Whether it be using innovative and creative teaching methods in the classroom or actively working on social justice projects on-campus and abroad, Kwantlen Polytechnic University is full of faces who work behind the scenes to provide students with a comfortable and accepting learning environment.
These changemakers are the unsung heroes of KPU, working towards the betterment of teaching, learning, and institutional principals.
Asma Sayed, an English department faculty member, is one of these heroes, and finds anti-racism is a central issue in her activism and community engagement.
This passion culminated in early 2020, when Sayed became a part of a faculty committee that approached KPU leadership on how the university can support anti-racism initiatives in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Sayed and the committee wrote a report, where one of the recommendations was to form a task force, which President and Vice Chancellor Alan Davis asked her to chair.
“Much of the research work that I do revolves around social justice, and so I agreed to do that,” Sayed says.
She led the Task Force on Anti-Racism from July 2020 to October 2022, where Sayed — along with other faculty, staff, students, and administrators — submitted a report with 64 recommendations on how the university can address systemic racism.
Two of the recommendations were to have an office on addressing systemic racism and appoint someone in a high-level position to lead it, which Sayed now oversees as associate vice president since Davis accepted the report on its launch day.
Sayed is working on moving forward with some of the report’s major recommendations. She has begun asking departments and faculties which ones they would like to prioritize.
“My hope is that by the end of the year, we will have some pieces in place and then we can start picking up the pace on a number of recommendations. This is a long-term plan, but I think we are in a good place right now in terms of moving forward with some of the work,” she says.
When it comes to bringing social justice into her teaching of literature and film, Sayed says she uses “pedagogies of social justice” in the classroom.
“[The] classroom is a place where critical change can happen, where seeds can be planted for some of the social change,” she says.
“I approach my teaching through a post-colonial, decolonial angle, which invariably brings in the social justice angle. So for me, these are intertwined projects. My teaching is informed by my activist work and my activism is informed by my scholarly work.”
Sayed has also been the Canada Research Chair in South Asian literary and cultural studies since August 2020, which is a position in a federal government program. Through this role, she worked on the South Asian Arts Festival at KPU. Sayed and bhangra instructor Gurpreet Sian co-hosted the first event, which featured drumming, singing, dancing, and poetry readings.
Like Sayed, Jennifer Hardwick, the chair of the policy studies department, was part of the Task Force on Anti-Racism. As a member, Hardwick says she participated in consultations with others on the task force to learn about their lived experiences with racism, assisted in forming recommendations, and helped write and edit the final report.
“It was an opportunity to serve,” Hardwick says.
“As a white settler who doesn’t face racism in my own life, I know it’s also important to have white folks invested in these processes to ensure that it’s not seen as an issue that is just something racialized people need to address …. It’s really important for the rest of us to listen, pay attention, participate, learn, unlearn, and be actively engaged in these processes.”
About five years ago, Hardwick became involved in the Including All Citizens Project (IACP), a KPU initiative that focused on having students with intellectual disabilities take arts courses on an equal basis as other students. The IACP followed the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a framework on inclusive teaching.
“After [working with UDL], I started to informally share my knowledge and see how applicable it is to teaching,” Hardwick says.
“That led me to apply for the educational consultant position in the Teaching and Learning Commons with the hopes of sharing what I learned and also building some resources and tools to help faculty use UDL more successfully.”
As an educational consultant in the commons, Hardwick trained other faculty on UDL principles, which included making sure class documents and presentations were accessible and working on Moodle. Although she is not an educational consultant anymore, she continues to work with the commons on learning and sharing educational skills and tools.
Hardwick confronts social justice topics like Indigenous-settler relations, racism and anti-racism, and disability justice and inclusion in her teaching, using UDL as a model in the classroom.
She says while universities can be places for positive change, they also have histories in colonialism, racism, and ableism that need to be addressed through collaboration with others in the campus community.
“We often talk about these issues in classrooms,” Hardwick says. “We talk about histories, interconnections, identity, [and] learning. I like to be able to put that in practice out in the community by actually engaging in this kind of change and working with others.”
Community collaboration is also central to Candy Ho, an educational studies instructor. Ho is the university lead of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a project that commits KPU to following goals like addressing climate change and eliminating poverty through academic and administrative programs.
For phase one of the project, Ho and the team submitted a final report in April, which mapped out KPU services and programs that align with SDGs and providing further recommendations.
Ho’s first introduction to the goals was back in 2019 when she participated in the UN SDGs Open Pedagogy Fellowship, an international program where faculties create assignments that encourage students to improve their communities.
