Writing as dissenting learner: Reflecting anew on the teaching practices of a “bad student”

We suggest that in this first week you reflect on your overall experience to date as a teacher; what kinds of students have you taught, what have you discovered from the experience, and what have you most enjoyed in your teaching?

I kept not writing this #fslt12 piece during my working hours after the Wednesday synchronous session. Today it’s the Tuesday before session two and I think I’ve come to figuring out my reticence in writing.

Last Week’s Context: The first session of First Steps into Learning and Teaching in Higher Education came smack in the middle of a “writing intensive week” for me – simply put, that’s a writing week that I attach to my regular work week, beginning on the Monday evening with gathering together the generative writing I’ve amassed on a topic, then working the next three nights to develop an audience-focused first draft of the piece of writing that needs to take shape, so that on the Friday afternoon I can meet with a trusted writing and responding partner. This particular “writing intensive week” tasked me with reflecting on the work of navigating higher education for an audience of 21st century (post)graduate students aiming to integrate learning, writing, teaching, researching, career planning, and being present in families and communities and relationships into the fabric of their lives. After that week of writing, inside my head looked like this Fireworks photo George L Smyth:

Aiming to integrate learning, writing, teaching, researching, career planning, and being present in families and communities and relationships into the fabric of my own daily life seemed an even more daunting task as I began this task of writing reflectively for an audience of peers both new to and deeply / broadly practiced in teaching/learning in higher education. I’ve spent so much of my career getting others to try on Brookfield’s four lenses and to write themselves in to practice by applying principles embedded in UK Professional Standards to US teaching contexts that I slip further and further away from regularly being enthusiastic about, supportive of, and engaged in mapping my own practice processes.

Not wanting to slip away from reflective and reflexive practices as a written practice is, of course, why I leapt at participating in this MOOC. Okay, maybe not leapt, given it’s taken me a week to sit at a keyboard to do the generative writing that will become this blog entry. Maybe ambled is a better descriptor here – or saying that I’ve drifted toward writing because reading of others’ posts pointed out to something I hadn’t seen in a long while: my long-quiet self-censor at work. Well, crap.

An apt idiomatic adjective that word crap. As in rubbish. As in I was a rubbish student. As in Public Schooling was a rubbish experience for me with its crappy rules about right and normal and best ways to learn.

So, to get to the writing prompt suggested for this first writing – to “reflect on your overall experience to date as a teacher; what kinds of students have you taught, what have you discovered from the experience, and what have you most enjoyed in your teaching” – here’s the one segment of topic-specific and audience-focused generative writing that this writing around the writing block has allowed me to produce:

As a teacher I seek out opportunities to be with students who – like me – are not supposed to be, not expected to be, not entirely wanting to be in this system we call education, higher education. For hosts of reasons these are the students who were not supposed to do well in school, who were thought to be smart but not living up to potentials, who didn’t have the necessary economic and emotional supports for learning in their own ways. I seek out opportunities to work with resilient – or about to become resilient – learners. Some of these students I have interacted with in high school classes, some at community colleges akin to FE or 6th form colleges; some have been enrolled in classes at private liberal arts schools – but most have been enrolled in graduate or undergraduate humanities or education courses at public universities with either teaching-primarily or research-intensive missions.

In working with the students that far too many teachers (in my experience as student, as peer and in professional development) hope to not find in their classes, I discovered how to be a teacher respectful of dissent and difference (even when that student dissent was to not tolerate difference in classrooms or cultures), and to engage what I call the real PCs (public communication, potential collaborations, partial consensus, plucky cooperation, personal comeuppance). That is, I discovered how to be a teacher who could set up classrooms with students so that whoever we were, we learned, made meaning, planned for and evaluated changes to our learning together by taking on illuminations that come when consensus engages dissent for some “wicked problem” solving as well as “wicked good” problem posing.

In writing today, I’ve come to realize that I have learned how to be Miss Courts – my own first grade teacher – in whatever context I enter into as a teacher (from working with high school students to working with research university tenured faculty). These two quotes offer a glimpse of her own sense of self as teacher – both drawn from a Masters thesis Miss Courts wrote in 1958, five years before I was a learner in her classroom, and that I read while I was writing my own dissertation on learning and teaching:

About her basic approach to teaching in a classroom where she saw, recognized, valued and drew on student diversity where other seemed only to see and model values of a uniformly white, middle class Mankato, Minnesota:

The children were taught simple democratic procedures for carrying on their work and play. They were given daily experience in planning group activities, in sharing responsibilities for carrying out plans made, in evaluating accomplishments, in putting group welfare in the foreground, in abiding by majority decisions, and in cooperating with other members of the group.

About the enriched reading program that served as a backbone for all subjects her students engaged in a first grade day:

An attempt was specifically made to teach the children various ways of reacting to reading such as critical reading, drawing conclusions, passing judgments, and evaluating what is read. Worthwhile problems were set up by the teacher in which reading activities were used to give the children experience in problem-solving through selecting, organizing, and evaluating ideas gained from reading. Problems arising from group-living were dealt with in a similar manner. Considerable work was done on a readiness level in developing the skill of interpretation through the use of pictures, maps, graphs, and globes. Tape recordings of the children’s reading, dramatizations and puppet shows were used for the enrichment of oral reading experiences.

And what have I most enjoyed as a teacher? Creating a “Teaching in Higher Education” course where I get to be the teacher I’ve become based on the ways of learning I have come to value across a lifetime of teaching, and and of watching the graduate students/postdoctoral fellows in these courses develop teaching principles and learning practices inspired by understanding the ways that, yes, those students they most fear will, yes indeed, learn.

And maybe at the end of the day the inside of my head looks more like this – and perhaps my words in electronic space can take some shape in your head something like this:


Courts, Margaret. G. (1958). A study of the effects of enrichment experiences on reading achievement and social adjustment of a specific group of first graders. (Masters thesis, Mankato State College, 1958).


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