What if Freire’s Students Were On Tumblr?

A few years ago in class, we were having  lively conversation about different interpretations students had about an author’s position.  One of the students, a young woman who was the first in her family to attend college, just pulled out the iPad mini our program lends to all students and tweeted the author asking him to weigh in. He responded in a few minutes.

I thought about that story yesterday during the sparkling, roaring waterfall that was the Critical Pedagogy #moocmooc Twitter Chat yesterday.  To me, that was a liberatory moment in my course, that a student engaged an author as a peer.

Some context:  I keep thinking about the complications of the desire shared by many of the us on the chat to move to something closer to peer-to-peer relationships where we are all co-learners.

Reading #moocmooc blogs and thinking today about how impossible it is in formal education to abdicate much of our power as teachers, I began to think about how my job isn’t so much that students understand themselves to be my peer  in our classroom space but that they find their voice in a contentious world that often works to silence those outside the margins of  formal power.  Our classroom can be a lab for that, and more and more, I’m working to make those actual connections to discourse outside our classroom, rather than rehearsing there for “authentic” work that will happen somewhere down the road.

I’ve also been thinking that how the  transition to “peer-like” classroom relationships might work in very different ways at different campuses.  In the U.S., higher ed is increasingly stratified along class lines.

My career has been at places serving a high number of students who are still finding their way into the hidden rules of formal education, who have not been raised with the expectation that adults will treat them as peers as many upper middle class kids in the US are now raised,  and who do well with very open conversation about what it looks like to make this shift.

And most importantly why.

When so much of what we do in on campus is second nature to students who were raised from birth by their professional parents to be successful in college, other students are figuring it out as they go and they learn quickly that grading is one of the most direct ways they figure out that they got something fundamentally wrong.

So, given that Freire writes of educating “the oppressed”, (or “the underdogs, as Jade Davis translated from the Portuguese on the chat yesterday), might it not be the most entitled students who find themselves at ease in courses in which they’re encouraged to assume the role of peer with faculty? While newcomers to college may well flounder, or work very hard to simply comply with what they think they’re supposed to do, for fear of “failing” at a game that makes little sense to them?

So I’m thinking and rethinking some of my own teaching practices today.  In no particular order are some of my recent attempts to move more toward “peer” while still retaining what Maxine Greene suggests is my unique moral responsibility as  teacher for ensuring that we’re created a community in which everyone can thrive:

  • Where I’ve been able, I’ve shifted my courses to “credit/no credit” grading and we talk a great deal in the first weeks about what it means to not be working for a grade for perhaps the first time in their lives.   Mostly, students dive in.  I work one-on-one with them a great deal, and as much as possible, their writing is done in public forums so that it is actual communication, not pretend communication filtered through me acting as the evaluative proxy for some vague eventual audience.
  • When I do have to grade, I create a rubric that outlines as clearly as possible what students have to do to aim for any particular grade they choose, and I’ve worked hard to make these performance criteria.  Students can show what they know and can do in a variety of ways, and can negotiate the relative weight of various assignments.  And I’m open about despising the role of grader and will always, always talk with them about better ways to do this.
  • I connect students to voices outside the classroom as much as possible.*  I work in teacher education, so there are always  widgets with teacher blogs and tweets front and center on our digital syllabus, and I nudge students to ask any of these teachers about the things we’re talking about in class.  It’s been a long time since I’ve assumed that students would take my word for anything, because they can engage so many other voices who are grappling with the very things we talk about in class.
  • We talk and write a great deal and we also mediate our learning because I believe strongly in the arts, and the visual, and “the semiotic power of multimodality” for building empathy, self-understanding,  and moving people to action.
    • I teach one of the first courses in the program, and in a very simple shift in a conventional assignment, I now ask students to bring 5 digital images to our second class meeting that say something about why they’re choosing this career path, organized in any sort of slide show.  No text is allowed.  We display these on whatever screens we  have around the room and we spend the first 30 minutes of class on a mostly silent “gallery walk” with post-its in hand, leaving behind notes of connection, questions, and interest.  No one dominates these early hours of class time; everyone experiences the genuine interest of others in the class.   There are very clearly no right answers. And, students also often bring in personal photos of their children, their own childhoods, those they love. They become known more fully, not just as another rational intellect in our community.

So:  Back to the title of the post.  I keep thinking of the pedagogies that Freire would have advocated if his students had had access to Tumblr (or any of the multiple tools for connecting, for creating, for representing their own learning apart from Freire’s version of what transpired in class).  I wonder what he’d write about learning one’s way out of oppression in this information-rich age when dictating a small segment of a siloed academic field to  a passive audience makes no sense whatsoever.

Freire wrote when the best available shift away from the teacher talking/banking was for everyone in the room to talk and reason together.

Now that we can shift even further to connect students to others engaged in the same problems, to find audience for their emerging thinking,  for representing themselves in genres other than formal academic discourse, should we?

WWFD?  [What Would Freire Do?]

*as much as I like the attentive nurturing in the garden metaphors that have been bouncing across #moocmooc, I wonder:  the gardener owns the garden and decides its boundaries. Other than wilting, most plants in a garden can’t exercise a lot of agency — other than the wonderfully rhizomatic weeds.
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3 Responses to What if Freire’s Students Were On Tumblr?

  1. netbimbette says:

    Love this post – maybe there is hope for learners to get away from a banking theory of learning. When I think of gardening I am always thinking about rhizomes, by the way. I hope my students are more like dandelions than pansies, I think. Sarah (WordPress is not allowing me to use my nomadwarmachine account to post a this)


  2. Maha Bali says:

    love this post, too 🙂 I think I’m going to become addicted to your blog 😉
    RE: what would Freire do, it reminds me of a few posts (I won’t post links coz wordpress would think I’m spamming you) by Sean Michael Morris: “If Freire made a MOOC”, and Bonnie Stewart, “If Foucault ran a MOOC”.
    On another note – I’ve tried to engage Henry Giroux in #moocmooc (he follows me on Twitter and has responded to email before) but he hasn’t responded; I suspect he’s not as active on Twitter.

    But the cool thing is that more digital people (like Howard Rheingold) who are big authors are pretty generous on Twitter with students, etc. And of course there are a lot of great examples on Hybrid Pedagogy of people applying critical pedagogy in the digital age (after all, that’s what the journal is all about, isn’t it?). Have you written there before? (I don’t know your full name) If not, you should 🙂

    Thanks for giving all those details about your own practice (as Ellsworth says, not enough of that in Freire or Giroux’s work, although it does show in later work of Freire such as Pedagogy of Liberation which he co-authored with Shor).

    I also prefer pass/fail and am always concerned with power relations and privilege within the classroom when I step away… In my teacher-education classes, I try to have students develop their own rubrics rather than set them up myself in advance; as teachers (but also as mature adults) they should be able to set their own goals and think of how meeting those goals would look like learning… and I sometimes allow each individual to have a couple of criteria unique to their own projects, rather than common to the class; this leaves space for people who want to focus on e.g. visuals vs. richness of resources to highlight those things they believe were their goal or their strength.


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