Carla

Carla

John Hoddinott
1994 3M Teaching Fellow

think all effective teachers accept the first of Chickering and Gamson’s Seven Principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate Education that encourages contact between students and faculty. The reason behind it is that contact promotes learner motivation and involvement. What is often unstated is that it enhances faculty motivation and involvement too. On special occasions, something about the human spirit is learned.

Through the fall term one of my students had been arriving at the lecture theatre in a wheelchair. One of her peers had been recruited by the Specialized Support and Disability Services unit as a note-taker to make her life a little easier. It was an eighty-minute class and, at the half-time break, I would often talk to her. While other students could move around and chat with their peers, Carla was somewhat isolated in the area where she could park her wheelchair. I always enjoyed our conversations because she was interested in the material and was always ready with a smile when I walked over. Suddenly she was absent from class for several weeks and I was pleased to see her return as she seemed to be enjoying the course. That she had been ill was all she shared with me, but she did say she had been catching up on the notes from her note-taker.

During my office hours the week of her return, Carla stopped by. My office access is not wheelchair friendly: two right-angle turns in a short space: I immediately offered to talk with her in my lab, which would involve no turns. She simply thanked me for the offer, said it would be fine, persisted with her manoeuvring and eventually wheeled herself up to my desk. We then went over the material she had missed. reminded the students of the SOLO Taxonomy categories and their meaning, there was some grumbling as the class ended. During office hours before the exam, Carla stopped by and, after my usual offer to meet in the lab and her manoeuvring up to my desk, we again reviewed some of the course material.

When the mid-term marks were in, the average result on the essay portion was not outstanding compared to the multiple-choice section. Explanations to the class that the feedback would enable them to do better on the final did not seem to go down well. Later in the day Carla wheeled into my office. To my surprise she wanted to tell me that she thought the essay was a great idea for the exam, that it was just the sort of thing she as a student should be doing and that I should not be put off by the mutterings of those who just wanted multiple choice testing. I was quite touched that she would make the effort to work her way to my office to support my pedagogical approach to a course. Needless to say I thanked her for her support.

Carla completed the course but in large-enrolment institutions and introductory courses it is easy to lose contact with former students if they do not continue their studies in your department. Some months after the end of the course I was chatting with our Resource Room coordinator. I happened to ask if she had seen or heard of Carla as I knew they had spent a significant amount of time together. I was shocked to hear that Carla had died of leukemia. Having a spinal injury had been only part of the challenge life presented to her.

I remember Carla as a warm, friendly, and positive young woman who happened to get around in a wheelchair. She never seemed frustrated or defeated by the obvious and hidden challenges that her physical condition presented. Subsequently I learned about her involvement as a board member of the Spinal Cord Injury Treatment Centre Society (SCITCS). That she cared about people who faced similar challenges and worked herself into a position to do something about them came as no surprise. In her memory, scitcs now sponsors the Carla Tabler Award for students who volunteer for an organization involved with people with disabilities, a very appropriate tribute.

I wish our lives had not diverged after the course was over. I wish our institutions were not so large and impersonal that the death of someone like Carla does not register more prominently in our community. However, I now understand why the first of the seven principles relating to contact between faculty and students must be ongoing and what the rewards can be. Of course, I still wish that more than one gracious first-year student would see the virtues of writing essays to demonstrate their learning.

Before the mid-term exam I handed out a list of ten essay topics, one of which would be on the exam along with a range of multiple-choice questions. During the term I had been introducing my students to the ideas of John Biggs and his Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes (SOLO) Taxonomy. His model not only gives a rubric to help me with marking, it is one I can share with my students to explain what I am looking for in their written work. When I still wish that more than one gracious first-year student would see the virtues of writing essays to demonstrate their learning.