Anita Verna Crofts’ Classroom Philosophy Takes the Stage at SXSWedu

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Photo by Carolyn Higgins.

Leadership and creativity are not gifts bestowed on some, but skills achievable by all.

That’s the mantra of Anita Verna Crofts’ class COM 536 “Leadership Through Story and Communities: Creativity and the Digital Age,” the second course of a two-part foundational sequence of the Communication Leadership graduate program.

After centuries of ascribing desirable character traits to winning a genetic lottery, modern scholarship is turning the tide. With new texts empowering people to develop those attributes through work and practice, creativity is taking shape as an academic discipline. And with COM 536, Crofts is leading the charge.

My teaching philosophy starts with ‘Let Students Lead,’ which reflects the diffuse expertise that exists in any class of professional graduate students,” Crofts explains. “I approach teaching—at both the undergraduate and the graduate level—as setting the stage for students to take flight, which inspired my Flight Instructor title.”

Her end goal is to help students recognize the existing power of their personal narratives and community connections and then learn how to leverage those assets as leaders and creative problem-solvers. Nurturing the confidence and unique capabilities of each student is no easy feat, but Crofts’ title of Flight Instructor is apt. Her classroom cockpit is dynamic, innovative, and challenging. And the guidance she provides from takeoff to landing is primed for national attention.

A Seminar of Seventy

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Photo by Anita Verna Crofts.

The Comm Lead program emphasizes the importance of community, so understanding its attributes in the classroom also means living it as a cohort. One of the foundational classes’ key goals was to create a space where students could be guaranteed full cohort participation. That space takes place every other Saturday in Odegaard Library’s Active Learning Classroom (ALC), where the entirety of the Comm Lead’s class of 2013 meets for an intensive, interactive eight-hour session. Putting everyone together certainly fosters integration and builds a robust support system amid peers, but 74 individuals in a room, awaiting their pilot’s instruction, present their own challenges.

“I want a room of 70 to feel like a seminar of 20,” Crofts says. “And if it’s a seminar of 20, I want it to feel like a dinner party of six. And if it’s a dinner party of six, I want everyone to leave feeling like they had one-on-one conversations with me. This is the way that I approach my craft.”

Though the ALC provides high tech toys (microphones, screens, PA system) to bridge the physical distance between tables, what truly shrinks the space is Crofts’ commitment to get to know her students, and her encouragement of their continued investment in deepening the cohort ties. Before the quarter began, Crofts memorized all her students’ names with flash cards. Then, to help students own their learning space and build community, she solicited a compilation music playlist—each student contributed two of their favorite tracks to what would become the soundtrack of the day-long sessions.

Crofts’ hospitality and individual attention hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“Anita makes sure that everyone has a voice,” says COM 536 student Jenny Burns. “She’s very invested in giving everyone a chance to share what’s important to them. For the first time in my life I find myself coming up with ideas and hearing, ‘Wow, that’s a great idea. We should do that!’ from instructors.”

Cartography of the Self

Once the room is settled, students begin exploring the intersections between leadership, story, creativity, and the relationships that build community. Leveraging a range of texts, local guest speakers and the diversity of expertise within her cohort, Crofts helps the class reframe the notion of creativity and leadership, from innate gifts to achievable practice. Lessons include considering virtual and place-based communities, expanding the definition of being an artist, and organizational design and engagement strategies. The assignments culminate in a final project that requires an artist statement and a literature review, which makes the final day of the quarter a showcase of both the students’ personal growth and their garnered academic knowledge.

“Part of the puzzle of creativity is how to unleash entrepreneurial instincts in every one of our students and allow them to see the power and the possibility of creatively thinking about their work,” Crofts says.

The path to that kind of self-actualization requires a lot of self-reflection; taking an honest look at one’s own ambitions and relationships is the first step. To do so, Crofts assigns two mapping exercises to the students. The first asks them to travel ten to twenty years into the future and document professional and personal accomplishments they’ve achieved by then—a roadmap to dreaming big. The second assignment asks each of the students to take inventory of their present-day social currency by outlining all of their networks and communities.

