But what about when…. [Critical Pedagogy]

Photo from pixabay.com

I have this vision in my head of the teacher I want to be.

I want to have the courage to love my students, as Darder encourages.

I want to be a role model and a create a climate of respect, as Freire wants me to do.

Freire writes, “The climate of respect that is born of just, serious, humble, and generous relationships, in which both the authority of the teacher and the freedom of the students are ethically grounded, is what coverts pedagogical space into authentic educational experience.”

That’s the kind of vision I have in my head when I start every class.

And then…

No one did the reading.

Only 5 people have their camera on.

Someone says something offensive or obtuse.

Two students in the corner smirk at me and whisper to each other.

2 out of 5 discussion leaders blow off class on the day they are supposed to lead it.

Those two smirking students say something incredibly disrespectful to me.

A phone goes off and I can’t remember what I was saying.

3 students commandeer the discussion.

A pandemic happens and we have to move online and act like nothing has changed.

An election is going on and I have to pretend everyone is looking at me instead of the obvious screens of news reflected off their glasses.

 

I want to do so many great, innovative things. I want to trust that without attendance and technology policies, students will show up. But most days, I’m just hanging in there until the “bell rings.” I know most of you will say I should keep trying. I also think that other schools I have taught at had students who I was more comfortable with and who were more respectful.

I think that teaching courses need to train us better for thinking on our feet. We should be trying out classroom scenarios, reacting, and getting feedback. We should be swapping stories about non-ideal classroom spaces and students. I think I would feel less like a failure if we could all talk more about how to cope with real situations. The theories of ideal settings are nice, sometimes inspiring… but most of the time they take the backseat when shit hits the fan. And TBH, that is what always seem to happen because we are teaching young adults at a school that doesn’t value writing and the humanities and puts its young GTAs in classrooms without so much as an introductory class on basic classroom management skills.

 

So… yeah. Ideal theory, peace, love, respect are all well and good, but what about when….

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The Good and the Better: Some thoughts on popular digital learning tools

This blog post is a collaboration between Emily Burns, Jonilda Bahja, Sam Silknetter, Logan Perry, and HokieInstructor.

In a post from Hybrid Pedagogy, author Sean Michael Morris writes that “just as the pedagogue will enter a room and rearrange the tables and chairs to suit his purpose, so too will the digital pedagogue happily hack [traditional learning spaces], opening it to the wider web, or using it as a portal to a more expanded learning environment.” We wanted to write a team blog post about some of the tools we’d use from the ‘wider web’ to create a more modern learning space, as well as some pros and cons of each. 

Kahoot!: 

Pro: This is a free* software that we might normally associate with younger learners, like in elementary education. It allows for fun exercises and competition-based activities (think trivia, scavenger hunts) that really get the students excited about the material or lesson. It works just as well for college students, but it might require some introduction by the instructor. You can choose how to name your ‘character’, so it can theoretically be anonymous. It also has some really great features. Because this is widely used and there are paid accounts, there is a really robust community of users (and it has an App) and there is support for technical issues. ALSO THERE IS MUSIC! Case Study: I attended a two day conference called Braille Boot Camp. After each “mini” presentation, we answered questions on Kahoot! Although I attended this conference in 2016, I still remember how much fun I had trying to win! My colleague won the entire competition. His prize was a cool 3-D printed heart with printed pieces that fit inside the heart. 

Con: As a tool originally designed for younger learners, it can feel silly or childish in higher education. So it might require some introduction to clear the air and let the students know that being silly can be a good thing! *There is also a maximum of 50 people on the free account, so you may want to look into institutional access.  

 

Poll Everywhere

Pro: I have been using this every semester before we talk about political opinions and polarization. No one wants to raise their hand and tell a class of strangers they are a Republican or a Democrat. Using anonymous polling let’s us get real without lower personal risks. Being able to have a dozen questions pre-loaded and using things like multiple choice, word clouds, and free association is also a huge benefit that can be used from semester to semester.

Con: I tried to use Poll Everywhere once for an online course, but I could not figure out how to post my questions. After I created an account, Poll Everywhere sends me emails that clutter my email box. I ended up having students self-reflect for five minutes and then share their thoughts in groups.

