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Three enduring questions/areas for focus/reverberation

alesnick's picture

 Aaron Weitz

Empowering Learners Final Project


This essay examines the concept of coping in education, the use of digital technologies in class, and the importance of diversity and how it is helpful in mentoring. 

Three enduring questions/areas for focus/reverberation:


1. In what ways do students, mentors, teachers, and bi-co students at their field placements cope with less-than-ideal circumstances? How is the concept of coping useful for thinking about the work that educators, mentors, students, and other players of American education accomplish? Does this concept of coping either help to resolve the many tensions between systems and lifeworlds or allow for a revaluation of systems themselves (as potentially beneficial establishments)? Is there any distinction between coping and pragmatic hoping?


When discussing Cindy Clark’s In Sickness and in Play, we talked in great detail about the many ways in which individuals reckon personally with and make the best of difference, disease, and disability (either their own or that of others). Although the Oxford English Dictionary supplies a range of definitions for the verb ‘to cope,’ nearly all seem to involve the agent’s (a) coming into contact or conflict with a hindering force (“To come to blows with, engage, encounter, contend, fight with”), (b) deriving a personal relationship to and understanding of this source of conflict (“To meet with; to come into contact, touch, or relation with; to have to do with”), and/or (c) actualizing optimal outcomes from such negotiation (“To manage, deal (competently) with, a situation or problem”).[1] Significantly, none of these definitions imply immediate transcendence of the obstacles that are present. Instead, they all seem to value conflict and confrontation as integral (though personally-challenging) processes of productive reconciliation and agency-building. Notably, the many definitions locate coping as a process that has the capacity to empower those who cope. Anecdotally, the etymology of ‘coping saw’ (a saw used to cut curved patterns in wood) seems to jive best with an archaic designation of ‘coping’ (as a noun): “The uppermost course of masonry or brickwork in a wall, usually made of a sloping form to throw off rain.”[2] Nevertheless, even this antiquated use of the word partakes in an incredibly-similar process of interaction, conflict, productive reckoning, and eventual maximization.

And so, when discussing Cindy Clark’s text during the book group presentations, the members of our class seemed to identify the classroom‫ as a safe space for the work of coping to take place. Although members of our class did propose numerous and nuanced ideas for the reform of systems such that difference might universally become cause for celebration, they held no illusions about immediate, systemic overhaul. Instead, they courageously gave voice to their own struggles (while also understanding that others may prefer to keep deeply-personal struggles private), inspired broader awareness, and offered some incredibly-practical ways to make our world better to live in (while still working towards better worlds). Defining ‘imaginal coping’ as “using the imagination to transform and reframe the hardships of illness,” Cindy Clark locates play, ritual, humor, and prayer as modes by which all people (and not just children) strive to engage with, derive personal significance from, and make the best of illness. Yet, I want to think about coping as a term that resounds far beyond the discourse of disease.

Indeed, the Empowering Learners course has pushed me to conceptualize mentoring itself as a practice that is highly analogous to the process of coping. Indeed, mentors strive to help their mentees (as well as themselves) deal with, make personal sense of, and succeed in systems that may very well disadvantage them. This does not mean that mentors cannot also endeavor to transform the very systems by which inequity is perpetuated (and I would imagine that this is a motivation with which many mentors approach their work). For me, the Rabow text resolves many of the apparent tensions between success within systems and endorsement or perpetuation of these very systems: “Tutors are educational reformers. Every new, exciting, and unique technique that you develop enriches the education of your students” (Rabow et al., p. 102). The notion that a single mentor, merely by implementing an exciting pedagogical technique, can inspire reform is, for me, extremely empowering. Perhaps the mentor’s capacity to get students excited about learning not only enables the immediate successes of students, but also progresses toward the systemic reform for which mentors ceaselessly strive. Perhaps mentors, by supporting the coping of both students and themselves, facilitate essential negotiation between practical and ideal, between systems and lifeworld, between classrooms and the world beyond.

