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.

This last week, I worked to develop more routines and procedures that would help me teach “with” and not “to” or “for” as bell hooks discussed building on Freire’s idea of praxis

I find that it’s important to reiterate that no one person can be successful, but that it takes a collaboration of people to be successful. That is the definition of a professional. No doctor, counselor, or dentist can be successful on their own. They need the collaboration of the client to be successful. As a professor, we need the collaboration of all of us to be successful.

This week I tried to be more welcoming of input from students. At the beginning of class, I asked students to hold more of a dialogue, interspersing comments and questions. This was somewhat helpful as students I think felt comfortable to share and I praised those who asked questions and explained that this dialogue makes our class time more complex and thoughtful.

I continue to start class by putting students in breakout rooms where they can talk about how their work as teachers in classrooms and how it connects to the readings and topics we are discussing that day. I take notes in the breakout rooms and address the issues during the lecture/discussion by naming the student who was making the comment. I also mention that the students can make comments in chat. This has happened frequently and I am encouraged by student input as a way to make the conversation in class more complex and applicable to the individual student teachers.

At the end of class, I address any questions for the group and then wait online until all the students have gone. I always have students who are perhaps too shy and meet with me and they wait until the end of class to have a discussion with me.

In all these ways, I hope to be learning more “with” students rather than teaching “to” or “for.” Through our collaboration, we can be successful.

I am still working to understand what it means to learn “with” students as opposed to teaching “for” or “to” students. In this post, I explore the many obstacles that keep me teaching “to” and “for” students.

First and probably foremost, there is a long tradition of authority that the professor holds.  This authority is established in the early in kindergarten when the teacher gives directions to students about what to do.  This is a bit complicated.

In previous blog posts I posted a more extensive argument about the need for teachers to plan for instruction considering Joseph Schwab’s four commonplaces: student abilities and needs, teacher knowledge and talents, the (state) curriculum, and the community.  The complexity that this involves may be ideal, but in reality (and perhaps to be a bit pessimistic) I and other teachers consider a range of factors including but not limited to (in order of priority): 1) what is the easiest and quickest thing to plan, 2) what was successful before, 3) what do I know how to do, 4) what can I control, 5) what will make my students happy, 6) what is the state curriculum, 7) what are my current students’ unique needs, 8) what are the extant community needs. 

So this list of prioritized considerations generally looks pretty selfish, but it doesn’t have to be.  Consider the first three considerations of planning above, if I have done the hard work in advance of developing routines that take into account student need, my abilities as a teacher and community, and the curriculum, then the easiest, quickest way to plan is to follow that routine of assessing or reviewing student needs.  If I have done that many times, then I know how it will be successful; I know how to do it; I can control it; it will make students happy; and it will follow the curriculum.

So the key is to do the hard work in advance of developing content, routines, and procedures that take those ideas into account.  Now that takes a lot of work.  If I am going to teach a class for one semester, I find myself thinking, ‘eh…how much work do I want to put into this.’  So, I find that it’s best if you don’t teach the same class or same types of classes.  Then all you have to do is general pedagogy development to stay current on new technology and pedagogies and stay on the cutting edge of the field updating your course as appropriate.

Learning ‘With’ Students

In 1973 and throughout his career, Joseph Schwab wrote about the complexity that successful teachers face when deciding what to teach. He claimed that teachers have much more to consider beyond the established curriculum (i.e. the books, the established goals, and method of teaching as outlined by the department in the syllabus) when they are making decisions about what to teach. Teachers should also consider the needs of the students and what skills, strategies, and dispositions they will need to be successful. Third, teachers also need to consider how they can use their own special talents such as their visual and performing arts skills, social capital, cultural capital, linguistic capital, (Yosso, 2005) persistence to relay the curriculum. Finally, a successful teacher needs to think about the community context. This includes community resources such as libraries, familial assets (Yosso, 2005) and the needs that exist in the community. Schwab called these considerations teachers need to make to decide what to teach, the four commonplaces.

