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 gdevoogd@csudh.edu

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.

Meetings With Others

Meetings are often used as a time when the organizer speak “to” other members of the group telling them information. Revealing new information is an important part of any meeting, but communication should flow both from the organizer and from the members of the meeting if the meeting is meant to be a collaboration. What often happens is that there is a perfunctory call for items from the members that doesn’t result in much information partly because members don’t want to be blindsided and embarrassed by their opinion in view of some new information that is coming by the organizer or administrator. Then usually, a strict agenda is set including a few minutes for “questions” at the end of the meeting. The administrator (or the administrator with the people they have carefully prepared) talks throughout the meeting with few responses from the attendees. Sometimes, what ever the administrator talks about is not really the problem of the attendees and so the attendees don’t have much to say. Meanwhile, the problems of the attendees go unaddressed. This is a problem because the staff and professors usually do most of the significant work and meet with students.

Another way to change that is to have a chance at the beginning of the meetings to chat and discuss the kinds of problems the staff and professors are having and then generate a list of issues to address either at that meeting or the next. Alright, well that’s a start. More later.

Teaching ‘With” and not “To” or “For”

From SFUSD website retrieved by the esteemed Karen DeVoogd (no is longer available……… ……(the website not the person. The person is still available.))

Probably some of the best thinking about social emotional relationships comes from the scholars who have been working on how to resolve problems that exist between people and to restore relationships. We all know about mediation and we also probably wish more of the countries of the world would use mediation rather than bullying or war. Many organizations have embraced restorative practices not as a more democratic approach to relationships, but also an approach that reduces stress, anxiety, and helps to form more loving relationships. For more on this, check out Forest Whitaker’s Peace and Development Institute (wpdi.org) or the International Institute for Restorative Practices (iirp.edu) or California State University Dominguez Hills Masters in Negotiation, Conflict Resolution, and Peacebuilding (csudh.edu/ncrp-ma)

In our task of seeking to teach ‘with,’ we must emphasize the importance of relationship because students don’t want to learn from someone they don’t like. That’s just common sense. Grades can often appear to be punitive and authoritarian (TO in the chart above) or teachers can be permissive granting grades which is paternalistic (FOR in the figure above). Students feel that the grade is punitive if they have fulfilled all the requirements outlined by the professor or the syllabus, but don’t get the highest grade. I sometimes hear, “Why did you take off points on my assignment?” Good point. Sometimes, I am not as clear as I should be about what makes an excellent paper in the syllabus. I always think of the language used by some professors when they talk about grades they ‘give.’ Students earn those grades in collaboration with the professor.

So for us the “systems, expectations, limits” need to be described in the syllabus or in class to provide as much clarity as possible. In my class, I am constantly changing the syllabus and online resources on Blackboard to increase the clarity. For example, I create frameworks in outline form to give students a structure to form their case study assignment of K-12 students’ literacy abilities. I talk through the framework point by point for clarity. I post several examples of excellent practice from the past and talk through examples of those. I model my thinking in a ‘think aloud’ as I am showing a video of the way I assessed a student using the assessment instruments. I also make sure to identify the flaws in my assessment to help students see that it is alright to make mistakes and let others know that you did. All these activities improve clarity.

Recently, a student asked why he did not get points for an assignment that he had emailed me instead of posting online on Blackboard. I responded that all papers had to be listed on Blackboard, but then I gave him the full points because to punish him for posting in the wrong place, would not have been ‘restorative.’ He remembered that later and thanked me personally after the class was over. Our relationship really was improved by that event when we realized that we both wanted to prioritize learning over bureaucracy. This is an example of having more empathy for a student. With all our students, we need to prioritize and reframe what we do in class as something that will make them understand that we are on the same team. We are working together. We are working with them. This is a kind of empathy.

So in teaching ‘with,’ we have to be encouraging and supportive, but also have systems in place that clarify and set limits.