An hour with
Associate Professor Catherine Medrano
This month Catherine Medrano joins us from California to explain how economic inequality impacts learning and why The Walking Dead is one of her favorite teaching tools.
Degrees: Thanks for joining us today, Catherine! You’re our first West Coast educator to be featured in Degrees, and we’re excited to learn what you’ve got going on at College of the Sequoias (COS). Can you tell us about your background and how you came to work in education?
Catherine: After working as an adjunct instructor, or “freeway flier” in Sociology and Chicano-Latino Studies since 2011, I have just received a full-time, tenure-track position in Sociology at College of the Sequoias. I’ll start as an associate professor in the fall.
Growing up in a large Mexican-American family in the Central Valley of California, I saw the importance of education in allowing for opportunities and social mobility, but I also saw issues of educational inequality. This fuels my desire to work in education and bring access and opportunity to nontraditional college students who may be low income, first generation, and suffering from other obstacles that make educational attainment difficult. This is why I choose to teach at the community college level. I feel like I can make the biggest impact and make a real difference in the lives of my students.
In terms of my own education, I received my BA in Sociology and Ethnic Studies from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) and my MA in Sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB).
D: How would you describe COS and your students?
The main campus of COS is located in Visalia, a rural town with a population of about 125,000. COS also has centers in Tulare and Hanford. COS is a Hispanic-serving institution and has many students who come from agricultural backgrounds as either farmers or farm laborers. The students tend to be first generation, younger, and motivated to do well in school.
Learn more about COS in this month’s Campus Visit.Fresno City is located in Fresno, a city with a population over 500,000. This city features higher levels of crime and homelessness, low-ranked public schools, and a high percentage of students who are struggling economically, are parents, and are working full time. Although they are also motivated to do well in school, they, unfortunately, often struggle with things like study habits.
C: I bring my entire personality into the classroom, and this helps to keep students engaged and feel like they get to know me on a personal basis. I also try to develop healthy mentoring relationships with many of my students. I feel it is important to acknowledge students’ experiences, meet them where they are, and work with them as holistic beings, not just as “students.” I also do my best to foster a sense of belonging in the classroom through group projects.
D: What is unique about the way you approach the subject you teach?
C: I always try to connect my students’ life experiences with knowledge generated in the classroom. Individual experiences are undoubtedly shaped by social systems; therefore, I try to link personal histories with collective social histories. This not only validates personal experience, but also helps students of all backgrounds create valuable links between academia and community. In the process, students learn that they not only gain valuable knowledge in the classroom, but that they also bring valuable knowledge to the classroom.
On a lighter note, one way I try to get students to connect sociology with everyday life is by connecting it to popular culture. One of the most fun and sociologically engaging activities we do in the classroom is watch a few episodes of AMC’s The Walking Dead. Students analyze issues of social structure and social interaction as seen in the TV series — and they love it! (Me too!)
D: What classroom tools are a “must have” for you?
C: REVEL is my must-have classroom tool. For those who aren’t aware, it’s an immersive instructional platform that enlivens traditional course textbooks with multimedia interactives and assessments.
D: What impact do you believe technology is having on higher education in the 21st century?
C: Technology is allowing the classroom to come alive and be much more engaging and interactive. It has the potential to facilitate greater communication between professors and students, increase student participation, and foster new strategies of instruction and learning.
D: If you could change one thing about higher education today, what would that be?
C: I believe higher education should be free! As a society, we need to realize that the greatest asset that we have is each other. The more we invest in our educational system, the more we invest in our future.
D: Can you share a story or anecdote about your most memorable teaching (or learning) experience in the classroom?
C: I started using REVEL in the fall of 2014 out of sheer desperation. My Fresno City students were failing my Introduction to Sociology courses in droves. I was feeling frustrated and was in a state of crisis! I started questioning my own abilities as a professor. Why were my students failing? Is it my fault? Am I a bad professor?
The only thing that made me feel a little better about my teaching abilities was the fact that my students at COS were doing fine. I realized that a one-model-fits-all approach would not work and I needed to try something different. But what could I do? I started letting them use study guides (cheat sheets) on the exams, but they were still failing. I let them drop their lowest exam score. But they were still failing! Finally, I curved their exam scores to allow them to pass, but I didn’t feel good about this! It’s ironic, because in my Intro course we discuss grade inflation and the mediocrity of our education system — and here I was contributing to the problem!
So when my Pearson rep came to me to tell me about this new immersive learning system called REVEL, I was willing to listen. Although it was a new and unfamiliar program, I had to put aside my own insecurities and put my students’ best interests first. What really hooked me into the program was the idea that this program could hold them accountable to read!
Let’s be honest, reading and understanding the material is the biggest obstacle my students were facing. Not only could I hold them accountable for the readings, but the “chunking” method of breaking up the reading into smaller bits and then following it up with quizzes and interactive activities really helped them reflect on what they were reading. This scaffolding approach to learning is what really enabled my students to improve their study skills and ultimately their success and retention rates in my courses.
The evidence is in their test scores. The semester prior to using REVEL, my students’ average exam score was 68% (and that included using cheat sheets and dropping their lowest exam scores!). After using REVEL, (and keeping everything else the same) their average exam scores increased by 15 points to 83%! I was so proud of my students! I knew they could do it!
And yes, they were the ones who had the weaker study skills, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t also my fault. As educators, it’s our responsibility to research the latest technologies and teaching strategies that are out there, and then use them in the classroom to improve student learning outcomes. Now I can proudly say, I am a good professor! Not just because of my lecturing abilities, but because I’m willing to take risks and try new things in order to benefit my students. We need to be willing to go the extra mile and be innovators in the classroom.
Want to learn more about Catherine’s experience with REVEL? Read the case study.
D: Who or what inspires you and keeps you motivated to work in higher education?
C: In sociology we discuss critical issues of inequality in terms of race, class, and gender. When my students take these issues to heart and are motivated to try to make a difference in their personal lives and in our communities, I leave the classroom truly happy and motivated to continue the work that I do. When I see my students being successful — graduating, transferring to four-year institutions, being accepted for internships, reaching their goals — it reaffirms that the work I do is important. I couldn’t have picked a more fulfilling profession!
D: Where can we find you outside of the classroom?
C: Whenever I’m not working, I’m spending time with my family — my husband Eddie and my three children, Isabella (9), Jayden (6), and Anthony (4). They are my everything! You’ll find me volunteering in my children’s classrooms, camping in the mountains, swimming at the beach, going to the zoo, and travelling around the state to visit museums and attend amusement parks! Or instead of going out, we’ll stay in and have a family BBQ.
In addition to my immediate family, I have my parents, eight brothers and sisters, ten nephews and nieces, and eight great-nephews and nieces. So having dinner with my family is always a fiesta!
D: What advice do you have for those who aspire to become educators?
C: Don’t be afraid to take risks and step outside your comfort zone. Don’t be afraid of change. Our students learn and grow as a result of being in our classrooms — and so must we!
D: What does the phrase “Learning makes us” mean to you?
C: “Learning makes us…” is the beginning to a very powerful sentence. Learning makes us question our surroundings and try to find ways to better our world. Learning makes us creative, analytical, progressive, understanding, compassionate, optimistic, and idealistic. Learning makes us human.