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Summary of 9/30/05 Discussion
with Janique Parrott:
"Experiences from the Urban Classroom"

One in a series of Stories of Teaching and Learning

Participants: Nell Anderson (Praxis), Ann Brown (Education), Jody Cohen (Education), Anne Dalke (English), Anne Flor-Stagnato (Comp Lit), Wil Franklin (Biology), Jossi Fritz-Mauer (HC Psychology), Paul Grobstein (Biology), Shayna Israel (Economics/Sociology), Janique Parrott (English), Corey Shdaimah (Social Work/Political Science), Winnie Tang (East Asian Studies), Lim Yuan-Shi (Psychology).

Janique opened the discussion by describing her summer job working with the Urban Scholars Program in Boston, where she was a tutor assisting a teacher in an electronic journalism course offered for 6th, 7th and 8th graders. The class was set up like a "business," to give the students a sense of "the real life experience of working hard to make a product"; it began w/ their applying for jobs in the "company." That conception worked well for about two weeks, but there was a set-back when the students' first writing piece was due. Shocked at how much work the student writing needed, Janique and the teacher she was assisting initiated an interminable series of drafts and re-drafts which both teachers and students found very discouraging. The work became so focused on the technicalities of writing, which the students found very difficult to master, that the focus on the "jobs" they were doing was lost--as was their excitement and energy about producing an on-line magazine. (They did eventually produce a newsletter, although not in on-line format initially hoped for.) Janique ended her report with an account of what she had "learned not to do." Since the teacher designing the course had "no idea where the students were coming from," those admitted to the program needed to be assessed once they came in. Curriculum plans need to be molded "to what comes," and teaching writing "has to start with the basics," such as learning how to organize an essay. Janique was also concerned about the absence of faculty of color available to work with students of color.

It was suggested that focusing on writing techniques might be a sure way to "tamp out" student interest in writing; they are bound to get bored. Instead, encourage them to develop their writing skills in a process of trying to explain something they value to someone who doesn't understand it. "But they couldn't think outside what they were doing." It was suggested that we conceptualize the teaching of new skills in "overlapping waves": we don't "learn automatically," we can't "just change it up," but need time to assimilate new ways of doing things, and in the meantime we will continue to "do things the old way." (See Robert Siegler's work in this area: "just because you are given a new, more efficient strategy doesn't mean you will use it all the time.")

Asked what she had learned about college teaching-and-learning, from her summer of working with middle-school students, Janique said that "attention was an issue." When students are bored, and "zone out," teachers at all levels need to learn to "be attuned," and "notice the need to change gears." But why were the students not interested? And how engage students who are not engaged? If they don't "include themselves," what can a teacher do? Students want to be able to contribute actively to what is happening in a classroom; you have to let them pick their activities, and give them leadership roles. People are engaged when they feel that they have something productive to do.

Discussion then turned to stories of students "not feeling engaged" in some of their Bryn Mawr classes. How to present this dilemma to teachers? How frame the concern, using what language, to tell their teachers what students feel they need and are not getting? There is no way to present such concerns so that a teacher will not take the critique personally. How could such a conversation be made safe for students? There is too much confidentiality around what happens in our classrooms; we need to get over our reluctance to talk publicly about these matters. Is there an analogy between "teachers who don't want to grow, and students who don't want to engage?" In such an exchange, students and teachers would both have to "revisit the contract between professor and students"; they will all have to give up the expectation that the teacher is the authority. Students need to take responsibility to help to solve the problems they identify. Such suggestions will need to be topic- and subject-specific.

Would faculty embrace such frank and open discussion about what works and doesn't in their own classrooms? Can students be as clear with their teachers, as they want their teachers to be with them, about their expectations of one another? Could this working group take on some of our own classes as test cases? What do Bryn Mawr students think their teachers' obligations are towards them? "To be certain the students are following the presentations," that they are "growing and developing in their acquisition of knowledge." Teachers are contracted to "guide their students through the material," to teach them how to "decode it," so students can learn to do that de-coding themselves. (Is "decoding" a "code" for "lecturing"? Students do like to leave class with "lots of good notes.") Are teachers obligated only to "set up" their students to do that, or also to give them a forum for applying it? It is the teacher's obligation to work as a "guide," to "link things together for their students." Teachers offer "scope," and tools, to help students through "doorways."

The discussion is warmly invited to continue on the on-line forum for "Stories of Teaching and Learning." We will meet again in person in after fall break, on October 21, Anne Flor-Stagnato and Shayna Israel will lead a discussion about "what the contracts are between teachers and students at Bryn Mawr." Students are encouraged to invite their teachers, and teachers their students, for this session.

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