In my last blog post, “Herding Elephants,” I started a discussion of how to motivate people to change when change is hard. If a human being is basically a great big elephant of emotion being ridden by a tiny little “rational” rider, how do we, in a professional development setting, help the rider to nudge the elephant — who is usually comfortable with the way things are — to move in a positive direction for pedagogical and institutional change? I had the idea that one way to get the elephant on the right track is to share success stories in order to learn from and encourage one another.
Reading Apprenticeship Dimensions (Click to enlarge)
A wonderful conversation with Sandy Woods from Santa Ana College a couple of weeks ago made me realize that all of this elephant and rider business is just another way of attending to the social and personal dimensions of our classrooms. In fact, it is the Reading Apprenticeship emphasis on the social and personal aspects of teaching and learning that makes it such a powerful framework in classrooms of all kinds (across the disciplines and levels, and in professional development settings). However, this crucial component to learning, although so frequently dismissed as “touchy-feely” or “warm and fuzzy,” can actually be quite difficult to facilitate. A focus on success stories might make it feel even harder.
When Sandy told me about her early experience trying to build the personal and social dimensions into her Anthropology 101 course, it was clear that more was involved than warm and fuzzy. “It was awful,” she said and described a classroom of 50 students who didn’t know each other and were unwilling to take the risks involved in routines such as think aloud and pair share. “I really had no idea where to begin.”
Despite its “fluffy” reputation, building the social and personal dimension is one of the most rigorous and challenging intellectual tasks that we have as instructors and facilitators. A huge part of it comes down to our own ability to make our learning visible to others — to learn and grow and change as we go. This can be extremely difficult because, as an instructor, Sandy pointed out, “You don’t want to take your own risks. We forget that we have our own learning curve.” Grappling with all of this, she said, “I made myself miserable.”
Over time, she added, “I reached a ‘tipping point.’ I’m doing ice-breakers and name tags — which students think is hysterical — but I need their help. I do want to know who they are. That vulnerability is important. You have to show some vulnerability for them to be able to.”
I was so glad to have spoken to Sandy when I did, because by focusing on how to write the next blog post in my “Success Story” series, I had forgotten to consider how important it is to discuss our FAILURES with one another. Sandy reminded me that we can never build the personal and social dimensions of our own learning community if we don’t share our failures with one another — and she modeled it, too. Thank you, Sandy! You helped me realize once again that our instinct (or elephant comfort zone) seems always to assume the mantle of “the expert.” We figure, “People are paying for this. They want to know that somebody is in charge.” In fact, Reading Apprenticeship has taught us that the best way to teach is to make our own learning visible — and that includes a lot of missteps, failures, foibles, and awkward moments that we would rather forget!
So, in honor of Sandy and her enormous insight, I hereby amend my intended future posts from a “Success Story” series to a “Failure and Success Story” series. And funnily enough, many, many topics spring to mind! (Um, how long are the blog posts allowed to be? …)
Blog Contributor, Nika Hogan
Nika Hogan is Associate Professor of English at Pasadena City College (PCC) and the Reading Apprenticeship Community College Coordinator for the Strategic Literacy Initiative at WestEd (SLI). She has a B.A. in English and Women’s Studies from the University of Michigan, and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Multiethnic U.S. Literatures from the University of Massachusetts.
Her work at PCC and with Reading Apprenticeship is focused on developing pedagogical, curricular, and institutional approaches and structures that will maximize the retention and success of all students, especially those entering college at the “basic skills” level. She has been involved in many learning communities through PCC’s Teaching and Learning Center and is currently the Activities Director of a Title V grant designed to scale up those programs to a broad first-year experience pathway that will, if she gets her way, integrate both reading across the curriculum and reading across the community. She lives in Altadena, CA, with her partner, their three-year-old son, and two extremely under-disciplined terriers.