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Turning to the Handbook: Can Extra-Classroom Teaching and Learning Take Place in the Classroom?

alesnick's picture

by Ben Green

Ben's reflection has a "before and after" organization, and talks about creating a mentor-mentee relationship.


(All student and teacher names changed.)

            Having been to my new placement only once so far after having switched midway through the semester, I do not have a collection of moments or experiences from which to draw in writing this reflection.  I do, however, have concerns looking forward to my four or five remaining visits this semester, concerns that the Empowering Learners Handbook helps me address.  My placement is at a small private school in Philadelphia, where I am placed in a classroom with a Haverford graduate of a few years ago as the teacher.  My role is still being developed: Jane, the teacher, knows Professor Lesnick and knows that my class with her is focused on mentoring and extra-classroom settings, and together we are trying to surmount the obstacle of her classroom not exactly fitting that description.  Luckily, it seems as though a lot of the work they do in the classroom is individual, and I can see ways in which I can use that work time to work one on one with a student in ways that fit the goals of Empowering Learners, but I also want to use this placement experience to determine for myself what the role of mentoring in the classroom is.  To do that, I am faced with the challenge of determining my role in the classroom.  For this reflection, Professor Lesnick offered as one approach that we consider the ways in which the Empowering Learners Handbook might be useful to us as learners.  One way that I have found it useful is that in a class with a somewhat abstract and general theme, it provides concrete experiences to relate to and draw from, and gives shows me the ways that my placement can be useful as a tool for this class.

            Last year in Critical Issues in Education I did a group presentation about performance-based pay for teachers.  One of the chief complaints that I found about the use of performance-based pay was that it only rewarded teachers for strictly curriculum-based teaching.  One high school teacher complained that the moment in his teaching career of which he is most proud had nothing to do with students passing tests or getting good grades, but rather came out of a discussion with a student who was considering dropping out of school, a discussion that ultimately resulted in the student choosing to continue his education.  At another time in that class, we discussed whether a teacher has the right to become involved with a student's personal issues.  For example, if the child is having trouble at home, should the teacher acknowledge the problem privately with the student and provide a resource for the child?  Everyone in the class seemed to think that these discussions had a place in the classroom to a degree, but some were hesitant and saw dangers in doing so as well.  But now I have the vocabulary to define these instances as well - they were mentor - mentee relationships, and they show how even in the classroom, extra-classroom learning takes place.

            Heather Davis, Bryn Mawr class of 2006, contributed to the Empowering Learners Handbook by relating how teachable moments in her classroom can be times when it becomes useful for a teacher to take on the role of a mentor.  She described how moments in which the students demonstrate a lack of understanding of a subject can provide moments in which the teacher must put down the curriculum and take up a lesson about racial differences, sexual identity, or religion.  Reading through her story and comparing it to my trepidation about my placement, I recognize a key difference between mentoring in the classroom and mentoring in an extra-classroom tutor-learner relationship.  In the latter, such as the Teaching and Learning Initiative program that many of my peers are involved with, the learner actively seeks out a mentor to address what they recognize as a shortcoming.  In the former, as in the instances described by Heather, the teacher recognizes teachable moments and crafts a lesson around them, while the students may not recognize a significant difference in the classroom dynamic.  In a classroom constrained to a curriculum, however, like the classroom that the teacher who disagreed with performance-based pay feared, it would not be possible for a teacher to drop the curriculum and become a mentor without making a significant sacrifice.

            In my classroom at my placement, I will look to find similar teachable moments like the ones that Heather found.  But even if I'm not presented with a moment like the ones she describes, in which a student makes a derogatory comment about sexuality or asks an impossible question about religion, I recognize that by seeking out individual needs of students, I can put myself into the role of a mentor when needed.  Jane cannot answer every question that every student has during individual work periods, like the math or writing classes that I observed last week, and I think I can play a useful part in her classroom as a second set of eyes and ears to seek out the students that need instruction, that need tutoring, and provide for them a second mentor to take on that role.  Heather's piece in the Empowering Learners Handbook, my own experience and the fact that teachers do treat students as individuals in need of personalized instruction show that mentoring and extra-classroom learning does actually take place in the classroom.

Added on April 30, 2009:

            I have now been to my placement four times and my role there has become more defined with each visit.  One of my primary functions is to sit at a table with three fifth grade boys during math and help one of them in particular, who I'll call Tim, make sure that he understands the material and isn't just giving answers, answers that one of his partners, Eli, finds and Tim copies.  Though they are encouraged to work together, Jane has noticed that in Tim's case working together has merely provided him with a way to quickly answer the problems without understanding them.  Furthermore, it has instilled in him a sense of urgency, as he tries to race with Eli and with Neal, the other boy at the table.  And so, Jane asked me to help him out, to sit at the table and help slow down the problem solving, and give help when necessary.

            Upon spending a couple class periods at the table, I realized that Neal, too, can use my help.  Neal doesn't have the same problem that Tim has, because Neal seems less concerned with racing against Eli and is willing to slow down to get the problem right, but still struggles to do so.  Sitting there with these students I have already seen how a mentor can be useful in a classroom, as I not only help them solve the problems but also help them learn to solve them the right way, learn to prefer to be taught how to fish rather than simply be given the fish.  And I have seen how a good relationship between mentor and mentee can be helpful here, as I have used free time during the period to discuss baseball with them, building trust and improving the dynamic.  And I have learned for myself: I've learned that mentor - mentee relationships do have a place in classrooms.  Maybe they have a place anywhere.