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Reimagining the Disrupted Classroom

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Reimagining the Disrupted Classroom, by Katie McCormick, Bryn Mawr College, 2013

Introduction and Description of Context

This proposal was inspired by my work this semester at El Centro de la familia.  I spent Tuesday mornings working with a group of mothers whose children attend a preschool program at the center.  The mothers, all of whom are recent immigrants to the U.S., participate in informal English language classes while their children attend preschool in another part of the building.  The reason for this setup is three-fold.  First, it helps enrich the educational experience for the preschoolers because it gives parents the tools they need to support their children’s learning and academic success.  Second, it benefits parents by helping them develop their English proficiency, addresses parenting and  work-related skills, and focuses on computer literacy.  Third, it removes the legal barrier of running a preschool without certified teachers by keeping parents onsite during school hours. 

English proficiency classes are held four days a week, from 9-12 in the morning.  There are 20 families enrolled in the program, but on any given day, the number of mothers present fluctuates from around eight to sixteen.  On the days that I visited, the woman who was overseeing the adult education program divided the mothers into two groups-- we each worked with one group, and then switched midway through the morning.  There are no formal classroom spaces at El Centro, though there is a room that is outfitted with several computers and a projection screen.  Learning, at El Centro, is necessarily informal as there is no formal curriculum, there are no classrooms, and student attendance is inconsistent.  The English lessons are often broken into shorter activities or modules, and all of the content is intended to be culturally relevant to the learners.  That is, the content covered in the English lessons is supposed to help the mothers effectively navigate their everyday interactions that require English fluency. 

Story of the Question

When I first saw that our assignment was to design a lesson plan or project proposal, I was immediately struck by how difficult it would be to implement a fully-developed, hour-long lesson plan for my class at El Centro.  I did a fair amount of lesson planning throughout the course of my placement.  At first, I started planning around the lesson objectives that my field site supervisor set out for me.  The first week, she thought it might be fun and useful to do a lesson on dining out-- how to order food from a menu, how to ask waitstaff about a dish’s ingredients or preparation, how to pay the check, etc.  To prepare to teach this lesson I photocopied the take out menu from a nearby restaurant, and created a list of food-related vocabulary words.  I began the lesson by opening an informal conversation about restaurant eating habits.  I quickly learned that most of what I’d planned was irrelevant, because my students reported that they almost never eat out.  On the rare occasion that they do go out, they go to the Chinese buffet, where they don’t order from a menu at all. 

I felt uncomfortable continuing with my lesson as planned; I sensed a need for adjustment.  I shifted the topic of conversation to the names and ages my students’ children, where they attended elementary school, and eventually came back to talking about food in the context of their childrens’ favorite meals.  When I described what had happened to my field site supervisor, she seemed disappointed.  She noted that when I’d changed the discussion topic, I’d also made the day’s lesson significantly less challenging for my students.  She explained that the women in my group knew more English than they liked to admit, and needed to be challenged to discuss topics and use vocabulary that are less familiar to them.  She recommended planning a lesson for the following week on the kindergarten registration process. 

The following week I arrived early, ready to walk my group of moms through the school district website-- showing them how to navigate to site features such as the school lunch menu,  grade-level appropriate eBooks, and the online school registration forms.  Upon entering the building, I learned that the lead teacher had decided to take the mothers and their preschoolers to the local public library for read-aloud story hour.  Once again, my expectations were challenged.  The fact that class could be postponed to accommodate the schedule of a library event was important because it emphasized for me the value that El Centro staff placed on teaching their clients how to take advantage of the resources available in their communities.   Later in the semester, the actual lesson portion of the class was all but eliminated so that the mothers could make elaborate crepe paper flowers to serve as table centerpieces for an upcoming fundraiser benefiting El Centro.  This activity was acknowledged as an interruption to the  regularly scheduled English lessons, but wasn’t seen as a less important use of time.  I was beginning to get the sense that this sort of impromptu change of plans was common at El Centro.  I needed to be willing to accept it, and readjust my expectations accordingly.

I came back the next week unsure of whether to pick up with the lesson I had planned previously, or start somewhere else entirely.   As I started showing my group how to find the school registration forms on the district website, I noticed their attention was waning quickly.  A hushed, but obviously engaging side conversation was dominating the group’s attention.  I think the mothers had forgotten that I understand Spanish, because I was met with looks of shock when I interrupted them, and asked in Spanish, whether they wanted to ask me whether I dyed my hair (a question that was the subject of their excited whispering and laughter).  As soon as I convinced them that, ‘yes, this really is my natural hair color’, and ‘no, I’m absolutely not offended that you’d ask,’ we began a wonderful conversation, and exchange of new vocabulary in both English and Spanish.  We talked about words to describe hair color, texture, and beauty salon treatments; we even discussed the taboo of plastic surgery.  The conversation was lively-- everyone in the room participated: a few women related personal stories, others suggested new vocabulary they wanted to learn, a couple of women asked me to write these vocabulary words down so that they could practice spelling them.  This conversation was the first instance in which I felt that I was able to get the entire group excited to participate in their own learning.  I would never have planned this ‘lesson’ in advance, but I believe it was a worthwhile use of time, and certainly helped transform the classroom into an engaging and unthreatening environment. 

