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Empowering Learners, Spring 2005
Extra-Classroom Teaching Handbook

Don’t Let Formal Education Get in the Way of Learning: Incorporating Students’ Perspective to Engage their Academic Learning

Rachel Francois

“I want the stuff (curriculum) to be interesting but I still got to learn,” states Jerome*. According to Jerome, academic learning does not engage or incorporate his cultural experiences. Academic life and everything outside of that are often differentiated by my students as separate entities that cannot and will never integrate. After encountering this moment of dissonance I ask, how do I, as a tutor, incorporate students’ cultural experiences into the classroom discourse and encourage academic engagement beyond the specific task?

In this entry, I evaluate the ways I define teaching and engagement through my cultural lens as a tutor, exploring the various understandings of culture to foster engagement in traditional academic settings. Academic engagement, as I define it, is the consideration and collaboration of the student’s academic interests and their cultural experiences to promote an enriching learning environment. Definition of learning should broaden to incorporate pertinent life-long lessons as well as the traditional skills. I hope to combine the theories and ideas of a few authors to create a cohesive methodology that I have found effective in its practical implications.

My personal learning and understanding has been informed by my cultural experiences which consequently reflect the material I choose to teach and my instructional teaching methods. In my routine tutoring sessions, I incorporate informal discussions with my tutees to gain insight of who they are as students and as individuals. I inquire about their academic interests, the classes they are currently taking, their favorite and least favorite subjects, and their involvement in extracurricular activities. We then move into our “work out plan”, which are our goals and expectations of each other during the tutoring sessions.

Jerome believes he is simply going through the motions of school, a traditional, and uniform procedure, a concept that educators refer to as ‘doing school’. I work with Jerome every Wednesday for two hours a week. He knows that he has to go to school and complete the assignments, but he has no personal yearning or enthusiasm to learn. Jerome recognizes his need for additional assistance in writing and reading comprehension. However, he does not enjoy reading and despises to have to put a pen to a sheet of paper. At our tutoring sessions, we are free to create our own lesson plans. I recently introduced freewriting to begin our sessions; a method that would get him to write without conjuring the negative connotations associated when he prepares to write a formal essay.


Freewriting allows a student to write, free of structure, moving thoughts from mind to paper. The freewrites and it usually serves for the purpose of the writer and not other readers. The freewrite is for a short length of time and the student is asked to continue writing until the time is up. When the student encounters that s/he has nothing more to write, s/he is suggested to write “I have writer’s block” until a new thought surfaces. Jerome and I usually begin with a freewrite exercise for approximately fifteen minutes and he then reads it aloud.

One day, I decided to begin with a focused freewite exercise. Paul Connolly’s (1989) “Writing and the Ecology of Learning” explains that the purpose of focused freewriting is “to cast a net of inquiry, initiating exploration of a term, issue, question or problem (10).” As I began to explain the focused freewrite topic, Jerome interjected and state, “I don’t like doing this (free-writing), it is weird and it makes me feel like I’m stupid.” Jerome believes the freewriting exercises belittle his knowledge. Freewriting is an unconventional approach in contrast to his traditional learning structure. Jerome’s classroom instruction does not involve innovative methods of learning. He is detached from his academics because there is a lack of connection between his interests and academic learning. Jerome enjoys Hip-Hop music and he has expressed to me that he would rather free talk than freewrite. For a tutoring session, I instructed Jerome to read an assigned article and to then critique the author’s argument using rap lyrics. He was very receptive to the assignment.


In Ethnographic Eyes (1999), Carolyn Frank suggests that student-teachers observe the individual cultures and experiences of their students to understand “classroom life, gain new understanding of diversity, and recognize that difference can be a resource for community building” (back cover). The role of a tutor cannot be that of an observer, but rather an active participant who is in facilitating the exchange of knowledge. Often, when teaching traditional curriculum, I am met with resistance. I make generalizations about my student’s interests to hopefully engage them in their academic learning. In turn, I begin to define student engagement on my terms and understandings observing from the outside. Frank proceeds to say, “In order to engage in ethnographic events and observe from multiple perspectives, the student-teachers had to challenge their own cultural assumptions…” (21). I was able to use Hip-Hop as a tool to further engage Jerome’s learning. The ethnographic approach was helpful in this situation. I was able to work one on one with Jerome and provide him with the necessary personal attention. Time to formally and informally speak with your students becomes essential in the quest of creating an engaging classroom.

It is necessary that the tutor take the initiative to ask questions that encourage their students’ interests in the classroom as a form of learning. In my past experiences to create and gauge engaging classrooms, my students do not know how to define academic engagement and if the material is interesting they do not regard it as learning. To ask your student abstractly, “what do you want to do?” is not the most helpful way to begin a student-centered classroom. Students are seldom asked to take direct agency in their learning process. It is important that the tutor meets the student half way in that thought process. Students are socialized and have internalized a hierarchical structure of teacher and student. Jerome has even expressed his unfamiliarity with the approach, “This is not how my real classes are taught.” I use the student-centered approach as a method to begin the process of student-defined engagement in contrast to the traditional teacher instructed classes. The student takes the role of teacher, teaching through their cultural lens. This structure allows for student empowerment, autonomy and self-directed learning.

From the insight that I gained from Jerome’s cultural perspective, I was able to provoke thoughts of interests that led to the co-creation of an engaged academic learning experience. To create a learning environment that truly encourages student learning, general assumptions about the students’ interests and culture can not be prescribed to them. However, it is the responsibility of the educator to create a venue in which ideas and cultural perspectives can be exchanged. My tutoring sessions are structured to focus on my students’ learning and less about my teaching. Learning, as I believe it, is not selective and limited to the classroom but can be applied and practiced in life. I attempted to give Jerome’s learning a social dimension and it continues to be a (successful) work in progress.

In conclusion, in order for an academic classroom to engage and include student’s cultural experiences these suggestions below invites an atmosphere for student and teacher learning.

1.Understand how the student(s) defines engagement.

2.Know what your role is as a tutor, defined by you and your student.

3.Know the demographics of your student, the schools they attend, and the neighborhoods they live in. This knowledge should be used to set context and understanding and not used to place judgments on the student(s).

4.The classroom is a cultural context where the cultures of students and teachers mesh. The collaboration of teacher and student is needed to generate an academically engaged learning experience.

5.The tutor should work within a framework. Create and allow the space for student directed learning, but do not expect the student to scaffold the structure.

6.Ask questions that promote the inclusiveness of the student’s personal interests in the classroom.

7.Recognize that you are learning too. The tutor is not an outsider but an active contributor to the student’s learning. Learn from your students as they learn from you.

8.Know that engaging students is a challenging task. Conversations with your students will serve to be more effective in incorporating student’s cultural experiences and understanding the classroom.

*Names have been changed to protect the confidentiality of the individual(s) involved.
Connolly, Paul. “Writing and the Ecology of Learning.” In Paul Connolly and Teresa Vilardi’s Writing to Learn Math and Science. New York: Teachers College Hand. 1989

Frank, Carolyn. Ethnographic Eyes: A Teacher’s Guide to Classroom Observation. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann. 1999

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