Friday, December 18, 2015

Pedagogy is and isn't Practice

Praxis

or the relationship between what one thinks and tries and what happens in a classroom or in teaching in more general terms. I just made up this particular version of definition but I'm using it, for now. 

In the middle of this semester that is now nearly completely finished, I thought I was totally failing. Failing at teaching. In a way it was both a usual and unusual feeling. Usually there is a stretch of time, after the excitement of the beginning of the semester, when everything gets hard. Students stop doing the reading, become more quiet, slack on assignments. This happens to greater and lesser degrees depending on the makeup of the class, and which school I am teaching at (I teach at 2-3 in any given semester). At one school, this 4-weeks-into-the-semester-slump is hugely apparent every time, and now that I can see it coming, I try to plan accordingly with activities and whatnot. At the other schools, it is less apparent but still visible, and if I don't pay attention, students get distracted away. But this semester was challenging in other ways because I also considerably revised all of my syllabi just before the school year started. So in the middle of the semester, I was overwhelmed with keeping up with each class in ways I hadn't exactly done before, and also wondering if it was all totally failing. Ironically, I was getting in more student work so should have had a gauge about how students were doing. But in the middle of everything happening, it is hard to see anything clearly. After the beginning, everything felt like a disaster most of the time. This feeling though was mostly internal on my part. The classes probably went as smoothly as any other classes have gone in the past. One class that usually loses more students (they stop coming altogether, or miss a lot and then come back now and then) seemed to lose fewer than in the past. The issue was more about my own getting used to the new ways of planning and implementation that I had designed into the syllabi that I had to continuously keep up with.

But I think in the end, mostly I've actually been successful, almost to my surprise. And the other day, when I was reading through final portfolios, I came across one, at the bottom of the list of links (online portfolios) for one class, and I read it and cried. This student had been one to nearly drop out. She missed a couple of classes. She didn't turn in the first portfolio. She was a shy student with some kinds of anxiety maybe directly related to school, maybe related to social situations in general. She was from Uganda and had been in the U.S. for school once or twice before, but I didn't otherwise know much about her story. She also sat in the back of the room, and I couldn't really read her very well in terms of how she was participating or what I might be able to do or not do. Teaching is challenging  in so many ways. Students participate in all sorts of different ways in a class, whether or not they sit in front and/or talk out loud. And approaching students to talk about what they need can be tricky too depending on how they are likely to respond. I also tend to have a more hands-off approach because that is the kind of student I always was; I didn't want teachers unnecessarily in my business, though I was also a student who participated and enjoyed being involved in conversations. In any case, I like to respect students' autonomy and also make sure they know that I am available to help if they need me. One day after class, a couple of weeks after the portfolio was due and I had only received a kind of short and unclear email about her having not turned it in, I talked to her  and asked if she'd still like to turn in the portfolio, late, for a reduced grade. She excitedly responded, yes! and the next week gave me the work. After that, she may have still missed another class but overall became more involved and once or twice even participated in the class discussion. She seemed to become more comfortable in general and did a good job with the rest of the work. I was glad that I hadn't lost her and she was able to finish the semester in generally good standing. But I didn't think much more about it until I read her reflection on the semester in her portfolio, which included this:

I’ve never really had a writing process; I’ve never really been interested in writing. Reading, though was another matter. For a while when I was a child, my mother worked in a neighborhood library; I like to tell people I love reading because I grew up in a library. On a day when I have absolutely nothing else to do I can devour three good sized books, one after the other, like pints of ice cream. We lived in the Ugandan version of the countryside and all my friends lived in the capital city. So I spent many hours living inside my head with the people in my books and loving every second.

Being in this class has prompted two major epiphanies. The first one was my suddenly deciding to major in English. This was dismaying since I’ve never considered English a “real” major. One of my favorite arguments against it was pointing out that my heap of student debt had not been incurred so I could sit in a classroom reading books and talking about my feelings, which is what I thought English majors did. Sure, I loved reading. Sure, I had penned a bad poem or two in my time. And sure, every time I passed by the English department or looked at the first blank page in a notebook I felt the shiver of excitement in my stomach. But shivers are not a good enough reason to switch to a major that meant looking forward to a long, fulfilling career in food service.

The things I loved most about the class was that it was the first place in this country that a group of people sat down and talked about things that I cared about. Racism. Poverty. Marginalization. Depression. Self-hatred. Death. Loneliness. The ugly sides of life that never came up in discussion in math classes or political classes. The financial, social and maybe psychological sides of these issues would maybe enter the debate. But English 223 is the first class I can remember where we sat down and talked about the feelings behind these issues. Being a person who regularly drowns in feelings at least a hundred times a day, this was an eye opener. I didn’t realize I could major in a subject where I could talk about my feelings and think about my feelings and write them down and someone would actually listen. I didn’t know things like writing Creative Essays allowed you to do that without the fear of the reaction I’ve become used to all my life and yet still hate, “Why do you always overreact to everything?” Writing allows me to overreact to my heart’s content and yet manage to come to a calm conclusion at the end of it.


And I realized that sometimes, what I do and how I lead a class can have huge impacts on students. Part of it is me and a larger part of it is a process that a student may already be going through and the class may help to support that. Sometimes I think creative writing opens this kind of possibility more because students have a lot more freedom to write on their own terms during the semester. But I am starting to see this kind of personal reflection in other writing classes too. I have been practicing giving students more space and possibility for writing on their own terms so that they can relate and allow writing to be a space of discovery, both about what they want to express to an audience and what they want to learn about themselves. And at the end of the semester, students talk about how they have improved as writers and some of them even stop on their way out and say thank you.

I get so frustrated. I often have felt that teaching is the only thing that I actually am good at. And every semester, I am challenged by feeling like I am failing to some degree as a teacher. I apply for full-time teaching jobs and no one hiring recognizes my many years of experience as important to my credentials and so people with far less experience get hired instead. I often feel disrespected by people and institutions because I am only a contingent worker and not valued for my teaching experience or ability to continually interrogate my pedagogy in practice and always try and do better. Some people may be naturally better teachers, and have to work less hard to improve. When I read about other teaching practices or talk to other teachers, I often feel like I am not doing enough or am not doing a good enough job. But maybe that also continues to help me improve because it is something I am thinking about all of the time. And when I read students' writing, their assignments and reflections, I am often amazed. This last week of the semester I have been really amazed at what my students have done. And that's why it's hard to think about doing something different, some other kind of job, because I can see that what I do affects people and often gives them tools and resources to learn about and help themselves. Just because hiring committees don't recognize that, doesn't mean it doesn't matter. 


...to see the beginning of this pedagogy project go to: http://jdnotes.blogspot.com/2015/08/critical-digital-pedagogy.html