Sunday, November 30, 2014

Critical Teaching for Social Change

"Another large topic covered, mostly in the beginning of the reading was based on whether we hold classrooms where students can ask questions and, most of all, feel comfortable enough to ask questions about the curriculum and other issues...allow for a dialogue between peers, where the teacher would act as a facilitator rather than an overpowering presence in the classroom...thought about past classrooms I have been in and whether or not they were like the one mentioned above"-Elisabeth's blog

After reading the article "Empowering Education: Critical Teaching for Social Change" by Ira Shor, and Elisabeth's blog post relating to it, I too was left thinking a lot about the different types classrooms I have been in throughout my schooling career and the effectiveness of each type.  From my experience, the least effective classroom is one in which  there was "a one-way transmission of rules and knowledge from teacher to students, stifling their curiosity" (Shor 2).  

The first classroom that comes to mind where I experienced this is my eight grade history class.  Each day, our teacher would close the door to the classroom right as the bell rang and start talking.  She would talk non-stop until the bell signaling the end of class rang.  She always had a PowerPoint presentation or some sort of graphic organizer that we were expected to follow to a tee.  Every single person's notebook looked identical.  There was a right way (her way) to take notes and organize your things, and a wrong way (any way besides hers).  There was no opportunity for discussion or questions during the class.  If a student raised his or her hand, she would give them a look that made anyone instantly reconsider keeping that hand up.  Tests were straight-forward and came directly from her class lectures.  If you could not answer the multiple choice, true/false, and fill-in-the-blank questions on the test, you did not understand the material.  There was no other opportunity to display what you had learned.  I truly felt that classroom was a one-way street.  

On the other side of this was a classroom that "urged a reciprocal relationship between teachers and students where respect for the teacher coexisted with cooperative and student-centered pedagogy" (Shor 2).

My senior year English class perfectly illustrated the amazing success of this type of classroom.  For starters, the teacher, who was also the English Department Head, realized that students were getting lost in the standard English class not because they were bad at English, but rather they were not interested in the material.  With these students in mind, he created four semester-long English classes that had a more specific curriculum--Critical Writing and Rebellion, The Modern Temper, Outside Voices, and Philosophy and Literature.  By taking two of these semester long courses, a student could satisfy his or her fourth year English requirement for graduation.  My senior year was the first year these classes were offered and they all filled up.  The following year, two or three sections of each had to run to give all students that wanted to the opportunity to take the courses.  While I truly loved both my Critical Writing and Rebellion semester and the Modern Temper semester, I would like to discuss the latter.  Each day when we came into class, we arranged the desks into one big circle.  Our teacher then facilitated discussions regarding the current reading(s); however, he took a backseat in these discussions and really let the students lead the direction of the class.  When it came time for the final project, we were given a great deal of freedom, and the results were phenomenal.  Students could work individually or in groups and created their own project.  The only real requirement was that it somehow incorporate the knowledge gained from the class over the course of the semester.  We were required to write a description of what we were going to do for our project and then create a fair rubric which our teacher would use to grade us at the end.  This left the door wide open for students to display their knowledge however they felt most comfortable.  Some made videos, PowerPoints, or gave presentations that dove further into the subject matter of the semester.  I chose to read a book that related closely to the course, discuss it with my teacher, and write about it.  He ended up using the book the following year as one of the main readings of the semester.  It was amazing to see the many different ways students had interpreted and were then able to apply the knowledge they had gained throughout the course of the semester.  

I agree with what Elisabeth said in her blog, "that it is important to have classrooms where the students are not just copying down notes and listening to lecture, but can talk to their peers about problems and solutions being done in class so that they can fully understand why they come to that answer and how to figure it out next time. Students should feel comfortable enough to ask their teachers questions about topics inside and outside the classroom"  

My senior English final project was actually a result of this.  I had a great relationship with my teacher and actually questioned his original final project when he first discussed it with me because I felt that it would really limit the sharing of knowledge and what we had learned.  He listened to my argument against his project plan and for my proposal (which is the one I discussed above).  Everyone loved the project, including him.  He even continued using it in following years.  For the first time in my schooling, I felt like I was able to show what I learned in my own creative way, with no limits of standardized or teacher-made tests.  I just wish that this was "the norm" in schools K-12 because I feel that it would open up the doors of education for so many more students.  


  1. I too have numerous experiences with dull teachers who can never stop lecturing. I contribute my hatred for history to those countless teachers that were too excited about the subject and never let the students think for themselves. I enjoyed seeing you incorporate Elisabeth's blog I think you tied everything very well.

  2. Enjoyed this so much. You reenforce my belief that teaching for empowerment is the way that engages students more and makes the learning more meaningful.