Practice What You Preach: Confessions of a Reflective Practitioner
By Lesley Bogad
Associate Professor, Department of Educational Studies
"We know what we do, we often know why we do what we do. But what we don't often know is what what we do does." - Michel Foucault
In 1999, when I was still a graduate student, I taught my first large undergraduate Foundations of Education course at my home institution. Seven weeks into the semester, the course was going very well- I had a wonderful team of teaching assistants, the students were engaged in challenging conversations about the relationship between knowledge and power, and I was developing a pedagogical style that reached beyond the confines of my experience as a TA. But in that seventh week, I found myself in a pedagogical dilemma when a student phoned me at home the night before the take-home midterm exam was due. Her name was Lauren; she was a stand out student in the 100+ course. She always participated in class, clearly read deeply and was invested in the course material. She called me at home, nervous and somewhat agitated, to tell me that the exam was, well, "stupid." In spite of my efforts to ask thoughtful, critical thinking questions for the short answer exam, she felt like she was regurgitating knowledges she had already demonstrated on the position papers for which she had received A's earlier in the semester. What she really cared about, she sputtered, was school reform and how the educational theory we were reading in class informed the policy decisions made locally and across the state. "I just wish there was somewhere in this course for me to write about that," she finally sighed at the end of a breathy, well rehearsed rant. I was silent. I felt flustered and a little defensive. But after seven weeks of sharing a classroom with her, I trusted Lauren. And as I listened to her, I wasn't sure how much to trust myself. I had put a lot of thought into the exam, and yet she was telling me that as a learner, as a thinker, as a student she needed something different.
"Okay" I finally said. Silence from the other end.
"Okay what?" she asked incredulously.
"Okay, you should write on school reform and how the educational theory we have read in class informs the policy decisions made locally and across the state." Again, silence from the other end.
Ultimately, we negotiated due dates and terms of assessment. When we hung up I think Lauren was as shocked as I was that her professor had agreed to let her write an alternate exam. And I didn't know if I had done the right thing. I had a hunch that this was either incredibly irresponsible and a sign of my great incompentence as an aspiring college professor, or a glimpse into the kind of teacher I wanted to be. At that time, I lacked something that Lauren had; Freire would call it "conscientization" (1972). As Wink describes, "Conscientization enables students and teachers to have confidence in their own knowledge, ability, and experiences. Often people will say that conscientization is a power we have when we recognize that we know what we know" (Wink 1997, 26). I wasn't there yet.
Lauren was one of my first teachers about the dialectic of praxis - for while at that point in my life I already owned a grafittied copy of Teaching to Transgress (hooks 1994), and had read and reread Paolo Freire, Jennifer Gore, Henry Giroux, Michael Apple and Maxine Green, it took Lauren to show me what critical pedagogy looks like. I have had many teachers since then, and each one has helped me imagine more thoughtfully the relationship between theory and practice as I come to know what I know as a student and a teacher of critical pedagogy...
In what follows, I explore a series of successes and failures that challenged me to reconsider how I practice what I preach when it comes to reflective practice. I am an assistant professor of educational studies at a mid-sized public college in the northeast. The student body that I teach is mostly white and working-class; a majority of the students are first generation college students, and many of them speak a language other than or in addition to English at home. Many of our undergraduates are returning students who come to higher education after spending decades raising families and working in other fields, so they vary widely by generation and life experience. Given this, they are often unpracticed (or even completely unschooled) in college-level writing and thinking.
While many (re)enter the college classroom underprepared as writers or inexperienced in critical analysis, they are also "smart" by conventional (and not-so-conventional) measures. Our classroom discussions about social justice and schooling have been enriched by how much they know, but do not yet know how to name. Still, few of them - even those who achieve academic excellence - have the sense of entitlement around their education that students from more privileged backgrounds take for granted. This entitlement, born of cultural and social capital, is a fundamental part of the educational process and the students I work with have taught me more about this than Bourdieu (1973) or Bowles and Gintis (1976) ever did. For while I know about educational theory, cultural capital, power and privilege in ways that let theory inform my practice, teaching in this public institution has helped me let practice inform my theory. This paper is about the tensions, the struggles and the contradictions of praxis and the confessions of one reflective practitioner.
