Issue 5: Pedagogy
Roshani Thakore with Justin Langlois
The artist, educator, and organizer, Justin Langlois visited our cohort in spring of 2019 for an incredibly generative discussion about the role of socially-engaged art and pedagogy within practice. Since then, he and I have continued to have online conversations about classrooms and organizing spaces.I invited him to be a part of an unpacking of pedagogy a year later. This conversation took place online in May 2020.
I’m really excited to be able to speak with you today. Thank you for thinking of me, it’s been such a pleasure to be able to sustain a conversation with you.
I’ve been thinking about the term ‘pedagogy’ as a placeholder for a range of activities that get taken up across our personal, professional, and artistic practices. It means different things in different contexts, and you can approach it at a philosophical or practical level, but I was interested in hearing about your work with APANO (Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon) or at PSU (Portland State University), and whether you feel like the idea of pedagogy is useful, or if you think it needs to be recuperated, or if its utility as a placeholder is helpful?
Thanks so much for your time and for your interest, Justin! Yes, maybe all of the above? There are similarities of how APANO functions and our program functions. I don’t have to fight so much at APANO because there’s a lot of space that’s given for ourselves to be seen in our culture and multiple identities. That’s huge. Also, I don’t operate under capitalism very well, and the way it expects me to. Both spaces have incredibly collaborative ways of working but when you have the absence of cultural or experiences or backgrounds and voices, it just is limiting. At the core, the leadership at APANO is based on values which you’re not going to necessarily get in academia, right? Because that’s a place where you’re supposed to unpack your values, you’re supposed to be challenged to really get to your own sense of what matters. I can understand that disconnect. But maybe it’s not necessary.
Yes, I completely agree with this. Values are embedded into places and you can feel them, you can build affinities through them. And yet, it’s not really like part of what happens, officially. They’re also not really formally supported within a kind of larger institutional setting,and yet there are many models of how values-based organizing and even learning can occur. I wonder, what’s in the way of that happening in a post-secondary institution? Pedagogy sets the limits of what is learned and what gets to count as learning. It shapes conversations, it shapes how we are in an educational setting, it shapes everything about that experience, and yet there are many other ways to do that work together. Even how you started off our conversation today, and in your emails, always asking about how I’m doing, how my family is, these kinds of soft check ins are really important. Those ways of knowing each other are really important and you center them when in other spaces, but in academia, they are kind of peripheral, right? They’re things that you’re supposed to leave out, and yet you put them back in the center of how you relate to other folks and I wonder if you consciously bring that into your pedagogy?
The lens of knowing each other, and how to know each other?
Yeah, and if you think about that as part of your approach to pedagogy, or if you think that actually belongs under the rubric of pedagogy, or if that’s just like, something else?
Oh no, that’s not something else. In the fall term this year, I co-taught a class with a really brilliant artist who graduated from our program and it felt like a collaboration. We just kept on thinking of how you create the circumstances for the folks to get to know each other in all these different ways. For me that was the intention, but it was up against the concern of, “Oh what am I supposed to make sure they leave with about social practice?” But at the end of the term, the biggest and most positive feedback was about feeling like the students were a part of a community. And I forgot to mention that this is an elective class so to be able to be engaged and interested in their fellow classmates for at least six hours a week was quite a feat. That matters to me and just as operating as an artist, relationships are prioritized over everything else.
When you’re prioritizing relationships, but also thinking about how we come to know one another is really about examining the conditions under which we know each other, and considering the materiality of pedagogy. Is that something tactical? Or is there actually a way to spread that across like all kinds of learning? Or maybe more importantly, thinking about the work that you have done and want to continue to do at APANO. How centered is it already there, in the organization?
I think it’s more encouraged at APANO, and it’s also a constant. I think it’s because we’re under the same system, and being in that it’s a constant reminder of like, “No, you don’t need to work yourself to death.” Asking yourself, “What do you really want out of this graduate program? What do you really want to put your energy in?”
Last night we had a virtual event about community resilience hosted by APANO that was a BIPOC-only space. Whenever I’m in conversation with folks, I always always talk about politics. For me, there’s always political education.
