Critical Pedagogy, JST 3

Hey, guys! Writing on behalf of Jigsaw Table 3.

As a group, we worked to define critical pedagogy, then crafted three sections of responses that consider how we apply critical pedagogy in our respective fields.

Thank you for reading, & wishing you all a happy start to your week!:)

– JST3 (AKA Helen Ajao, Carter Eggleston, Qishen Huang, Leslie Jernegan, Medha Satyal and Ruixiang Xie)


Group definition: Critical pedagogy comes from a desire to foster curiosity and acknowledge the realities of student experiences through the application of relevant material. In practice, it centers around an inclusive, equity-focused environment of collective learning between teacher and student where all are able and encouraged to learn from each other. Such a space liberates and empowers learners—both teachers and students—to engage with the world outside of the classroom.


Student-Centered Learning as a type of Critical Learning

Student-Centered Learning – video.

The video is about a school and the strategies used to ensure that their teachings are student-centered. These strategies explain three main tactics which include

Collaborative group work

Student choice

Inquiry-based activities

Collaborative group work:  The lesson plan was designed  to engage students in a group work activity. These activity helps the student to learn from each other and makes them successful.

Student Choice: This strategy involves empowering to the student to decide how they want to learn. It gives the student the feeling that they have control of their learning. Part of the activities includes mind mapping exercise, role play and setting ground rules for themselves.  One of the experience while taking a class was being given an opportunity to redesign the class syllabus, the instructor gave the opportunity to choose the deadline date for our assignment and also to include our expectations for class into the syllabus.

Inquiry-based activities: This was used to encourage the student to research independently with inquiry-based activities. These activities include student given task that has to do solving real-world problems. It makes the student engage in critical thinking, teachers listening to students’ questions and inspire them to put forward further questions to deepen student’s investigations

These three strategies explain Freire ideology about laboratory action. The liberation is a social dynamics involving working with and engaging other people in a power-conscious process. The students are empowered to think critically. It brings the cultivation of both teachers and students critical consciousness. Above all, it maintains the authority of the teacher as well as respecting the being and experiences of students.


Critical Pedagogy in the Arts

Foster curiosity and acknowledge the realities of student experiences through application of relevant material. This focus is typically a key focal point for creative writing, as much of the creative work (e.g., short stories, novels, poems, essays, plays) we (students and teachers) produce tends to be influenced by what most interests and concerns us, tends to leverage writers’ experiences—or, as Paulo Freire puts it, discusses “the concrete reality of [our] lives.” Although some teachers experiment with requiring students not to write about themselves in their submitted work, these teachers are apt to encourage their students to write about people, places and ideas that, although non-autobiographical, nevertheless inspire their curiosity.

Nonetheless, as a teacher, I urge caution with limiting the subjects about which students can/cannot write. (An example: A creative writing professor told me this past week that she once asked students not to write about guns in their work, as she was sick of reading about them. This censorship, she reported, proved suffocating for her students, particularly those who genuinely felt pressed to include guns in their creative work for myriad reasons. Is the classroom not a place to play with and enhance our skills to best relay our messages?) While I acknowledge the benefits in placing constraints on writing and providing prompts, these assignments seem to best serve students in the experimentation and idea-fruition stages.

To put things more concisely, as a teacher I’m working to help my students build their toolkits for best crafting the creative work they wish to create. The strongest creative work, from my experience, has been the work that’s been honest—the work that’s been written by a writer with something to say. Who am I to muzzle that?

The students and teacher are all learners. The ability of the instructor to transcend the role of a knowledge dispenser is paramount to the concept of critical pedagogy. As stated by Joe L. Kinchloe, teaching is complex, and involves much more than serving “as deskilled messengers who uncritically pass along a canned curriculum.” This particularly resonates as a teacher in the arts. Intrinsic to any successful artist is their ability to create work that is undeniably their own. Its forms exhibit manipulation from the artist’s own hand, its aesthetics reflect choices guided by the artist’s own beliefs, and its messages are delivered through a voice molded by the artist’s own passions and experiences.

