Critical Literacy: Is Performance Considered Action? 

Critical literacy seeks to transform our lives and the lives of others to support marginalized individuals. So teachers are called to help their students:

  1. identify perspectives and values implicit in texts ,
  2. identify what perspectives are promoted and which are marginalized by the text (or who is favored and who is marginalized),
  3. seek alternative perspectives and values,
  4. take action to transform their lives and the lives of others to a more equitable and just world.

I have always struggled with the fourth step, ‘taking action to transform the world.’ Recent media has been full of discussion about the difference between ‘performative’ acts which signal a person’s stance on an issue without making any real difference.

Ocasio-Cortez as performative?

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) attends a $35,000 a plate ‘Met Gala’ with a “TAX THE RICH” message on the back of her dress as a political message performance and then socializes with other rich ‘woke’ leftists. Critics will say that this performance does nothing to create a budget that makes the rich pay more for the government benefits they receive. It doesn’t inform or seek to convince with reasonable facts or ideas. In fact, it may alienate some of the people at the gala by distracting from the purpose of the event which is to celebrate art. The comment may also lead someone to believe incorrectly that the rich are not taxed. On the other hand, the performance does draw public attention to the issue making people consider the idea. It makes the issue important.

Performance is a way people use to ‘signal’ their values and we signal all the time with our words, our clothes, what we buy, what we eat, where we spend, and what we drive. Asking the waitress what their vegan options are may confer high status on an individual depending on the values of the group you are eating with. Driving an electric car, wearing fair trade clothes, and signaling your opposition to a new law usually from somewhere in the South on Facebook, or simply agreeing with another’s views can all be ways of signaling and establishing membership in your group.

Recently, Greta Thunberg complained about the performative nature of Climate Summits recently by talking about what she anticipates people will say and do at the COP26 in Glasgow, [They] “stand on their soap boxes, and yackity-yak-yak-yak” all the while practicing their can kicking skills in their spare time. Oh and COP stands for ‘conference of the parties’ and PARTY they will-do, canapés by the gigaton and flutes of Dom Perignon champagne to puncture the clouds with CO2 bubbles. The righteous bloviating by the concerned parties alone will add a gigaton of GHGs to the atmosphere. And with hangovers all, the conference of the parties will trundle home from Glasgow, quickly to fudge and forget their pledges as they return of a work-a-day Monday morn to their GDPs and always more growth models of biznezazuzul.” In this instance, Thunberg suggests that such a conference may be a performance to make it appear as if government representatives were doing something about climate issues while in practice, they do quite the opposite by continuing to subsidize oil companies, approving additional fossil fuel pipelines, or refusing to impose a carbon tax on gas vehicles or further incentivize alternative forms of energy.

Obviously, in this blog, I am just beginning to explore the idea of performance as action. The topic deserves much more thought; however, I am coming to some tentative conclusions. First, signaling is not necessarily good or bad. It depends on how and to whom the message is communicated to. That needs to be explored. Second, it’s more helpful to find ways to identify facts and reasons to persuade others to take action than to simply identify a position. Third, its best to act being a model and then describe the reasons. Why am I a vegan you might ask? Answer: for my health, the climate, and love for animals. Why do I recycle? Shop fair trade? Give the reasons. Fourth, always be friendly and invite dialogue so as not to polarize your group. Finally, performance can be a negative thing. Shouting slogans or identifying others’ actions as disrespectful or immoral without the intent to inform might feel like a bonding action to the group, but it can alienate and polarize some other people.

Read the Dramatic Story of the Women’s Escape From Afghanistan

As you are aware, there will be challenges educating women in secondary school in many places in Afghanistan where adolescent women have to walk or travel by bus alone vulnerable to sexual taunts. Asian University for Women in Chittagong, Bangladesh has recently enrolled 60 in a class for master’s courses that will help prepare Afghan women to return to set up secondary schools in places where adolescent women don’t have to walk so far to go to school. Below, read the dramatic story of the women’s escape by clicking below and then read the even more exciting event in the blog post below that by clicking on September (on the right). This university is founded just recently by Kamal Ahmad and his coordinator Kali Guise. My cousin, Tim DeVoogd (Neurobiology at Cornell), is on the board. I am scheduled to start an online class September 9 in literacy instruction. Other professors from Wisconsin-Madison, Johns Hopkins, and Harvard are volunteering a course also.

