Reflections from the BTtoP Student Conference

Welcome to a special edition of the Bringing Theory to Practice newsletter. This past November, the project held its fourth National Biennial Student Conference, titled Recasting the ‘3Rs’ of Learning: From Reading, WRiting and ARithmetic to Reflection, Resiliency, Relationships and Responsibility in Washington, DC. The conference was so productive and special that we decided to dedicate an entire newsletter to what we, as national project leaders, learned, and to what the attendees learned about themselves. This newsletter will be composed almost entirely of the thoughts and reflections of students and faculty who attended the conference.

Typically, this newsletter would be structured to include a feature article from a guest author, a campus highlight authored by a BTtoP grantee, and a column by the project director, Don Harward. This issue of the newsletter will feature three sections as well; however, the content will be different. The first section will highlight student and faculty reflections on the question, “What did we learn about the 4Rs at this conference?” The second section is dedicated to asking ourselves and the conference attendees, “What else should we have learned at the conference or should we be learning about the 4Rs?” And finally, looking forward, we explore what we think you (our reader) can, as a higher educator, do to further this progress in your own teaching and learning.

With this student conference we took a new direction. From inception, the agenda was informed by a great number of outside participants—not necessarily grantees, nor advisory board members, nor solely core staff and consultants. Sally Engelhard Pingree, president of the S. Engelhard Center and one of the major supporters of BTtoP, is especially passionate about work dedicated to highlighting the student voice. She was instrumental in setting a first round of meetings and discussions, asking, What is most important for students to be learning right now as related to BTtoP priorities? From those conversations arose the theme of recasting the 3Rs of learning. Throughout the process, students’ voices were highlighted as we requested their input and advice for the content and format of the agenda. The goal, throughout, was to focus on student learning: What would students be able to take away from this event?

The conference format included participatory sessions and activities that depended upon the students’ active involvement, rather than passive absorption of information. Don Harward, BTtoP director, opened by challenging the students to think about risk in how they approach their engagement in the conference, in their educational experiences, and in their lives. He focused on the contrasts of vertical and horizontal engagement, and the benefits and potential limits of each. (His words were highlighted in his column in the last issue of this newsletter.) Each session featured an R, and each was represented through a different type of activity: relationship role-playing, student presentations on the many manifestations of resiliency, reflective writing and sharing, and civic responsibility skill-building workshops. Many students responding to a post-conference survey mentioned the workshop they attended or presentation they witnessed as the highlight of the event.