Being Hospitable

Note: I’m taking a week off to spend some time with the family. As a rerun, I’m sharing this post from December 2019, which I wrote after a difficult interaction with a student. With so many of us traveling this summer to make up for lost time due to the pandemic, I thought Parker Palmer’s perspective on “hospitality” would resonate with you. It certainly does with me. Enjoy.

I’m a Parker Palmer fan. I know there are lots of people who aren’t that into Parker Palmer, but I don’t know of any other educational scholar who touches on the emotional aspects of the teaching profession quite like Parker Palmer does. I’ve read The Courage to Teach probably five or six times over my career and each time it feeds my “teacher soul” in ways that I hadn’t anticipated. In my interactions with students and other teachers, I find myself trying to channel my inner Parker Palmer and tap into my own courage to teach. My class last week was one of those occasions.

Earlier this fall, I wrote a post about how I was teaching an undergraduate class after several years of teaching graduate ones. It has been a great experience. I’ve gotten to know some amazing preservice teachers and help them develop evidence-based understandings of assessment to support student learning. More than the content of the class, though, we’ve shared a lot of great conversations about our trajectories as students and how our experiences as students can inform our identities as teachers. We’ve talked about becoming advocates for change and how we need to be champions for our students, both in words and deeds. Our final class met last week and it was definitely an emotional experience for many of us.

As I sat in my office after the class, I reflected on the overall experiences of the semester for the students and for myself. While I wanted to revel in the joy of the students’ reactions to our time together, I kept thinking about one student who had made a dramatic shift during the semester. Through the first few weeks of the class, Dave (not his real name) presented himself as the model, engaged student. Dave arrived early to class, participated thoughtfully in class discussions and always contributed valuable insights in his papers and online posts. But midway through the course, Dave became more reserved. He didn’t participate as much during class and started arriving late. His work wasn’t the high quality he had once shared.

During our last class, I had the students write short reflections on their work during the semester. Drawing on some of the activities I shared in a blog post last fall, I wanted to provide some “meaningful course closure” by “engaging “students in reflection not only about what they have learned but also how they will use these ideas in the future.”  While many students wrote in-depth, thoughtful reflections, Dave’s was sullen, dark, and, at times, disrespectful to me, our class, and our university’s whole teacher education program.

As I read Dave’s reflection, I wondered how Parker Palmer would handle this. In The Courage to Teach, Palmer talks about how effective teaching requires the development of “relational trust” which is “built on movements of the human heart such as empathy, commitment, compassion, patience, and the capacity to forgive.” Someplace along the way, I lost some relational trust with Dave, and I didn’t want our time together to end without a chance to rebuild some of it. To do that, I’d need to channel some of that “compassion, patience and capacity to forgive” with Dave.

So, I emailed him and invited him to meet to chat. While he was initially hesitant to talk, when we finally sat down for a few minutes to iron things out, he was much more receptive. We discussed his engagement as a student and his work in the class. We discussed his written reflection and the emotional journey he had taken during the semester. More than that, however, we discussed his future role as a teacher and how teachers emotionally react to the students with whom they work. I’m happy to say that things definitely left on better terms than they had during our final few classes together.

Besides relational trust, Parker Palmer also explores some other critical elements that inform our work as educators. In situations like the one I shared with Dave, one aspect that I try to remember is the need for teachers to “be hospitable.” Palmer writes:

Good teaching is an act of hospitality toward the young, and hospitality is always an act that benefits the host even more than the guest. The concept of hospitality arose in ancient times when this reciprocity was easier to see; in nomadic cultures, the food and shelter one gave to a stranger yesterday is the food and shelter one hopes to receive from a stranger tomorrow. By offering hospitality, one participates in the endless reweaving of a social fabric on which all can depend—thus the gift of sustenance for the guest becomes a gift of hope for the host. It is that way in teaching as well: the teacher’s hospitality to the student results in a world more hospitable to the teacher.

While my hospitality was toward Dave, it was also a gift a hope for me. Through our conversation I was hoping that maybe someday in the future, when Dave works with a student like himself, he’ll have a better example of how to deal with it. That he’ll be patient. And empathetic. And be willing to forgive.

Seeing what others see

I have a confession. I have deuteranopia. Before you worry about my mental state or my health, let me explain. Deuteranopia is the scientific term for red-green color blindness. While it’s not really a health issue, it does create some challenges for me as I select outfits in the morning or select paint colors for the house.

My children are fascinated by my color 6or9blindness. I’ve tried to explain that it’s not that I don’t see red or green at all. I just don’t see them the same as they do. I can’t distinguish between different reds and different greens and I see a lot of things other people would characterize as browns and greys. Despite my explanations, they still enjoy watching me fail every one of the color blindness exams. I can’t find that hidden number among the colored dots and they find it hilarious.

Despite my explanations, they can never really understand that I see things differently than they do. The real truth, however, is that we ALL see things differently from one another. While I have troubles seeing reds and greens, we also see shades of blue differently than each other. You may remember the huge Internet controversy of 2015. What was the color of the dress?  Was it black? What it blue? Was it white? As the conversation waged across social media, one thing was clear. We see things differently.

