Pedagogies and Paradigm Shifts
As we approach April 16, the second anniversary of the Virginia Tech massacre, the deadliest shooting by a single gunman
in U.S. history, it's appropriate for those of us who are concerned about educational issues to reflect on some modes of
approach which could prove useful when teaching students who might respond in a dysfunctional and/or dangerous manner
to traditional methods of teaching. Late last week, the potential importance of developing more flexible and empathetic
teaching methods, particularly in the area of English language instruction, became even more compelling.
As most readers of the Corsair are aware, Jiverly Wong, an ethnic Chinese immigrant from Vietnam, killed 13 people
- students, people taking their citizenship test, and staff at the American Civic Association in Binghamton, NY. According
to CNN.com and other news sources, one possible contributing factor to this killing spree arose from Wong's frustrations
over his difficulties with learning English.
I have seen forms of this potentially eruptive frustration before. While teaching at a maximum security facility for youth in
Slaterville (a program conducted through Empire State College) and then at Santa Monica College, CA, I've been involved
with some young people who come from challenging backgrounds - that is, neighborhoods which have high crime, drop out
and unemployment rates, as well as gang activity, many single parent families, and widespread drug use.
It has become apparent that there is considerable value to be gained from broadening the concept of effective teaching
as we learn from the tragedies at various high schools and institutions of higher learning. At the risk of stating what
should be evident, it is wise for us to be creative with an individual who demonstrates a propensity for confrontational and
potentially violent behavior.
There are too many stimuli to violence for us to ignore the possibility that an assault can occur at any given time. However,
it appears that a number of professional educators remain ensconced in a traditional pedagogical paradigm. For example,
many instructors remain staunch advocates of admonition as the most effective approach to problematic behavior.
In that vein, many traditionalists believe that it is in our best interests, as well as those of our students, to chastise an
individual who is frequently late and/or doesn't seem to be paying attention. Of course, there are some situations in which
this approach can achieve a positive result. However, reliance on this form of corrective can also catalyze disruptive
Here's an example. Several years ago, I taught a basic skills writing class at Santa Monica College. It was comprised of
a diverse group of students , including Johnnie L., who was blind and older than the others. However, the most challenging
student was Ramone G., who was consistently late and seemed to have a large chip on his shoulder.
Initially, I greeted him with the standard comments about how multiple tardy arrivals could lead to a grade reduction."Yeah,
okay," or "Do what you gotta do," were his standard responses. Then Ramon would sit sullenly in the back of the classroom.
Clearly, if he was going to stay in the class and be a productive participant, a different approach was needed.
Since Ramon rode his bike from Culver City for our eight a.m. class, I felt some empathy for his logistical difficulties.
So, one day when he walked into class over fifteen minutes late, I asked, in a concerned tone,"What caused you to be late
today, Ray?" "I almost got here on time," he said, " but at a light about a block from school, a homegirl on a bike in front
of me nearly got hit by a dude who was taking a left turn. He rolled down his window and called her a stupid bitch, so she
punched him in the face. Then the dude opened his car door hard and knocked her down. I got off my bike to help her get
up. Then a cop car pulled up, and I had to stay around and give him a statement, plus my name and address."
The emotion, combined with persuasive detail, which ran through Ramon's story clearly had a significant impact on the
class. Thus, I stayed with the inquisitive (rather than "grand inquisitor") approach to his late arrivals. As time went on,
the process of sharing his stories helped Ray became more capable of focusing during the class, and thus he was more
attentive to work presented by the other students, as well as to my comments. His "urban tales" also became fairly reliable
jump starts for the class.
The last assignment of the semester was an autobiographical essay. When Ramon handed me his paper, he thanked me
for letting him share his stories with the other students. He also told me he'd begun to look forward to coming to the class.
In his essay, he had described his family's breakup after his mother had been hospitalized as a result of several beatings
by her husband.
In the closing paragraphs of his essay, Ramon described how he and his brother began using drugs. Ray's behavior in
school deteriorated to the extent that, in his senior year, he got arrested for bringing a gun to school and threatening to kill
his English teacher. He wound up spending four years in a juvenile facility; when he got out, he started college.
One lesson that this story reinforces is that it is wise to provide positive inducements to draw students, particularly those
that are problematic, into the discourses of our classrooms. Also, a student's contributions to the ongoing dialog need not
be comprised entirely of traditional manifestations of academic work.
For many of us, the educational process is taking place in a dramatically shifting socio-economic and cultural context.
We need to take these changes into account.