Teaching

I teach to change.

This change is usually gradual.

An open attitude allows us to more consistently move towards what is positive and creative. In my classes, we avoid simple conclusions, generalized prescriptions, and wrap-it-up responses. Such statements close down thought and present a universal view of the world. Instead, we try to open each conclusion, be it mine or a student’s, back into a question. At first, this is frustrating for those who want “the answer”. But eventually this attitude of inquiry takes hold, perhaps not in every student, but as an accepted way of operating in the class. We look towards different viewpoints. We prize debate and honest inquiry. We construct theoretical frames that help us navigate the specific situations we confront, in our own lives and in our students’. We develop ways of questioning our own intentions and possibilities. This practice is reinforced by my requirement that students turn in a list of open questions in response to each class meeting.

My courses focus on major theories of the field, and their complications. These are well charted in my reading selections and my syllabus, but not so tightly that there isn’t room for branching out based on the group’s concerns. I monitor student comprehension, involvement, and interest through discussion and weekly reading journals. These journals are not summaries of the reading. Instead, I ask students to tell me what what was important to them, what criticisms and questions they have, and how it relates to their own experience. Developing a practice of reflection allows each student to monitor their own life and teaching.

Each of us must decide the best course of action while embedded in our own environment. This practice of reflecting while within, of seeing double so to speak, is a basic requirement for meaningful teaching. While I am teaching, I draw attention to the decisions I am making as I am making them. If it is a substantial decision, I try to say out loud the internal processes I am considering. In this way, I explicitly model that teaching requires constant adjustment and direction. Learning involves changing our self, our world, and the way we see both. Being able to articulate some vision of that change, of learning as it happens, is essential to any educator.

Not all people are comfortable talking to the whole class, so often I will lay out a general topic for discussion or give a specific task and then break into groups sized according to the task. For example, in pairs, the student might interview their partner and design an individualized curriculum for them. Or, in groups of about six, students decide on a few of the most important items for their future students to know and experience, and then design a school for those purposes. By varying the group size and makeup, we get to hear what each student thinks. Besides, student constructed works de-emphasize myself as distributor of knowledge, and instead show the diverse and creative knowledge within the class.

Having an environment where we can test out and experiment with many possibilities allows us to change in our own ways. Emphasis on constant success stifles creativity, and therefore learning. Instead, risk is encouraged, breakthroughs are celebrated, and failures are seen as part of the process.

The format by which students present their own inquiries to the rest of the class is notoriously open. We have had a video, a song, a mobile, a keepsake box, a “Mary Poppins bag”, and even a ransom note. I encourage creativity and positive visions with the hope that they are contagious.

And they are.

 

In this way, a spirit of continuous growth is established. That growth is not entirely visible. The effects of our interactions can never be known fully. Such is the great frustration and promise of teaching. Still, I always look forward to getting back my student evaluations at the end of my courses. The ones that mean the most to me, the ones that keep me teaching, are the ones that say, “You reminded me why I’m a teacher.” or “You made me think in a way I’ve never thought before.”

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University of Wisconsin – Whitewater