Herman and Mandell similarly identify mentoring as a process by which individuals assist others (as well as themselves) to live more comfortably and independently in our world: “Mentoring is about lifelong learning which helps people live well” (Herman and Mandell, p. 13). Indeed, Herman and Mandell conceptualize mentoring not as a drive to either entrench paralyzing pessimism or wholly overthrow systems (although, ideally mentees will harness newfound skills to incite change), but as a means to make this world more hospitable, just, and enjoyable: “Mentors help students see and create connections between their own seemingly fragmentary pieces of reality and, potentially, the entire universe and every possible way of understanding it” (Herman and Mandell, p. 35). Mentors therefore encourage and applaud the coping endeavors of their students. Making use of conflict and confrontation, mentors help their mentees to make sense of and innovate within systems of schooling that may often seem overly-standardized, illogical, and oppressive.

At my field placement, I have marveled at the tremendous capacity of kids to cope with the less-than-ideal circumstances into which they are often thrown. I have watched as third-graders made the best of pervasive standardized testing, rallying with pride around a trophy that they received for their collective performance on a benchmark test in math. I have looked on as kids found ways to play imaginatively while standing in lengthy lines. I have observed as students transformed a highly disciplined lunchroom into a site for furtive, playful, and educative exchange. As Professor Lesnick suggested at our midcourse conference, people are more creative than we give them credit for: “Everyone is at the cutting edge of the universe.” The act of mentoring, as a dialogical endeavor from which all participating parties learn, implicitly acknowledges, values, and makes use of the mentee’s creative capabilities to cope. We could even think about bi-co students at their field placement sites as witnesses and partners in the coping endeavors of both students and teachers. At placement sites, we want to help maximize the schooling experience for all parties involve…including ourselves.

A key question with which I entered the Empowering Learners course was: How can mentors hold onto and strive to actualize their utopist visions for American education without disadvantaging the students whom they serve? By conceptualizing mentoring as the praxis of coping, I feel more hopeful that the radical and practical goals of mentors are not necessarily incompatible. I now genuinely believe that, by working to ensure that students are able to make the best of their schooling circumstances and opportunities, mentors can reasonably enact the worldly success of students and spur change. Ultimately, a focus on coping may even enable us to see the rationale or value of certain systems, to accept these systems as inevitable realities, and/or to eschew the complacency of utter pessimism. I also believe that a focus on coping may enable us to reclaim conflict, difference, and suffering as inherent aspects of the human experience that need not disempower. Indeed, a focus on coping may help us to refigure conflict, difference, and suffering as dynamic opportunities for learning and celebration (see question three for further thoughts). 


2. How can mentors and teachers most effectively utilize digital technologies in the classroom? In what ways have these technologies transformed the very meanings of schooling, agency, and self? Is technology absolutely beneficial?


            I vividly remember just how disappointed my Mother was when she discovered that I, as a seventh grade student, could not write a single word in cursive. I, however, didn’t get the big deal nor did I see the tremendous appeal of the ‘good old [cursive-filled] days’ which she and my father seemed to perpetually invoke. Despite unhappily practicing my cursive for a good portion of seventh grade, I remain to this day largely unable to legibly produce sentences in this script. Although I cannot say that I have been severely affected by this ‘inability,’ I do still struggle to read cursive and I did take much longer than my peers to reproduce in cursive the pledge of honesty that prefaces the SAT. That being said, my mother occasionally calls me up when she runs into computer difficulties and seems quite grateful when I can be of help. Some enduring questions with which I leave this course thus include: As American classrooms become increasingly centered on technology, what skills, experiences, and ‘good ole’ practices are we devaluing and making obsolete? What beneficial skills/experiences/practices emerge from this obsolescence? How can we harness the boons of technology without making our world impersonal and/or alienating [after all, technology is largely about establishing and deepening connections]?

            Both this Empowering Learners course and my field placement have encouraged me to think a lot about the role that technology should play in classrooms and about the ways in which technology has transformed the experience of schooling (as well as the human experience more broadly). Making classrooms more technologically advanced and enabling students to be more technologically savvy seem to be goals upon which most educators agree (a rare occasion for accord?). O Elementary, a public school in West Philadelphia, lacks the necessary funds to either construct a gym or hire a physical education instructor, but boasts a computer lab with numerous Macintoshes and accompanying sets of headphones. The fact that O Elementary received a significant grant for computing while so many of its other needs go unaddressed well emblematizes this current educational trend towards espousing technology as a medium with incredible, educational assets. 