There is no “canned curriculum” for this. As a teacher, I must expect to learn from my students, just as they expect to learn from me. I can certainly share with them the knowledge that I have gained from my own experiences, but I must be aware that their experiences are different from my own. Establishing a relationship where I’m comfortable learning from my students broadens all of our perspectives and enables all of us to further develop as artists in way that is honest to our individuality.

Trust yourself. All great teachers are able to inspire self-confidence in their students, and students who believe in themselves and the work that they do are almost always more successful than those who don’t. In the arts, a lack of self-confidence can be more difficult to conceal, as there aren’t as many facts, figures, or formulas to hide behind. Assessment is typically done through the creation of art, not through testing, and an unavoidable component of this is evaluating student creativity. How can I adequately gauge creativity if my students don’t feel confident and comfortable enough to infuse their work with their own fears, passions, and ideas? Every aspect of my role as an instructor must be mindful towards instilling confidence in students. This empowers them to create more successful work, and also carries with it benefits for life outside the classroom. Creating environments that build self-confidence during sensitive moments like critique or other periods of feedback are particularly important.

Feedback. Just as teachers teach students and students teach teachers, students serve the purpose of teaching each other in the classroom. Much of my academic world spins around the creative-writing workshop—classes in which students turn in their creative work to their peers, and peers return the next week with thorough feedback, both written and to be discussed as a class, with other students and/or the instructor as the discussion facilitator.

In such classes, students are in a constant cycle of collective learning via critical thinking, as those responding to a piece are learning from the process of giving feedback, and the person receiving the feedback, after having first learned from the process of producing the work, is now learning from the process of actively listening to responses regarding the next steps to take with that work. Such a space exemplifies self-directed, democratic education; each student in the group should and must be heard, and should and must actively listen. The antipode of passive learning, workshops, when facilitated properly, exemplify the practice of critical pedagogy, and serve not to tear apart peers’ work. Rather, the questions, collectively addressed, are: What does this work, on its own terms, seek to do? What have we discovered and appreciated with respect to the sensibility particular to this work? How can we work to make this even better?


Critical Pedagogy in Science and Engineering

The traditional lecture, with teachers as deliverers of information and students as passive receivers, is very popular in undergraduate courses in the sciences. These lectures tend to focus almost exclusively on information transfer—which is certainly important, but should not be the only goal. There are key facts and concepts that are important to know in every discipline, but in today’s world where information is constantly readily accessible, it isn’t important to have every fact or reaction or equation memorized. Instructors should place greater focus on how students might apply concepts in different contexts rather than focusing on memorization of concepts.

What differs the critical pedagogy from traditional lectures is that critical pedagogy emphasize on active thinking and learning of students. The education system right now is more like a screening system, which can provide all the information students want, in order to put students into places that he/she is comfortable to stay at. It focus on the input and output of the system regardless of the processing method of it. However, an ideal critical pedagogy would encourage the students to actively find out the direction they want to go by learning and thinking about what information they can get from the system. Thus the students will no long just be inputs of the system, but become variables of the system. The final output will change with them interactively.

Table – Comparison between traditional lecture and ideal critical pedagogy.

Typical Situation Ideal Critical Pedagogy
Information Delivery Lecture, passive learning Active, student-centered learning
Assessment Standard tests Applied question (not of the purpose of testing, regurgitation of information)
Student-teacher interaction Authoritarian Interactive
Class activities None Group work
Class size Huge Small
Priority Knowledge (facts) Curiosity, skills


It is well-established that passive learning strategies are not as effective as active learning strategies. In my view, the traditional lecture style likely persists for two main reasons. The first being that professors tend to teach the same way they were taught. As future educators, it is our responsibility to not fall into this trap. The second reason, and perhaps the greatest challenge, is large class sizes; at some large universities, introductory classes can have hundreds of students. Having large class sizes is economically effective for universities, but makes courses impersonal for both instructors and students. It can be difficult to design engaging activities that can be scaled up to such a large group of students, and lecture halls don’t provide an appropriate physical environment for collaborative group work. Smaller class sizes would allow for more personal and interactive relationships between instructor and student as well as among students. With technological advances, one strategy to encourage engagement that has become popular is presenting quiz questions during lectures which students respond to using clickers. This is a good way to check that students are present and absorbing information; however it falls short in that it doesn’t require students to apply or manipulate or synthesize the information they have learned.