Vietnam Redux: History of Oppression Repeats in Afghanistan

When I think of all the ways power and violence have been used to oppress people over the course of history, I can’t help but be frustrated by the efforts of the Coalition military in Afghanistan. (OK, violent conflict is complex and I can’t cover all the nuance in this post.) So many Americans are still attracted to the idea that violence as a solution to problems. It wasn’t in Vietnam. It’s not in prisons, in our homes, or in interactions with the police.

War breeds more war resentment and death. We must take a very simple stand that war is not the answer to conflict; it is the cause of of violent conflict. ‘Eye for an eye’ philosophy does not work.

If you know anything about the history of Europe, the Middle East, China, Africa, you know this. The insanity of endless European tribal wars, dynasty wars in China, and colonial wars. We must take a very simple stand that war is not the answer to conflict; it is the cause of of violent conflict. After 9/11, there was an immediate violent response. As tragic as 9/11 was, the response should never be violent. When the soldiers came to get Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and his followers drew their swords and cut off the ear of a servant to the high priest, Jesus said, “put your sword back in it’s place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)

Many people around the world knew that Iraq and Afghanistan wars were like another Vietnam in the sense that US/Coalition forces would inevitably be seen as invaders. Enough men with weapons (the Taliban) viewed Coalition forces as invaders who were trying to establish a different society that they did not want. The result was devastating including the death of a total of about 241,000 people, destruction of property, and spreading of evil. In many ways the Iraq/Afghanistan wars are like Vietnam all over again. In Vietnam, we tried to stop communism with war, but that didn’t work and the corrupt forms of communism developed around the world stopped themselves. Vietnam is not a communist society. Will humans eventually come to the realization that war is not the answer? That violence is not the answer?

Love is the answer. Love is work with a decent conditions and decent wages, good food, shelter, healthcare, education, and caring for the sick and marginalized. As teachers, we play a role in education, but also in the other categories as well. May we always strive to be worthy of our calling.

Reduce Violence; Protect Human Rights in Honduras

All people can make a difference. In 1977, at Hope College in Holland Michigan, a group of students under the banner of Human Rights in Latin America, got together to protest American military aid funding (through the Defense Department) of human rights abuses in Chile where Pinochet took over for Salvador Allende and in Argentina where Videla brutally disappears 30,000 people who had a different point of view. Our cry was to stop US support of torture. Many groups went to Washington and protested US support of torture and it was finally ended in 1978 when congress passed and President Carter signed the Foreign Assistance Act (Section 502B). We also protested US support of torture in El Salvador (our chant was: “Money for jobs, not for war. US out of El Salvador!”). Later, the Committee on International Relations and Committee on Foreign Relations reported restrictions on US funds to El Salvador if they abuse human rights. We can make a difference!

But it doesn’t stop there! The United States military has significantly increased its presence in Honduras since the Obama Administration. Pointing to interests in drug interdiction, the US presence at Soto Cano Air Base is a hub for trainings with Honduran police, military, and “special joint forces.”  US-trained security forces, including those trained at the infamous School of the Americas (SOA, aka WHINSEC), have been linked to human rights abuses and assassinations in Honduras. Three of the eight men arrested for the assassination of Berta Cáceres were members of US-trained forces who were given a hit list of prominent environmental activists to assassinate. 

Now Take Action! H.R. 1574 (named in honor of Berta Cáceres) is a crucial bill before the US Congress to address the human rights violations committed by Honduran state security forces. It would withhold security and military assistance from the US until state-sponsored human rights violations cease and there is some justice for its victims.

Take action this week! Phone calls are crucial to get your congressperson’s attention. Here’s what to do:

See who is co-sponsoring the bill. If your congressperson is not there, call your congressperson and encourage them to cosponsor the bill. Twelve from California are already co-sponsoring the bill. We strongly encourage constituents from Joyce Beatty (OH-3 in Columbus, OH) and Tim Ryan’s (OH-13 in Youngstown, OH) districts to contact their representatives. Rep. Ryan has sponsored previous versions of this bill. Rep. Beatty is chair of the Congressional Black Caucus; many victims of state-sponsored human rights crimes are Afro-descendant Hondurans defending ancestral territories and waterways.