            For many reasons, this trend makes sense to me. Ms. P, the computer instructor at O Elementary, persuasively argues both that these technologies facilitate innovative and interactive pedagogy (of particular appeal to students who may struggle in more traditional classrooms) and that students with basic computing skills are more likely to ‘succeed’ in American systems. As I observed third graders at ‘work’ on these computers, it was also incredibly clear to me that these students were having a good time at their computing stations. Perhaps technology offers to classrooms a valuable intersection between work and play, between practical skill and pure curiosity. Working with TLI last semester, I similarly noticed that staff members seem to value the computer both as a tool for survival/success within potentially-oppressive systems and as a source of enjoyment/creativity/lifeworldly pursuits.   

            While I therefore value the move towards digitally-oriented classrooms and pedagogies, this course has pushed me to think critically about the many ways in which technology transforms both the project of schooling and human existence more generally. With specific reference to courses that are conducted entirely online, Herman and Mandell argue that virtual reality raises a number of distinctly-modern crises with which we must grapple: “Virtual reality, like every other medium of experience, does necessarily pose an existential problem for human beings: How shall we choose to live with each other?” (Herman and Mandell, p. 180). Virtual reality, because it enables so many different possibilities of being, expression, dispersal (although Barbara Ferman of Temple Youth Voices hates the term ‘going viral,’ she readily concedes its current relevance) and interaction, therefore compels us to rethink numerous concepts that are core to educational and human experience. Indeed, we need to reconsider and redefine the basic ideas of authenticity, individuality, stewardship, social interaction, authorship, plagiarism, ethics, privacy, and selfness.   

            Herman and Mandell argue that relationships between mentors and mentees reciprocally “satisfy a basic human need— to become ourselves with others” (Herman and Mandell, p. 25). Acknowledging the extent to which virtual reality allows for individuals both to easily assert (even manipulate) selfness as well as to engage with other selves, I would argue that virtual reality, like mentoring, allows for social interaction across diverse spaces and subsequent self-becoming with others. Although many members of our class seemed to lament the radical depersonalization of the educational experience when we held a wintry class over blackboard, this unorthodox ‘classroom’ perhaps enabled new (potentially-productive) manifestations of personhood. Perhaps mentoring and technology, at their most fundamental levels, emerge from human desires for self-efficacy and social-interaction.

I therefore believe that schools (and perhaps even TLI computing) should not merely (and blindly) espouse technologies (and the many opportunities that they offer), but should also demand that all students and teachers to think critically about the broader implications of such espousal. How are our ethical responsibilities affected by the move from cursive to Times New Roman? In what ways does computing, by virtue of the seemingly limitless access that it enables, help to level playing fields? How are those who do not have access to computers affected by these technological trends and in what ways do they cope?

Finally, Herman and Mandell suggest that technologies, among other modern developments, present students with a deeply-relevant dilemma: “They [students] live in a society where ‘lifelong learning’ is celebrated, but also where, due to advances in technical knowledge and the ‘efficiencies’ of a competitive economic system, most any particular set of intellectual credentials soon becomes obsolete” (Herman and Mandell, p. 25). Perhaps we could therefore consider the learning that takes place in computing labs across the country as more than enabling proficiency in particular skills (such as typing, blogging, navigating PowerPoint). Perhaps we could instead conceptualize this learning as a process, quite akin to mentoring, by which students become more comfortable with confronting and harnessing all manifestations of progress. Indeed, perhaps Ms. P not only teaches her students how to make graphs on Excel, but also teaches them how to be fully ready for future innovation.


3. How can mentors and mentees best negotiate and make use of difference and diversity? Is the work of mentoring (and all learning) founded on such confrontation/collaboration between uniquely different parties?


            For my field placement last spring, I worked with a group of bi-co students to implement a unit about heroes and cultural identity at B Middle School of West Philadelphia. When we asked the seventh-graders to list the individuals (whether members of their own families, people who work in local communities, or people whose faces appear nightly on national television) whom they consider to be personal heroes, we found that most of the folks on their lists look a lot like themselves (particularly in terms of race and gender). Our own lists offered similar results. Acknowledging the tremendous influence that heroes (from whom we learn and after whom we often model our selves) have on us, we asked: Why do our personal heroes look overwhelmingly like us? Do we learn best/easiest/most comfortably from those with similar cultural identities?

