The Student News Site of Sacramento City College

The Express

The Student News Site of Sacramento City College

The Express

The Student News Site of Sacramento City College

The Express

How one City College professor gives every student a place in her classroom

Photo courtesy of Karla Rojas

As a new teacher, Karla Rojas didn’t think to tie equity into her practice. However, over time, she began to examine the ways in which she might be able to teach math more inclusively. One of her first efforts in this was what she calls “a long introduction” at the start of each semester. 

“You start off your class by really introducing yourself to your students,” Rojas says. “And I don’t mean like, ‘Hey, I’m a math professor.’ But I mean really introducing yourself, as it’s going to give you an idea of who I am as a person.” 

Rojas introduces herself to students using the four names she was given at birth and explaining the proper pronunciation. She also shares about growing up in poverty, being a person of color and being undocumented. 

“The first time I introduced myself to my class I cried. … ” Rojas says. “The thing that has changed the dynamic of my class is this essence of finally being vulnerable and transparent.”

Rojas is one of the leading professors at City College in her efforts to include equity in her teachings, in hopes of dismantling systematic discrimination and ensuring that every student feels they have a place in the classroom. Earlier this semester, Rojas spoke on a panel about her equity work with students and colleagues at the Los Rios College Federation of Teachers’ Faculty Excellence Speaker series, hosted by the LRCFT’s Social Justice Caucus.

Beginning her journey in higher education at Los Medanos Community College in Pittsburg, Calif., Rojas then transferred to UC Davis, where she obtained a bachelor’s degree in mathematics with a minor in education. She earned her master’s degree in mathematics at San Francisco State. Rojas started her teaching career at San Francisco State as a graduate assistant. She then worked for an online education company until 2018, when the company was dissolved. She began teaching in the mathematics department at City College in 2019. 

Making education accessible

Rojas believes that the most important aspect of teaching is ensuring no student is left behind. In order to accomplish this feat, Rojas explains, one must examine the obstacles that discourage students from obtaining educational success.

“What becomes the gatekeepers for students in your class?” Rojas says. “Is it the cost? The moment your textbook costs $150, there’s a student somewhere that is like, ‘I can’t take that class because I can’t afford that textbook.’ That’s what we have to try to figure out, is how does our course or ourselves become gatekeepers for some students in being able to get to their destination?”

Rojas reflects upon her own experiences of going through the education system in the United States as a woman of color. As a child, Rojas would sit in class and wonder if she was smart enough to learn the coursework, or if she truly belonged in the classroom at all. Rojas says she strives to never let a student of hers feel like she once did.

“My goal is to really try to figure out how each voice of every student in my class becomes an expert in something,” Rojas says. “And therefore they have value because our class wouldn’t learn the same had they not been there.” 

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Rojas reminisces about a time when she was able to influence a student to participate in the lesson who had never once spoken before in class. 

“I have a student who would always be falling asleep in my class and would not engage,” Rojas says. “All of a sudden you see him so hyped up … and it was just that shift — the fact that he had something that could contribute that made it so powerful.”  

Rojas tends to diverge from the traditional way of teaching in the classroom, relying on unconventional methods that encourage student involvement and expression. 

“They’re just bringing all of these different perspectives that as an educator, there’s just no way I could have done it by myself,” Rojas says. “It is so enriching to hear all of their voices come together.”

Rojas has implemented the use of what she calls “teach me videos,” which allow students to film themselves teaching a lesson and share it with the class. She has also redefined her idea of a final exam. Instead, she ends each semester with a “celebration of knowledge,” which allows the students to pick a topic they find interesting, gather data on the topic and demonstrate that they have mastered each student learning outcome of the course through a final presentation. 

“I’ve been trying to move away from exams because I think that the way the exam system works, it doesn’t allow our students to learn from mistakes,” Rojas says. “But that’s when we do our best learning, and yet our education system doesn’t allow for that.”

‘An outstanding faculty member’

Rojas’ colleagues speak highly of her efforts to step outside the status quo and implement new teaching methods and ideas that encourage student success through the equity lens. 

“Karla is one of the brightest lights in our faculty,” says Debra Crumpton, a professor in the business department at City College and coordinator for the new faculty academy, a course that teaches equity to incoming professors. “She’s talented; she’s committed to students; she will do whatever is necessary to help students be successful. And she’s innovative in her teaching practice. She relies on research to help guide her directions, and she listens to what students need. And in addition to that, she’s an outstanding faculty member. … She has been intimately involved in helping our campus and our students be successful.” 

Crumpton has mentored Rojas over the years and has worked closely alongside her in the equity work she has done at City College. 

“I admire her courage to adapt the teaching practices that are non-traditional and that work, in the face of whatever opposition there may be,” Crumpton says. “There is a lot of entrenchment in education — people who are used to doing things the way they’ve always done them. And so, therefore, there’s an unwillingness, often, to try something new. And Karla has been a champion for being innovative and courageous. I admire her courage and willingness to just showcase, to share the success she has and the impact it has on students.” 

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