Here’s the message to leave for the foreign affairs staffer:

 “My name is _____. I am a constituent from (your town/city) in (your state). I am calling to ask Rep. _____ to co-sponsor H.R. 1574, The Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act, calling for a suspension of U.S. security aid to Honduras until human rights violations committed by the Honduran security forces cease. Has Rep. _______ seen this bill? Can I count on him/her to sign on?” 

Summary of Actions & Intentions with Praxis

To complete the cycle of critical literacy, one has to act in some way to transform the world to a better place seeking justice and equity for marginalized populations. Most of my recent posts have kept in mind the ideas in Teaching to Transform by bel hooks and my own studies about teaching literacy instruction and teacher education. Below, I offer some conclusions about actions I have taken or want to take as a result of this intellectual journey mostly focusing on praixis.In critical pedagogy, praxis is a tool used to transform society into a more just and equitable world.

Praxis in Teacher Education

A person with expertise from outside the community must collaborate with local clients to find out what their problems are before the group decides on actions to resolve problems.

Following the action is a praxis cycle of reflection, and then plans to continue, scrap, or modify the action taken. This cycle has been adopted by many colleges of teacher education and the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. So the expert learns or studies the problem ‘with’ instead of coming in with a bag of expert tricks to teach ‘to’ or ‘for’ the clients/students. The nomenclature is challenging here, but in a college of education, the expert would be the professor and the student would be the client.

Student teachers do praxis. There are a number of ways professors can approach this theoretical praxis model in teacher education classes. Obviously, when a student teacher teaches children, they should flow through the cycle of praxis finding out what each K-12 student’s needs are and addressing planning action to address the needs. It is super important that the child knows about the results of the assessment and how the teacher is addressing the need so the child feels like they are a part of the learning process. The student teacher then examines strengths & weaknesses of the lesson reflecting and then setting goals for the future lessons.

Professor leading praxis. As a professor, I follow a similar praxis cycle somewhat modified because I have 130 students in my four classes. Based on decades of praxis cycling on specific assignments, I can prevent predictable shortcomings with models, structures, and strategy discussions about the assignments. I give specific feedback when necessary and allow students to revise the assignment to mastery. I also give whole group feedback with whole class emails and announcements in Blackboard. All that is normal college teaching.

The silent student. Over the previous 17 years of school, students have learned to sit down and be quiet waiting for the teacher to give wisdom. Almost two decades of school has taught

them that their input is not desired. They are depressed. So I have to do things to to break out of that lift the mood, get students active, and questioning. The first two minutes of class, I start with some fun upbeat music asking the students to identify the song in the chat box or aloud. Online, I require students contribute to the chat at least 6 times in a typical 3 hour online class and give participation points on an irregular schedule for in class participation. I also try to have a fun bouncy tone of voice and choice of comments modeling after late night television talk shows or podcasts. I try to do some seat dancing to the music, over-the-top gestures for surprise, pointing directly at the camera, dramatizing stories, using different voices, and moving my face or hands closer to the screen to emphasize a statement I am making. The goal is to be interesting, fun, and upbeat giving the students permission to engage and have fun themselves. Finally, I also keep in mind to switch activities and to keep things moving so as not waste anyone’s time.

Modeling the thinking of a professional teacher asking questions. In praxis, the expert/professor is supposed to address student concerns as a starting point for the work they will do together; however, many of my students don’t know how to identify problems they are having, will have as a teacher, or how to categorize the problems. So I model asking the student teachers a general question that a teacher would normally have such as, ‘how do you teach a child to read who doesn’t understand the meaning of the words?’ or ‘What do you do when you are reading and don’t know a word.’ Then I give students a minute to contemplate their answer, post in the chat box, and then put students in breakout groups where they are much more willing to talk. Students go into breakout groups and are allowed to talk about anything, but they must also answer the question. I listen to the students and ask questions in breakout groups for the next 5 minutes and when they come back to whole group ask them for to post their expanded questions in the chat room. I comment and give praise to individual students who talk or post thoughtful comments.

