What Constitutes the ‘Classroom’?

This week’s readings concern an issue I continuously grapple with, which is how to create a space for cultivating critical thinking and, simultaneously, how to make it inclusive for all students. I want to put into conversation Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens reflections on the problems with safe spaces with Paulo Freire’s provocation that there is no clear division between teaching and learning. As an aspiring ‘teacher’, two of the things I grapple with most are: 1) how to get students to engage closely with the text, including putting themselves ‘into’ the text and 2) how to get students to enter into critical dialogue with each other.

Arao and Clemens touch on a really important problem with commonly held interpretations of ‘safe spaces’ in classrooms, which is that this is often equated to making students comfortable (Arao and Clemens, p. 135). As someone who engages in political inquiry, it has been my experience that most students hesitate to engage with each other directly, preferring instead to direct their questions or points to me, the instructor. This creates difficulties when the desired engagement is for students to have conversations with each other and put into play their own assessment of assigned texts in a critical manner. In other words, rather than too much political disagreement, one of my main difficulties is too little. This obviously is not to say that I desire ‘disrespect’ or combativeness in a classroom, but it is to say that more often than not the difficulty is getting the conversation going in the first place.

The encounter with this difficulty most often materializes as silence. I will frame the reading, usually historically and contextually in relation to other texts we have read, then I will ask a pertinent question, which oftentimes does not have a ‘right’ or ‘correct’ answer but is meant to get students to engage with the main arguments. Usually, it is the case that conversation will follow and students will respond, but my main difficulty has been then getting students to respond to each other’s differing points and to get them to have a dialogue.

A common practice I do around the 5-6 week mark in a course is to have the students anonymously write-in how they view the class is going. I do this so I can have a sense of how they are experiencing the class, obviously, but I also ask them to provide suggestions of what they like from other classes, which may entail any number of things. I promise I will review their collective comments and we will reconvene to have a conversation about potentially changing various things about the class. It has been my overwhelming experience that students appreciate this and feel afterward they have more design over the class. However, one of the most common comments I get is that the class structure is unusual: they are not used to being asked to discuss the text. In addition, the most common comment is a deep anxiety that they do not have the ‘right’ answers. I think that this speaks to what Freire means when he writes that students conceive of themselves as objects who will receive ‘knowledge’ and who will then go on to regurgitate said ‘knowledge’ which usually amounts to merely ‘facts’ and ‘information’ (Freire, p. 30).

One of the most difficult things I confront, then, in nearly every class is challenging students on what their conception of what constitutes an education. Are they merely customers purchasing a piece of paper that provides them professional accreditation? Or, are they actively engaged in learning a series of practices which they will take with them, and which will transform them as people? If students understand the answer as the latter, they usually are far less anxious about having the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer and understand themselves and their participation as being crucial to the class. It is also my experience that if students are less concerned about the ‘grade’ at the end of an assignment and are more focused on the skills the assignment seeks to practice, they usually are more likely to get the grade they desire. What oftentimes gets in the way of ‘education’, then is the students’ expectations (which is certainly not only their own individual expectation) that their knowledge is measured by a ‘grade’ rather than the grade being an, admittedly, incomplete measure of what they learned.

I think this speaks in many ways to Freire’s provocation which is: how do we use our classrooms to cultivate an ‘epistemological curiosity’ that students will take with them wherever they go and exceeds whatever class material may be assigned? I am very curious to hear what others do in order to produce this epistemological curiosity, as well as the practices which gets to what Freire is gesturing towards with producing a particular “relationship with the text” (Freire, p. 34). So often it is my experience that students do not see themselves in the text and/or they see the text as separate from their daily lived experience. How do we bring this knowledge into the classroom in such a way that students are self-reflexively questioning their own presuppositions in conversations with others and the text? These are the sorts of questions I have when doing my class prep. Finally, I think this gets at what I was signaling with during my last post, which is how does this alter our understanding of the location of the classroom? In other words, how does encouraging the students to bring in their own experiences, and putting them into critical dialogue with others in the class, as well as the assigned text, alter how we approach, experience, and understand the classroom as a space of ‘learning’?

References:

Arao, Brian, and Kristi Clemens. “From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces: A New Way to Frame Dialogue Around Diversity and Social Justice.” In The Art of Effective Facilitation: Reflections from Social Justice Educations, edited by Lisa Landreman. Stylus Publishing, 2013.

 

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage. Rown and Littlefield Publishers, 1998.