This conversation could easily be deemed ‘off-topic’.  If I had to evaluate my own efficacy as a teacher, I would have to acknowledge that I failed to meet my initial objective, which was to help this group of mothers understand the paperwork they’d need to complete in order to register their children for kindergarten.  However, if the goal of my teaching is considered more broadly so that the emphasis is placed on promoting fluency, perhaps this conversation can be seen as more generative than irrelevant.  This episode has become paramount in my thoughts as I’ve considered and reconsidered my efficacy as a facilitator of learning in this situation.  My process of inquiry has led me to develop the following question:  How can an educator both plan for and be responsive to an environment in which disruption is expected, even necessary? 

Imagining the Teacher’s Toolkit

In the discussion that follows I present four possible ‘disruptions’ to an informal learning environment.  I hope they represent scenarios that teachers working in environments like El Centro will find plausible if not entirely familiar.  For each ‘disruption’  I will present a possible response that imagines the disruption as a generative break in the rhythm of the classroom--something that helps us imagine a learning environment that is less rigid, and more consonant with students’ needs.  I imagine these reactions to disruption as responsive in two distinct, but equally important ways.  In the first sense, I intend these reactions to be responsive to a newly emerging and unexpected situation.  In the second sense, it is my hope that these reactions respond in a way that acknowledges that interruption is an integral part of the learning environment that will always be present.  I don’t intend responsiveness in this second sense to be a fatalistic acceptance, but rather a sensibility that embraces the structural realities of informal learning spaces in way that allows these realities to be sources of creative possibility rather than limitations. 

This type of awareness enables a shift from a control-based ethic of teaching and learning to an ethic that is based in empowered risk-taking.  In many ways, being truly responsive is a constructive, and decidedly risky behavior as it demands an ability to see the potential for disruption to generate opportunities for responsible risk-taking and teaching for justice.  In traditional, formal classrooms, teachers try to limit disruption as a way of maintaining control in the learning environment.  When disruption is seen as something to be controlled in order to promote ‘successful’ teaching and learning, disrupted learning environments become spaces in which failure, on the part of both students and teachers, is constant.  This control-based understanding assumes that the elimination of distraction and disruption makes more ‘effective’ learning possible.  Focusing on ‘efficacy’ or ‘success’ in learning and teaching assumes that student growth occurs on a unidirectional trajectory, and that the progress along this path ought to be measurable along simple, standardized metrics.  To move away from this emphasis on standardized progress a teacher may also need to consider the objectives of teaching and learning on a longer and less linear time frame.  In an informal learning environment, movement toward fluency may be more likely to occur as a result of many moments of insight, rather than as a product of a single lesson or activity. 

In addition to being responsive on these two levels, I hope that these reactions to disruption will also be relevant to the particular environments in which they are implemented.  Teachers need to be aware that their classrooms, no matter how informal, are cultured environments.  Students bring their cultural backgrounds into the classroom, and classrooms in turn develop their own culture as the result of the multiplicity of student and teacher interactions and expectations.  The Jungle School, by Butet Manurung, which was proposed as an addition to the Literacies and Education syllabus, presents several key tenets for culturally relevant education.  I’ve adapted a few of these to use as a foundation for my own interpretation of culturally responsive teaching.  First, lessons need to feel relevant to students’ daily activities and ways of life.  This helps students relate to what they are learning;  it also makes learning both purposeful and useful.  Second, students must receive some benefit from the education program and must see value in what they are learning.  If the direct benefit is supposed to be a new type of literacy or skill set, students must see these new skills as valuable in and of themselves.  Finally, learning should begin from within the community.  In one sense, I mean that the community should serve as collective instructor and as laboratory.  In another sense, I mean that the teacher must attempt to become a part of her students’ community.  This is especially important when the teacher is an outsider who doesn’t share the same racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic background as her students.  To effectively bring justice into the classroom, a teacher needs to make herself open to getting to know her students both individually and as a community of learners and people. 

With this set of sensibilities, and this more nuanced understanding of responsiveness, I present the following toolkit for disruption:

Disruption 1:

I will use the episode I outlined in The Story of the Question as my first ‘disruption’ and generative reaction scenario.   In preparation for this class, I had planned a structured lesson in which I would go over the specific forms within the school district’s kindergarten registration packet.  I selected the portions that I imagined the mothers would find most confusing, and planned to teach new vocabulary items found on these forms.  To do this, I showed the mothers how to find the forms by navigating the school district’s website.  As we moved from page to page of the website, their interest and attention waned.   Before long, the room was quietly buzzing as the mothers whispered to one another in Spanish.  The topic of conversation was my hair, and specifically, they were eager to know whether or not I dyed it. 