I also encourage students to interrupt me at any time to ask questions and since I do move through the class with different activities, I realize that the student question may appear to be abrupt or not well thought out. Mostly, I cherish those comments, questions, and praise the student for engaging.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Equity in the Ways to Learn. Students benefit from: 1. receiving, 2. representing, and 3. engaging in information in several different forms through the visual arts, music, comedy, stories, statistics, graphic novels, charts, drama, oral and written language. I enact UDL in three main ways in my class. Students receive most of the information through reading, but also lecture, drama, visual images on presentations and in books, stories I tell about my own K-9 teaching, YouTube videos of classroom teaching, websites, and charts. In representing on assignments and engaging during class for information, they do have a choice about what format they will use to represent their knowledge. They may and do represent information in any of the above forms (see the opera response from a student below). Undoubtedly, there is a greater focus on reading and writing which is the format most students use when they submit for the state assessments (CBEST, CSET, RICA, and CalTPA-that’s right, there are 4 required assessments), but I am working to develop more diverse ways to allow students to receive, represent, and engage in the classroom.

Preparing for a Profession Requires Student Teachers Know and Perform to Professional Standards – It’s Not About You. Preparing for a profession, in some ways, is unlike educating yourself in general during your free time. Ta-Nehisi Coates says, “I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests.” That is a good quote when a person is exploring ideas in history, art, or literature in the university or K-12 classroom; however, in teacher education, a teacher’s plans and problems must prioritize student needs, the agreed upon curriculum (state & local standards), and the community (Schwab, 1982), over the teacher’s other logistical and personal issues. Similarly, in praxis when the expert/professor applies their knowledge to problems in education, professional pedagogy must be prioritized. When you teach, mostly, it’s about the kids, the pedagogy, and the content. Hence, while teacher education does require a range of the student teachers freedom to be professional, teacher education requires the teacher has a grasp of professional standards to receive a credential from the state.

Challenges to Teaching ‘With’ Student Teachers

The idea of praxis, as Paulo Freire describes, is that a teacher can take action to genuinely transform a students’ practice when they know more about the specific problems students are having. In my case, when I as a professor, understand the problems my student teachers are having in their student teaching classrooms, I can address those specific needs. In that way, I am learning ‘with’ the students and not simply lecturing ‘to’ students or doing something ‘for’ students. That means, as much as possible, I need to find out what students’ need and work ‘with’ them to address goals together. In this post, I will explore three challenges students teachers have that draw them away from my class work on literacy instruction in kindergarten-sixth grade classrooms: 1. pressing issues that draw students away from class learning, 2. the need to pass state assessments, and 3. student teachers are just beginning their profession and don’t often know what their problems are in literacy instruction are.

First, students are distracted and pulled away from my class work in many ways :

  1. Student teachers are overworked. Personally, students half of my students are very busy with their full time internship as student teachers. In two other classes I am teaching, the students are in classrooms for two day and also carry at least 15 units. So students have a double load: teaching in a classroom and a full schedule of classes to take and prepare for.
  2. School is a priority. What makes it more complicated is that students’ priority is typically the work they do in the classroom for two reasons. First, students depend on their mentor teachers for letters of recommendations and so they try to work hard in the classroom to show that they are eager and skilled. Secondly, student teachers prioritize work with students because it is real work and not practice for the future. Children are vulnerable and must be treated with care and so they become a priority. Also, after 19 years of education in preparation, student teachers are eager to do real work.
  3. Student teachers have personal needs outside the classroom. The most challenging is the need to earn money to support their university education. Students also often have children or parents to take care of. Finally, some students are not very good at self-care in high pressure situations and don’t make sure they eat well, sleep, and exercise. Generally, students who don’t take care of themselves are less capable to learn the content because they are physically not feeling their best.

The second challenge to teaching ‘with’ students is that they have to pass two state assessments: the Reading Instructional Competency Assessment (RICA) and the California Teacher Performance Assessment (CalTPA). These are not genuine goals for students, but rather goals that students must take on in order to become teachers. Since these are goals set by the state and the profession, these are not the student teacher’s goals and there is a sense of alienation from them. I have to teach, not only how to teach reading and writing to children, but also how to pass the test. Students have to be told what the attitude of the test is. They have to learn how to construct answers. They have to have extensive experience in case study assessment. The format of a paper and pencil test is different from the teaching performance. So, must practice answering tricky questions about potential problems they may not be facing in their student teaching, but may face some day. So these are not genuine problems student have in teaching, they are problems they have in getting their credential.