The Reflective Practitioner
Long before I gained access to the concept of the "reflective practitioner" (Schon 1983), I was invested in the importance of a theoretically informed practice. Feminism gave me some of these tools. Strong teaching mentors gave me others. Today, the concept of reflective practice is at the center of the curriculum in my undergraduate course in foundations of education, and it is at the core of my own pedagogy. When my undergraduates go out into the field to tutor for fifteen hours in urban schools, they begin to rehearse the Plan-Act-Reflect cycle. They journal about what they do and what they see. They read about the sociology of schooling - about race, about social class, about sexuality, ability and gender. We spend a lot of time talking in class about "what is working here?" or "what is not working here?" in relation to classroom practices that they witness in their urban school placements. They learn to see with new eyes as they enter K-12 classrooms, many of them for the first time as "teacher" members of those communities.
One of the tools that helps them see in new ways comes from Lisa Delpit's Other People's Children (1995), which we read in the first weeks of the semester. In Delpit's chapter about the culture of power, she argues that kids who are economically less advantaged and/or of color often don't know the rules and codes of power that kids who are white and/or economically advantaged learn at home. This includes anything from knowing which fork to use in a fancy restaurant, to understanding that when the teacher says, "Is it time to talk to your friend now?," she really means, "Stop talking!" Knowing these rules and codes that are most valued in the dominant culture - or possessing "cultural capital" - makes it easier for people to succeed in the school and in society at large . My students are intrigued by this (in part because it gives a name to the work they so often do to translate the world across ethnicity and social class) and it proves to be an influential beginning to the course. Many of my students have even come to identify "Delpit moments" in their service learning projects when they actually see examples of teachers successfully addressing (or in other cases not addressing) the rules and codes of power explicitly for those kids who might not learn them at home.
Further, I strive to model this practice for them in the college classroom. Given that so many of my students are first in their families to go to college, I know that many of them have not acquired the codes for college success at home (Casey 2005, Finn 1999). They often don't know that college papers should be typed and not handwritten, unless I say so explicitly. They don't know how to participate in class discussions, listen to one another and learn from each other until we practice it a lot in class (see Panofsky and Bogad 2007). We brainstorm strategies for reading theory for those who have not done this before - how to take notes in the margins, read aloud to yourself, look up words you don't know, and use a highlighter… sparingly. These explicit lessons help them gain access to systems of knowledge and power that were not talked about over the dinner table, or in the classrooms in which they spent time as young people. And yet…sometimes I forget.
During my first year teaching at this institution, well into our discussions of the rules and codes of power, I assigned a take-home midterm exam. In order to best show me what they had learned in the first half of the course, students could choose either a short-answer section consisting of several quotes from the readings, or a single longer response that asked then to synthesize several authors' arguments into one cohesive essay. They had a week to complete the exam. I spelled out a "late exam policy" on the instructions sheet that included the large bold warning, "I WILL NOT TAKE ANY EXAMS AFTER FRIDAY AT NOON. LATE EXAMS WILL RECEIVE A GRADE OF ZERO."
The week came and went and on the Monday following the exam due date, Becky showed up at my office door. She had been an active, contributing member of the 30-person class and had earned a strong Bs on her written work thus far.
"Dr. Bogad?" She stood in my office door, gripping several organic chemistry books to her chest. "I just wanted to come and tell you that I have to drop your class." She paused. "But I hope that it would be okay with you if I take it with you next semester."
I told her I would miss having her in the class this semester and I asked if everything was okay.