 

Mentimeter

Mentimeter is an interactive online tool that helps you prepare fun and interactive presentations, polls, and quizzes. You can use mentimeter during all the process of teaching to present information to students in a fun and interesting way, engage them with the content and ask them questions and visualize the responses in real time, and follow up with them on sharing. Mentimeter is used by 80 million people around the world. 

 

Pro: Allows you to gather feedback from the entire class in realtime and gauge the mood about particular topics. There is also no limit on how many people can participate. This is extremely helpful in big classrooms because you get the results of the poll live and visualized. Students get excited and consider it part of a game and they engage with it and use technological devices to participate and advance their learning. To create questions 

 

Con: Because students are allowed to post anything they’d like, it can be difficult to keep unwanted or inappropriate responses off the screen.  

 

Google Docs

Pro: This tool is student-directed. You get to step back and the students get to build the content. Students can collaborate in real time during class when using this tool. I have been using this to encourage students to create a joint-notebook that builds off of key terms I assign them and questions that certain students are tasked with adding. It is important to remind students that the settings should be turned on “editable” for anyone who has the link so all students can use it.

Con: Sometimes the student content is not…er, correct. Also, if you have students use Google Docs within a writing group, students will need to give direction on how to give feedback appropriately.  

 

So these are just some suggestions based on our personal experiences. If you have your own experiences with these tools or other ones you think should be on our radar, please comment below! 

 

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A Possible Exercise for Understanding Colonization and Decolonization? [Case based pedagogy]

After reading “The Case Method and the Interactive Classroom” by James Foran, I am inspired to try this activity in my classroom in the next few weeks. Foran describes how his students were presented with a vignette from the History of the Pelopennesian War by Thucydides. In the ‘Melian Dialogue,’ the Malians must decide what they will do when confronted with the military power of the Athenians.

Foran has the students perform a reenactment by reading parts of the dialogue. Then, the students discuss the problem and possible solutions in small groups. The instructor allows them to work things out among themselves without suggesting answers. Then the students share their decision and the reasons for making it.

I would like to use this exercise in the unit of decolonization. While this is not true in every classroom, most of my students have lived in the US their whole lives and have lived pretty sheltered lives. None of them have had to confront what it would be like to have a foreign military power come in and threaten their entire way of life and their lives. Before we begin discussing Frantz Fanon’s thoughts on decolonization, it seems fruitful to discuss what the power dynamics were (are) like between colonial powers and people in colonies. By forcing the students to consider what they would do in particular situations, I believe that this will stir up genuine empathy for the colonized communities and help deepen their understanding of what Fanon believes is necessary for taking back their power. (Any comments on how I could pull this exercise off respectfully and successfully would be welcome below.) I think by working out the answer as a team, this also helps people who do not want to personally share their answer and their views. Instead, they would all be presenting a shared decision that is likely a compromise. This should help with how some of them shy away from sharing their thoughts with the big group.

I can imagine that students sometimes feel uncomfortable with these exercises precisely because there is no “right” answer. In the grade-based culture of most schools, students have learned to read and listen to lectures zoning in on ‘test material.’ While this doesn’t necessarily stop them from learning, it may get in the way of them learning something I cannot test them on but will still prove a valuable life skill. I will try to keep in mind the various comfort levels that students might have with thinking out of the box for this activity and reassure them that this is worthy of their time and not an exact science I would expect them to replicate and memorize. If they can relax about grades, maybe they will actually enjoy it.

Because of the theoretical orientation of my course, many of our discussions embrace the defining characteristics of problem-based learning: open-ended situations lacking a clear answer, students are expected to be working on solutions in small groups, and the instructor is a facilitator rather than a micromanager (David L, “Problem-Based Learning (PBL),” in Learning Theories, March 3, 2020, https://www.learning-theories.com/problem-based-learning-pbl.html). I think I often perform a version of this activity whenever I ask questions about the political implications of a certain theorist’s perspective. However, planning ahead and look for a clear decision from the students about what they would actually do in a situation takes their learning a step further, makes it more personal and memorable!

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When faces turn red, no one is learning [Inclusive Pedagogy]

panda covering face in shame

There seems to be an unspoken right for professors to call on students without warning. This I actually understand and sometimes do because volunteers sometimes take 5 minutes to push through silence (and there really isn’t time for that). While I have been told by a few students in comments over the years that this was awkward for them at first, they also tended to follow up with a self-reflection on how they got used to this dynamic. This is, however, one pedagogical tool that may cause embarrassment and shame.

