“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
–Richard Schaull, from the introduction to Pedagogy of the Oppressed (2000) by Paulo Freire
Goals & Foundational Principles:
Clever how that word, teaching, slips so easily into the iambic pentameter of a heartbeat, almost as if to be an educator is to be transformed into the sacred link of life and art. bell hooks, who builds upon Freire’s ideas of transformative education, expresses the connection between heart and education, writing in Teaching to Transgress that “The heart of education as a practice of freedom is to promote growth. It’s very much an act of love in that sense of love as something that promotes our spiritual and mental growth.” hooks’ idea of love as something that challenges in order to foster growth is the foundation from which my own pedagogy grows. I hold my students and myself to high standards of achievement because of my commitment to student growth.
My teaching philosophy is crafted for the beautifully diverse collection of students whose presence shapes my classroom from California to Virginia. Along with hooks, my pedagogy is grounded in the belief that education is the practice of freedom through which students become empowered to transgress the boundaries of marginalized subject positions in order to thrive academically, professionally, socially, and spiritually. Regardless of the subject I teach, I teach through my deep passion of and belief in transformative education. My pedagogy is grounded in my commitment to social justice, which envisions a world in which many other words fit. As such my classroom becomes a learning community, one in which dialogue, questions, and alternative perspectives are encouraged.
The first time my students and I meet I explain that there is no Truth. Instead, there are truths. Do not ask me if your answer is right, I caution. Instead, use critical thinking based on well-reasoned logic to show me why your perspective is valid. I challenge students to take responsibility for their learning experience by pushing the class to be student-teachers while I occupy the role of teacher-student. My students soon realize that they entered the classroom with valuable skills and unique knowledge upon which they will continue to build throughout the semester, and that their sincere presence and participation is necessary and valued in my classroom.
Methodology of Teaching and Fostering Learning:
Much of my pedagogy works at undoing the habits my students arrive with. Younger students arrive to the college classroom with the lingering imprint of standardized tests, while older students often feel out of place. I push these students to listen to their colleagues and to their texts in order to develop other ways of knowing. This, combined with my stubborn refusal to acknowledge a single, “correct” response, shifts the value from the final answer to the process of learning. I encourage my students to take risks, to make mistakes, and to ask questions.
I frequently remove myself from the role of leader in order to encourage students to assume control of and responsibility for their education. One method for encouraging student engagement is my incorporation of Socratic Seminars, which is also an aspect of class that students continue to applaud and request. In order to prepare for the Socratic Seminar I ask students to take an open note online quiz in the days before the Seminar, prepare a reading card with notes based on their observations, questions about the reading, and a personal connection to the reading. During the Seminar, students take the lead in discussion by drawing on their reading card while my role is to monitor the quality and quantity of student response, which serves as the basis for their grade in the Seminar. My favorite part of these discussions is the transformation that occurs: vociferous students learn to make space for their quieter colleagues, while introverted students begin to acknowledge the power of their own voice.
Another foundational principle of my learning space is collaborative work. My courses balance lecture based on my own expertise with student-led discussion and video clips from the outside world. I avoid predictability in an effort to maintain student interest as well as to emphasize preparation. Students are frequently broken into groups, either strategically or at random, and given structured assignments that analyze various aspects of a text. I ask student groups first to discuss their initial reactions to and questions about a text. They work together to share perspectives and problem solve as they uncover the meanings embedded in the text. Then I’ll distribute a specific learning objective for the group, the findings of which they then present to the greater learning community. This allows students a safe space to formalize their thoughts while learning to negotiate the pressure of upholding a valid argument in front of others. Whenever possible I incorporate technology, such as use of online discussion boards, blogs, a digital textbook, and interactive grammar quizzes into lesson plans and student activities.
Students at the community college enter the classroom from a multitude of experiences. In my classroom students arrive having served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, finishing distinguished decade long military careers, with the ink still fresh on their high school diplomas, having just attended the last graduation of their final child, as refugees from countries in turmoil, recently divorced or divorcing, in the midst of a mid-life career change, and so on. Their unique backgrounds demand a flexible academic space that values every experience and perspective. I thrive at the community college because of these students. I push them to work hard because I believe in their potential to surprise themselves academically, and sometimes that means they take my class multiple times, but I never let them fail to grow. My teaching is student-focused and, as I reiterate to my students, if they show up, I’ll show up. Therefore, I maintain flexible office hours and often times meet with students off campus at the library or a local café. I check my email all day long. When a student stops coming to class, or comes to class but isn’t prepared, I check in. I push students to expect excellence of themselves, which is why I also have an open revision policy. When students submit essays that demonstrate a sincere approach to the assignment, and if the essay is submitted on time, they can revise their final draft for a better grade.
I strive to empower individual student learning with support from the entire learning community. At the end of the semester my students and I become a cohesive “we,” we know the names of everyone else in the learning community and work together to engage creatively and critically with the challenges of learning.
My teaching philosophy privileges education that works as an on-going process. I don’t evaluate students on what they know when they walk into my classroom. Instead, I evaluate the success of both the students and myself by the skills with which they leave our learning community. The value of course assignments increases as the semester progresses in reflection of my expectation that students consistently work hard and push their growth. My classes end with three types of assessment: the research project, a final exam, and a self-reflection essay. The research project is a well-researched, polished piece of writing based on the cumulative work of assignments that guide students through the process of research, argumentation, citation, revision, and peer review. The comprehensive exam functions as a way to solidify student learning through the application of texts and concepts covered throughout the semester in a multiple choice exam, timed writing assignment, or combination thereof. In writing based classes, the final assignment is the writing portfolio, which includes a self-reflection essay based on a thorough examination of the ways in which the student grew as a writer. The research project represents the student’s best work, the final exam demonstrates the student’s ability to remember and apply course content, and the self-reflection essay empowers the student to articulate her/his strengths and places for continued improvement.
In Pedagogy of the Oppressed Paolo Freire outlines the ways in which education can either be an instrument employed by those in power to maintain that power or education is a tool which with students empower themselves to transform their realities. I focus on that “or.” My goal as an educator is neither to illuminate the correct answer nor to conform my students’ thinking to my own world view. I teach students to teach themselves, to uncover the bias, and to create the world in which they wish to live.