“I continue to build my expertise on the SDGs,” Ho says. “I stumbled upon that field but have never left since, and it’s one of those things where I hesitate to call myself an expert, but I see myself as an expert in learning because learning is circular. You’re always continuing.”
Ho is also the board chair of CERIC, a national career advancement non-profit. Through this position, she is currently working with international scholars, researchers, and professionals to lobby the UN to declare an international day of career development and livelihood.
This push ties to her interest in SDGs.
“That’s the cool thing I’ve been working on, and [a] part of that [is] presenting in national and global conferences, helping people understand why SDGs are important [and] not just related to career development conferences but overall.”
Prior to teaching, Ho worked in student affairs and services, which included handling matters in co-operative education, career exploration, and new student transition to university.
As an instructor, Ho says the topics she explores through her initiatives also transfer into the classroom.
“I encourage development. I help students understand that career is not just work, not just vocation, but we look at career as a constellation of life roles that people play over the course of their lifetime,” Ho says.
Ross Laird, a creative writing instructor, is also heavily involved in students’ learning journeys. Laird says he uses evidence-based teaching practices, allowing students to be the expert of their own learning, versus the instructor.
The approaches Laid uses include de-emphasizing grades, not having fixed due dates, reducing lectures, and having students talk in a circle.
“I try not to create an environment where I’m telling learners what to do,” Laird says.
“They’re adults taking a class where they have chosen to pursue a certain aspect of a certain subject. Usually that subject involves creativity for me at KPU. Especially in fields that involve creative practice, there really needs to be a lot of exploration and discovery, rather than ‘This is how you get there’ kinds of steps.”
Laird teaches several courses where at least half of the sessions are held outdoors or in places outside of KPU, including ARTS 2000, a course on mental wellness.
“[For ARTS 2000] we did twice this semester, we went indoor rock climbing,” he says.
“That was really fun, and it’s the first time — as far as I know in the history of KPU — that anybody has done rock climbing in the context of the classroom experience …. There’s quite a large body of research about the relationship between rock climbing and mental health and the contribution that rock climbing can make toward mental health.”
He also has a reading project in all his courses, where the single criterion is to read any book for joy.
“This for many learners has been a transformative thing, because unfortunately one of the byproducts of traditional academic culture is people learn to hate reading,” Laird says.
“It’s a very bad outcome for mental health in the long run for the lifespan, so I feel quite motivated to try to push back against that.”
Outside of KPU, Laird is a clinical consultant, helping organizations understand mental health and well-being, and helps people understand trauma and mental illness. Addressing addictions is also a key area in his work.
“The area I think is most interesting or most rewarding for me is the world of addiction,” Laird says.
“Addiction is maybe the most common human frailty. Everybody has addiction somewhere in their life, and addiction is almost never about the behaviour of addiction. It’s always about the things behind it or underneath it. Usually, that’s a mental health challenge and/or a trauma or set series of traumas.”
Like Laird, Melville School of Business instructor John Grant uses innovative teaching approaches. Self-reflection, group activities, discussions, polls, games, and having students update content on Google Slides are ways he engages them in the classroom.
His students also receive points instead of letter grades on assignments, where a total of 11 points earned during a course equals an A+ final grade.
“[It] takes a lot of stress off of students to say, ‘Oh, I need an A+ on this assignment,’” Grant says. “Instead, they’re working towards just getting points, and to get points, they just need to meet my expectations.”
If a student does not meet his expectations the first time, they can resubmit an assignment again, incorporating his feedback without point deductions.
Grant also uses the restorative justice approach when it comes to handling academic integrity violations, like plagiarism.
Rather than automatically giving a student a zero on an assignment or a more serious penalty, Grant says he has a conversation with them, informing them of the violation, discussing how it happened, and how they can improve. Sometimes, he requires them to redo the assignment, complete an alternative one, or submit a reflection on what they learned from the situation.
“Ever since I’ve taken this approach, I’ve noticed a dramatic difference in my students and in terms of the trust that I have with them.”
Grant also says he has taken large efforts to make his assignments reusable, meaning students can apply their learning outside of school.
He says using these engagement methods while teaching directly correlates to student success.
“There’s one student I can think of in particular who finished the course and stated they had essentially given up on life,” Grant says.
“They had no sense of purpose, no sense of direction, and after taking the course, they had a really clear sense of where they were going, why they mattered, and what they could contribute to the world. To me, that’s my goal. That’s my ultimate outcome as an instructor.”