Proposed Reaction:  Acknowledge conversation and open a discussion about hair and hair care. 

By taking what might otherwise be a distracting conversation, and centering a new discussion around it, a teacher can re-energize the learning space by refocusing students’ attention.  A teacher who acknowledges disruption this way validates her students’ interest by sending a message that she is not going to ignore her students if they’re not on board with what she’s teaching.  Responding to students’ interest empowers them as learners and as engaged participants in the classroom.  Moreover, allowing non-traditional or even taboo topics of conversation to be a part of classroom activity expands the realm of possibility in terms of what kinds of ideas can be discussed in the learning environment.  In this way, any topic can be fair game, and this outlook fosters trust and reduces the implied hierarchy between teachers and students.  Additionally, this reaction promotes fluency and ownership of one’s own language by encouraging engaging dialogue regardless of content. 

Disruption 2:

In an informal learning environment, student attendance is often inconsistent.  Similarly, students may not understand their presence for an entire class period or school day as necessary. This scenario supposes that a student might need to leave class early, without giving the teacher much advance notice:

Marta is one of the mothers in the program at El Centro.  One Tuesday, she began to pack up her belongings in the middle of a reading exercise.  When I asked her whether something was wrong, she told me she needed to leave early in order to pick up a prescription for her son at the local pharmacy.  Though she didn’t intend to be disruptive, the act of leaving interrupted the class’ reading activity. 

Proposed Reaction:  Impromptu Field Trip

A class trip to the pharmacy could be an excellent way to practice English fluency in a setting where it will be both useful and necessary.  Students would have the opportunity to practice reading medical labels, talk about the kinds of information you need to present in order to fill a prescription, and learn how to describe health ailments to a medical professional.  This may seem like an impractical idea for certain environments, but I think it embraces the informal nature of the learning space in an exciting way.  In a very real sense, it expands the notion of the classroom to include the surrounding community.  It also allows people from outside the classroom to serve as teachers and appraisers of fluency, as the pharmacist will surely introduce new vocabulary, and the exchange of information will require fluency of speaking and listening.  A field trip also encourages students to use the English they are acquiring outside of the school environment, and helps students to see where they might have gaps in their fluency by giving them a more natural linguistic testing ground. 

Disruption 3:

A teacher plans to have her students take turns reading aloud from an eBook, which is projected on a large screen in the classroom.  Each student reads one sentence aloud to the group, with the teacher correcting each student’s pronunciation and encouraging the whole group to repeat words or phrases that are particularly challenging.  In this scenario, the teacher finds that this particular book is beyond the reading comprehension level of her students.  The book contains many instances of the question words ‘what,’ ‘who,’ ‘which,’ and ‘whose,’ and students are struggling to differentiate wh-words that are pronounced with an ‘h’ sound like ‘house’ versus those which are pronounced with a ‘w’ sound as in ‘winter.’  The teacher finds that her students are unable to read through the book because these particular words are so troubling, and needs to abandon the reading activity altogether. 

Proposed Reaction: ‘What’s the Question?’ Game

In this disruption scenario, reading was impossible because the troublesome question words needed to be repeated so often that fluent reading became impossible.   As I imagine it, the teacher could divide her students into two teams, and let them compete to respond quickly to the teacher’s prompt.  As in the popular television show Jeopardy, the teacher would provide an ‘answer.’  For the purpose of this exercise the answer could be any simple declarative statement such as ‘It is 3 o’clock’ or ‘Maria is Juan’s mother,’ to which the corresponding questions could be ‘What time is it?’ and ‘Who is Juan’s mother?,’ respectively.  In the context of a game,  repetition of a task or action, in this case, formulating question words,  is purposeful and can be constructed in a way that is enjoyable as an end in itself (Lancy 1996).  In this reaction, a game removes the monotony from the repetition of question words, and recenters the learning around an issue that had halted the previous classroom activity.  In this way, a teacher can respond to student needs’ by being willing to abandon activities that aren’t engaging students appropriately, and replacing them with activities that address an immediate emerging need. 

Conclusion and Ideas for Assessing Success

I hope these disruption scenarios and my proposed reactions to them are a starting point from which teachers or volunteers in similar informal learning environments may feel inspired to embrace disruption creatively.  It is also my hope that planning for and embracing disruption will encourage teachers in informal environments to envision themselves as facilitators of learning and inquiry rather than as purveyors of a specific skill set or corpus of information.  This is not to say that teachers shouldn’t hold themselves accountable to helping their students develop fluency and functional literacy, rather that I want to encourage teachers to consider their roles imaginatively.  Similarly, students’ progress toward fluency and literacy should be celebrated as it develops, rather than measured objectively against a set of standardized benchmarks.  Perhaps success in the disrupted learning environment is best measured by how dynamically teaching can respond to the existing and emerging needs of the learning community.  I hope this proposal constitutes a responsible, though risk-taking step toward more responsive teaching and learning.