Empowering Students on Day 1

Empowering Students on Day 1

On the first day of each class each semester, I spend a significant amount of time explaining to my students a brief biography of Paulo Freire. I tell them what I have taken to calling “The Brick Story” (I’ll post my version of this story later on) in order to provide the context necessary for what I tell them next: We are not a class; we are a community of learners, a learning community. You are not a student; you are a student-teacher. I am not a teacher… you are going to teach me, so I am also a student. Then I ask them to look at the faces of every single person in the room (seriously. It’s cheesy. They know it, I know it, and yet, there we all are, looking around the rooms at the faces of our colleagues and it becomes an important moment).

And then it’s time for the serious lesson: “We are responsible for one another’s learning. If you miss a class, we lose the opportunity to learn from you. If you have a question but don’t ask it, we all miss the chance to ask that question. If your colleague falls asleep, give hir* a gentle tap. If someone doesn’t come to class, send hir a text or an email. Be there for each other. We are all in this together.”

This style of teaching does not work for all students. So I explain that it is okay if a student does not want to be in a community-based class, that there is still time to drop without penalty and find a 14-week version of my 16-week class. I reassure my students that I honor whatever instruction style they need and that even though I really want them in my (our) class, I won’t be offended if they choose a different professor.

And then, we move on. Well, after a brief note about Freire’s embedded sexism and feminist responses to it (thank you, bell hooks!).

*his/hers; him/her

So this semester, in addition to our Freire charla, I also divided my students into small groups so that they could walk themselves through the syllabus and hear their own voices rather than my own. I walk from group to group to check in about what is confusing, what is overwhelming, what seems awesome, and so forth. Afterwards, we gather back together as LC (learning community) to discuss our impressions and, importantly, so that students can offer suggestions for revisions to the syllabus. Of course there is the jokester (“Can we cancel all of the work?”), but something magical happens when I offer the students an opportunity to shape the course: their ideas are better than mine!

For example, in today’s ENG 112 class students decided to change the format of their Reflective Journals [these are 250 word metacognitive assessments in which students articulate and create a plan for their semester goals (#1), reflect on progress made and changes desired (#2 & #3), explain their successes and challenges in the research process (#4), and offer advice to future students, thereby reflecting on their experience throughout the entire semester (#5)] from written to an alternative, non-written format. In my notes to the class below, you can see the alternative formats the students created:

  1. Reflective Journals will be offered in alternative, non-writing formats. Regardless of your choice, you must submit your journal before or by the deadline stated in the syllabus. You can choose to upload them as one of the following:
  • a) typed journal entry (default)
  • b)a Discussion Board post in which you also respond meaningfully to at least three of your colleagues
  • c) a recorded message (video or voice-only)
  • d) discuss the journal prompt with a group and assign one person to report back to Indigo the major points of discussion
  • e) in a one-on-one conference with Indigo.

See how much better these options are?! I’m not kidding when I rename my students as student-teachers. Today’s class also decided to revise the rule on their required Reading Diaries:

  1. If you upload all Reading Diaries on time and receive a C or better, then you are exempt from the comprehensive final exam. (although you are still required to attend the final).
  2. If everyone does #1 then we can have a celebratory party during the final exam.

While I struggle to share control of the learning space with my students, I find the experience extraordinarily valuable. My hope is that in finding more ways to allow students to revise, shape, and share their learning experience will lead to deeper and more consistent engagement, increased confidence and ownership, and, ultimately, more students successfully leaving ENG 111 and ENG 112.