Finally, as beginning student teachers, they don’t often know what problems they are facing in the classroom. Student teachers can observe a teachers without understanding why they are doing what they are doing. They don’t understand the teacher’s intent. Edutopia claims that teachers make 1500 decisions a day. That is too many decisions for the mentor teacher to explain to the student teacher. Student teachers need to have experience teaching and making those decisions, before they know what those genuine problems are going to be. Also, student teachers are often in classrooms with students that don’t match what is being taught at the university. For example, some student teachers are in a sixth grade class where only science and math are taught. In my university classroom, I would like to teach ‘with’ students by exploring the problems they are having teaching phonics or reading comprehension in their student teaching, but they don’t even have the opportunity to face that kind of problem if they are in a sixth grade teaching science and math.

All these challenges, prevent or distract students from having genuine problems to address in my university classroom. I just want to go over some possible big picture solutions that could address these problems. For the first problem of having many distractions, provide more financial support to students who must work or take care of their children or elderly parents. For state standardized tests, it would be a solution to take them out entirely, but it would also be appropriate to align their student teaching with a performance assessment to be done simultaneously. When student teachers don’t know what their genuine teaching problems are, I could provide case study problems or videos of students performing and mentor the student teachers about the thought process that I would go through to assess and instruct individual elementary students. I could also just ask students how they are planning to teach which creates a problem for the students. Those would not be genuine problems a student has, but it might simulate a real problem and help prepare teachers for the thought processes they will have to go when they teach in their own classrooms.

Power & the Spirit

Critical pedagogy or anything “critical” addresses issues of power. Two thousand years ago, this past Palm Sunday, when Jesus was cheered on by the masses as a king as he rode a borrowed donkey down the streets of Jerusalem. The images are a bit confusing. If he was going to be a king and lead a revolution against the oppressive Romans, why didn’t Jesus ride a powerful war horse and assemble compatriots to arms? Certainly Jesus was hoping to call attention to a sense of humility. In fact, Jesus is quoted as saying that the law of all the prophets hangs on loving God and your neighbor. So instead he chose to focus on changing society through the spirit-the hearts and minds of people. Not that it’s a great analogy, but the memory of that event led me to think about the use of power and authority in our teaching.

In teaching, teachers have power over students to control assignments, class discussions, class activities, due dates, and grading. Part of our use of power is to help students prioritize the ideas in what we teach over the many other things students have to think about. However, I think we can balance by shifting a greater focus on control assignments, class discussions, class activities, due dates, and grading to spirit-inspired activities. As a teacher, I think I rely too much on that power and so in this post, I am going to explore some activities that focus on the emotion and purpose.

So, how does one move the spirit? I don’t really know, but I’m going to explore it. One activity that appears to have helps to establish a fun and positive climate is music at the beginning of class. If students’ comments in the chat room are any indication, I have been very successful playing music to start class that is energetic such as Sweet Child O’Mine by Guns and Roses, Gemini Girls, Grateful Dead, fun music videos by Walk Off the Earth like Rise, and La Noche de Anoche by Bad Bunny and Rosalia. I think the students like it when I ask them to guess the singers and the name of the song. Sometimes the lyrics fit our lesson. That’s something to work on, but I also like the energy that upbeat music brings.

A second thing to move the spirit that I have not yet tried is more time in contemplation. I think it can be good to ask questions about why we do this work of teaching literacy. Or even what does it mean to teach literacy? I do ask students to write their answers to questions I pose in the chat, but I don’t give lots of wait time. Perhaps if I approach it like a teacher’s meditation, the students would be more amenable to the idea. Quakers spend sometimes a whole hour as a group in thoughtful contemplation seeking God’s spirit. Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all suggest a time of contemplation or prayerful contemplation as a part of their religious practice. It’s a time to reorient, to reset toward our purpose, reassess our position, make plans so that mindless action and routine will not consume our time. So I will request students just spend a moment in contemplation. I am not sure yet if I will ask students to report their thoughts in breakouts or on the chat, but I will poll the students to find out what is the most helpful.

