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.’

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