As I was collaborating with my coworker in creating this event I didn’t realize how much I needed this space too and needed to hear from the community. Folks were actually just needing to connect with each other in this type of space and the whole thing was a beautiful surprise. When facilitating that kind of space, I try to be extra conscientious of who is taking up space, how to encourage true dialogue, and how to keep on creating circumstances in real-time for folks to be all of themselves and consider the various worldviews.
I’ve been unpacking that and thinking about how everything that we know has been designed. And we do not have to fully accept that design. I’ve been thinking of pushing back, that we know it’s terrible, we know its origins, we can create our own. We can create our own design and what would that look like?
Earlier, you mentioned that in your final paper, you were shifting away from a discussion about power, and I’m also now hearing you talk about a kind of exertion or cultivation of either a counter-power response to power, a notion that the design could always be otherwise. That is, creating these things on the terms that makes sense for the folks that are together. I’m wondering about intentional decisions responding to existing circumstances, actively imagining that they could be otherwise. I think this is the heart of social practice: being able to take the lens of asking, well, how could this be otherwise and applying it to social circumstances? So, I’m curious about the fluidity of your own practice between the role of an organizer, artist, teacher, learner, human, partner, and whether you see a difference between them? What do you see across your work as an opportunity to build something otherwise?
What you just mentioned, the intention of it, that’s what I’ve been trying to hold on to. I’m a Cultural Work Coordinator at APANO. That means certain things to my employer, right? But I see it as like this is the first time where I am in an organization that’s secure compared to other institutions typically sought out by artists, I’m making art, and I’m seen not through a white supremacist lens. I’m claiming it as my practice and am having conversations with my boss about what that means.
The event that I co facilitated made me really understand how much it fed and nourished sme and my practice, but I wouldn’t call it an artwork. I was able to strengthen my facilitation skills, but it’s also like, when I do a sketch for a drawing or a final print or something, it’s the same thing. I see Orchards of 82nd as my studio and I’m not doing drawings every day, but I am working through the relational and political things that are in so many parts of my life.
That’s so tremendously exciting, to be able to kind of like stop having to set up or respond to barriers or divisions that are set and moving across and through all those spaces and that you can claim, well not claim in a capitalist kind of way, but claim or build what’s yours on terms that make sense to you.That’s about agency, that’s about you practicing self-determination in the world.
Yes! I’m glad you made that distinction of like claiming not in a capitalist form but just as for self determination and agency because I don’t think if I had that clarity before but then make that that’s the thing that makes sense.
You mentioned a few times today about your own interest and practice of bringing in the ‘political’ into all of the spaces you’re working within, all of the time. There’s of course one level and awareness that these are just the terms of engagement in the world, and so on one hand it’s actually not about politicizing anything. It’s already politicized. White supremacy and patriarchy and heteronormativity and ableism are already baked in. So, how do you bring those values into the work that you do in ways that, you know, kind of provide space for people to enter that on their own terms?
Oh man, I’ve been really thinking hard about this recently. A big part of my practice is the actual participation and engagement and daily life of the tools of democracy, which is agency and autonomy. Through my work, I can create situations where there is more of that so that people can feel more empowered and want to feel more engaged and participate in their daily life of their place, their neighborhood, their community, their state, their nation. That’s the way that I think about it which is through an organizing mentality, but that’s how I think about the political nature of bringing it into people’s lives. I also read an excerpt by Jimmy Boggs recently. He talked about his experience, he was, from a small town in Alabama, very connected to the land and slavery and history. He then moved to Detroit to be a part of the industrial part of America. He talks about how he loved his country so much that he wanted to engage and participate in a way to change it. He knows that it was built by his people in very tragic conditions. But that spirit to be able to envision another, that’s love, right? That doesn’t come from resentment or these other feelings, that comes from a place of maybe love and hope. It’s from that space to want to engage and I totally understand that so many people cannot be in that space and don’t have the capacity to do that. I feel like I’ve been wanting that so much in my life from other people, and now I finally have the tools to, like, at least create works or situations that can at least try to allow that for other people.