Third, I will increase motivation by giving lots of positive feedback. One thing I will emphasize is the amount of learning everyone is doing and how well they are doing as a group. I will also give feedback to individuals with a focus on the positive as a father might to show that I am on the student’s side. I am ‘with’ the student. We are together hoping for the same thing.

Finally, the spirit can be captured through play and the arts. I will play games with students not because it’s time efficient and not really because students are learning during that time, but just for to raise the spirit. At the moment it is not fun, we will stop. Currently, I do ask students to exercise between breaks so that they might feel some endorphins that emanate from movement. When students email me telling me of a difficulty they had befallen, I empathize and encourage normal healthy habits such as good sleep, good food, and exercise. That will be a feeling of comfort and well-being. Finally, I will give students opportunities to share with each other. In our class meeting, I noticed that only one group out of six was talking and so maybe that technique has run it’s course.

I still have a ways to go promoting the spirit of students with the arts. I am not very good at providing images to parallel or expand the meaning of the words we use for class. I am not even very good at recognizing what pictures might be helpful to raise the spirit or promote engagement, but I am committed to trying. I also have not worked hard to develop well-crafted stories into my lessons. This is a good goal I need to work on. Since I taught for 16 years in grades 1-9, I have those stories, but the stories need to be developed. I need to develop better book talks to connect with what the students of my student teachers might be working through.

In a sense, the multiple ways of knowing and subsequently providing multiple ways of presenting knowledge represents a Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Also, working to strengthen the ways in which I develop the spirit, the fun climate, an artistic and contemplative place, I can light the fire that will burn in the hearts of my students now and in the future. It’s another way, I can work ‘with’ students as bell hooks suggests, instead of teaching ‘to’ or ‘for.’

Democracy in the Classroom?

Popular phrase used by students to support the socialist government in Chile in 1973 when Allende was president. “Crear poder popular” means creating more democracy or more power to the people.

In Chapter 6 of Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks wrote about how criticism of feminism and Paulo Freire (critical pedagogy) does, in some ways, devalue those theories. She also states that criticism is important because it can lead to a understanding further and nuance. It helps us understand the complexity of any situation through self-criticism or the criticism of others. Through these thoughts and comments, we learn about how others perceive our work and those other perspectives increase the complexity of how we understand our work.

Students are probably the most capable of expressing perspective on the class. Of course, their criticism is muted partly because they fear that we, the professors, will retaliate by giving students low grades. I am sure that is true much of the time. I try not to make it true when I grade.

There are many ways students can comment on the class. They can talk after class on Zoom, email me, talk over Zoom during office hours, or text me. It is my job to be welcoming and thankful that they will offer their comments to me without fear of retaliation. Recently, we had a former student who passed a state performance assessment (the CalTPA) speak to the class to offer a perspective on her strategies to pass the exam. I have just sent an email to the class expressing my joy at learning about her strategies and asking them to share any strategies that they think might help them pass the CalTPA. In this way, I hope to understand a perspective on learning in class that I was previously unaware of.

In our society, we are not very good at democracy. In my class, I would say that I am not very good at listening and acting upon the perspectives offered by students. I tend to perserverate and often chafe at comments made by students that, ‘the directions were not very clear’ or ‘you didn’t prepare us for the assignment.’ I hope that will change in the future and I can see the comments by students as an opportunity for reflection on my teaching and also changes that will make the class more helpful to students.

The Negative Consequences of Learning “With”

So are there negative consequences to a student-focused class? What if students problems are trivial? What if students’ problems are not related to the best interests of the children they are teaching? What if students just want a stress free education with minimal reading and writing? What if students want me to do extra work to make the class easier or the learning easier? Maybe students need some tough love. OK this is where it gets complicated.

First of all, I don’t have most of these problems because my students are actually mostly amazing dedicated hard-working students who are doing fieldwork and recognize the need for the things in the reading and in the class. My students have completed their bachelor’s degrees and are within months of getting a job. Some already have jobs. So I hope that other professors and teachers will comment telling me more about the negative consequences of learning “with” in the comments or by emailing

Even so, some of my students have issues such as way too much work in student teaching, healthcare and childcare issues, as well as challenges completing all the work in my demanding class (700 pages of reading and 75 pages of writing). Family issues and student teaching fieldwork demands can be erratic and so it helps me to have an understanding of the student load at any particular time so that I can shift and adjust the work load to meet the needs of students. I call this the ‘agile curriculum’ and it’s an important part of learning ‘with.’ I am learning some things about their pressures and workload and adjusting my teaching to fit their need.

