Final Reflection for “Storying Educational Lives” (Spring 2012)

I have been doing a lot of reflecting on this year in the past two weeks, more reflecting than I tend to do when an academic year comes to a close. While I consider myself to be a naturally reflective person, deeply in touch with my emotions and presence of mind, observant of what is happening around both near and far, I think I tend to engage in reflections on personal experiences only when the experiences have ended and I’ve had some distance from them. Maybe this is a typical and unsurprising ritual given my largely type-A personality. I reflect when I’m able to fully grasp the situation, when I’ve gained enough time and space to see the experience in isolation, while also aiming to situate it in the appropriate sociohistorical and cultural contexts. But this time it’s a little different—perhaps it’s because I’m completing the first year of a doctoral program and know I’m going to be here for a few more years, but I think even more than that, there’s a lot more at stake with school this time around. Every course that I take, every reading that I do, every conversation that I have, I am constantly evaluating and processing how each bit of information reinforces or challenges my research interests, informs my pedagogical thoughts, and fits into the bigger picture of life after this degree.

I attended an event at my school this past May featuring Dr.Valerie Kinloch, a professor at Ohio State University, whose research interests include social and literary lives, literacy learning, and collaborative engagements of youth and adults in in-school and out-of-school environment, particularly in urban contexts. During her visit, Dr. Kinloch spoke about her new book, Crossing Boundaries: Teachingand Learning With Urban Youth (2012), in which she explores how stories are told about youth—which tend to reinforce stereotypes and misconceptions, especially about youth of color in urban contexts—and what happens when stories are instead told with and/or by youth. Kinloch said that the question she kept coming back to while writing her ethnographic account of working with students of color in Harlem was: “How do we understand the stories that are written about us? And what happens when the stories told about us are not necessarily the ones we want to tell?” I was immediately reminded of a book chapter by Maxine Greene entitled, “Multiculturalism, Community, and the Arts,” where she explains that there have been voices silenced throughout history and there have been people made to feel that their stories were not as important as others. She presents a charge that we must now embrace and practice the notion of multiple perspectives, of pluralism, of multiculturalism. Other queries in Kinloch’s research included: “How do we privilege the voices and perspectives of diverse young people? How do we listen closely to stories and perspectives in ways that get us to push each other towards new perspectives and understandings?” And the question that moved me, I mean emotionally, spiritually, and almost literally physically moved me out of my seat was: “What is the work that our souls are calling us to do?”

Kinloch spoke about approaching teaching as a “reciprocal act,” something that can and should happen fluidly between teachers and students, and the need for democratic engagement that brings everyone into the role of the ‘learner.” In working towards achieving what she refers to as “equity pedagogy,” we must:

  • engage in a larger discourse of power and privilege
  • be explicit about codes and cultures of power
  • create content and safe spaces that are co-generated by teachers and students

I have learned a lot this year, particularly this semester, largely due to the very different experiences I’ve had in this art education course. With my background in media literacy and as an advocate for culturally relevant pedagogy, I have always felt that educators have an obligation to intentionally and thoughtfully create spaces for youth to exercise voice and agency both in and outside of the classroom. Encouraging students to tell their stories not only provides them with a sense of empowerment and self-worth, but also helps us all to deconstruct culturally essentialized images and messages about “other” cultures, ethnicities, and races. Without much experience as a classroom teacher, however, I’m very aware that my prescriptions and beliefs for these spaces and practices sometimes tend to fall in the “easier said than done” category. Yet, because most of my classmates in my courses this year were pre-service teachers from various programs, I think I have gained some more insight and a better understanding not only of what is happening in many classrooms today but also how teacher education programs are preparing teachers (or should be preparing teachers) for the classroom. As a result of my deep readings and discussions in and out of class, I’ve determined that many teachers are still lacking a certain knowledge and understanding of how incredibly important it is for us to be creating and delivering more culturally relevant pedagogy to our youth.

As we have seen in the work of John Dewey, Jerome Bruner, Zadie Smith, and Ruth Behar (amongst many others), narrative, storytelling, and voice play incredibly important roles in constructing safe spaces and providing socially just and culturally relevant pedagogy to students. Dewey contends that classroom discourse is at the heart of the teaching-learning process and represents the meaning systems that are mutually constructed by teachers and students. He writes: 

These meaning systems do not occur in social or historical vacuums, but are rendered meaningful to participants according to both personal and cultural histories and contexts. The acknowledgment and sharing of these meaning systems and their contexts becomes a significant and always unfinished ‘text’ in the teaching process.

I’ve also been incredibly inspired and impressed by the work and contributions of my classmates, most of who are in the arts education program. On top of being challenged by the assignments themselves, I was also productively challenged by my peers, as I watched the trajectories of their artwork over the course of the semester. Everyone had such different stories to tell and employed such different methods through which to tell them. I recently revisited the notes that I jotted down after creating the first visual and written story set:

Reading and telling a visual story: 

  • It’s non-linear
  • There is a ‘translation’ process in trying to explain the story was a lot harder than creating the story, have to translate very tactile experiences into words
  • Theme: make connection to recognizable images
  • Give attention to the relationship between linear and literal, and more open/symbolic/gut-reaction storytelling
  • This is about bringing in what you know, what your experiences have been
  • There is an idea of “saturation” (both physically and symbolically) 
  • Recognize the value of listening

How this relates to education:

  • Voice and agency: This process provides students with different mediums for expression while simultaneously challenging students to understand the importance and benefit of doing so; challenges both students, and more importantly, teachers to pay attention to what is being said through chosen mediums. This can be particularly powerful in “diverse” classrooms. 
  • Allows students to bring outside experiences into the classroom

I wanted to include these thoughts and notes because they encapsulate the themes and questions that I have perpetually revisited throughout the semester: how can we create culturally relevant pedagogy that challenges the stereotypes and racism deeply entrenched in our educational system? How can we empower students to find and use their voices as a form of social activism and engaged citizenship?  And the question I am left with at the end of this semester is how can I work with teachers to better understand who they are (in terms of their social identity, how their race, class and gender inform how they think about themselves and others) in relation their students and their sociocultural contexts? How can I continue to practice and infuse aspects of art education into my own notions and practices of critical pedagogy? Needless to say, I’m definitely leaving this course and this semester with more questions than answers, but I think that’s a good thing! To end, I wanted to share the quotation from Maxine Greene (2000) that Dr. Kinloch used to end her presentation, which I think serves as a highly appropriate and fitting conclusion to my final reflection of this course:

I think of how much beginnings have to do with freedom, how much disruption has to do with consciousness and the awareness of possibility that has so much to do with teaching other human beings. And I think that if I and other teachers truly want to provoke our students to break through the limits of the conventional and the taken for granted, we ourselves have to experiences breaks with what has been established in our own lives. We have to keep arousing ourselves to begin again.