Yes, it’s like a pedagogy of extension. You know, just the way that you sort of traced how things impact people’s lives and then you scaled up to this example of Jimmy Boggs thinking about the impact they want to make on something as large as their country. That’s what good work can do is provide folks with an exercise that they can translate into these other parts of their lives, that, that they learn those kinds of practices and engagement and ways to think about the role that they have in democracy as sort of an active agent and not just the receiver of all of those exertions of power and exploitation. This is the idea of love and hope. We can mobilize around disengagement and disempowerment, or we can organize around love and a kind of hope that there’s still some road ahead of us. I think the exciting part becomes when you can look at a given set of circumstances and recognize the terms you encounter are the outcome of a lot structural and systemic forces that are mostly set up against folks, but then also see there is a whole bunch of time and space and community yet to be made and loved and I think this is forward looking. This is the thing built on a sense of hope. To think about like a pedagogy of hope, not as a way to necessarily solve all of those structural violences and systemic oppressions, because we won’t, but to actually to use them to think about what we owe to the people that are coming after us and to one another to actually like rework that. Admittedly, I want to believe that and yet I am also bumping into my own cynicism and I’m not sure how to reconcile that. I feel like I can get my head wrapped around it, but you know, it’s like, all of a sudden, it’s seven o’clock at night and I’m burned out and exhausted. How do you navigate that? How do you bring this to the folks you’re working with all the time who are probably even more tired and facing a whole lot of different challenges?
I can understand that and at the same time, I’m probably not as busy as you are (laughs)… Okay, have you read Emergent Strategy? By adrienne maree brown?
Actually, I’ve just been reading her book, Pleasure Activism, but Emerging Strategies is next on my list.
Oh nice! Emergent Strategy spells out the stuff that we’re talking about.
Brown talks about being a black woman in America and that being able to embody joy is a radical act. So that is a baseline.
The other thing she talks about is how we’re not engaged because really we’re trained to be consumers. We’re given so much information and told so much information, whether it’s through marketing or through traditional school curriculum, and naming that yes, we have a democracy but we really don’t know how to participate in it other than we’re supposed to go to the voting booth every 4 years. That’s not all we need to do. Really just calling that out and valuing how to operate in the world with intention and prioritizing relationships within the community.
Also, I remember a friend Mack McFarland reminded me that we’re just finite beings. As artists and organizers, we have this thing that we want to get to the horizon, whether that’s success or a better world and really there’s only so much you can do. In realizing the finite energy that you have, it’s being very intentional about what you can and can’t do. In this book, she speaks about in the lens of being in social justice organizations and in the social justice movements and how those spaces can be very debilitating and how boundaries are really set up for individuals. It’s always thinking about the bigger vision, but not the individual. It’s also not a self-indulgent existence, it’s thinking of what you can put into yourself in your immediate community, and just allowing that to scale up.
It’s comforting and inspiring to hear that because I think that where we operate, at the levels we can operate, we read about systems and scales of things that are just so enormous and it’s hard to scale things. Then you can look at your immediate community, your family, your friends and see a scale that you can understand. There’s this much larger thing that you don’t really have control over. You’re just sort of a part of them,and to think about the inability to actually scale up infinitely. Maybe it’s not a bug, maybe that’s a feature of being human. Maybe we actually can’t ever or shouldn’t try to tackle that stuff on our own.
Earlier this morning, I was on a call about this Float School project that Holly Schmidt and I have been doing, and we’ve been working on a little publication and we were just doing like a group chat with some of the people that have participated and you know, the one thing that about that project that has always stuck with me is that you can kind of feel like you’re really ‘in it’ with a small group of people and you kind of feel like what you’re doing matters to them. When I think about how deeply I feel that it’s like, it reminds me of this Pleasure Activism book, getting back in tune with what your body actually wants and seeing that as a check-point. And maybe that is an emergent strategy? I have to read that book now.
Yes, you do! (laughs) That’s so great that your project can make you feel like you’re in it. Listen to that. Hold onto that.
In thinking about scale, I’m curious in your life, what are the different scales that you’re working with and living in?
I think that what I have kind of inadvertently done over the last number of years is accidentally set some harder boundaries between like different scales of things, and I don’t know that I’ll ever know why I’ve done that. Part of what’s come from that, though, is a certain clarity. I remember the 2017 Creative Time Summit in Toronto, and Carlos Marentes, from Border Agricultural Workers Project, provided this amazing insight in his talk. He was saying, it’s like a political thing to make time to cook for your family and to care for them. We have to demand time from our jobs and from all of these other spaces and circumstances that control parts of our lives. We have to make demands that these are not just personal things that we need to take care of, but that they’re actually something much larger. I heard that and I felt like it gave me permission to step back from some things intentionally. You know, my partner is working later than I am, and so when I get home first, I need to cook and take care of our dogs. I see that as something important, something scaled to the size of my family, and realizing that I have to take care of that before I can do anything else worthwhile.
