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Teaching yesterday, and periodically at other times over the last 2-plus years, I have found myself in very interesting moments with my students. In those situations, I am not always sure where they are in their understanding of the course material. In terms of what I see as the beauty of learning, I find that I have a very dualistic perspective on student engagement. It is either the exchanges/displays of engagement are abundant (good) or not at all (bad)– as the saying goes “quiet as a church mouse.” As I stated in my earlier post, “I’m greedy” when it comes to my students having their own educational epiphanies.

Since I clearly know this about myself, as a person as well as an educator, I found that I have, for this entry, concretely framed this thinking in a very dualistic way by using the characters Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. jeykll-and-hydeAs many who are familiar with this story can clearly see, these characters represent the joys and challenges of what education can be and/or how we may see our students’ level of engagement at times. While I do not want to give off the impression that I think or feel that all of my students are “evil” or “sinister.” I do want to use this example as a way to highlight how a person who loves seeing others have these moments–where you can easily see when students are actively engaged–as the Jekyll experience as opposed to when they are noticeably not engaged or what I’m calling the Hyde experience.

The Learner as Jekyll

In teaching a course on diversity, I am always amazed at the ways in which students enter this space based on their prior knowledge, what they’ve heard about me or the course, and/or where they are in terms of their academic ability. When thinking about the positive aspects of the learning experience that occurred in my Monday classes (January 28th); students posted terms on the board that they felt were significant from the chapter on immigration. This activity allowed me to see what terms or concepts they clearly grasped through their explanations of the terms followed by their linkages of that term with those their peers also placed on the board, in a sense creating a word web. Such terms as xenophobia, Americanization, nativism, English-Only and among others were highlighted.

As I pushed students to 1) post their terms, 2) begin to articulate what it meant for them, and 3) how does it connect with the other terms on the board; I began to see what I love most about the class and teaching, students owning the material. I could see a level of trepidation on some of their faces as they were waiting for me to confirm their thoughts and/or answers, but they kept on going. They began to prove critical thinking skills as they not only linked terms together but also began to make connections between the terms and current events. In some cases, I had to facilitate the discussion more or perform a quasi-lecture, but the process still was guided by their own positioning and comprehension of the text.

While I intentionally avoid using explicit scenarios for student confidentiality purposes, I had several students from both sections of the class offer very clear and connected examples of how the text makes sense in their worlds. Others took risks in what I felt were their own pursuits of understanding the material, hopefully themselves, and/or the world around them. Student processing of the additional topics and questions that I posed, to have them think about, focused on how much we have been socialized to readily accept many things within our society without questioning them.  This dogmatic approach still permeates our lives and realities today. Dogma picAn example of this was the use of the two terms “patriotism” and “nationalism” and the way these terms are often used in a dualistic manner while generating an “Us” vs “Them” scenario. After one of my students surprised me by “doing my work for me,” when the student provided a definition of nationalism that lent itself to the way patriotism is currently used in the US a perfect segue was provided–educational epiphanies…

I had a hard time holding back my pleasure in seeing her provide me with a key talking point to redirect my students’ thinking in terms of how these terms are symbolic of two divergent ways of viewing a belief in/of a particular country/nation. They were getting it and being critical in the process. As in most cases, I, as the instructor, care more about the process that my students take than often the content that helps us to get there. I have, depended on the content, taken a 70% process and 30% content philosophy when it comes to teaching. I totally believe that if they have a process for critically thinking they inherently will master and comprehend the content presented to them.

These moments are what inspires me to love and continue teaching more than I ever thought that I would.  Often these educational epiphanies help me, as I know for other educators who are in the educational trenches, recharge when the lesson or activity engages the other side of the learner–Hyde.

The Learner as Hyde

I find this experience to be one of the most challenging aspects of the profession beyond the politics and bureaucracy that has continued to engage education, the unengaged and/or non-risk taking learner-Hyde. As I thought about using these two polarizing figures to frame my post, I really hope that no reader takes away that I am condemning any of my students because that is not the case. Instead I see it as two polarizing ways that students have often been socialized to receive learner (I will revisit this thinking later).

Non-verbal communication has been one the most interesting features of Hyde learners especially when discussing topics on diversity. Over the almost 3 years of teaching at my current university, I always find the level of trepidation and/or resistance to engaging these sometime difficult topics very fascinating. Was it any different during my graduate school experiences? Often it was very similar, the students who displayed some level of critical consciousness were the active ones and asking all the question or pushing the discussion forward. The students who did not seem to posses any critical consciousness appeared to be apathetic and placeholders for the course to make its required student count.

When talking about the tough subjects in my diversity course (e.g., race, sexism, whiteness/white privilege, heterosexism and religion) my Hyde learners’ body language betrayed them. They sink back into their seats or they provide even less eye contact than normal. Their faces develop deeper frowns and/or scowl that could be interpreted to be directed toward me or their feelings about the contact. As I remind my students of the “two-way mirror” that is the interpretation of one another within the teacher-student dynamic, they sometimes look perplexed that the teacher could also make assumptions about their students simultaneously as they make their own assumptions. I like to address this periodically as I remind them of the potential cognitive dissonance that they may feel when entering this educational space.

These instances with my Hyde learners does wear on me at times. I have to be honest about that. As an greedy educator, I always want to get the best from my students or at least to see them acknowledge themselves in the learning process. For me, giving up is not a viable option when my students seek to be future educators. There is too much at stake for me to expect anything less from my students.

Meeting in the Middle: Where Dr. Jekyll meets Mr. Hyde

The most fascinating part of having Jekyll and Hyde Learners in a diversity class for future educators is they way they engage and disengage each other. Non-verbal communication is so critical to observing these exchanges. The different displays of energy about a topic and the level of risk that is taken by these polar opposites is striking because depending on the topic one student can shift from Jekyll to Hyde and back.  Knowing this requires me to be able and willing to know when to push, be patient and/or insert some form of transitional strategy (which I’m finding humor to be a good tool).

Now that I’ve been in this position of engaging Jekyll and Hyde learners more often, I see it as exciting challenge for me as a teacher. Can I get my Hydes to be Jekylls and how do I maintain the Jekylls that I currently have no matter the topic being discussed. I have yet to be figure that out, but I just hope that I’m on the path to that finding the potion. (How can one end this discussion without including Luda?)

Until the next entry