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Empowering Learners, Spring 2005
Extra-Classroom Teaching Handbook

Empowering Lessons

Lindsey Giblin

This paper is framed by three stages of learning that I feel took place in our class this semester. The “steps” are meant to be helpful, not rigid or constraining, and I hope the organization of this paper comes across as I mean it to. Think of it as a recipe rather than a rulebook: you can add or subtract to our experience as I recorded it here according to taste.

Step 1: Deconstruction

One of the things I like most about education classes at Bryn Mawr and Haverford is that we take the time to step back and re-examine words and ideas we often take for granted and look at what we really mean by them. In this class we worked intensely with the concepts of words like ‘empowerment,’ ‘expertise,’ ‘facilitation’ and with varying examples of mentee/mentor relationships in extra-classroom settings. It is important to begin a class like this by reexamining and deconstructing the meanings we associate to these words in order to see what’s really going on when we use these words. By deconstruction I don’t mean to damage or betray an inherent failure, I mean it in a more positive sense; when looking at the meaning of a word or a concept we are doing so with the assumption of creation, expansion, and creating awareness. What images/meanings come to mind when you hear a word like empowerment? Why is that definition taken as true as opposed to others, and how is that truth produced? To me, deconstruction is the decentering a fixed truth so as to make room for alternate realities and experiences. Being troubled by, arguing with, and expanding upon given definitions of anything is also crucial to my understanding of empowerment. It is taking something that is seemingly static and rigid (like a defined word we use all the time, or a way of doing things that people take for granted) and giving it your own voice and perspective in order make it your own via your life experiences.

Although all this sounds very abstract, we went through the deconstruction process regularly in regard to many empowerment-related issues. For example, after reading given selections of the educational psychology textbook How People Learn throughout the semester, we wrote a paper where we revised and recreated what we had read. This was a unique experience because we were able to add, change, or subtract from information presented to us according to what our own experiences as teachers and learners told us about how people learn. While there is certainly value in having a basis of knowledge about psychology and famous experiments that have been done to try to prove the different ways in which children learn, to me it is just as valuable an exercise to question, expand and critique the text we have been given and expected to take as true about how children learn. In fact, through internship placements and real life experiences working with or even raising children, my classmates and I also have a wealth of information among ourselves about how children learn. I’ve found that even in university-level higher education, we are more often than not encouraged to learn as consumers and not always as producers or inquisitors of knowledge. Education is still understood many ways in a more traditional sense, and is focused acquiring a mass of knowledge and being tested on it. Personally, learning in this way is not often a transformative experience for me, nor does it leave enough room for our own take on interests and questions. As BMC faculty authors of an article we read this semester state, “On-going, in-the-moment reflections on learning may also provide a richer forum for assessment than more traditional end-of-process, product-focused assessment.” (Blank, Cassidy, Dalke, & Grobstein, 28)

Step 2: Inquiry and Reflection

In class and for our readings, we explored theories of empowerment by reading and writing about examples of tutors, mentors, and other extra-classroom roles. Nearly every week we also talked about our internship placement experiences. These varied from a one-on-one tutoring partnership, to a teaching assistant position in an introductory Sociology class. Having a class of only seven students, we were able to engage in extensive dialogues about both texts and experiences at field placements. We were able to examine the power structures, histories, and tensions at play in each setting, while continuing active inquiry into our time in extra-classroom roles.

One distinctive aspect of this class that I had never experienced before in an academic setting revolved around the creation and planning of the Empowering Learners Partnership, a new program where staff and students link together in pairs to teach and learn skills and share knowledge. We made key decisions about the formation of the ELP during class time, including what the partnership should entail, the philosophy and mission statement behind it, among other things. On some days, the classroom felt more like a think tank or a board meeting than a college classroom. This was a highly empowering process, however, because we all got to contribute something to the discussion and implementation of a brand new exciting program. As with the How People Learn assignment, we were able to add our own voices and own unique ‘expertises’ to the planning process and make it more our own. It makes sense that both students and staff had a hand in the development of the program considering the aims of teaching both parties to learn and teach one another. We also researched adult education programs and if other colleges or universities had a model like the one we were concocting, to find that ours would be the second staff-student partnership program in the country after Swarthmore’s.

Reflection was also a critical piece to this course and its aim of empowerment. As an example, at a presentation for the ELP, I read the following passage about my personal growth and experience with the class:

“In a course about empowerment, it is necessary that everybody in the class feel empowered to speak and share their opinions in class. This has always been hard for me to do, I’m usually quiet in class as I’ve often not trusted myself enough to believe that what I had to say was valuable, or my experiences worth contributing to discussion. Over time at Bryn Mawr and especially with this class, however, I’ve learned otherwise. Even though the conversation in class is usually very animated and some of us really like to talk, I always felt like I was heard and that I was really listened to in creating the partnership. Perhaps this is the most enriching lesson of empowerment I’ve learned this year, and I’ve noticed a difference how I am in other classes, too. ”

To me, the nature of class discussions is so critically important to how a classroom experience goes, and was especially vital in our case because good communication was essential to starting up the ELP. Being able to feel comfortable raising my voice was hugely important to me personally, and to the class as a whole. I always felt like my input was valued and needed. Inquiry and reflection is a significant part of moving forward in one’s thinking because you can trace where you came from and point ahead to where you are going, personally, as a class, or in this case, as a partnership. To quote the BMC professors again, “Emergent approaches seem to call for the evaluation of developmental process rather than assessment of retention of particular content.” (Blank, Cassidy, Dalke, & Grobstein, 29, emphasis added)

Step 3: Action and Reaction

What made Empowering Learners exciting and different for me was the fact that we were constructing something that had never been done before on campus in real time. We planned for the here and now, our coordinator, Alice, and the rest of the class organized meetings and presentations on the ELP throughout the course of the semester- and in addition to regular course readings. While the immediacy of the program was a great motivator to act, it is also and important part of the recipe I have outlined for empowerment in the classroom. I have used the How People Learn assignment, my reflection, and the ELP to show how empowerment can be played out in different settings even within the same class. First, deconstruction of known and accepted terms and concepts centered around your study is necessary to get a closer look at the issues surrounding your project. Next, inquiry into other’s work about your project should be done in order to see what exists out there already on your subject. Reflection and discussion should emerge from this. The final step is action and reaction because without this piece, your deconstruction, inquiry and research may lie flat and not be used to make any sort of sustainable change. Among our accomplishments this year are that we set up three successful pilot partnerships, and publicized the program for future participation. The ELP movement has a student coordinator, faculty and staff backing, and student interest, and I expect it to blossom from there.

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