What I Learned from the Back of the Room

20 Sep

I am teaching Critical Literacy, our re-mediated “remedial” course, for the first time this semester.  Thankfully, my incredible colleagues are just a Skype chat away and they give me all kinds of experiments to conduct in the classroom. We’ve just finished a selection from Pedagogy of the Oppressed and to illustrate Pablo Freire’s banking and problem-solving concepts of education, Jennifer Buckner goes in the classroom and sits in the back. She stays there for a while, chatting, looking at her phone, and waiting for class to start. So that’s what I did today.

I walked into the dark classroom and didn’t turn on the lights. I sat in the back, propped up my feet, chatted with students around me a bit.  “Are you sitting back here today?” and “I can’t get my assignment uploaded to Blackboard.” they said. Then they chatted for a bit among themselves.  A student who came in a couple of minutes late, sat down, opened his laptop, looked around, then said, “If she’s not here in 10 minutes, we can leave.” (I think it’s 15 minutes for a PhD, but whatev.) The other students started laughing. “What?” he demanded. “She’s right behind you, dude.” He looked around, saw me, and said, “Oh, I didn’t realize it was you. You’re sitting in the back.”

My transition from back in the class to up front was a bit awkward, but I did turn on the lights and the computer and start class.  I asked what they would have done if I had continued sitting in the back.  “Watched Netflix,” one said from behind her iPad. “Gone back to the room,” one said from behind his laptop. I pulled up our class wiki and we started listing terms associated with their expectations of teachers and students. ( A screenshot of their lists is below.)  My role, from the ten minutes in which I didn’t fulfill it, apparently is to turn on the lights, stand in the front and be Keeper of the Computer, Keeper of Knowledge.

We then looked watched a clip from Declining by Degrees, a documentary on college fail, and a section of Freire on passivity.  “So,” I said, “let’s revisit the list.” We went back to the wiki. The Teacher section included action verbs — teach, educate, make, tell. The Student section contained passive verbs and language of derision — apathy, hate, don’t know, too hard, boring. The students in the 240 seat lecture class in the video were disengaged. The fifteen students sitting with me were disengaged, absorbed by phones and iPads and laptops and their daydreams. “Why are you disengaged?” A few answers while eyes were on screens.  I kept prodding. I went meta and pointed out they were disengaged while we were discussing disengagement.

Finally I told them I didn’t believe them. I don’t believe they are apathetic or lazy or stupid. I don’t believe their list of themselves. I don’t know how to lead them to epiphanies and I’m not sure how much they are learning, but they sure are teaching me.


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Posted by on September 20, 2012 in Uncategorized


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