            Rabow et al. offer numerous practical strategies for ‘minimizing difference’ (alternatively, maximizing sameness) between mentor and mentee: “You are both people. Find out what you have in common and start from there” (Rabow et al., p. 122). Clearly, mentors and mentees who are able to identify and tap into such initial points of commonality will feel more comfortable working as teammates. Nevertheless, Rabow et al. suggest that dissimilarity between mentor and mentee offers an incredibly-potent vehicle for growth: “One of the positive aspects of these differences is that they open up avenues for conversations. The dialogue that can spring from differences in knowledge, expectations, ambitions, and assumptions can teach both of you something about another world and person unlike yourselves” (Rabow, et al., p. 122). The mutual learning that takes place in such mentoring partnerships is thus not only about decimals and alliteration, but is also about experiencing the pluralism of our world and learning how to deal with/contribute to/celebrate it. Mentoring therefore involves a hidden curriculum of diversity.

            I fully acknowledge that I am here working from the assumption that the mentor and the mentee will be necessarily different. Yet, I think that this, to various degrees, is inevitably the case. Indeed, the many texts (inclusive of written text, class discussion, and field experience) affirm the inevitable and incredible diversity (expectations, race, assumptions, gender, dreams, age, socioeconomic status, learning style, experience, likes, dislikes, etc...) of learners. Herman and Mandell write that the process of learning requires such diversity: “Learning implies a community, a dialogue. All knowledge, to be intelligibly distinguished from delusion, requires the active presence of the voice of an ‘other,’ a voice that questions and seeks to understand the meaning and basis of one’s offered belief” (Herman and Mandell, p. 30). Learning, education, and knowledge are thus experiences that are founded on exchange, conflict, reciprocity, solidarity, etc. Learning (especially when we consider material text as another presence which the self confronts, engages with, and makes meaningful) can neither take place alone nor emerge from homogeneity. Of course, this model of learning as knowledge that sprouts from conflict entails a considerable degree of difficulty and discomfort: “Discovery and creation occur at the margins between familiar and unfamiliar. Those are also tense places, where liberation and oppression are experienced” (Herman and Mandell, p. 111).  We must therefore make space in the classroom for conflict and confrontation rather than move past it. Indeed, we must learn to voice difference, discomfort, and resolution (or lack thereof).

            The strategy for change that I want to help advance as I leave our Empowering Learners class regards the need for American classrooms to better reflect and take advantage of the difference and diversity that comprises our nation. If learning does “occur at the margins between familiar and unfamiliar” (Herman and Mandell, p. 111), then American classrooms and curricula must revalue, reengage, and reach out to the students whom they purportedly serve. Educators and administrators lament the incredible lack of resources available to them, but continue to overlook the expansive well of lived experience before them. I really do think at teachers and mentors, at the most local of levels, can work to ensure that the texts of their classrooms excitingly reflect and stretch all students.

            I readily admit that every time I set foot in O Elementary (from the first week to the tenth week), I am struck by the many ways in which this school and its participants are different from my own lived experience. Yet, as the weeks have progressed, I have become increasingly comfortable with, empathetic to, and appreciative of such difference. Indeed, I truly believe that the learning that takes place at field placements, in bi-co education classrooms, and when reading textbooks is founded both on how we confront diversity, negotiate conflict, and make difference meaningful and on whether we feel comfortable enough to do so.





Works Cited


Clark, Cindy Dell. In Sickness and in Play: Children Coping with Chronic Illness. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers UP, 2003.

“Cope, v.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 1 May, 2010 <>.


Herman, Lee, and Alan Mandell. From Teaching to Mentoring: Principle and Practice, Dialogue and Life in Adult Education. London ; New York: RoutledgeFalmer, 2004.


Rabow, Jerome, Tiffani Chin, and Nima Fahimian. Tutoring Matters: Everything You Always Wanted to Know about How to Tutor. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1999.   

[1] “cope, v.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 1 May, 2010 <>.