So this question of scale in relation to my practice has also been impacted. I think that the projects that I have taken on over the last number of years have often been in other places, and I think that’s allowed something else to happen that didn’t happen in my earlier projects. You can go somewhere and get very deeply involved for a short period of time, or periods of time, and the process is fairly directional, rather than something more organic. Early on, my work was scaled to my friends, to people I saw everyday, to something that felt like the scale of family. Things could just happen by virtue of being together.
I think my life exists more urgently, and sort of deeply in my home, and I’ve been wondering how my practice and my job can sit alongside that. It’s also a question of time and the scale of time. Doing projects with folks that are part of your life changes the scale of time of that relationship and in turn the work itself. Maybe I just want to be a really good like, partner and, and do right by, you know, the small team of people I’m working with at school and like and maybe like that’s enough like to just do that really well and to really care about it. I think one of the most radical things you could do is to just really stand up for a few people and say to them, you know, whatever you need, I’ll back you up. That feels like sort of the best kind of project, whether it’s a social practice project or a more meaningful way to live, I think, increasingly the lens through which I want to look at what it means to teach or what it means to be engaged in projects or community or life is wondering how you can be there for other people.
Completely! What you’re talking about backing your people up and how important and radical and effective that is, I want to let you know that our cohort has had some strain in figuring out the spring term during the pandemic with all the confusion and uncertainty. What you had mentioned in our intensive last year, asking what the fourth year of school will look like, it made a lot of sense for our situation. There is a fourth year that will be with each other. We can keep on supporting each other in different avenues and different ways.
Wow, I have to say, on top of just being super grateful that we’ve been able to sustain a conversation over the whole last year, and to be able to do this today, I want to say that it was really recharging for me to just be able to meet with you all last year. It means a lot to know that some things are still kind of reverberating that we talked about last year.
Yes! That’s pedagogy!
82nd+Beyond: A Living Archive, Roshani leading a public walk with collaborator Sachi Arakawa.
Float School, Justin Langlois and Holly Schmidt.
Roshani Thakore uses art to broaden an understanding of place, uncover histories, elevate voices, and expand a sense of belonging, all with the hope of shifting power. Since 2019 she is the Artist-in-Residence at the Asian Pacific Network of Oregon, a statewide, grassroots organization, uniting Asians and Pacific Islanders to achieve social justice. Prior to this residency, she received funding from the Division Midway Alliance Creative Placemaking Projects Grant with her project 82nd + Beyond: A Living Archive. More information about her work is at www.roshanithakore.com
Justin Langlois is currently the Associate Dean of the Master of Fine Arts program at Emily Carr University of Art and Design. His practice explores collaborative structures, critical pedagogy, and infrastructural frameworks as tools for gathering, learning, and making. He lives and works as an uninvited guest on unceded Coast Salish Territory in Vancouver, Canada.
Pedagogy and Praxis with Michelle Illuminato
By Emma Duehr Mitchell
M. Michelle Illuminato creates events, public exchanges, and artworks to help reveal the complicated and often contradictory relationship between people, their culture and the land
they live on. She often works with the collective next question and counts her Key to the City of Aliquippa Pennsylvania as her most treasured public award. Illuminato was honored by Americans for the Arts, Public Art Network for her project The Lost & Found Factory. She has been an artist in residence at the
Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris and at Internationales Waldkunst Zentrum in Darmstadt, Germany. A long-time art educator, she was recently honored with the 2017 Master Teacher
Award from the Foundations: Art, Theory, and Education national teaching association. Originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, she now lives and teaches in another city with many bridges, Portland, Oregon.
During Spring 2019, I was a student in Michelle Illuminato’s Pedagogy + Praxis course at Portland State University. Throughout the duration of the class, we were given time for deep reflection on what we know about learning and how we will choose to implement our knowledge into our pedagogical approach. We created a syllabus, an assignment and its supporting materials, and wrote our first teaching philosophy. We examined issues related to alternative pedagogy approaches, creating inclusive classrooms, and art school structures, models, and methods.
