Saturday, December 19, 2009

Seen, Encouraged and Challenged

It’s been a long fall with lots to do and not much to say. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that I’ve had lots to say to lots of graduate and undergraduate students who come to my classes, appear at my door, call on the phone and, of course, email – with questions that run the gamut from “what do you want on this [project, paper, presentation]?” to “what should I do when I grow up?” to “how can I handle this [breakup, challenge, death in the family]?”

There are many more students than in the past. A state budget crunch and a shortsighted political ethos re higher education has resulted in rapidly growing class sizes and many more advisees. In the face of this, I’ve been crunching the faculty/student ratio numbers. I’m pretty convinced by William Ouchi’s claim that any teacher’s “total student load” cannot exceed 80 if that teacher is to be an effective educator. And “effective” includes nurturing the relationships with students that make it possible for kids of any age to grow into smart and good people. My student load this semester is about 150. I’m way past Ouchi’s limit – and I’m not feeling very effective despite steady effort and many constructive discussions and interactions with lots of students.

Total student load is a topic that deserves more of my attention here. But for now, let me make an observation about what kids – and all of us -- need if they are to know much about and do good in the world.

Put bluntly, humans need to be seen, encouraged and challenged. Teachers who are able to do this for and with their students – and who have the time to do this – will have students who flourish.

What does this mean?

To be seen is to be recognized as the person I am, want to be and can be. To be encouraged is to be supported through the myriad fears that often block the effort to learn, to be invited to act with courage despite the sometimes painful and always uncomfortable feelings that accompany real change in one’s worldview and capabilities. To be challenged is to be moved beyond old habits of thinking and doing and understanding by the lure of interest or by the push of personal, intellectual or institutional pressure.

It makes intuitive sense that we would want to be seen first, encouraged second and challenged third, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. In fact, I’d say (admittedly stereotypically) that females tend to want to be encouraged prior to being challenged and males respond better to challenge prior to encouragement. What’s important is that all are encouraged and challenged and that each is encouraged and challenged in the order that prompts the richest, most generative response. The latter can only occur when students are known, when their teacher sees them.

I work hard to know and to see each of my students. It’s demanding and there are always a few who slip through because they seek anonymity, I just miss them due to lack of time or personal oversight or some combination of both. My sense is that more are slipping through – in part because there are more of them. I hope that someone else is catching those who slip through my net, that someone else is seeing, encouraging and challenging the kids I’m missing. But my colleagues too have many more than the 80 students Ouchi identifies as the research-based cut-off for effective teaching.

This isn’t directly about class size or even teaching quality. It’s about relationships and their importance to the very possibility of education. We need to see this clearly at every level.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Think you can't trust the President?? At least trust the kids!

Cross-posted from Social Issues (the John Dewey Society Blog)

I was greeted early yesterday morning by a local newspaper article noting that some folks (specifically, "conservatives,"  but it's hard to know who that refers to) are angry that President Obama plans to give a speech at a public school urging young people to stay in school and take advantage of the education being offered them. Throughout the day yesterday -- and this morning -- I encountered this "developing story" ... on CNN, in The New York Times, and elsewhere.  

What are we to make of this?

The Obama folks clearly made one mistake in the run-up to the event.   They posted lesson plans that teachers could use in preparation for and after listening to the President's speech (offered live in one school but available for broadcast in any school).   One part of that included a question to be posed to the students:  "What can you do to help the President?"    In context, the question was clearly about supporting the good of the nation, but I can (if I really stretch Peter Elbow's "methodological belief") see why those who do not agree with the "President's ideology" would be concerned.  And it seems the President's folks were listening and focused on making this a non-partisan event. That question in the lesson plan was changed to ask how a student could achieve his or her educational goals.

I am struck by the concern with the "President's ideology," because the complaint incorporates the assumption that ONLY the President has an ideology, that the one complaining is speaking the non-biased truth.   Of course, the President has views on how to deal with the issues of our time, as do we all.    And we don't all agree with each other.   But it seems we have lost even the notion that we share one common goal:  a desire to educate children to be good Americans (even when we are not in agreement about what that means.)  Each of us -- especially the duly elected President of the country -- deserves that benefit of the doubt no matter how hard we fight in the arena of ideas and policies.

We have apparently moved into an era when even the clear election winner, a father of two young daughters, will not be trusted to speak to school children.  Have we so little confidence in our children's ability to listen critically and form and frame their own minds that we fear the influence of Barack Obama?   If that's so, then I fear no education is possible, certainly not the real education that requires openness to people who don't look and think like we do.  

Children who would become democratic citizens need to experience the play of democratic functioning.  I remember well my 6th grade Catholic school playground days during the Nixon/Kennedy elections.   My teachers and most of my classmates were Kennedy supporters (the result of religioius "ideology"? )   My parents -- and I -- were Nixon supporters (the result of my business executive father's socio-economic status?)  I and the few other Nixon supports held our ground when everybody else challenged us;   for the most part, we enjoyed it.  Whether or not we can trust our President in this case (and I obviously think we can),  I am quite certain we can trust our children.   Bring the President into every classroom;  it will do us good.