Innovative Practices Spotlight

CAE Innovative Practices Spotlight


Dr. Justin Mando, Assistant Professor, English

The Center for Academic Excellence is recognizing a faculty member every month in the CAE Innovative Practices Spotlight to highlight his or her innovative classroom practices and outstanding contribution to Millersville University.

Dr. Justin Mando is being recognized in February for his exceptional use of the "Tiny Ecology Project" in his English courses!

Please continue reading to learn more about his exciting experience and to learn ways to incorporate innovative practices into your classroom...

1. What innovative practice did you incorporate into your classroom?

The practice I’ve incorporated into my classes is the “Tiny Ecology Project.” The basic premise is that students select a small space (preferably outdoors) that they visit, investigate, and write about 4-5 times spread throughout a course. At the end of the project, the students attempt to convince their classmates that their mostly overlooked space has value and should be appreciated. That sounds simple enough, but this seemingly mundane task has the potential to help students generate fascinating insights as well as to learn research and writing skills. It is also broadly applicable to a variety of disciplines.

The “tiny” part of the assignment limits the scope of the space to constrain students’ focus. This could be a flowerbed outside of McNairy, a single spot along the bank of the Conestoga, or a favorite study spot in Saxby’s. The goal is to select a small space to draw out details and connections that otherwise may be overlooked.

We look at each space as an “ecology” to emphasize the connections between that place and the wider world. So, a student may look at their bank along the Conestoga and investigate the flora and fauna and discover a contest between native and non-native plants. They may look to the history of the river and learn about the connection between the river and Conestoga wagons. They may consider the human uses of the trail and of the river itself, its economic impact, or they may find themselves on an inward journey. Where they take the project is their choice, but I encourage students to follow at least several investigative paths along the way.

In my eyes, this project mirrors the invention and research process that we all go through when we need to come up with a research topic and we start following the many threads that lead to insight. One of my goals is to make explicit those connections between the process they go through with the Tiny Ecology Project and the academic research process. So, we reflect on the decision points they face and how they must keep in mind their audience’s expectations and interest. To better connect to their peers, students include multi-modal representations of the place. They produce writing, photographs, videos, sound clips and more.

2. When did you implement the new practice into your classroom?

I implemented this practice in a summer session of Advanced Composition last year. Since then, I’ve run the project with ENGL 466: Environmental Advocacy Writing and this semester I’m trying it with two sections of ENGL 110: English Composition. I also participated in the project during the summer session, selecting, visiting, and making discussion board posts about my own Tiny Ecology located along the Susquehanna River at Riverfront Park near Marietta. I developed the idea after discovering it on J.J. Cohen’s blog, “In the Medieval Middle.” Professor Cohen has supported and encouraged my use of the project. 

3. Did the students willingly accept the use of the new practice? What were the reactions of the students?

Students have responded to this project with some initial bewilderment. They’ll ask things like, “So, you just want me to sit looking at a tree for a half hour?” But (so far without fail) by the end students report developing a connection to the place they’ve been observing. They’ve also been quite effective at arguing for the value of that place to our class. We wrap up the project with a “Tiny Ecology Day” where students showcase their tiny ecologies.

4. How has the use of the new practice positively affected the classroom learning environment?

I find that students refer to their tiny ecologies as we engage other projects in class. Those connections across assignments I see as encouraging evidence of learning that is not solely linked to a grade. Students discover and share connections between what they’ve been observing and the writing process, how to engage in research, social issues, and more. Sometimes I make those connections clear by asking students to consider how, for instance, a class reading connects to their tiny ecology. In English Composition we just read an excerpt from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Students may look to their tiny ecologies and, with Carson’s influential appeal to halt DDT use in mind, consider issues of social import that intersect their space that could use a call-to-action. 

5. How has the use of the new practice affected student engagement in the classroom and the level of participation?

I’ve answered this question above regarding inside the classroom, but I think the possible broader impact of this assignment is that students start to see the seemingly mundane as potentially full of importance. I think this is analogous to a good researcher being on the lookout for new areas of inquiry. Additionally, my hope is that students start to see these places they’ve selected as not one single place that has gained new importance, but as representative of any place they encounter that could have the same results. Those are big hopes for the impact of this assignment, but as I keep developing the project and learning from student feedback, I hope to be able to provide evidence of that impact.

6. What challenges did you encounter when you were implementing the new practice?

Students first took this project to be a descriptive task and not an investigative one. That’s been the main issue to contend with, though some more amusing problems have cropped up. I’ve had students want to focus their Tiny Ecology Project on places that were a bit questionable including one student who wanted to write all semester about their bathroom! Hold the photos, please!

7. How did attending Camp IDEA or a CAE Professional Development session contribute to your learning and use of the innovative practice?

From my first days during new faculty orientation I’ve felt great support for pedagogical innovation at Millersville. My department has encouraged me to experiment and programming through the CAE has further encouraged me to test out new teaching practices. I’ve mostly attended CAE sessions on D2L and online pedagogy; those led me to consider this project as a way to engage students in an online class. I’ve been finding that this project works in face-to-face settings quite well, too. I also developed this project in part through my participation at the Rhetoric Society of America’s Summer Institute last summer. I was in a workshop group on “Environmental Rhetoric” and discussions there helped take this project to where it’s at now.