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Sept. 13, 2018

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Michael Ackerman felt shocked when he received word that he was the recipient of Wilfrid Laurier University’s award for sustained excellence in teaching, but he shouldn’t have.

Ackerman, an assistant professor in the English department at Laurier’s Brantford campus, has spent nearly 10 years connecting with students and effectively adapting his teaching to the changing demographics, technology, and growing campus size.

“His classes are designed with the student in mind, as he teaches material both thoroughly and at an accessible pace,” says Laurier alumna Hayley Jarvis (BA, BEd ’18). “He is a passionate educator who attentively cares for students’ overall wellbeing.”

Ackerman was nominated for the 2018 award by Richelle Monaghan, fellow teaching awardee and Laurier associate professor in Health Studies and Biology. For Monaghan, the nomination was merely a formality; according to her, his exemplary practice speaks for itself.

“I am keenly aware of his teaching innovation, dedication to students, and his creative solutions to connecting students with real-world experiences,” says Monaghan. “One of the most prominent themes in his teaching is inclusivity and designing a welcoming space for all to learn.”

Embedding Lived Experience in Academia

Creating a highly personalized experience for students may sound challenging, but it is something that Ackerman learned long before his time as an instructor.

During his undergraduate studies at St. Jerome’s University, his instructor offered him the opportunity to complete a hands-on creative project in a Canadian Literature course where the final assessment was supposed to be a written essay.

“I found this alternative project both tremendously challenging and personally rewarding,” says Ackerman.

As a result of this early introduction to alternative assignments, Ackerman now offers some of his own upper-year students flexibility in their assignments – a slightly unusual approach considering the context of traditional essay-based English and literature assessment methods.

Expanding beyond the concept of teaching as a way to “build good thinkers,” he stresses the importance of innovative projects as a way of acknowledging students’ own history and culture as “emotional, feeling beings.”

“Creative and alternative assignments are designed to be both intellectually challenging and personally meaningful projects,” says Ackerman.  “These are opportunities for students to engage with the content of a course in creative ways and an attempt to honour the diversity of learners in our educational environments.”

Students’ paintings, videos, scrapbooks, cookbooks and woodwork were presented as final projects last semester in Ackerman’s Canadian Women Writers class. Of course, students had the option to write a final essay but several opted for more artistic endeavours.

“There is always a written component to these projects that asks the student to articulate their rationale for the creative portion,” says Ackerman. “This not only puts students in charge of connecting their creativity to the course concepts, it also challenges them to reflect on the value and limitations of their own design process.”

In his Early American Life Writing course, students keep a journal chronicling their thoughts and struggles with the concepts and readings during the semester. Ackerman provides bi-weekly feedback on the entries, but the journal ultimately becomes a way for students to apply the ideas presented in the course in relation to their own personal experience while engaging with the theory.

Three years ago, Ackerman introduced a new component to the course involving weekly workshops with local seniors. In the first iteration, community members were invited into the classroom. Subsequent years saw students meeting seniors one-on-one in community centres. Students work with the seniors to produce a collaborative autobiographical project.

“Senior partners brought in artifacts and memorabilia to help tell their story,” says Ackerman. “These items, like bus tickets and quilts, gave students a creative way to interpret and share intergenerational stories, literally bringing course concepts to life.”

Jarvis found this experience markedly different than anything else she had experienced as an undergraduate.

“I discovered that my partner who, at times, exhibited periods of memory loss, had hundreds of photographs from her life spanning nearly eight decades,” says Jarvis. “I would use the photographs and the process of creating a memory book to help her remember her past, which was complex and often times very emotional.”

Projects from the first iteration of this life writing course were selected to be part of The Aging Dialogues: Sharing Wisdom, Preserving Our Legacies, a public exhibition at THEMUSEUM in Waterloo in 2016.

Intergenerational learning lends itself well to growing community-based experiential learning,” says Ackerman. “The more diversity in any learning environment, the better the teaching and learning experience for everyone.”

Making Mindful Connections Matter

Being surrounded by colleagues in Brantford, who model learner-centred teaching methods and are willing to share their expertise, inspires lifelong learning in Ackerman’s own practice.

While a collaboration between colleagues in Biology and English might strike some as unnatural, connecting with peers outside of one’s field or department “leads to experimentation and an atmosphere of excellence,” according to Ackerman.

Ackerman partnered with Monaghan after she received an institutional grant in 2016 to purchase dozens of Muse headbands that provide guided meditation for users and bio-feedback through a mobile app. The reason for this foray into tech-enhanced tracking? To encourage the practice of mindfulness on campus.

“Mobile bio-feedback technology paired with guided meditation has the potential to create real-time positive change in student mental health,” says Ackerman.

Studies suggest that regularly practicing mindfulness for as little as 10 minutes a day, for eight weeks, has the potential to increase attention span, decrease anxiety and increase processing speed, among other cognitive and emotional benefits.

The pair presented the literature on the science of mindfulness at the 2017 Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education conference.

Monaghan attributes the success of their professional relationship to the intimate size of Laurier’s Brantford campus.

“I really don’t think this type of interdisciplinary partnership is typical,” says Monaghan. “But the size of our campus makes it is easier to have these discussions and make the connections.”

Over the years, many of their discussions have focused on concepts of accessibility and universal design. Applied in a university setting, universal design is the process of creating learning environments – including physical spaces, course lectures, readings, assessments and online components – in ways that are most accessible to the greatest number of students, resulting in a better learning experience for the entire class.

While some of these components – including course content and learning outcomes – may vary drastically between the sciences and the arts, that shouldn’t impact the way a course is structured.

“The foundations of great teaching remain the same but are modified to the content we are teaching and assessing,” says Monaghan. “Michael has been able to push my adoption of these concepts, resulting in a better student experience in my own courses.”

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