On Fostering Inclusive, Change-Inducing Conversations

After plunging into the (deep) rabbit-hole abyss of article-clicking this week, I found myself continuously returning to two specific quotes.  

First, there’s the statement from Mahzarin Banaji’s talk in which, in one of her opening lines, she says:

“I don’t want people to not learn from guilt and not learn from shame. I think those are powerful motives. They have made us, in large part, the more civilized people we are. But I do believe that, in our culture and in many cultures, we are at a point where our conscious minds are so ahead of our less conscious minds. We must recognize that, and yet, ask people the same question, “Are you the good person you yourself want to be?” And the answer to that is no, you’re not. That’s just a fact. We need to deal with that if we want to be on the path of self-improvement.”

Banaji’s sentiment braids well with a resonating message Statesman Edmund Burke once delivered—a line Emma Watson quoted in her UN speech about gender equality, which states: “All that is needed for the forces of evil to triumph is for good men and women to do nothing.”

I consider this sentiment often when teaching, especially when working with students who approach writing with the desire to effect change.

“Why write solely to please an audience who already agrees with you?” I asked my composition students this past Friday. “Whose perspectives are you, then, changing? Who else are you seeking to understand, save for the homogenized group with whom you already stand?”

In other words: What’s the point of speaking if we’re not listening? What’s the point of listening if we’re only listening to have our views reinforced?

All this said, I work to foster discussions with my students on how other writers do/don’t pull off the skill of sympathy/empathy in their writing. And while rhetorical analysis discussions often go over quite well, there are some sensitive topics that every semester, without fail, have proven debilitating for my opinionated, otherwise thoroughly chatty students to discuss—particularly race, religion and gender.

Within these past two weeks, for example, we’ve broken down the rhetoric of the new Nike commercial with Colin Kaepernick, as well as an article that discusses changing views of feminism and the notion of “post-feminism.” And although, with these two topics, I was simply asking students to break down the rhetoric of other writers’ writing, they quieted with what I assume to be the fear of them not wanting to stir the pot, of them not feeling confident in discussing their opinions about the issues these works were seeking to address.

“All that is needed for the forces of evil to triumph is for good men and women to do nothing.” 

How do I guide my students to do something?

Bearing this in mind, I found the Arao and Clemens “From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces” piece genuinely helpful, as the article offers advice on how to approach diversity and social justice learning activities—primarily through establishing ground rules, through, as Banaji argues, recognizing and dealing with the fact that we are not yet the perfectly “good” people we want to be as means for self-improvement; through, as Burke says, doing something.

As inferred from their title, Arao and Clemens propose revising language from the notion of the “safe space” to that of the “brave space” in order “to help students better understand—and rise to—the challenges of genuine dialogue on diversity and social justice issues.” Why the change in title? Because, with respect to safe spaces, Arao and Clemens report that they have found “with increasing regularity that participants invoke in protest the common ground rules associated with the idea of safe space when the dialogue moves from polite to proactive”; when the authors asked students about their rationales for their actions, the common theme of their responses was this: “a conflation of safety with comfort.” In proposing a stronger methodology for creating a space in which students can most productively discuss, the authors ask “What is meant by the concept of safety, and how does that change based on the identities in the room?”

In order to support learning that supports participants in authentic engagement, Arao and Clemens argue, “educators must take care to balance contradiction to a student’s current way of thinking with positive encouragement to explore new ways of thinking,” and, most interestingly,  that “authentic learning about social justice often requires the very qualities of risk, difficulty, and controversy that are defined as incompatible with safety,” and that “the language of safety may actually encourage entrenchment in privilege.”

