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.’