by Marlene Cohen, Coordinator, Communication Across the Curriculum
Ever read any of Parker Palmer’s work? He’s a senior associate of the American Association for Higher Education and a senior advisor at the Fetzer Institute, where he designed the Teacher Formation Program for K-12 teachers. He’s an experienced professor with thoughtful work on making the classroom effective through allowing the real person of the professor to be fully present.
His strategies for classroom teaching emerge from a focus on understanding our personal motivations and ourselves, and then connecting our teaching to our students’ core needs.
In The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s
Life, 1998, Palmer explains that he designs classroom sessions aware of six
paradoxical tensions that he seeks to build into the learning that occurs in
classroom space. Consider if these can be helpful to your teaching:
The boundaries are formed by the body of knowledge, keeping the class focused
on the subject matter. Within those boundaries, which are well defined,
students are free to speak and to explore ideas. There should be room for
surprises and discoveries.
The climate for the class should feel open and safe, providing added
reassurance when the issues are difficult. But students should not feel
too safe. In Palmer’s words, students "need to feel the risks
inherent in pursuing the deep things of the world or of the soul."
Palmer argues that education can only occur when students feel free to speak
in their authentic voices, including their ideas, emotions, confusions,
ignorance and prejudices. Then, through discussion, a group voice "
is gathered and amplified" with the teacher listening and helping to play
that voice back to the group for understanding and modification.
The classroom allows space for students’ personal experiences, through
which Palmer feels each student’s inner teacher is at work. But personal
experience shouldn’t be a student’s only point of reference. The big
stories from the discipline should help frame the discussion. We want to
teach students to treat those big stories with the same respect as they give
their own experiences.
The integrity of each student’s own process of reflecting and absorbing
ideas needs to be respected and not violated. There is a danger that group
norms can be imposed in ways that violate the individual and prevent
learning. But community provides an exchange in which our biases can be
challenged and knowledge expanded. The teacher can support and protect
that sense of community.
Silence is time to reflect and is also a form of communication. But
groups typically fear more than fifteen seconds of silence. Students and
teachers should respect reflection time as well as speech from other
Last summer U.S. News and World Report featured the Urban Debate League, a program sponsored by Emory University that brings debate programs to high schools of the inner city. The program has improved students’ involvement in their schooling, raised self-esteem and even improved test scores!
If you are interested in further information or wish teaching materials on the use of debate, contact Marlene Cohen at 301-322-0177 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Instructional Area Newsletter, Volume 18, No. 3