So, how exactly do we, as educators, go about encouraging students arriving with diverse ranges of privilege and from diverse backgrounds, in general, to engage in a high-risk activity such as discussion of sensitive topics?

Arao and Clemens propose this:

  • Build conditions in which agent group members understand and expect from the outset that challenge is forthcoming
  • Use “brave space” as the alternative term
  • Have discussions about the meaning of “safe” vs. “brave” spaces with students prior to engaging in difficult conversations (“Creating this space for the participants to make their own meaning of brave space,” Arao and Clemens found, “in addition to sharing our own beliefs as facilitators, can lead to rich learning in alignment with our justice-related objectives.”)
  • Collectively establish ground rules, guiding students toward rules that advance productive discussions (examples include “Controversy with civility,” “Own your intentions and your impact,” and detailed illustrations of the meaning of “Respect” and “No attacks”)

When I taught creative writing through Duke University’s Talent Identification Program this summer, I established ground rules on day one…and this, I now believe, was because I had apparently expected my middle schoolers to be different from my undergraduate students; I presumed their maturity levels warranted a greater need to establish classroom expectations. From the first day, we discussed what a healthy environment looked like, penned rules on a giant piece of paper, taped the piece to the wall as a reminder to be revisited for the entire term, and signed the sheet—a contract, of sorts.

I still stand by the notion that my twelve-year-olds are different from my nineteen-year-olds with respect to maturity, but why would I believe that nineteen-year-olds—that adults of all ages, in general—don’t need to have discussions regarding how to best conduct ourselves in sensitive discussions? Clearly, there’s not an age when humans reach a proficiency in communication skills, in sensitivity training, in productive, change-inducing conversation. If there were, the world, I’d imagine, would look quite different. This is something we should consider for all students—for all communicating bodies, in general: productive conversations about how to best have productive conversations.

On Being Real

When I was searching for MFA creative writing programs, I realized that Virginia Tech’s package is a complete anomaly. Not only did I require funding for my graduate program, but, likewise, I desired teaching opportunities, so I maintained the expectation that I’d teach comp or creative writing at one of the universities. While this is the norm for funded programs, what’s also the norm is that they throw you right into teaching—without any kind of pedagogical training—on Day One. Also the norm, many schools make you compete among your cohort for these positions while there, hold annual callouts for reapplying—for proving your worth, for boiling your anxiety without ever having given you the tools for teaching-success in the first place. Here’s the message: You’ve seen someone teach, yeah? Now you can, too!…or, perhaps it’s: As a university, we realize you’re not ready for effective teaching, but, hey, you’re cheap! A good researcher! Here’s your side-gig! Attempt to guide those students paying $3,000 a-person for your class! 

Long-story-short: teaching is undervalued at institutions of higher education. Ironic, no?

Something I am especially appreciative of in my program here at Tech is its assurance of full funding, teaching placements and requirement to take a six-credit composition pedagogy class prior to teaching. In our pedagogy class in the first semester here, my cohort bonded through discussions of theory, weekly shadowing, grading practice, syllabus construction and guest-teaching opportunities—all of which helped us reflect on finding our teaching voices, becoming effective teachers and feeling as comfortable as possible prior to becoming instructors of record.

And then, of course, the real learning came when we got into our classrooms and just got to do the damn thing. Though, while I’ve gradually been building my self-awareness of my teaching style through the act of teaching, what’s encouraged this awareness has been constant reflection. Each semester, I take a practicum course that serves as a weekly teaching check-in; similarly, I have teaching mentors and I continue to take classes (like this! Hello!) that ask me to reassess my preexisting practices and values.

