Care-first classrooms: a new approach to learning at the 5Cs

A drawing of a desk and chair being cupped between two large hands.
(Sasha Matthews • The Student Life)

For the past two years, professors across the Claremont Colleges have been trying out a new form of teaching and learning style called “Care-First Classrooms.” Courses implementing this program use non-punitive practices to create an environment that is more accessible and enjoyable for all students.

This semester, there are 19 care-first classes being offered, according to the 5C Transformative/Restorative Justice Collective. 10 are at Scripps College, four at Pitzer College, three at Pomona College, and two at Harvey Mudd College. Claremont McKenna College (CMC) does not have any care-first classes for the fall semester.

The movement began in the fall of 2021 when a group of students in Scripps politics professor Tom Kim’s Practicing Abolitionist Democracy course formed a working group focused on how to support student survivors of sexual harm. The students then formed an independent study group that spring, which became the Care-First Collective in the fall of 2022.

Within this collective is the Care-First Classroom Campaign. These student groups meet weekly and host events for faculty involved in the program.

In a zine created by the Care-First Classroom Campaign in the fall of 2023, members wrote, “in designing the space around the needs and strengths of those who occupy it, we create a space that actually serves us, instead of serving institutional systems that overtly or not, are designed to uplift majority populations.”

Care-first classes implement multiple practices while creating this uplifting space.

“The idea behind care-first is that no two classrooms have the same needs, and thus, there is no universal set of practices that can be applied across every class,” the zine said.

Some of the care-first class strategies include daily check-ins about students’ access needs, making the syllabi a conversation between students and professors and the process of “ungrading.”

Ungrading, according to the zine, is the process of grading based on how “nourishing their experience has been and how they’ve grown, rather than in terms of the ‘goodness’ of the work they produced.”

This semester, Pitzer Assistant Professor of Art Sarah Gilbert is teaching a care-first class called Sustainable Sculptures that focuses on experimenting with different found materials to create sculptures.

“It’s really about bringing students into a conversation about their own learning,” Gilbert said. “You take away all the language about punishment and it’s really about how we have this opportunity to do something this semester, what do we want to do together and what’s important to you?”

Gilbert has also put emphasis on check-ins at the beginning of each class, a strategy that Noura Coulibaly PZ ’27, a student in her class, supports.

“Honestly, it’s really helpful because sometimes you’re just not in the right headspace for class,” Coulibaly said.

Coulibaly also said that having space to explain feelings of being unable to participate in class on a given day takes off a lot of pressure. To her, this ‘person first, student second’ style of learning creates a sense of community throughout the classroom.

“It has made the class closer, we get to know each other a bit more everyday,” Coulibaly said. “I have a lot of empathy for the people in my class.”

Despite this positive impact, Gilbert feels that other professors can be dismissive of the care-first agenda, which can sometimes feel isolating.

She highlighted that people may think that care-first learning is letting students off the hook, but in fact, there is a reverse effect.

“I’m very confident that my students work harder because of the care-first methodology and they do better work because of it,” she said.

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