“We don’t experience success alone. The idea of leadership as a constellation of relationships made me want to provide this kind of exercise,” Crofts says. “By reminding ourselves of where these communities exist, we can engage more fully with them.”

Like everything else in COM 536, these assignments welcome creativity—maps can take the shape of futuristic resumes, comic strips or networked Post-it notes haloed around the author’s photo. But sharing the end result with the class can be challenging.

“There was a leap of faith that many of them had to take to articulate a vision that had beforehand been a private conversation,” Crofts admits. That’s why the course is credit/no credit. The absence of grades leaves room for risk-taking and personal growth.  Thanks to that, students are empowered to present and execute their ideas —even inviting curricular change, like a new, paperless class feedback system.

“Anita has fostered such a safe, learning environment for us,” says Burns, who spearheaded the move to an all-digital submission framework.  “The supportive community of Cohort 13 has really encouraged me to take risks and try out leadership and creative ventures. I’ve seen that with my classmates, too. I see them stepping out on a limb and trying things they never tried before. Safety, inspiration and support—those are the three greatest things I’ve felt in Comm Lead.”

Food for Thought

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All photos by Carolyn Higgins.

Much of COM 536’s structure comes from its own textbook. The tenets of thoughtful engagement and using personal narrative to accent one’s leadership merge seamlessly in one of the class’ liveliest activities—catered lecture lunches. Instead of scattering students to the wind during the lunch hour, Crofts makes breaking bread together part of the curriculum.

“Food has a way of breaking down differences or connecting people in a way that other activities don’t,” Crofts says. “In a class that looks at leadership and story and relationships and communication and creativity—these themes align so well with the art of the meal.”

Instead of simply catering a meal, Crofts sought out chefs and community-based organizations to elevate the meal to a shared conversation about leadership. Guests include Chef Lisa Nakamura, Project Feast, FEEST Seattle, Purna, and Josh Henderson of Huxley Wallace Collective. The guests share their stories, while students absorb the nutritional and intellectual morsels, buffet style.

“On some fundamental level, this is me sharing who I am with my students,” Crofts admits. The lecturer comes from a food research background (and often blogs about her gastronomical findings), so incorporating the passion into her teaching was a natural progression. “It reflects my values.”

Taking it to SXSWedu

Crofts’ teaching philosophy and objectives are far from the standard fare in academia. But her methods are ahead of the curve and many of the nation’s universities are itching to follow suit. The demand for holistic education that develops an individual’s attitudinal as well as technical competencies has been steadily rising. Individual classes on creativity and leadership have been established at Buffalo State and Drexel University in Philadelephia, but Comm Lead’s full program approach is yet to be matched.

This year is the first incarnation of Comm Lead’s COM 546/COM 536 foundational classes. And though the student crew of COM 536 is still a week out from landing (the final project showcase debuts on March 8), Crofts’ “Let Students Lead” approach has already catapulted past graduates to success.

Elizabeth Wiley of Cohort 11 credits her present-day Digital Producer position at King 5 TV to the skills she gained in Crofts’ UW Election Eye course. The class was dedicated to covering the 2012 presidential election around the country for a blog hosted by The Seattle Times. Rather than have her students complete by-the-book assignments, Crofts had them take over the blog’s planning and strategy, guiding them into leadership positions.

“Anita wanted us to take ownership over the experiences we were having and pushed us to think about things differently,” Wiley recalls. “She really empowered her students. Any interaction you have with her, you leave feeling like she really cares about you and your growth as a student and as a person.”

That added responsibility challenged Wiley to step outside her comfort zone, pick up new skills and venture into unfamiliar reporting territory.

“It forced me to grow more and to think creatively, rather than just checking a box,” Wiley says. “I came into the program without a lot of the professional experience that my classmates had. The opportunity [to take ownership over my projects] gave me a lot of confidence and helped me end up where I am.”

To show the world how it’s done, Crofts is taking her expertise to SXSWedu, a huge, four-day conference in Austin, dedicated to innovation, connection, and collaboration in the educational community. Her solo talk, titled “From the Flight Deck: Community in the Classroom,” will debut on Thursday, March 6th at 7 A.M. PST.

So buckle up. Comm Lead is ready for takeoff.