 

Discovering My Authentic Teaching Self

As a current graduate student and undergraduate teacher, I find myself oscillating between the two poles of student and teacher. I find myself constantly wondering how to approach the classroom and what I consider to be the most valuable aspects of teaching. I often ask myself what worked in my classes and how can I attempt to adapt the classes I have taken to the courses I now teach. I wonder what is the most significant aspect of teaching. Do I emphasize critical reading skills, writing, discussion, or, something else entirely? As a teacher, am I simply a conduit of the ‘correct’ information, or am I also modeling a type of inquiry and orientation to the world I want students to consider for themselves?

While these questions are largely unresolvable and will take a lifetime to ‘answer’, there are a few points worth noting. I am now in my third semester of teaching, so I have had some experience to figure out how to present myself and how to connect with students. I also no longer have to concern myself entirely with the teaching prep, but can focus on creating new classroom activities to facilitate engagement and critical discussion. In terms of presentation, I feel I have managed to present an ‘authentic’ self by way of emphasizing the importance of class discussion.

One of the most difficult aspects of teaching I have found is creating a critical discussion between students based on the course texts. Common obstacles include: students not completing the reading, students feeling uneasy participating in large groups, students feeling that, despite having done the reading, they do not have the ‘right’ answer, as well as, sometimes, a few students dominating discussion. I have found a few things that largely work, such as: 1) keepings readings to about fifty pages or less a session, 2) providing reading strategies that help students to pick out crucial arguments, and 3) finally, prior to really beginning the discussion, having students discuss with each other in small groups of about 3-4. I have found that these small groups, assuming the students have done the reading, allow them to confirm and validate with each other common insights as well as questions that can then be discussed as a full group. In addition to this, this semester I created a new option so that students who do not feel comfortable ‘participating’ in the form of speaking in front of the class, can write me an email if they have specific thoughts pertaining to that day’s class session. Finally, I always encourage students to reach out at least once a semester for office hours. I have received feedback that these varied tactics allow for a more personalized approach that fits for each student.

One thing that students seem to like is that halfway through the semester I do a ‘write-in’ in which I ask the students a series of questions concerning the class, but essentially I ask them to articulate how they think the class is going. In other words, they write what they see as working and not working with the course. Common themes emerge and we discuss those themes the following class and discuss if the class format needs to change. While I do not compromise my basic teaching values, it has been the case every time that students report this practice is productive and gives them a sense that the course really is for them and that the course is designed to engage them and promote their curiosity.

This is not to say I have ‘everything figured out’. Far from it. One of the things I find myself returning to now is balancing the practice of critical reading alongside tying in issues to students’ own experiences and current events. Much of the material we cover is theoretically dense and the perspectives assigned are often completely new to students. This often leads to a common reaction that the readings are difficult since many of the theoretical concepts are unfamiliar and require precision. This necessitates that much of the class is concerned with practices of close-reading of the assigned text that is accomplished through class discussion. It is my pedagogical commitment that these practices of close reading are essential in class and are lifelong skills. However, I think one of the difficulties this practice raises is how to encourage students to make connections to their own life or to the world more broadly. In other words, there is a challenge to cover in the same class: 1) a close-reading of a theoretically dense text, 2) have the students discuss the arguments of the text with each other and evaluate the validity of the argument and its political implications, 3) connect the themes of the text to their everyday lived experience and the world more broadly. It is this third point that requires the students to really integrate the material in such a way that they are putting themselves into the text and allowing themselves to potentially see the world differently. This is easier said than done. This can be extremely difficult as well when the class size is forty students, which strains possibilities for close discussion. Especially over Zoom where I worry many students struggle to keep engaged (I know this is the case for me when I am in the position of a student on Zoom).

This last point resonates I think with assessments and papers. For the most part, my courses are heavily weighted toward analytical essays or research papers. I have had to wrestle with how to assess students, particularly when the essays encourage creative argumentation and outside research. Sarah Deel in “Finding My Teaching Voice” discusses this issue as well when she writes, “Different students are going to express their answers to these types of questions in a very personal manner, and assessing them equally by a common rubric is very difficult.” I really appreciate her discussion on this issue, as I often initially found myself reverting to grading on the formatting and technical aspects of writing. However, I have since grown more confident in my abilities and focus now on providing critical feedback and assessing the student’s arguments and their ability to maintain a logical structure throughout. I have found that many students are first and foremost concerned with achieving the A letter grade rather than creating work they are proud of and which they think represents themselves. I do not in any way blame them for this. However, it often feels like the looming letter grade actually results in poorer work, as students are mostly focused on achieving the desired grade, rather than learning proper techniques for writing and research. Ironically, I suspect if they no longer worried about the grade and were concerned with the assignment, they would do better work and receive a better grade. Thus, one thing I am continuing to negotiate in class is how to maintain a grading system while managing to encourage that students take joy in the work of writing and research and do not feel constrained or pressured by the grade.

I am curious to hear what other specific tactics teachers use to produce critical conversations in the classroom.