April 25, 2019

Jesse Stommel: Courageous Conversations

Jesse Stommel, executive director of the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies

Jesse Stommel, executive director of the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies

When Jesse Stommel interviewed at Mary Washington, he told his husband, “I hope you can fall in love with the university, because I really want to take this job.” Thankfully for UMW, they both did. Now, as executive director of the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies, Stommel, along with his colleagues, helps professors conceive and implement creative pedagogical approaches in their classrooms.

“It’s easy to see the word ‘technology’ in the name of our unit and think that’s all we do, but the key words for me are actually ‘teaching’ and ‘learning,’” said Stommel, who has a Ph.D. from the University of Colorado Boulder. “Technology isn’t just a means to an end at Mary Washington, but rather something with which teachers and students are actively investigating and experimenting.”

It was this kind of innovative approach to teaching and technology that attracted Stommel to UMW in the first place. For the past four years, he has taught digital studies courses, guiding his students in such projects as creating documentary films and digital journals. He’s also driven home the university’s commitment to graduating digitally fluent students while still retaining its strong emphasis on the liberal arts.

In the classroom, Stommel encourages his students to think critically about the world we live in and how we as humans interact with each other in an ethical and responsible way, especially online, given today’s hyperconnected digital realm. It’s why he makes a case for the digital liberal arts in Courageous Conversations, a new video series featuring UMW faculty discussing timely and significant topics.



Q: Do you have any meaningful Mary Washington memories?
A: The day I decided to take the job at UMW, I met Martha Burtis, director of the Digital Knowledge Center. Martha was practically born at UMW. She is an alumna and has worked at the institution for most of her adult life. Having the opportunity to work with her has been one of the best professional and personal privileges of my life.

Q: You are a proponent of “ungrading.” How did you come to this stance and do you think it’s catching on among educators, particularly in higher education?
A: Grades are a relatively recent technology, invented around 1800 and not popularized until the second half of the 20th century. Schools existed long before grades did. Even as the urge to quantify learning becomes more rampant across higher education, I think asking critical questions about what grades are for, how we should use them and when they’re useful is becoming more common.

Q: Tell us about your new book.
A: An Urgency of Teachers, which I co-authored with Sean Michael Morris (director of UMW’s Digital Pedagogy Lab and Digital Learning) came out last year. It’s about the need to valorize and support the work of teaching. We don’t need to invest in technology to be masters of educational technology; we need to invest in teachers.

Q: How are your students having Courageous Conversations in the classroom and outside of it?
A: I learn more from my students than I could ever teach. There’s just one of me in the classroom and so many of them. Their collective intelligence and bravery pushes me every single day.

Q: What is the best compliment or most helpful feedback you’ve ever received from a student?
A: A student once told me that she did more work for my class than any other but called it “an easy A.” I like the idea that my students work hard without feeling that the rug will be pulled out from under them. Those words have pushed me to find more ways to encourage, and make space for, intrinsic motivation for learning.

Q: Who or what inspires you?
A: My 2-year-old daughter, Hazel. She’s started showing me her drawings with a sense of real pride. She’s way better at drawing than me.

Q: What would you be doing if you were not a professor?
A: I’d be a kindergarten teacher.

Q: Are there any mottos that you live by?
A: I recently summed up my approach to teaching in four words, and those words have become a bit of a pedagogical motto for me: “Start by trusting students.”

Q: What books are you reading right now or have you read recently that inspired you?
A: It’s not a book, but I just watched the Beyoncé concert documentary, Homecoming. I was awed, and it kicked my ass, in the best way.

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John Broome: Courageous Conversations

College of Education Associate Professor John Broome keeps his worst student course evaluation from his first year at UMW displayed in his office, right beside his teaching award. For him, it’s a constant reminder that he should always strive for improvement as an educator.

College of Education Associate Professor John Broome. Photo by Norm Shafer.

College of Education Associate Professor John Broome. Photo by Norm Shafer.

Broome believes that American educators need to focus their attention on being better teachers to children from all backgrounds. In the classroom, he and his students engage in discussions about race and racism, equity, privilege, implicit bias, youth trauma and poverty to understand the complex web of issues affecting schoolchildren across Virginia and the United States.

“When you have students impacted by these factors, then teaching, learning and classroom environments look different. You have to meet your students where they are with positive expectations for their ability and growth,” said Broome, who has a Ph.D. in education from the University of Virginia, an M.Ed. in curriculum and instruction from George Mason University and a B.A. in government from The College of William and Mary.

That’s why Broome, whose research focuses on social justice, critical race theory and civic education, was eager to participate in Courageous Conversations, a new video series featuring UMW faculty discussing diversity and inclusion. But he wants his students to think of these topics not as courageous but normalized and present in every classroom.

“We need to work toward having a more open, honest dialogue about the lived and historical experiences of all peoples in our country,” said Broome, who has taught secondary social studies in public and private schools across Virginia. “When more than half of students in our country are Black, Indigenous and People of Color, all students should not just learn more about these histories, but from their own voices as well.”



Q: Are there are any projects you enjoy having your students do?
A: My students enjoy the culture quilt project, in which they divide a poster board into 16 squares like a quilt. They use pictures, words and phrases to explore their family histories, their professional and personal cultural selves and other cultures that are unfamiliar to them. It’s an opportunity for students to self-interrogate, understand who they are and become more accepting of others.

Q: How did you come to direct the Hungry Brains! program at Hazel Hill?
A: I’ve been involved since 2012. It’s an after-school program for economically disadvantaged K-8 students in downtown Fredericksburg that is entirely UMW student-run. It empowers student leadership responsibilities while addressing the academic needs of children in this community. We’ve also helped with fundraising. On Valentine’s Day 2018, my students and I sold candy-grams on UMW’s campus so that Hazel Hill students could open their first savings accounts as part of a financial literacy project. I’ve raised money to help build their library and purchase new technology for the Center.

Associate Professor of Education John Broome with his class. Photo by Norm Shafer.

Associate Professor of Education John Broome with his class. Photo by Norm Shafer.

Q: You encourage your students to use culturally responsive teaching practices. How does that improve learning in the classroom?
A: This centers culture in all aspects of learning. It includes having high expectations of all students; being more student-centered; becoming more culturally competent; building the relationships between schools, families and community; learning the contexts of diversity and cultures; and reframing the curriculum. My work is mostly on the curriculum and what it means when students don’t see their multiple identities reflected in what they are learning.

Q: What is one piece of advice you give to aspiring educators to make their classrooms more inclusive?
A: How you teach is often more important than what you teach. You never know what is going on in the life of a child.

Q: Who or what inspires you?
A: My wife inspires me. She was a first-in-family college graduate from a small town in Oregon. Multiple degrees later, she is a dean at another university. She’s absolutely brilliant.

Q: What would you be doing if you were not a professor?
A: I would be an international travel and food writer, a chef or an electronic dance music DJ. In addition to going to EDM shows regularly in D.C. around the United States, my wife and I are traveling to festivals in Holland, Finland and Belgium this year.

Q: What would people be most surprised to learn about you?
A: In college, I had a pet duck named Clyde, who snored when he slept on you. It was adorable.

Q: Are there any mottos that you live by?
A: “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” ~James Baldwin

Q: What books are you reading right now or have you read recently that inspired you?
A: “We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom” by Bettina L. Love, an associate professor at the University of Georgia.


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