In my last post I focused on the crucial role of youth in building effective learning communities. Here I focus on the role of the teacher; yet it is still the young people who remain front and center, while the most powerfully effective teachers tend to fade into the background -- the greater their finesse, the more invisible they are. Teachers such as young Jeanna, from the novel, In a Silent Way, are criticized from virtually every quarter for this approach. Indeed, even her most challenging students, themselves, discount her efficacy, yet nevertheless flourish under this method without fully understanding why.
In a scene from my original manuscript that had to be cut due to word count limits, Jeanna’s professional practice prof rips into her after visiting her Project Inquiry and Basic Skills class. When she asks him what he thought of the class, he responds, “What class? It was utter chaos, Miss Kendall, a free-for-all. It looked more like a wild jazz set than a real class; why it was impossible to tell who was in charge, certainly not you, and if any learning was taking place at all. How you ever expect to test them is beyond me.” He was right. Jeanna’s class is an interconnected circle of jazz ensembles: a student throws out a question, suggestion, feeling, proposal, or critique to his project partners, while they provide back-up support, respond in counter-point, deepen the emotion, complicate the issue, clarify the question. The test lies in the quality of the music, the learning, in which new insights, greater clarity, and deeper questions emerge out of the chaos and confusion.
Real learning cannot be dictated by a teacher, or curricular expert, planned in carefully predetermined “goals & objectives,” covering vast amounts of information, and micro-managed by careful teacher surveillance and continuous testing of content material to then determine who is more or less “academically successful” on a range from A to F. What is success for Lonnie who enters Jeanna’s 9th & 10th grade class with no literacy skills at all because his previous schools criminalized and discarded him, and who now feels like “dirt?” What is success for the highly literate Karima who lives in a constant state of rage, furious at a world that has killed her brother in Vietnam and reduced her father from a revolutionary book dealer to a hotdog vender in the street? How about Valledonia, the extraordinary gospel singer who works by night in a nursing home and whose wisdom far exceeds Jeanna’s- who will decide her learning goals, the trajectory of her life, and the skills and resources she will need to get there?
In this learning community, the teacher needs to have enough inner security and respect for her students to be able to hold the space for them to freely explore and express themselves in all dimensions: physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, politically, and creatively; to help them identify their unique passions, gifts, purposes & goals, deepest concerns and interests, and the real life issues they struggle with. She needs to encourage them to support each other in developing these great gifts and working through these issues. She also practically responds to their needs as they pursue their projects and goals by: acknowledging both the oppressive, painful realities they confront, as well as their great gifts, capacities and dreams; by sharing specific skills, assisting in finding relevant resources, creating authentic learning opportunities, and discovering mentors embedded in the community to support their growth and learning.
As teachers support rather than control the learning process, students learn to positively and creatively direct their own lives, growth and learning rather than reacting to the system’s goals and “behavioral controls” imposed from above, ones generally intended to maintain an unjust status-quo that is destroying them. Thus, within a genuine learning community, mutual self-development and liberation is the goal, often in the face of extreme adversity and injustice. Without a mutually liberating learning community, “success” in the face of such challenging odds would be impossible. Indeed, even this powerful student/teacher based learning community is still not sufficient for students and teachers to grow and flourish. This requires the active support of the broader community, our topic for the next blog post.
Please share your own learning or teaching experiences. Have you ever experienced an actual learning community or helped to create one? Do you wish you could? What dilemmas have you faced and what questions do you have?