Monday, November 2, 2015

A Wish for Meaningful Reflection: A Desire for Praxis

The agenda called for a brief quiz. Not a graded quiz. More of formative assessment - for me to see how well students were learning the material. Last week’s lesson went quite well. The class, full of first year, first-generation college student, was engaged, bright, and on task. “They’re getting it,” I had thought to myself. 

But a quick glance at their work painted a different picture - no one got even half of the questions right. Worse, when I assigned students to work in pairs to discuss the reading assignments, over half of the students actively avoided each other and the assignment, much more than I typically observed in prior classes. Was this about not doing homework? About being bored with the material? 

I marshaled my patience, attempting to dispassionately note what was going on so I could pose this problem to students later in the period. 

After the exercise, I shared my observations with them  - what I noted in terms of the assessment and what I saw them (not) doing. Not to guilt trip them but to encourage active reflection.

So I urged students to take this problem to writing. First, I asked them to think about their own actions, behaviors, and mindsets regarding their studies in my class. Then I asked them to complete this sentence stem as many times as they could in five minutes: To make my learning more effective, I wish . . . 

I collected their work, and now I'm sitting here blown away with their litany of wishes. 

Of course, the usual suspects made multiple appearances on their petitions: they wished they were better at prioritizing tasks, managing time and avoiding procrastination, and checking Blackboard (our Learning Management System) regularly.. A scant few mentioned wanting to develop skills directly related to the learning objectives: vocabulary, paragraphing, and comprehension. 

But the majority of the wishes had less to do with “work ready” or “academic” concerns, the content and skills not in the syllabus or course description. The students wanted to develop affective, interpersonal, and intrapersonal skills - that when missing, make the task of learning to read and write nearly impossible. 

Most students mentioned social isolation and social skills:
  • I wish I had friends at this school. 
  • I wish I wasn’t shy about speaking up. 
  • I wish I enjoyed working with others. 
  • I wish I could stand up for myself. 
  • I wish I could act more friendly. 
  • I wish there were other veterans in the class that I could relate to. 
  • I wish I could meet people outside of class so we could help each other. 
  • I wish I could understand my classmates better. 
Several students mentioned concrete issues, alluding personal issues that make focusing difficult.
  • I wish my dad would still be here with us so I wouldn’t have to work so hard to pay rent and bills. 
  • I wish I were stronger to put up with everything I need to put up with. 
  • I wish I didn’t have so many emotional problems. 
  • I wish I wouldn't stress out on people’s problems - just on me, myself, and I. 
  • I wish I didn’t need a job. 
  • I wish I could study at home. 
  • I wish I had time for myself. 
I imagine that each of these wishes are freighted with subtext and context, stories these students may not be willing - or able - to articulate in words, much less in writing. 

I know theoretically that students come with varied and often troubled backgrounds. But reading their actual words, linking these issues with the faces I see three times a week hit me in the gut, not just in my head. This affective knowledge doesn’t mean I should let up on these students’ learning. It doesn’t mean that I’m going to cut them a break. At the same time, I need to remember that the people in my class bring a host of needs, desires, and issues that often never come directly to the surface but manifest in poor learning. 

So in terms of my practice, what does this wish list mean? What do I do with this insight into lives of the first year, first generation college students in my class? I’m still thinking on it, letting their words (and faces) sink into my mind (and heart). There’s much, much more to contemplate, reflecting that will help me adjust and revamp my approach to reach our shared goal: building a solid foundation for their college career. 

One student’s wish piqued my interest, suggesting not a direct answer but a habit of mind that may help me and my students. . He wrote, “I wish I could remember to reflect on myself more.” His words remind me of Paolo Freire's notion of “praxis”, the dynamic process of action and reflection that, when done effectively, facilitates a deeper learning, a problem-solving type of learning. 

If this student is correct, and I think he is, then reserving time for students to productively reflect on the problem of being students (and me protecting time for myself to consider and solve the problem of helping first year, first generation students learn) is definitely on my agenda.