases, they only need an opportunity to just, you know, make up some of the work, or just to reconnect with the class, I think, giving them that opportunity, it's key for their success in class, and in general, you know, in their careers. I also use the link Alliance to issue reports for those students who suddenly disappear from my classes. But most of all, I think, I just repeat to them how important they are for me, you know, and how much time I invest on them. Because I believe that they can do great things, and they are doing great things. And at the same time, I try to be aware of many different behaviors that are affecting their performance in class. So it's like up, there are several sides of it. And it requires some extra time. But you don't have students that are going through that situation every semester. So I try to do as much as possible, not only telling them that I am concerned about them, but also showing them in different ways- contacting them individually etc.

Tony Pellegrini: You know, what a wonderful recruiter, we would have students led to this campus saying, I'm important to Professor Acosta, you know, what wonderful tools we provide. Our time is about up, Junice, I just want to leave you one last moment here. Anything that I haven't asked you that you're prepared to share that you didn't get to share today?

Junice Acosta: I think we should all do our part to be more inclusive in our classrooms, to consider students who might have not had experiences that other students you know, need to be successful. And I think that going the extra mile, whatever that means to you, is important for students and students notice that you truly care about them and that you are there for them. It's not always easy to show them, though, that you were there but there are ways in which you can do that. And I think it's important to value all of our students for who they are and what they are. And being more you know, inclusive overall in our classroom, I think that is essential for all of us in our classrooms.

Tony Pellegrini: I think we all benefit from that. Junice, thank you so very much for your participation today. Thank you listeners for tuning in. Reach out to Dr. Acosta as you're on campus and tell her thank you for being a part of our SUU family. We'll see you next month and have a great month. Enjoy your spring break. Thank you everyone. Bye bye.


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