Thursday, May 31, 2012

(Em)Power in the Classroom Series (Part 6)

by Rai Farrelly, PhD
I don't consider myself to be 'one lacking voice' by any means, but sometimes I can't seem to find it. The ideas will be swirling around somewhere - in my mind or my heart or coming to life in my emotions, but without voice they just swirl, which makes things a bit muddy. Recently, I've been finding my voice in the words of others - and it makes me happy!

I'm not new to teaching in an institution of higher education. In fact, thanks to the power sharing of my early mentors in the academy, I've been teaching classes for over a decade - dating back to my years as a green Masters student. However, it wasn't until this past semester with the class that I've been writing about in this blog series - (Em)Power in the Classroom - that I have actually 'negotiated curriculum' in this way. But it was always in me!

In this negotiated class, the final power sharing act was the grading. At the beginning of the class, we decided on a qualitative grading scale, relying on carefully crafted rubrics with clearly defined criteria that would guide them. Even though we set the grading policy together and it was going to be difficult to get less than an A given the opportunities for multiple drafts and revisions with peer and instructor feedback, they still asked the usual questions toward the end of the semester: Am I in good standing? Do you think I'll get an A? Is there anything else I could do to make sure I have an A? I assured them that if they were slated to receive a grade they wouldn't be happy with, I would be in touch and we would negotiate a plan to help them reach their goal, even if that meant assigning an 'I' (Incomplete) which they would have a year to remedy. You could see the shoulders relax as I said it. I still had a couple of students visit me to make sure they were on track for the A they so desired. We worked together, made some revisions here and there and embarked on our summer vacations worry-free (with relation to this class, at least).

I didn't always operate this way.

Previously, I taught from syllabi that I inherited and I taught with a style that I emulated. I put into practice what I thought to be the 'better' elements of my own learning experiences, supplemented with new techniques and strategies gleaned from my second language teacher education classes. Having taught many English as a Second Language courses followed by teacher education courses for teachers of English language learners, I acquired a large toolbox from which to draw when working away in the classroom. The inklings of 'Atlas Shrugged' - not the book, but the literal shrugging of the world on my shoulders - were also in me, planted by early readings about The Atlas Complex, the teacher as transmitter of knowledge, as 'sage on the stage', the students as empty vessels waiting to be filled - the 'banking method' of education. These were all concepts I was encouraged to discard as I adopted more student-centered approaches where the teacher is the facilitator, the architect, the gardener - cultivating opportunity for rich student experiences and deep learning.

I always viewed myself as a facilitator. I crafted beautiful lessons that promoted student-centered instruction (or so I thought). There was an abundance of collaborative learning opportunities and formative assessment. I was rarely the 'sage on the stage' talking at them, but rather I engaged them in discussions and projects and presentations. Didn't I?

To whatever extent my instruction embodied a student-centered approach, I had to admit at some point - I was still in charge. I was still the one with all the power. I determined the topics before meeting my students. I chose the assignments before knowing how they learned. I crafted a syllabus that read like a contract with policies that were handed down to me by my Department. I assessed them with numbers and percentages that confused even me at grading time.

And then it happened. What many of you have known for years - I discovered Power Sharing in the Classroom. I discovered in reverse chronological order the works of educators who said with their words what had been burning in me ... perhaps since I was a learner planted in a uniform, in a classroom, in a row, at a desk in front of a nun. As I read Stephen Brookfield, MaryEllen Weimer, bell hooks, Susan Hyde, Ira Shor, Garth Boomer, Norma Gonzalez, Nancy Lester, John Dewey, Paolo Freire and many others, I found that they were saying exactly what I was feeling.

I sat with When Students Have Power by Ira Shor and wanted to read every sentence aloud to my colleague. "On the first day, if I had enacted traditional rhetoric as a unilateral authority, I would have begun by narrating the syllabus ("reading the riot act") and by lecturing on the course material (the pre-emptive didactic presentation)" (p. 30). Yes! Exactly, Ira!

bell hooks was like music to my ears as I turned the pages of Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. "It is rare that any professor, no matter how eloquent a lecturer, can generate through his or her actions enough excitement to create an exciting classroom. Excitement is generated through collective effort" (p. 8). Absolutely, bell!

Bringing the critical lens to reflective practice in Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher, Stephen Brookfield had me nodding out loud in my chair. "When we practice critically, we regard curricula as constructed and tentative, as framed by human agency and therefore capable of being dismantled and reframed by teachers and students" (p. 40). Amen, Stephen!

I literally couldn't have said any of that better myself (yet). I'm a young faculty with my Dr. title newly awarded and my voice is growing stronger by the day. As I continue to 'find my voice', I will also find ways to 'make a noise' so that I can continue to promote Power Sharing in the Classroom.

Brookfield, S. D. (1995). Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge.

Shor, I. (1996). When Students Have Power: Negotiating Authority in a Critical Pedagogy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

"Believe that you can change the world. Find your voice. Make a noise." -Katie Herzig, Make a Noise

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