Another pedagogical tool that might cause faces to burn is assuming a students ethnicity, gender identity, citizenship, ability, sexual orientation, and other identity markers. I actually sat in a class where the professor took it upon himself to go around the room and categorize each of us based on what he thought was our gender and ability level. It was extremely uncomfortable, to say the least. This was made worse by the fact that a queer woman was in the class and had made a point of not revealing her pronouns to us. While some might chalk this up to an old man being out of touch, this incident did serious damage to the learning environment and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who had a difficult time listening to anything the professor said for the rest of that class.

Students need to feel safe in order to learn. This is not just about the safety of the physical environment (though that is super important too) but the emotional environment as well. Instructors that are in the habit of shaming and calling out their students are actually creating traumatic memories of learning for their students. I say “habit” because I think every instructor, including myself, has had a moment where they regretted saying something or calling on a student who apparently did not want to be called on. For example, calling right away on a student whose second language is English and who needs more time to process the information. Knowing what students are comfortable with might be a matter or giving them a survey at the beginning of class but it could also be learned over time by observing the classroom dynamics.

All of this supports my thesis here that when faces turn red, no one is learning. When we as instructors fail to tread carefully and use pedagogical tools appropriately, we risk not only alienating our students but also causing them emotional trauma. From conversation had in the past week, it has become clear that anyone who has been in higher education for a few semesters probably has a good “you wouldn’t believe” about a professor. This shows that traumatic moments are quite common in academia, and much of this comes from instructors not communicating respectfully and generously with their students.

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Against Distraction, Usually in the Form of Devices [Discovering Your Authentic Teaching Self]

Over my years of teaching, one thing has always been a pet peeve of mine: laptops, phones, smart watches… etc. As someone who doesn’t necessarily believe that controlling every little thing students do is necessary for a good learning environment, I don’t like devices in my classroom for a two main reasons.

  1. Devices are distracting: In addition to the beeping, buzzing, and (most recently) flashing that LED technologies are capable of emitting in the middle of a class, they are also a source of distraction because of what they connect students to outside of the learning space. Some people fault the studies done claiming that laptops are not good in the classroom for being biased and not broadly applicable. Regardless of the studies, my personal experience as an instructor is that I am distracted by them.
  2. Using devices inappropriately during class is disrespectful. While some might exercise self control, more often than not, even the presence of a phone on someone’s desk is enough to get them to pay more attention to the device than to the learning environment. Frankly, I find it disrespectful to me as the instructor and to the other students that someone feels the need to answer messages, calls, chats, or worse (online shopping, watching TV, watching games, playing games) during a class that they have paid to attend, that I have prepared for them, that other students count on to be a place where they can engage with other students.

Devices are distracting and tempt students into disrespectful behaviors. Distracting students and the instructor in and of itself is disrespectful. My policy in my in-person classes is that laptops can only be used if they are part of an accommodation plan for students with disabilities. And because of this, I have gotten emails back from students. They say that they learn better by typing. They tell me that they don’t like to hand write their notes. This brings up a huge dilemma: Should I believe them or should I do what I need to do to teach without being distracted?

Here’s where I will get even more real: is it more important for the instructor or the student to be comfortable in the classroom? Can the instructor teach effectively if they feel disrespected, ignored, and distracted? Is the level of annoyance at taking hand written notes more pressing than my need as an instructor not to feel like I’m talking to a wall? This is a tough thing to work through because it gets to the heart of what pedagogy is about. If pedagogy is about effective learning, then what factors are most important in bringing this about? As the instructor, I don’t think I need to bow down to this new pressure to be “chill” and let students do what they want, just hoping they are getting what they need to get out of the course. That is not what they are paying for, what I signed up to do, or what my job description requires from me. In order for me to be an effective instructor, I need to have students that are not being engaged by outside sources during my lectures. Several of my students have backed up my opinions on this, as they are grateful that I am not counting on their classmates to “do the right thing.” By taking the inevitably distracting and disrespectful choice off the table, they can just focus on the material and the space they are in. As instructors, we should also be aware that the hour we have with our students might be the only hour of concentration they can give to the subject for the week. We are setting everyone up to fail by not creating optimal learning environments. In some cases, this might be impossible to enforce, like when we are all online. However, I think it is worth preserving this special and focused learning environment once we are back to in-person classes.

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