After reading Teaching to Transgress (hooks, 1994) this past week, my goal this week was to learn ‘with’ students and not ‘teaching to’ or ‘teaching for’ students. That meant not only thinking of the curriculum which was the Blackboard I had set up and the lectures as outlined by the syllabus. I had to consider other areas, the four commonplaces as outlined above. In other words in order to learn with the students, I had to first understand what my student needs were regarding the topic that was on the syllabus. My students, are all student teachers working in kindergarten through eighth grade schools (k-8) teaching virtually to their students and so I had to know what situation they were in. I also know that they need to pass two state exams, the teacher performance exam called the CalTPA and an exam called the Reading Instructional Competency Assessment (RICA). I also had to understand what the community context where they were working in the classroom. Certainly, when they are teaching virtually, students at home may have all the technological equipment needed and they may be in their own room. Other students of my student teachers are learning with poor internet, poor computer, or in an apartment in which other family members’ activities maybe distracting.

This week in order to learn “with” my students, I decided to focus on the student teachers’ needs were in order to be able to teach to their own k-8 students. In two of my classes, the topic of the week, was teaching: 1) phonics, 2) beginning reading using the Language Experience Approach, and 3) oral language development. So I started class with an overview and then asking students to think of what they needed to teach this. I split the students into breakout rooms for about 20 minutes and then visited them in their breakout rooms. I wrote notes down on a piece of paper about the name and need of the student teacher. Then throughout the activities that followed, I was able to name the student and address the need that they had for that week. So basically, I felt that I had made progress learning ‘with’ my students.

Of course, it wasn’t that simple. Several student teachers were in classrooms in the upper grades and as a result, did not have to teach phonics or beginning reading. Other students were in virtual classrooms in which the students were in chaotic learning situations at home. So the curriculum we discussed actually changed significantly to address those needs.

Now writing this, while I feel good about the progress we made, I realize we have not addressed several parts of Schwab’s four commonplaces. I did not sufficiently name the teaching relationship they had with their mentor teacher as a part of the community context. I did not sufficiently address questions about the official curriculum i.e. the state standards and the materials they were using to teach. I did not sufficiently understand their own personal needs and address their yet to be discovered need to know the information to pass the CalTPA and the RICA. I also didn’t sufficiently understand what they need to do to work with the parents of the children they were teaching to improve the learning context for their students. While I did ask them at the beginning of class, I did not sufficiently revisit their needs and incorporate them into my curriculum.

So, I feel good about what I have done so far, and I also feel that I have a long way to go.

hooks, bell. (1994). Teaching to transgress: education as the practice of freedom. Routledge.

Schwab, J. (1973). The Practical 3: Translation into Curriculum. The School Review,81(4), 501-522. Retrieved February 9, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1084423

Yosso, T. J. (2005) Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth, Race Ethnicity and Education, 8(1), 69-91, DOI: 10.1080/1361332052000341006

Solving Real Problems in Teacher Education

Students often complain that college professors talk so much about theory and not enough about how to learn specific skills. OK, I am definitely guilty of that. I discuss some theory of teaching literacy without asking the students what particular problems or challenges they are having in the classroom. And so students dutifully listen and respond in chat or breakouts (with Zoom) not wanting to challenge my authority. We all know that challenging a professor’s authority can turn the professor against the student resulting in low grades and classroom humiliation of the student. At worst, in our program, failure in a class might cause a student to have to repeat the semester costing time and thousands of dollars, not to mention the long term effects of humiliation. So students are kind of programmed to be quiet, listen, and replicate the information the professor has on exams, in projects, or in lesson plans (they will theoretically use to teach children in student teaching).

