Presence in School

“The scene that had the greatest effect on me occurred …after a board member demanded that the Principal “control [his] staff!”  Every teacher (the majority of the audience) walked out of the meeting in protest against the implication that they had less of a right to speak than or should be kept under control by authority.”

 As I read my Teacher Ed students’ papers at the end of the quarter, one strong theme emerged, which surprised me since I had given them total free rein in choosing the focus of their final questions.  The single idea that I saw taking shape was of presence.   It seemed to me that between the 17 of them, they had constructed a picture of what presence in education looks like, from the students’ connection to course material to teachers’ voices in school policy, as registered in the excerpt above (from a student’s reflection on her visit to a local school board meeting).

I wanted to try to draw that picture.  I decided to write back to them all together about this, explaining, “In one way or another, all of your papers helped me to see learning as rooted in presence – the presence of the student, of the teacher, and of the worlds, languages, cultures, experiences that stand behind each person.”  My students’ papers, constantly referencing one another and their own experiences, themselves communicated presence in an unusual way — they were immediate, reflective, and dialogic.  This will be a condensed version of that letter where I addressed each student’s paper; here I will touch only on a few, and will use pseudonyms.

Some students focused on ways that classroom learning can honor the day-to-day rhythms of students’ lives.  Brooke wrote,  “by acknowledging a student’s body of knowledge, opinions, and insights as valid within a classroom setting, a teacher can set up a respectful dynamic. Teresa points out the importance of allowing norms in students’ lives to interact with the norms expected in a school setting in order to make the knowledge presented in the curriculum seem more relevant.”  By recognizing a student’s life as a text enabling powerful learning, the teacher makes space for the whole person, rather than keeping real life outside the classroom door, which implicitly discounts parts of the student’s life.

Making space for the presence of the student in the room also creates space for the presence of the teacher herself.  Brooke confronted her fears about teaching students from less sheltered backgrounds than hers.  She drew together her questions about the risks that come with making space in the classroom for the real challenges of students’ lives with attention to cultural modeling, to offer a pedagogy based in conversations about the risks we share and don’t share. “Intentionally presenting scaffolding that more closely relates to the student’s body of knowledge presents a certain level of risk for a teacher who might have different life experiences that inform his or her reading of these scaffolding texts. This risk, made explicit by the teacher, might go a long way in establishing trust and respect in class.”  Valuing students’ language, modes of connection, and here-and-now experience builds students’ capacities while reducing the pressure on the teacher to be the source of understanding, enabling ALL to learn.

Philip urges the teacher to concentrate on empowering students to be present to one another: “we are constantly discussing how to connect with students and understand their perspectives; it occurs to me that one way to do so is to get out of the way and let students connect with each other through shared experiences and an ability to communicate in a language and on a level that we might not be able to access.”  Reciprocal learning involves nurturing students’ relationships with one another.  By focusing not only on output but also on response in both students and teachers, we develop capacities that cross divides between academic and social learning.  We learn to heighten the other’s presence.

Does the material we put in front of students heighten their sense of presence in the world?  When we teach literature, do the ideas, characters, stories feel present to students?  When many students in Chicago schools wrestle with attendance issues, whether because of illness, violence and lures in the neighborhood, or school pushout, it is vital to consider how to maximize students’ sense of presence when they are there.

It seemed important to my Teacher Ed students to not take for granted the purpose for learning; to be willing to ask oneself and engage with students about questions of purpose that, when put up against the background of real life, may not stand the test.  One student highlights this tenuousness by positing teaching as bridging.  He begins with an intriguing epigraph: “Bridges are perhaps the most invisible form of public architecture,” and goes on to question their sturdiness.  Cesar’s reflection, based in an image of a rope bridge in his hometown in Mexico, questions whether teachers know where they are leading their students and why.  These bridges we build through reading and writing are pathways. They take us from one point to another, but they are not significant in themselves. What if the bridge leads nowhere? What does that desire to learn for the sake of learning do for us?  I have been thinking about Cesar’s bridge since class ended.  In my response to him I wrote, “ I’m wondering what, for you, is the other side of fear.  Is it hope? faith? belief? or determination?  I’m guessing your answer to this question is what shapes your course as a teacher, as a thinker…Keep asking, keep being honest, but ask out loud — make sure others are hearing your questions and engaging them with you.”

A number of students stressed the importance of the voice, the questions, and multiple dialogic forums that teachers need to exercise as they become increasingly present in their practice and in the wider world.  They see that the world of teaching extends out beyond the classroom, in terms of external supports and the teacher’s ability to advocate for those supports.  I will close with the observation of the student whose reflection I opened with, describing the teacher’s public voice: “those same teachers who presented awards at the beginning of the School Board meeting spoke out in favor of the proposed change in the structure of the freshman year. As one teacher read aloud their letter to the administration, a group of at least ten teachers stood behind her in silent support.  The scene Flavia describes is one of teachers extending their presence into the public sphere, speaking up for policies that respect the integrity of every student and every teacher.

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