Behind the Scenes of a Specially Designed Course

April 06, 2020

You probably know from experience that when you have a teacher who’s excited about teaching, the class is energized.

Special topics courses give professors that chance to re-energize.

Now multiply that energy level by 3.

Three professors — from American studies, education, and philosophy — co-taught a special topics course, The School-to-Prison Pipeline (STPP), during the fall 2019 semester.

The Class Was Born Out of a Faculty Member’s Sense of Social Responsibility

For several years, Tammy Nyden, associate professor of philosophy, has been a strong advocate for children’s mental health justice in the state of Iowa and nationally through a nonprofit she co-founded, Mothers on the Frontline.

Early in her legislative advocacy work, Nyden kept running into two issues. “No one would listen to us if we weren’t talking about our personal stories, and no one would listen to us if we didn't have numbers,” she says. “Who's supposed to have both of those?”

She started by figuring out ways to gather stories that were ethical and respectful of each individual who shared a story. She tested the approach in a 2-credit course on mental health policy and outreach. The success with that class shaped Nyden’s idea for the STPP course.

Humanities and Social Studies Converged Through Deep Course Preparation

Stephanie Jones
Stephanie Jones, assistant professor of education

Nyden knew she wanted collaborators to co-teach the STPP course. Kesho Scott, associate professor of American studies and sociology, brought her experience teaching about institutional racism and social movements. Stephanie Jones, assistant professor of education and a former high school English teacher, has been teaching about the school-to-prison pipeline in her education classes at Grinnell.

“For us to come together and look at this from 3 different lenses was remarkable,” Jones says.

Thanks to a College Innovation Fund grant, the 3 professors spent a year preparing the course and creating a model for other professors to use. They had to figure out how to structure it, what content to cover, what readings to include, how students would demonstrate their learning, and how to share the teaching. They decided to break it up into distinct sections so that each teacher incorporated her discipline expertise as it relates to the topic.

They also localized the issue. Although Iowa public K–12 schools have historically been applauded for their high graduation rates, the state ranks near the bottom in terms of racial disparity and incarceration.

“We have one of the biggest gaps between the educational success of general education students and special ed,” Nyden says. “Iowa is one of the worst states in seclusion and restraint of special ed students and in the suspension and expulsion of special ed students.”

The professors wanted their students to create and share digital stories, infographics, and a report about 5 key themes:

  • Seclusion and restraint
  • Suspension and expulsion
  • School resource officers (aka, police officers in schools)
  • Special education
  • School push-out

“Think of Your Activism as Your Grain of Sand”

Kesho Scott
Kesho Scott, associate professor of American studies and sociology

The topic of The School-to-Prison Pipeline was emotionally hard work.

“The students kept falling into despair,” Nyden says. They sometimes saw the school-to-prison pipeline as too big of a problem.

Activism can be emotionally tough too. Scott, who’s taught at Grinnell since 1986, told students this: “If you think of your activism as your grain of sand, pick your grain of sand and work with that.”

The professors worked hard to help students manage their disappointment and keep going.

Guest speakers also helped students keep the work in perspective. During a one-day workshop, activists and policy experts from a dozen different organizations shared their practical advice. (And thanks to the Innovation Fund grant, they were paid an honorarium for their time.)

“It was comforting to see that these real people, who are very intelligent and very kind, are trying to solve it already. It's not like we're going into a world where no one is paying any attention to this issue at all. There are people trying to solve it. And I think having them there was just so reassuring,” says Sarah Beisner ’22.

Jade Bezjak ’20 agrees. “[The school-to-prison pipeline issue] is so big, and there's so much to do. So I think it was helpful to talk to people about how big it is and how much time it takes to make something happen that way.”

If the whole idea of service and social responsibility resonates with you, see other ways Grinnell College and our students contribute to the common good.


This story is part of a series about the School-to-Prison Pipeline course. See also



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