During the discussion on building a teaching philosophy, Michelle discussed her work 13 Radical Whispers, A few whispers before the revolution. The philosophy behind her writing was many years in the making and continues to expand with unceasing life experiences.
She begins by asking, “How do we make that first year meaningful and provide not just a bridge to the future but a true, life-changing experience?” This question is vital to ask in every stage of education; learning occurs when in discourse with the real-life experiences. She suggests activities such as collaboration, physical learning, interaction with the public, play, and personal research though acknowledging that these activities must be taken a step further.
In the writing she states, “We need a quiet revolution that upsets this particular viewpoint, not just for our students, but for our institutions as a whole. We need to start by asking who we are teaching? And what do they really need to learn? We need to rethink, redesign, and not just tinker with our structures to make being present in the experience of learning our first goal. We need to dive off that metaphorical bridge with our students and savor the learning that happens together in deep waters. We need to search for ways to make ourselves and our students live in the presence, and avoid yearning for the future at the expense of the moment.” The writing is intended for educators as “quiet whispers” that one can adapt into their own learning environments.
I had one full term experience as a teaching assistant before taking Illuminato’s class and I am currently teaching my own course. As I reflect on the incredible complexities of being a graduate student and a professor simultaneously, I am grateful for the steps and reflections that helped define my pedagogical discoveries.
I invited Michelle Illuminato to discuss 13 Radical Whispers and how the ideas surface within her classes. Michelle Illuminato is an Assistant Professor and Head of the CORE Program at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon. The following interview took place on Friday, May 2nd, 2019 over a virtual meeting. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity and has been reviewed for content and accuracy by Michelle Illuminato.
EMMA: I’d like to start by defining multiple terms that we will be discussing throughout this conversation. How would you define Pedagogy, teaching, learning, and praxis? How do they compare?
MICHELLE: Pedagogy is the system of thoughts and methods that thinkers and teachers have created and their ways of going about it. Praxis is really about the action. How do you put those thoughts into practice? What do you do with that information? As for learning and teaching, I think learning is really something that we can only do for ourselves. It’s about being receptive to what is there, noticing, and paying attention. I don’t think we can just ‘teach people things’. I see our job as more creative situations where people can learn. Those situations can be super complex or very simple. They can draw on inspirational philosophies or systems of thoughts or they can draw on our everyday experiences.
E: I have been thinking a lot about the title of your class, Pedagogy + Praxis. I’m really interested in the double sided narrative. You’re guiding us for our own future in teaching. What is the main goal of the class? How do you respond to the double narrative going on in the classroom?
M: The main goal of the class is to give you space and time to dream big about your own philosophies and classrooms. Later, when you are in the ‘action’ of teaching, it is harder to dream big. You’ll need to refer to a sound set of guidelines that you set out for yourself. We start the class by asking you to collect everything you know about teaching and learning into a bucket of ideas. Throughout the term you draw from this bucket to create your philosophy of teaching and your dream class. So the class starts with you. It provides a structure to help build your teaching ideas and practice on something that is solid and true to you. It also gives you the chance to understand what other people, seminal teachers and idea-formers think about the complexities of teaching and learning, ideas and praxis.
So maybe the real dichotomy is actually between the student and their ideas and the great thinkers and theirs. We read and are inspired by bell hooks, we unpack Freire, and we listen to Sir Ken Robinson speak about how schools are killing creativity. We discuss best practices, the different ways people learn from Howard Gardner, and explore hands-on activities to make the class more inclusive. All the time, you are adding to your bucket of ideas. Outside the class, many of you are also gaining practical experience by being embedded in classes, as teaching assistants to seasoned faculty in the School of Art + Design.
E: I think this all really relates to when the class is taught, spring term of the first year in graduate school. I had two terms of school and one Teaching Assistant opportunity prior to the class. I think that’s pretty consistent with everybody. I enjoyed having one term of teaching before I started diving into formalizing my teaching and learning approach. I’m wondering if that is intentional.