Students (which we refer to as ‘teacher candidates’) do have experience and prior knowledge about being in the classroom. By the time they work on their teaching credential, they usually have 17 years of observation of different teachers teaching (i.e. K-12 plus 4 years of college). Dan Lortie (in School Teacher, 2002) calls this the “apprenticeship of observation” and it’s hard for teacher candidates to ignore. Basically, teacher candidates learn about new methods based on new and updated education scholarship in class, but then when they get in with the classroom and with the socialization of their mentor teachers, they often unthinkingly revert to how they were taught. They don’t take up with new strategies taught to them in the university classroom. They simply replicate the old methods of teaching. So teacher candidates have a kind of schizophrenic existence having to please their professors at the university with these new methods the university professors espouse, and then pleasing their teacher mentors in actual field placements and doing what they have seen done for 17 years in the kindergarten through twelfth grade classroom (K-12). In that case, teacher education has little effect on transforming K-12 education.

The conceptual change model taken from science education is helpful here. To change a teacher candidate’s misconceptions of what good teaching is, first the teacher candidate needs to tell the teacher education professor their prior experience with the teaching topic to be addressed. The teacher educator has to know what the teacher candidate’s ideas are about teaching, for example teaching reading to young children. This is hard because their ideas might be in their own subconscious understanding. It’s like fish seeing water. It’s there but you don’t really think about it. So first, the university teacher educator needs to know the teacher candidates understanding of how to teach young children to read. In many cases, their understanding of teaching reading to young children is not consistent with the best models of teaching reading. To actually make a change in the teacher candidates behavior, two things are necessary. First, the university professor has to find out what the student’s understanding of teaching reading is, then help the student see why that method is less effective. That disequilibrium allows the student to be open to a new method. Second, the new method of more effective teaching is introduced. Theoretically then, the student has to try that new method several times before they can shake their misconceptions about effective teaching for good. Unfortunately, in teacher education there are other variables to contend with such as the social context and the curriculum (materials in the classroom and goals of instruction). More on this later.

In Teaching to Transgress bell hook advocates the idea of praxis which is learning WITH others (i.e. not TO others or FOR others) includes the need for others (teacher candidates in this instance) to be conscious of their own misconceptions, problems in teaching, and the social context. When learners know their own problem, they have conscientization or consciousness about their need and the social context. When the professor asks them about their understanding and clarifies their understanding and the social context, then the teacher candidate can work WITH the professor to develop next steps to address the problems they face or conscientization.

OK, so while I write this I recognize that there are still some differences in the way Paulo Freire thought about praxis, but I will have to get to that in another post. The upshot for my own teaching is that I need to do a better job at finding out: 1) what teacher candidates’ understanding of teaching is based mostly on their 17 years of observation, 2) address their understanding by showing ineffectiveness, 3) understanding what their social context and the curriculum is (more later on that also), and 4) work WITH the teacher candidate to come up with the most effective method of teaching reading.

OK, there are still tons of issues to work out. Be patient. This is a blog, not a book.

Beginning Literacy Learning

In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks writes about the joy of learning she experienced in some of the classes she took in education. It seems that the most important aspect of learning was one the freedom to engage in ideas. Literacy classrooms are not usually like that. In literacy classrooms, teachers decide what the children read and often give prompts to tell what students should write about. You have assignments about what to read and in K-6 literacy classrooms to fill out workbook pages. If teachers promote writing at all in their classrooms, they tell you what to write about and of course the teacher will tell you how to format the paper. If you don’t follow the teacher’s direction, even your classmates will tell you, ‘that’s not right.’

In Between the World and Me, Ta-nehisi Coates writes about his love for the pursuit of knowledge on his own terms. He could not honestly match his means of knowing with the expectations of the professors. Freedom to Ta-nehisi was “the right to declare his own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books. I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests.”

So I have two questions for my teaching. First, how do I teach teachers to learn about teaching literacy for the PK-3 classroom in ways that honor the freedom and engagement that hooks and Coates talks about? The second question is, how can I engage the students in my class to learn to do this freely? More to come next week.