In reading Sarah E. Deel’s “Finding My Teaching Voice” and Shelli Fowler’s “The Authentic Teaching Self and Communication Skills,” in particular, I felt quite lucky to be a person who doesn’t deal with teaching nerves, though, similar to these educators, I do consistently reevaluate my practices. Certainly there’s truth in the point that teaching can be performative, though I never think of my teaching in that way. I feel deflated when I read reflections like that of Deel who recalls worrying about how to be that charismatic professor who naturally engages students. I want to say this stems from self-confidence, so, I don’t know, just build some of that…but, of course, the issue is far more complicated than for what I’m giving it credit. Nonetheless, charisma, for me, comes from just being real—from providing transparency to my students about why I’m having them read this short story or analyze that Instagram post or consider the use of pathos in the lyrics of their favorite songs; from letting them in on my life once in a while and telling them a story about my sister’s test or the movie I saw last night or my love of blue raspberry anything (real life—this can come with benefits. Got a blue raspberry Jolly Rancher out of this personal-life point of transparency last week).

There’s an art to maintaining professionalism and authority without being an authoritarian; being an authoritarian will gain you no respect, anyway. Just fear. And although our culture can encourage us to believe that fear and respect are interchangeable entities, they’re not synonymous concepts. So, while we shouldn’t be spending time or energy on being people we’re not, we must also remember to be people, too. Part of authenticity is doing away with the robotic appeal, of being some intimidation-inducing hierarchical gods of knowledge, untouchable to our students. Part of being genuine and real and present is making human connections with our students—by speaking (verbally, one-on-one, you’re-a-person-hey-I’m-a-person, moving-the-mouth speaking), learning about their interests, their needs, their fears. I grow exhausted by the message that this kind of connection is impossible. While I’ll agree that our current system isn’t set up for more individualized care of a student, it absolutely could be. We just need to reinforce the importance of good teaching and reconsider our priorities regarding into whom/what we should be funneling our investments.

Um, Permission to Rebel?

“With organic systems, if conditions are right, life is inevitable.”

Equal parts comedian and educationalist, Sir Ken Robinson’s talk, “How to Escape Education’s Death Valley,” has a serious—though, too, seriously optimistic—message: We’re all humans. We’re all organic. We, in the United States, are not setting up our students to learn. There’s a solution to make our system better.

As humans, we’re born to be curious by nature; and such innate curiosity is what makes humans so advanced, as curiosity is, in Robinson’s words, “the engine of achievement.” Likewise, however, it’s also been an “achievement” of the U.S. to “stifle that ability” to be curious at all. Many of our (mine, included) posts these past couple of weeks have touched on students’ (and our) desire to check the boxes in school. It’s what we’re taught to do, in fact, regardless of the reality that the desire to mechanically move from task to task is not what we’re drawn to do; it’s what we’re compelled to do; it’s a method of self-protection.

This rings true already in these first few weeks of me teaching the new incoming class of freshmen. Have my students come to me—in-person or over email—to discuss the assigned readings, to collaborate on exploring one of their writing assignments, to consider alternatives to their approaches? Nah. But how many questions have I received along the lines of Will we have a final exam or How many pages does this paper need to be or Will you ever quiz us or Could I receive extra credit this semester if I __ or Will we be downgraded if the MLA isn’t perfect?

As an educator, passionate about the content I’m teaching, when asked these questions—especially when asked in the middle of a lesson—I’m thrown off, I squint my eyes, I study the context, I self-question, I…I’m like…what?

Okay, okay. I can’t fault my students. I, too, am a recovering perfectionist and can strongly empathize with students’ fear over missing a detail. I’ve had teachers who’ve downgraded me for not adjusting my page-number font to Times New Roman and who’ve threatened to not accept a paper if it were a minute late. Those are misinformed, troubling and dangerous methods of “teaching.” Who are those practices helping?

In his talk, Robinson credits the No Child Left Behind Act for being part of the problem in teachers’ and students’ conforming approach to education. How, after all, are teachers and students going to teach and learn creatively when existing within a system of conformity that calls for standardized testing, for narrowing the focus on STEM disciplines rather than teach them in conjunction with a broad curriculum that includes and fosters talents in arts, humanities and physical education as well? How can we foster curiosity when teachers are not supported to teach creatively? When our system is set up for the antithesis of individualized teaching and learning? When we’re not attributing a high status to the teaching profession? When we’re giving the power to call the shots to legislators without any education in the field of education?