M: It’s interesting because I really didn’t have any control over that, but I do think that the class is perfectly placed and I wouldn’t opt for changing it. Placed in the first year, you all are experiencing teaching and learning about teaching at the same time. It is like a perfect in-between space that allows you access to all the perspectives. I think that is incredibly important. That experience of teaching with someone allows you to see different styles and gives you the chance to listen-in on those quiet conversations between student and teacher. Those are such valuable gems of knowledge. To see how someone presents an assignment, paces a crit or handles a problem. Those are such valuable gems of knowledge. At the same time, the teacher benefits greatly by having the teaching assistant in the classroom. Graduate students are incredibly good at connecting with students. After years of saying something over and over, I almost assume everyone already knows it. I forget a little about what it might be like to be at the beginning of my learning. The really beautiful thing about having a graduate student in the room is that they’re closer to that learning, they help me see the gaps. They are easily able to relate their own experience and mentor younger students. I believe in the strength of collaboration, and especially the teaming up of a teacher and a graduate student. It benefits all the people in the class community.
E: I agree. I am now teaching my full first class by myself this term.
M: Oh, that’s so awesome. Sculpture? That sounds challenging, especially with the new constraints of the pandemic.
E: Yeah! Online Introduction to Sculpture! We began the term understanding the confusion of taking Sculpture online and I asked my students individually what they were looking for in the class, what techniques, and what felt most important for them. I was honest by mentioning the portions of sculpture that are seemingly impossible given the circumstances of COVID-19, so I really wanted to create a class that really fulfilled what they wanted to learn. It’s going really great. I had three TA opportunities before teaching my own class, though a whole new door opened up when it became just me and the students. I dove deeper into my teaching approach and my own learning experiences than I had before. The Pedagogy and Praxis class really helped me ground the prelude and outlook to the term. It’s very different from being a TA.
M: It’s wonderful because there is something really private about the conversations with you and your students and knowing what they think, which is very important. Being in class with someone who maybe has more experience teaching allows a relationship to build based on looking and observing. Once you can freely make decisions and evaluate how it’s working for yourself and respond, that requires a certain amount of freedom as a teacher. You should always feel that sense of freedom with your students. Sometimes the first thing that we really have to recognize is that a good teacher is a constant learner. There has never been one class in my 25 years of teaching that has been the same. Being a responsive teacher and building a class in the process is very important. Institutions work against that when they require very detailed or locked-in syllabi or ask us to share every experience on paper before the class even starts. We resist by making space within our structures for change, for students to be in the moment, or for us to be responsive to the class needs. Students are often more comfortable with a tight rubric, with knowing exactly what is coming. But there is value in not-knowing. It requires us to be present. One of the biggest things I try to do as a teacher is get students to really notice. As artists we are excellent noticers. Noticing is the first step in knowledge-making. Being present allows students to be active in their own education. We want to leave room in the plan for what we think is important and for students to be able to ‘claim’ their own education.
E: In the 13 Radical Whispers, you wrote a section titled “Quit the Long Syllabus.” I wrote a very detailed syllabus to prepare for my class, I wanted my students to know what was in store. After getting to know them that first week, I changed a project, timeline, and meeting methods. The syllabus became overwhelming by feeling like changes were bad.
M: You shouldn’t feel bad for being a responsive teacher. Changing things, making them better, acknowledging that you are learning, is a strength. I am sure those changes and your instinct improved learning. As for the syllabus, there are layers. The first being, what the university requires as a legal contract between you and the student. Getting that framework down is important. But including the day-to-day activities or every reading is not. I usually design overarching charts that lay out the term, but I don’t share it all with students. It helps me see the big picture to make sure I fit in everything I promised to teach. One of the 13 Whispers, “Surprise your Students” may sound a little odd, but that idea behind it is not. Learning is enhanced when we are in the moment and aware of what we are experiencing. When we are asked to do something unusual, fun, unexpected. Or if we need to get out of our seats and move fast, or slow down and write, or collaborate with another person. I love building these fruitful structures. They are built on things I want to experience, too. Like for the Ideation class, we’ve boarded a ship on the river to understand more about what is above, below and at the edges of the water. We kicked it off by singing ‘Row, row, row your boat” and then played noticing games, looked through binoculars, did drawings, collected water, and had a tour of the bridges as we sailed under them. This allowed us to develop our own understanding and first-hand knowledge. It centered the students in the learning and in the experience. The surprise and fun helped build the excitement for learning and the class community.
E: In the syllabus for Pedagogy + Praxis course, your first objective is to design an approach to teaching. I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of “approach” and the language behind it. Considering all the work that goes into designing this approach based on multiple small experiences. How long would you say it took you to articulate?