Really, the stance a teacher takes when teaching/learning makes a big difference. If the teacher takes the time to find out what are the top concerns of my students, the teacher can gauge what priority his class has in their lives. At the beginning of class, I ask students to spend 10 minutes in breakout rooms when students are asked to “talk about whatever” they want and “talk about highlights in the reading or topics we are discussing” that day, the teacher can gauge what is most important to the student. So, when students email, call, text, Zoom me explaining pressures which is quite often, I adjust for that student. If a lot of students talk about serious health issues or difficulty in doing all that is necessary, I can adjust the class to meet the needs of the group by adding stress reducing activities and changing policies to allow students more time to complete assignments. Other times, I need to increase the priority of content in the class by: giving a step by step path students can follow to complete the assignment, reminding student of an assignment (in class, on emails, in announcement), stressing the criteria for evaluation, and reminding the students of the importance the assignment has for their career.

Besides the 10 minute student breakout session in which students can talk about anything, their fieldwork, or the topics to be discussed that day, students are allowed to politely interrupt me at any point, chat comments, and I stay at the end of class listening to and discussing ideas and challenges they are having. I always try to thank them for any feedback knowing that they are often hesitant to say anything that I might consider to be contentious. I want to also be welcoming in the tone of my voice.

A couple examples occurred recently that illustrate these adjustments based on student feedback. Students said that they were having trouble completing the case study in the time allotted by the syllabus. As a response, I called the due date a soft deadline and allowed students to complete the assignment by the following week without a penalty. After that date, the penalty would be no more than 10%. I tell them “no more than 10%” because if the assignment is very well done, I will assess little or no penalty.

We were informed about a month into the semester that a career education fair with employer interviews was in fact going to take place in a month. To prepare the students for interviews and resume building, an online series of boot camp education seminars was offered. Thirty-five districts were going to be looking for new teachers for next year, but students had to register. Given the additional work to students who were already overloaded, I canceled class for the following week to give students time to prepare.

One of the comments I had read in the chat room and heard by the students in the 10 minutes at the beginning of class was a need for more clarity. As it is pretty common for students, the request for clarity was ambiguous, “What do we do?” So of course I have to ask questions. I asked students to tell me more, “Do you mean what do you for class or what do you do right now or what do you do on the standardized assessment offered by the state?” That ‘asking questions’ is part of a dialogue that will result in a better understanding of the problem. That dialogue is an important part of learning ‘with’ students. The result of that dialogue made more understanding more complex. Some students wanted to know what to do for the class. Others wanted to know what to do for the state assessment.

I also knew from previous comments made by students that it was hard for them to stay active in class because many woke up at 5 am or 6 am to prepare lessons and teach every weekday. So during my 8 – 10 pm Friday class, it was hard for students who had been teaching on Zoom and had a another class from 4 pm to 7 pm that day to respond. They were low on energy. As a response, I sought out the written and video examples of a student from the previous semester who had passed the state assessment. Then I highlighted the specific examples to the students analyzing the instruction. I did a lot of talking that hour and I felt accordingly like a hypocrite for professing to learn ‘with’ students, but then not allowing for enough time for ‘dialogue.’ I asked the student upon signing off in the chat room to rate our session from 1-10, 10 being ‘this was very helpful.’ I was surprised that of the 27 out of 32 students responding and in spite of many technology challenges, the no student scored the activity below 7 points and the average score was 8.88 out of 10. Now these are very nice students, but still, the result shocked me and made me realize that I need to continue to get student response with polls and comments to understand how learning ‘with’ was also going to be helpful.

Alright, so one thing I learned today about learning ‘with’ was that it’s not about always having constant dialogue or discussion. Professors can still lecture. You can have time at the beginning of class to discuss without an agenda, allow interruptions, occasional breakouts, emails, Zoom chats, phone calls, and a welcome attitude. That is a way to access student perspectives for praxis.