Again, to feed curiosity, we must teach creatively, and in order to teach creatively, we must support our teachers. After all, as Robinson says, teachers are “the lifeblood of the success of schools.” But, as we know, teachers don’t receive the treatment they’re due.

What especially troubles me now as a GTA and student is to see this system play out at the college level. Growing up with my father as a middle-school teacher who received low pay, who had to purchase his own supplies for his classroom, who brought breakfast to feed his kids (many of whom were below the poverty line and, likewise, not being properly supported), who protested in the state capitol when our governor (who does not even have a bachelor’s degree, himself, and who later felt empowered enough to attempt to run for president) decided to gut (and succeeded in gutting) teachers’ unions in Wisconsin, I was raised with the expectation that our public school teachers would continue to be treated like dirt (because, apparently, they can be), and assumed that helpless children would continue to be subject to the repercussions of the government’s mistreatment of teachers.

College educators, though…their conditions couldn’t be the same. We’re in places of higher education. Campuses saturated with knowledge and respect for those that promote it.  

Nope. Look at the number of GTAs who are thrown into teaching without being given any support beforehand. Look at the GTAs, like me, with 2-2 teaching loads, entire responsibility of classes’ syllabi constructions, of creating daily calendars, of giving daily class instruction, of grading, of corresponding with and supporting students…and, oh, who also have to take a full load of classes and publish and write theses and dissertations.

I am part of the norm. And while, comparatively, I should be grateful for my stipend that lets me cautiously live, I should also point out that this treatment—for me, for any GTA, for any teacher at any level—does not encourage best teaching practices. Quite the opposite. It’s burnout.

I can’t help but connect Robinson’s talk to Ellen J Langer’s The Power of Mindful Learning in which she discusses our culture of “mindlessness”—of entrapment in old categories. That’s what’s happening in education, no? In our treatment of educators? Of students? Our education system as of now is one that does not encourage alternatives, that does not open itself to continuous creation of new categories, openness to new information, and implicit awareness of more than one perspective. In a world marked by doubt and difference, why are we not teaching in a conditional, context-dependent way that values uncertainty? Or, the better way to ask this, as Langer teaches, is to ask: How can we teach in a conditional, context-dependent way that values uncertainty?

“Mindless learning,” Langer states, “ensures mediocrity.” Instead of keeping to this system, we must rebel against education myths that currently rule our system, that “undermine our true learning…stifle our creativity, silence our questions, and diminish our self-esteem.”

I’m standing by my will to teach my students the art of rebellion.

A student of mine said to me last week that, even though the author we were reading used four exclamation marks for one sentence, she, of course, couldn’t do the same in her own writing for class. In response, I asked, “Why not?” to which she responded nonverbally, cocking her head in a BUT GRAMMAR RULES! look of confusion. “Keep playing with your piece,” I said. “I can be convinced that four exclamation marks can be appropriate sometimes.”

I’m sticking by my message. I won’t standardize my students, just like I won’t passively allow for keeping our system of education—at all levels of learning—at its current state.

We. Are. Not. Robots.

Last Monday, I found myself telling my students what I wish I never had to tell them at all: “I’m talking at you for almost an entire class period right now. Shout at me if you have questions. Here’s my administrative hoo-ha. Fifty-minute marathon. I’ll never do this to you ever again.”

Each syllabus day, I always later reflect on the fact that I need to make that class more engaging. My conflict is this: I hate talking at my students, so there’s the option of telling them to read the syllabus, themselves. However, I also hate when my professors leave the class structure up for interpretation, assume their own clarity, and get going because, as I’m sure we’ve all heard from a professor or twenty, “We have so much to cover.”

Like, yeah, what makes your class so unique? Does each subject not have an infinite amount of information to relay? If a teacher doesn’t think so, they should reconsider.