"Yeah," she said. "Everything is okay, but I just couldn't get my exam in by last Friday. It is a long story - a disk error and a dead car battery.. but basically my grades are really important to me and I just can't afford to take a zero on 15% of my grade. But that is okay…" she continued almost apologetically. "If it is okay with you, I will just take the course again next semester when I can be sure to get the exam in on time." I looked at her with a puzzled look on my face. She wasn't asking for an extension. She was simply telling me that she would have to drop the class.
"Did you do the exam, Becky?"
"Yes," she nodded emphatically. "But I couldn't get it here on Friday."
"And would you keep the class if you could give me the exam now?" I asked.
"Yes, of course," she said. "I am doing pretty well, and I really like the class."
I listened to her, thinking of other students who, feeling more entitled than she, knew how to call me up to ask for emergency extensions on written work. I thought of my own experiences in higher education and how I knew when and how to call professors to request extended deadlines when extenuating circumstances arose.
"Then bring me the exam," I sighed.
"Really!? But you said no exams after Friday…"
"I know what I said. Just bring me the exam."
We agreed on a date and when she left my office, I sat back to reflect on this lesson in power and powerlessness. After all of our discussions in class about the ways in which schools assume that everyone knows the rules to the game, I had missed it when it was right in front of me. I thought of Bourdieu: "By doing away with giving explicitly to everyone what it implicitly demands of everyone, the educational system demands of everyone alike that they have what it does not give" (Bourdieu 1973/2000, 58). When I said, "I WILL NOT TAKE ANY EXAMS AFTER FRIDAY AT NOON" what I really meant was, "I will not take any exams after Friday unless you have a really good reason and come talk to me to negotiate an extension." But Becky didn't know how to read what wasn't there. And if she had not come to tell me she was planning to drop the class, she would have simply disappeared, wasted eight weeks' worth of work, forfeited tuition for the class, and set herself back in her plan of study. Suddenly I understood why there were so many "seven year seniors" here. I understood in a new way that Delpit was right; "those with power are often least aware of its existence". I was blind.
Way Off Track
A few weeks after the midterm, I planned a section of the same course to introduce and critique the practice of tracking as detrimental to the goals of schooling in a democratic society. By this time in the semester we were well versed in the vocabulary of the reflective practitioner. We had talked a lot about pedagogy and classroom practice. We had read Svi Shapiro and Alfie Kohn (1999) and talked about the problems with the current push for "accountability" via standardized testing in K-12 schools. In discussion, students were becoming insightful and intuitive about how to move schools away from teaching to the test, and bring more "thinking" into K-12 classrooms. And perhaps most importantly, we had modeled together what an inquiry-based classroom looks like through our small group work, class discussions and projects. So for this particular week, I assigned a short piece by Jeannie Oakes from Rethinking Schools (1994) with a basic overview of tracking as a problematic practice, and Jean Anyon's, "Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work" (1980) as a model of how "tracking" extends beyond leveled classrooms to leveled schools, etc. I planned two classroom activities for the day. First, I made a "ditto" that would resemble the kind of worksheet-driven curriculum that Oakes argues is characteristic of lower-track classes, or Anyon describes as typical of working class schools. It included True/False questions, fill in the blanks, and a few regurgitations of minute details. "Who is the author of this piece on tracking?" "Tracking is considered a controversial practice, T/F?" "Name three reasons why some people oppose tracking practices in schools." It even ended with an opinion question at the introductory end of Bloom's taxonomy (1956) - "What do you think of tracking practices in schools?" - as an empty gesture to what students think without any push towards analysis or critical reflection. I expected that I would pass out this (ridiculous) worksheet, students would look it over and recognize the model it represented, and then we would move on to plan B, which was a three-part analysis in small groups of tracking, and the intended or unintended consequences of it. This was my plan.
When I came into class, everyone was sitting in our usual circle. "I want to do something a little different in class today," I began the performance of this exercise in my sternest voice as the worksheets made their way around the room. "Please spend about 20 minutes working on this handout. Please don't talk to your neighbor. You can have your reader open. Are there any questions?"
