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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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.