With a passion for teaching, UNM-Los Alamos Assistant Professor of English Zandree Stidham traveled to Mozambique, Africa, to share her talents and exchange cultural insights. She also brought insights home to Los Alamos to help enhance the learning experience for her students.
“Teaching is my absolute favorite thing I do,” Stidham said. “If I could be in the classroom all day, every day, I would. In my classes, students research and write about their interests, and I love seeing them find their passion and pursue it.” The learning is a mutual process for her, she said, as students share their interests.
On her third and most recent trip to Africa this past summer, Stidham spent her afternoons teaching English at a language school to students ages 16 to 40. “The official language is Portuguese, and most people also speak Swahili and other tribal languages, but a need for English has been recognized in the service industries, in hospitals,” she said. She taught up to 10 students at a time in a writing and conversation skills class.
She also tutored an 11th grader who is studying English with plans to come to the U.S. Stidham will continue teaching the young woman from abroad until she makes the trip to this country. The Mozambican educational system focuses on rote memorization, at which this student excels, so Stidham worked with her to process and analyze what she was reading and saying.
Traveling as a family, Stidham, her husband and their three children lived on a base with a mission organization. The mission organization has been in Mozambique for 20 years and feeds 5,000 people a day, including some who walk hours from their villages to get a bowl of food. “We learned about interacting in that country, and how, as a non-governmental organization, to come in and serve productively,” she said. Although the nation is stable politically, guards were stationed outside the compound where her family stayed.
The experiences Stidham had teaching in Africa expanded her world view while improving her teaching techniques that she believes will help her connect with students at UNM-LA as well.
“Even though teaching in that environment is very different from here, it still taught me so much about serving in New Mexico where our cultural context is totally rich and diverse,” Stidham explained. “I would thank the African students for allowing me to come in and share what I know, while honoring their cultural backgrounds, with a mutual relationship of sharing our strengths. It’s the same thing here when we’re teaching any students who are different from us culturally or ethnically—all students bring strengths to the classroom. Respecting that helps them learn in this environment.”
As an Assistant Professor of English at UNM-LA, Stidham is teaching Enhanced Composition, a course on expository writing and research; University 101, a “crash course on university survival that’s really fun;” and Argument and Analysis, an online English course, this semester. She’s been teaching for 13 years with the last four at UNM-LA.
Besides teaching students how to write and research, Stidham believes in giving students the skills and tools to think and analyze. “I’m horrible at math, for example, but I know where to find the resources to help me solve my problem,” she said. “It’s the same for students with learning disabilities or who are struggling to keep up in college classes—I love to help them figure out they can succeed, even if they’ve been told they can’t do it all their lives.”
As a former foster parent and a parent of an adopted child, Stidham believes in the power of advocating for those who might be overlooked or undervalued in the child welfare and educational systems. “Kids without advocates really suffer in our systems and their potential is not fostered or nurtured as well as it could be,” she said. “When people come into my classroom, I want to call out the potential in them.”
Connecting with other educators is also important to Stidham who is a faculty advocate with Team Up, a division of the educational publishing house Cengage. Besides publishing On Course, the text used by the UNM-LA First-Year Experience Program, Cengage hosts conferences in which Stidham has presented and connected with her peers to compare successes and challenges with learning tools and techniques.
“For the two-year colleges association conference, I did a presentation on strategies to increase students’ sense of belonging,” Stidham said. “Research has identified that a sense of community is important for retention, especially with students who are marginalized or otherwise at risk. That’s one of our goals as a campus—we work hard to keep them once they’re here and to include them in something larger than themselves.”
Cengage also hosted a webcast on gamification of learning that Stidham presented for Turniton.com. “By looking at the elements of games — video and board games alike — that keep people playing for hours, we can use the same motivators in classrooms,” Stidham explained. Game-like elements such as instant feedback on performance, earning rewards, and achieving levels of success working toward a goal are a few of the techniques she mentioned. “It ties back to social justice and human engagement,” she said. “Students have taken that first step of enrolling in class, and gamification can sometimes help keep them engaged and working toward a degree.”
Stidham also serves as Composition Coordinator at UNM-LA, which includes organizing meetings for the English Composition instructors, coordinating the course schedule, helping with assessment in the department, and keeping current with theory and practice in the composition field.
For the past year, Stidham has also been the Site Coordinator for a collaborative, five-year federal HSI-STEM grant that is shared by UNM-LA and three other local colleges. “The grant has done great things for the campus—we remodeled several classrooms to make them more active learning-centered and upgraded our IT infrastructure,” Stidham explained. “I’ve done some grant writing in the past and now that we’re in the fourth year of the HSI grant, we’re applying for new funding for when it ends.”
Looking forward, the young educator’s future holds more professional development: In October, Stidham will present on multiculturalism in the classroom for a Cengage conference in Utah. Also this semester, she and some UNM-LA colleagues are starting a research project focused on student retention by following a sampling of incoming freshmen during their two years at the university. The group will examine the academic decisions students make about completing their studies or not and what forces impact their decisions. With a focus on regional influences, they’ll examine family and cultural influences as well, and hope to learn more about how best to support students in this region.