The students took the worksheets. A few sighed audibly. And then every single one of the 31 students in the class put his or her head down and furiously began filling out the ditto. Not one student in the class looked up, asked a question, or resisted doing this exercise. I was dumbfounded. I did not have a plan for this.
I hadn't thought about what to do if they actually did it! As they worked quietly, my brain raced. Why were they tolerating this activity? Why couldn't they see through it? Had the whole semester been a failure if they didn't have the tools to reject this? What lesson could come of this?
After about 15 minutes, several students were finished and they sat quietly in their seats waiting for others to complete the worksheet. After 20 minutes of dead silence in the room, I called the time. Unlike other weeks when the students talked to each other and looked to one another to figure things out in collaboration, on this day thirty-one pairs of eyes looked right at the teacher. What were they thinking? What could I possibly say… "Ha ha, just kidding?" I wanted to find a strategy that could lead us into a place of empowerment and awareness, but the risk of their humiliation and betrayal seemed great. I decided to approach this with patience, and hoped that the class would eventually be able to carry the discussion from the handout back to Oakes and Anyon.
"So before we talk about the content here," I said, "I just want to give you a chance to share what it was like to do this activity…" The room was quiet with an air of disengagment. Silence gave way to a few hands.
"I really liked it," the first young woman said. "This really helped me collect my thoughts and remember what the article was about."
"Me, too," said another. "Sometimes when I read I can't tell what is important, and this helped me know what you wanted us to know."
My head spun to June Jordan's book On Call (1985). In the introduction, Jordan writes about teaching a course called "The Art of Black English". The course emerged out of a discussion she had with her mostly Black students in an English literature course, in which the class overwhelmingly dismissed The Color Purple because they didn't like the language Walker used. Even as the same rhythms came from their own mouths, they critiqued the "Black English" of Walker's characters. Jordan says, "I listened to what they wanted to say and silently marveled at the similarities between their casual speech patterns and Alice Walker's written version of Black English… But I decided against pointing out these identical traits of syntax; I wanted not to make them self-conscious about their own spoken language - not while they clearly felt it was 'wrong'" (125).
As my own students reflected on their comfort with the worksheet activity, I felt much like Jordan did with her class. How could I reveal my intentions here without making them feel like they had been duped - by me, or by their own experiences as students who had themselves been tracked in "remedial" classes and from whom little had been expected? How could I possibly hold up a mirror and make them see their own reflection in the "stupid ditto"? I knew I had to give them time to get there on their own or risk violating the sense of "smartness" that we had worked all semester to develop in each of them.
For about 25 minutes we talked about what it was like to do this handout. Several people talked about how great it was to organize their thoughts in this way. Others said they preferred our small groups and discussion method because the timed, solitary ditto produced too much anxiety about getting it done in time. Finally, someone said it "felt like high school". This is where it started to make sense to me, where I realized I had gone wrong. I had forgotten- these were mostly working-class students from working-class schools. They liked the ditto because it was familiar to them. It was comfortable and familiar and that is why they didn't think to question it. Once we got that on the table, several people actually admitted that it was a relief to do this kind of handout. "There are just clear right and wrong answers so we don't have to think so much." But we still hadn't found our way back to Oakes and Anyon.
With the words "don't have to think so much" hanging in the air, I saw a lightbulb go on as one of the young women in the class made eye contact with me. "Is this a trick?" she said. "Is there a separate reason that you gave us this handout today?" A few glimmers of recognition and sheepish smiles, mine included. "I don't think Alfie Kohn would like this ditto very much," someone said. The student was referring to a text we had read earlier in the semester in which Kohn (1999) passionately critiqued the current push for standardized curriculum that he suggests is turning America's public schools into "glorified test-prep centers." I pushed them to say more and slowly the whole tenor of the class shifted as they found a collective voice. They grew more lively and they started making connections to Oakes and Anyon and the critique of this kind of classroom practice: The ditto is very teacher-centered, they said; teachers determine what is important, leaving little room for students to make meaning of things; clear right or wrong answers encourage students to repeat facts rather than interpret them; time pressure puts a premium on finishing quickly rather than understanding the material; timed activity leaves some folks to wait while others anxiously try to meet the deadline. And finally, the link to Oakes and Anyon: why do some students deserve classrooms that are taught in this way, while others enjoy the benefits of student-centered, intellectual work?