M: That’s a really interesting question, because I think it has taken me up until I wrote it. I think some of what I wrote about has been happening within my teaching for a really long time and it took me everyday of being with students to develop them. My thoughts on how to approach teaching also draw on my own experiences as a learner and kid who was laid up in the hospital for long periods of time. Over my career, I’ve mostly worked at the two ends of the spectrum—with those entering school as a freshman and with graduate students who are moving toward the completion of their education and getting ready to enter the workforce. So thinking about approaches or beginnings comes naturally to me. But your question was about how long it took me to articulate. That took years of trying things out in the classroom, sharing wild ideas with friends, and slowly speaking in public about ideas until I felt I had something to add to the wider conversation. I developed a little courage, a bit of belief that I had something to contribute. Over the years I’ve tried to share with students that knowledge doesn’t just come from books or reading; it comes from our own experiences. We need to slow down, notice and trust that we have something to say. We all need to grab some courage to say what we think out loud. As a teacher my goal is to create structures that help students take risks and develop courage.
E: I think that’s really important, and especially when you are focused on first year students, in which 13 Radical Whispers focuses on. Pedagogy + Praxis is in the first year of the graduate program. In both situations, learning is focused on building off of the moment and previous experiences to define one’s focus and goals while entering into a new chapter.
M: Yeah that’s interesting. Sometimes new students come into the first year having experienced what Freire calls the banking system, basically just receiving what a teacher ‘gives’ them. They may have never been asked what they think, what they care about, and even what they really learned within the class context. One way I start my class is with a first day activity called, A Class Is Like An Island. Students quickly create clay sculptures that represent themselves and place them on a large island drawing at the front of the class. We then do speed-getting to know you exercises, work pairs create the one thing you’d bring to the island and make banners and flags for the island. At each stage it is all placed on the map. Then we have a big discussion about the class, who we are, what we want from this experience, and what rules will help us all survive the island. At the end of the term, we gather for another conversation to access what we achieved. Sometimes I have them respond to questions such as: What do you know right now? Where do you want to be in 5 years? They put their responses in an envelope that I sent to them two, three or five years later. It creates a milepost.
E: Another section of the 13 Radical Whispers is “Let Life Enter the Classroom,” I think that story relates to that. All you did was hold onto their writing and timed out when to send it to them. You didn’t write anything, you just listened and provided space.
M: When we talk about surprising students, sometimes I give students assignments that they think they will never be able to complete. Like the time at Alfred University when students were asked to create a series of 28 puppet shows based on local stories and perform them for the public at the Alfred Village Town Hall. When Brett Hunter, Trevor Bennett, myself introduced the project students had no idea how they were going to do this! In the end they were stellar and outrageous! It was important for students to inch their way into this grand project. They interviewed local people, wrote plays based on these stories, created all sorts of puppets from shadow to life-sized puppets, built a studio-theatre the same size as the town hall stage, practiced over and over, worked on the sound, created backdrops, video-taped segments, gave each other feedback and promoted the event. They played to packed houses with huge success!
In the end, it’s not just what they learned by making or writing or performing; it was the collaboration and the ability to see the importance and relevance of their work within a wider community outside of a classroom.
E: I agree, I think it’s definitely an interesting time because of COVID-19, I had 5 students drop before the term even started. How are you responding to that now?
M: We’ve all said it. We are living in unprecedented times. I am right in there learning and relearning, trying to make the best of this time I have with these particular students. Some of what I thought was tried and true, may need to shift, to change, to evolve. A good teacher is always learning. I keep thinking of myself as a bridge. A bridge to learning, a bridge to comfort or understanding, or even a bridge to the fall term. The truth of the matter is that it might be harder for students to return in the fall if they drop out now. If they’re in class, they are involved in creative activity and have support from people in addition to their family. Students right now have so much on their plates. They cannot have the same capacity. They often are taking care of family or siblings, working outside the home, don’t have their own workspace or access to materials or tools that they do when they are at school. All this on top of the grief we all feel in this moment. I found myself shifting my approach to asking “What can I do to help you?” Don’t get me wrong, it is not all doom and gloom. Many of my students have expressed gratitude, have had deep moments of learning, and fun… even if it was on the screen.
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