Our differences in sight aren’t limited to colors, however. It is also impacted by other factors, too. Take this story I heard about Google Maps. Say you wanted to find the Arunachal Pradesh region near India with Google Maps on your smartphone. Did you know that the way that region would be projected would differ based upon where you were doing the search? In China, the region’s borders would look slightly different than if you searched for it in India. Over the years, there have been some geographical disputes about the borders of different regions near India and Google is required to show those regions differently based on if the smartphone user is in India, in China or someplace else.  That’s right. Someone in another part of the world would actually see the region completely differently than both the Indian and Chinese users. While this is a pretty extreme case, the Google Maps example demonstrates that how we see is based on a lot of factors. It could be huge geopolitical or technological factors. Maybe it’s a physical factor, like my deuteranopia. It could also be due to our backgrounds and lived experiences. Each of these informs how we see.

I learned a great word this week on the Radiolab podcast. Umwelt. The Radiolab hosts were discussing the visual range of the rainbow shrimp and how, despite its amazing cones and rods, it could not distinguish between colors well. In explaining that we shouldn’t pity the poor rainbow shrimp, the one host, Rod Krulwich, chalked it up to “umwelt” and explained that we all experience it. “You are limited by what you can feel, touch, see, and know,” Krulwich said, because of who you are. That’s umwelt.

I’ve been thinking about this for a bunch of reasons this week.  Nature has a funny way of connecting dots across different media. I guess it started with thinking about last week’s post on Bias in Your Online Class? While I’ve been digging into the statistics for my online class and trying to better understand my biases, I’ve also been wondering how my students are experiencing the classes themselves. How are THEY seeing the learning environment? How are THEY seeing my interactions with them? Even if I explicitly asked them about their experiences, it would be hard for me to know how they saw something.

And that brings me back to the Radiolab podcast. At the end, the other host, Jad Abumrad, says that because of umwelt, we can never really see what other people see. We just see things differently. “That’s the lonely part,” Abumrad explains. “The unlonely part is you can try.”

Here’s to trying to see what others see.

Student Control and Value

I finished reading Sarah Rose Cavanagh’s book The Spark of Learning several weeks ago but I’m still reflecting on it and finding all sorts of applications to my teaching.  The book is intended to “energize the college classroom with the science of emotion.” More than this, however, the book is giving me a lens to review some recent challenges I’ve had with my classes and offers me some possible solutions for the upcoming semester.

In a lot of ways, last semester was “the best of times and the worst of times.” I partnered one of my classes with a local elementary school and my students developed instructional materials for use with the elementary students. The project itself is beneficial for my students.  The elementary classroom provides an authentic context in which to work.  Rather than studying instructional technology in the abstract, my students created and studied technology in real learning environments.  Talking to the elementary teachers and administrators, the project was a real success.  My students rose to the challenge and developed innovative instructional materials for use with the elementary classes.

While the district partners reacted very positively to the project, talking with my students would yield a very different perspective.  While I haven’t received my student evaluations from last semester yet, I’m anticipating some low ratings.  Since the project is really complex and (at times) messy, the students didn’t always react positively.  Some students were stressed and anxious. Some were sullen and angry. Other students were emotionally detached from the process completely and did not appear invested in the class at all.  During the semester, I had to navigate several tearful emotional breakdowns and had to intervene with quite a few group issues. Despite the successful project outcomes, it was a difficult semester for my students and for me.

In all honesty, this was one of the reasons that I sought out Dr. Cavanagh’s book. Since the students reacted so emotionally to the project, I felt a little more dedicated examination to the research on the connection between emotion and learning would be valuable.  The book covers a lot of ground and I wrote a few weeks ago about crossover and how instructors’ emotions can impact the emotions (and learning) of students.  While I don’t think crossover played much of a role in my students’ emotional responses to the project, another concept that Cavanagh presents clearly does.  Control-value theory is “based on the premise that appraisals of control and values are central to the arousal of achievement emotions, including activity-related emotions such as enjoyment, frustration, and boredom experienced at learning, as well as outcome emotions such as joy, hope, pride, anxiety, hopelessness, shame, and anger relating to success or failure” (Pekrun, 2006).  According to Cavanagh, students’ emotional responses to classroom activities are based on their assessment of two critical factors:  control and value.  In a classroom environment, students must “feel in control of the activities and outcomes that are important to them” and that “the activity or material represents meaning or worth.” Returning to my classroom project, while students might have seen the assignment as being valuable and having meaning to their future careers, they definitely didn’t feel in control.  Because of the messiness of the assignment, students didn’t often know the next steps in the project.  This lack of clarity (and control) fostered the negative reactions (stress, anger, detachment) that I witnessed during the class.

So, what am I going to do differently this semester?  First off, I’m still planning to do the project. I think the students see the value in the assignment.  The project has them working with real students in authentic classroom environments and I think my students see the value and relevancy of this experience.  Ultimately, however, I need to change how they appraise their control over the assignment.  I need to reduce some of the messiness and develop supports so students have more agency over their learning.  I need to make my expectations clearer and be a better facilitator and guide through the assignment.  Will these additions be enough to change how the students appraise their control and also how they perceive the project? I don’t know.  But I’ll probably have a better idea in a few months.  For now, I’m still studying Cavanagh’s book for ways to increase “the spark of learning.”

References:

Cavanagh, S. R.(2016). The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press.

Pekrun, R. (2006). The control-value theory of achievement emotions: Assumptions, corollaries, and implications for educational research and practice. Educational psychology review, 18(4), 315-341.