Ultimately, in this story, my failure was recovered. I know that students remember this lesson and they understand the implications of tracking on teaching and learning in deep and personal ways because of the work we do around "the ditto." But I got there by accident. I planned the ditto lesson with huge blind spots for who my students are and what they need from me in order to be successful. I was completely unprepared for how quickly my students fell back into old, familiar patterns of teaching and learning. But fortunately, I had enough tools to create a moment of what Schon would call "reflection-in-action," otherwise known as thinking on your feet (1983). And since that first time, I have continued to use this lesson. I am prepared to guide students through it in much better ways. After talking with trusted colleagues, I have even added a bit of drama - I pace the room looking over students' shoulders as they work, and announce the time remaining every five minutes. And in seven semesters, I have yet to see even one student resist the exercise. But I am hopeful..
In the end, these stories are about practice and the work that practitioners do to improve the teaching and learning that goes on in the classroom. But it is not just about practice. Rather it is about how I have come to negotiate the theoretical underpinning of my practice in order to let practice inform my theory. When I think about the stories I tell here, I know that the only reason I could find success in these challenging moments is because I already had some theoretical tools to help me think on my feet. Of course, I have no doubt that I will mess it up again. But that is okay. Plan, act, reflect… I believe that good teaching is not about doing it right all the time, but about having somewhere to go when it all falls apart. That is why practice without theory feels empty. Without an informed critical theory, when things begin to slip we reach for the most mundane and often counterproductive solutions. We need the theory to inform our practice, but what I have learned here is that we also need the practice to inform our theory. Wink suggests, "Praxis is the constant reciprocity of our theory and our practice. Theory building and critical reflection inform our practice and our action, and our practice and action inform our theory building and critical reflection" (Wink 1997, 48). This isn't always easy for me. I am a bit of a theory snob and so I often privilege the theory in my own work and in what I expect of my students. This is not a bad thing, per se. I believe that all teachers and pre-service teachers deserve access to this language of possibility and so I love to hear the discourse of the classroom shift as they become more comfortable talking about power and knowledge. But as the stories I tell here show, theory, too, is not enough.
For those of us who teach pre-service teachers, we have to strive for praxis in its best form - not only in what we say, but also in what we do. We can make them read all the Paolo Freire in the world, but unless we can practice what we preach, it won't be enough. Foucault says, "We know what we do, we often know why we do what we do. But what we don't often know is what what we do does." I posted a firm deadline on my midterm exam because I hoped to create a sense of rigor. I had no idea that a student like Becky wouldn't know how to navigate that intention. Critical theory - or in this case critical pedagogy - helps us know what what we do does, so to bring out the best reflective practitioner in each of us.
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-  For readers unfamiliar with the literature on social reproduction, I want to be careful to emphasize that Delpit is not suggesting that people outside the culture of power operate in a "deficit" model or that they should be blamed for their lack of material or social success. She suggests that through the institutionalized effects of power, agency and authority some cultural codes are more valued that others - and these dynamics of social injustice will not change if those with power refuse to acknowledge them. As Delpit notes, "I… believe that to act as if power does not exist is to ensure that the power status quo remains the same. To imply to children or adults … that it doesn't matter how you talk or how you write is to ensure their ultimate failure. I prefer to be honest with my students. I tell them that their language and cultural style is unique and wonderful but that there is a political power game that is also being played, and if they want to be in on that game there are certain games that they too must play" (pp).