design + ways

My Kwantlen colleague Arley Cruther‘s essay “An Incomplete History of My Teaching Body” is breathtaking, beautiful and profound. Just published in a collection called “Voices of Practice: Narrative Scholarship from the Margin,” Arley’s piece starts this way:

My summer pandemic semester was very successful, except that I lost feeling in the left side of my face. Tingling spread from my temple, down across my cheekbones, across to my jawline. A static in the message. But though it didn’t get better it also didn’t get worse; I could still smile and raise my arm above my head, so my doctor chalked it up to stress.

The semester had been a flurry of parenting and grading and lesson planning and playing “Johnny, Johnny, Yes Papa” for the millionth time because I just needed to get one more paper graded and webinars and conferences and committees and extra projects and why did I say yes to that and how did I think I had time for that and iced coffee. I spent my teaching life saying words like ‘grace’ and ‘patience’ and ‘community’ and ‘care.’ I typed those words at 5:30 am alone in my living room: the side of my face tingling, distracting me as I tried to tell a student that I was sorry to hear they weren’t feeling well, and of course, take the time you need with the assignment.

Me: I pared down my course to emphasize slowness and reflection and care. I designed it to ensure that all students had access and choice and agency.

Also me: And I didn’t take a day off in 5 months to do it.

Since Arley joined our department, she has deepened our discussion and our understanding of pedagogy, of the classroom. It was been an enlightening experience for me. And humbling, and challenging, as I had not really rethought my teaching practice in a number of years; it was becoming ossified around fundamentals I had stopped reassessing.

My colleague recalls lessons learned as a paralympian, takes them into the classroom, and flips them on their head:

Academia and Paralympic sport had combined to teach me that success was about conforming to a standard that had been set in advance. In most parasports, athletes are ranked by a classification system, which seeks to ‘level the playing field’ by assigning a number to each athlete based on the impact their disability has on their ability to compete. In wheelchair basketball, athletes are ranked from 1 (for most impairment) to 4.5 (for able-bodied or ‘minimally disabled’) and a team can only play 14 points at one time.

I had seen the problems with trying to sort people with wildly different disabilities and experiences with disability into static numerical categories, but it took an introduction to critical pedagogy to apply this logic to grading. I began to imagine a class where students could show their learning in multiple ways, where they could play a role in designing assignments and shaping the direction of the class, where the hierarchy between student and teacher was not to be reified, but reimagined.

For most of my teaching career, I’d puzzled over why my students’ writing lost its vitality when they wrote reports and essays. But when I began designing with students, I learned that they were trying to leave their own voice behind and leap into the language of reports and memos. They could not imagine themselves being enough, so they had to put on a suit of business-ese. Now, I can design assignments that say your experience is welcome, your voice is welcome, your perspective is needed, you are enough.

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