The need to reconsider course structure—to reevaluate the information-transfer approach that supposedly solves, but, just kidding, actually torches the so-much-to-cover problem—is what connects this week’s readings. An example is Mark C. Carnes’s “Setting Students’ Minds on Fire,” in which he emphasizes the need for students to become more actively involved in their own education. It’s not simply financial burden, Carnes says, that causes students to drop out (although, of course, that’s not a problem to dismiss, either), but it’s the lack of motivation and interest students have. Even Barack Obama, Carnes quotes, said that, while in college, he too felt he was just going “through the motions.”

The strongest gains in pedagogies, Carnes (and, quite ubiquitously, all the other related readings for this week) says, are found in those that feature teamwork and problem-solving. The examples found in Douglas Thomas’s and John Seely Brown’s A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change echo this assertion. “Play, questioning, and—perhaps most important—imagination,” they write, “lie at the very heart of arc-of-life learning.” 

Through each of the presented stories, Thomas and Seely Brown support the message that schools need a combination of exchanges between massive information networks as well as bounded and structured environments; or, in other words, they support the idea that we need to bridge the gap between the large information-based world and the “intensely personal,” structured one. This, they write, is how imagination is cultivated, and it’s imagination that will drive students to create something new and meaningful.

I wonder how our world could look if every student could have learning experiences like those from the “Digital Media New Learners of the 21st Century”—how we all would benefit from the same kind of academic stimulation. Creative teaching incites creative thinking, which, of course, incites creative, new ideas. Why are we still running with the concept that we suddenly become adults who love being lectured at? 

The kids (particularly the one calling himself the “daydreamer”) in the aforementioned video reminded me so much of my seven-year-old nephew—how excited he is about building new mini race-cars, about learning to draw a new Pokemon character, about asking questions, in general. And while I certainly wonder about and hope for his future education being stimulating, I wonder about and hope for the same of all ages of students. When is it that we have the desire to learn sucked from us? Why must we be drained of that thrill? What can we learn from the teachers doing creative work with these elementary-aged students, and how can we apply that to adults?  

Life Beyond the Classroom

As a person who wishes to continue teaching as a vocation—who, too, sees teaching as her calling—I hope to never lose perspective of what it is to be a student. And, if I feel that sense slipping, I hope I’ll have the self-awareness to know it’s time to go back and better empathize with my students.

I’m saying this because, as a composition teacher and creative writing graduate student here, I’m constantly empathizing with my students; we have a lot to juggle. As I sit writing this, I do so with the anxiety that I’m doing so with only so much time until it’s due, that I have to do work for three other classes I’m taking, that I need to grade and prepare for the two classes I’m teaching, that I need to write for my freelance position, that I need to work on my applications for future advancement opportunities, that I need to block out time to work on my thesis.

Notice how, in my rant, I unintentionally write I “have” to do this, I “need” to do that. As it seems, my perception of my work—of learning, in general—is currently one that’s being done not out of joy, but out of obligation. Not, as Gardner Cambell calls for, out of the “adventure” it should be viewed to be. Instead, in writing even this post, I’m wondering how to keep my head above water as a student who’s dealing with the “management structures,” the “mechanics of ‘student success.’”

Dr. Michael Wesch’s talk followed me throughout last week; I, too, kept discussing and wondering about the same questions he says all his students want answered, particularly “Who am I?” and “Am I going to make it?”

To be sure, my students ask these same questions to themselves, which is why I’m trying constantly to get my students to understand their purpose and worth on this campus, and to see those same qualities in themselves beyond the traditional learning environment. In class, I ask them what they want out of their lives. Then I ask them again—what do you really want? I ask them what they wish they’d learned, but never had. I ask them what they want from me. I ask them how they best learn. I ask them how they think they can accomplish their goals. And, while listening and responding to my students’ responses, I push them to at least consider the best practices, learning styles, and ideas beyond those with which they’re entering in college; likewise, I push them to, at best, consider themselves beyond the college environment. That’s what we’re preparing them for, no?

What happens to curiosity when we lose the will to be curious at all? How can we relieve the pressure from students? How can we prove to the world that this is necessary—that helping students discover the joy, the complexity, and the practicality in studying will lead to the most effective real-world problem-solving?