Monday, February 27, 2006

Holding their hands or creating a better environment to learn?

As I built the lesson plans for each day I made an effort to include group discussion into each meeting as a way of getting other voices heard besides my own. In the first two meetings as a group of 18 or 20 students brought in comments or questions to lead discussion. Often these comments revolved around like or dislike if images and their reasoning was in comparison to other images or they weren't sure why they liked it they just knew they did. Often the questions were directed towards me. A few times I tried to turn the questions back out to the class but got very few responses and a few students who got angry because they felt that I was not helping. Few were engaged in the conversations and those who were, guarded their comments and spoke in turn instead of in a discussion.

In the following classes I began by providing questions that I felt were interesting and did not have a single answer but required some thought and connection to the real world. I had the students form small groups to work through whatever questions they wanted. Then we joined together as a larger group and posed a few questions to the group as a whole. The difference in the students response was amazing. Just about everyone was talking and they seemed to like choosing what question interested them and running with them. I circulated around the room and tried to get and idea of what they were talking about and at times asked some more questions if they had run out of comments to make. They need my help less and less now. There are still a few students who join together and pretend to talk about the questions. They have not read the materials so they spend most of their time looking for the answers that are not really in the book.

Why did this happen? I assumed, incorrectly, that from the very beginning giving them the power to discuss and lead their own process to learning would be empowering and natural to them. It wasn't. They did not know what to do with this kind of space and so they resorted to what they know, ask the teacher or find THE right answer. When I introduced some guidelines and let them choose from a few options I gave them a starting place and let them go from there. I also respected them as adults to choose what interested them.

What does it mean? Critical Pedagogy is great and all but it is not always the first step in the classroom. Students at this level of education have at least 12 years of banking method teaching under their belts and introducing something new and liberating is not necessarily empowering right away. As nam Jun Paik once stated in an essay concerning digital media, freedom and liberty are sometimes antagonistic strangers. I have to work harder to meet students where they are at; create a space where students learn to be more critical and learn how to learn from engaging in dialogue. Hopefully it means that as we go we can, as a class, become less and less dependent on my questions and begin to focus on theirs. I have to model the critical responses I would like to get.

Implications for Practice? I recently read a NAEA advisory article on discussion. I know that is was not intended for college level art appreciation classrooms, however its suggestion foe better communication seem really helpful. Or, I should say seemed helpful before this experience. In fact I have read many things on changing the power dynamic in the classroom and allowing the students the power to engage their own learning in a way that works for them. This is great. Let students make up rules for how they want discussion to be and how they will treat each other. Remove yourself (as the teacher) from guiding discussion and allow the students to communicate. And then watch them sit and stare at each other for 10 minutes hoping that someone will say the right thing and I will let them stop doing this.

Why do I initiate the dialogue, because they will not do it on their own. I have to show them that in this space dialogue that is informative and rich in content and experience is appropriate and encouraged. Students for the most part have not seen this type of learning engaged and it does not come natural to them after 12 years of learning one way. I cannot assume that giving them freedom will make them feel liberated. This requires a great deal of thought about myself as an educator and facilitator as well as what are some ways to get to the point where the freedom to discuss does feel liberating. I have know my own agenda in asking questions and what questions I ask. I have to scan my process carefully and constantly to make sure that I am building to independence and not just creating a new dependence by only me asking the questions.

Then there is the realization that I will never get passed this. Each and every semester will bring a process of starting with hand holding and hopefully getting to empowerment. It may not happen every semester but it is worth it to try.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Getting to Know Them

On the first day of class at The Art Institute of Chicago I was asked to participate in this introduction project entitled Windows. It was interesting then as a student as a way to get to know where my classmates were coming from and took the edge off a little of the scary unknown. This experience has stuck with me and I thought it would be nice to incorporate it into my own teaching.

On the first day of class I explained that in this class we would be discussing a wide variety of topics and many of them will not be neutral. To prepare for this it would be nice to get to know each other a little better and hopefully feel a little more comfortable around strangers. I am sure for these students a corny getting to know you exercise is standard fare and what they were expecting although they seemed to engage the project and when talking were very open and honest.

On an 11 by 17 piece of paper folded in fours they answered the following questions..."Something you've accomplished that makes you proud", A challenging moment you have faced in your life", What you would do with all the money and time in the world", and One hope and one fear you have about the next four months". I asked them to respond to these questions visually and if they must use words to limit them to a few key words.

As a student I know how much I enjoyed this introduction activity, as a teacher I found in uniquely helpful and an absolute must for teaching. It was important for me as an instructor to see where my students were coming from. It helped ground the class a little to see students who for the most part were most proud of high school achievements but whose challenging moments ranged from driving cars to the loss of a loved one and all that is in between.

I teach two sections of art appreciation, one consisting of mostly freshman first time college students, the other consisting of working adults, returning students, and enrichment students. Their experiences differed greatly but it was the final question of fears and hopes the became the most intriguing and impactful on my role in these two classrooms.

The younger first time students across the board were concerned with grades. Every single one had a fear of getting an F and the hope of getting an A. In my own pedagogy in the classroom I like to get away from grades and focus on participation and seeking knowledge. While this is not ruled out I must as an instructor modify my pedagogy to meet the needs of my students. For this class I make sure that grades and expectations are clearly defined. As the semester progresses they will have a bigger say in what the expectation are and how they can be met. This allows for a better distribution of power in the classroom as well as engages the students to be more involved and a part of each assignment.

The older students and returning students while still concerned with grades were also concerned with the content of the class, Would they understand the readings, Like the art works, See new things, and be ready for the rigors of school (again). For these students I make sure assignments are given far in advance and that there is appropriate class time for projects. I structure discussion time less for them as they tend to have stronger opinions and therefore more lively debate. While I would in my own pedagogy like to move away from right and wrong answers this group often requests them. To work with this and not let them feel everything is abstract I show more examples and turn questions over the class more often.

In my own schooling I find it very easy o get up in the trap that if as an instructor I engage in critical pedagogy in any form my studetns will feel magically free to engage and will prefer this type of teaching. Teaching is a good remedy for this kind of thinking. I cannot undo teaching methodologies learned in 12 years of school and on the job training. While I attempt to deconstruct some habits of looking to me for concrete answers and focusing on grades without knowledge to show for it, I must help them reconstruct something in its place. And so getting to know them better helps to adapt my own pedagogy which helps to make it truly critical.

As I am just beginning to take baby steps to remove power from myself and redistribute it among the studetns I find the process to be a valuable one. There must be relationship building and trust building to truly decenter the power and they (the students) have to be in on it. Is there one process to get us there no, it the process important...YES!