The instructional presentation and analysis below detail my experience delivering a “Six Traits of Good Writing” AVID-notes presentation to a ninth-grade English class. I describe how my co-teacher and I considered Freire’s concepts of banking (passive) and active instruction when designing the lecture, attempting to make it dialogic and interactive. Using theories of student learning and resistance, I analyze how students reacted to the presentation and reflect on how the methods I used to manage the classroom throughout the lesson influenced the learning environment. The lesson presentation and narration provide evidence as to how I communicated instructions and information to students. At the end of the analysis, I describe how I would revise the lesson to increase student learning and maintain a more productive learning environment.
“Are your hands tired? Stretch your fingers out,” I said, shooting mine out from fisted palms like fireworks. We were on slide 14 of 28 in the “Six Traits of Good Writing” PowerPoint presentation that my mentor teacher asked me to update and teach. The substitute teacher was studying for his LSAT in the back. My co-teacher was twirling in her desk chair. The students ignored the stretches—heads down, hands moving—as they raced to write, “Jargon: Words and expressions characteristic of a particular trade, profession, or pursuit,” before I interrupted their scrawling with a ‘check-for-understanding question.’ The practice had become routine in these types of lectures. I took a breath to give them a moment to write.
“Jargon—” I began, remembering the notes my mentor teacher gave my co-teacher on trying to fill silences to keep the students engaged in the lesson.
“—I’m only on page one,” Devin interrupted, waving his Cornell notes sheet in the air. “You promised three pages. I want to finish these for next week’s binder check.”
“I know. We still have a bit to cover; Don’t worry,” I said, returning to reading the definition. “Now,” I stared at the girl in the back who had cracked open a book, “I need your help.” The girl’s neighbor elbowed her. Scanning the class, I said, “Let’s talk jargon. Who here is in a sport?” Hands shot up. Just a second prior, Travis had been wrinkling his nose and squinting at the definition on the screen. Now, mouthing “me, me,” he was squirming in his seat.
“What sport are you in, Travis?” I said.
“Umm. Does marching band count?” He smiled. Devin, one row back, shook his head at me and mouthed “no.” His neighbor chuckled. I acted like I did not see him.
“Yes. Sure.” I said to Travis. “Do you use any words used in the marching band that someone not in the marching band might not know?” He bit his lip. “For instance, I said, I was a dancer, and when I say “fifth position,” I know what dance move that is. However, if someone is not in dance, they probably would have no idea what I am talking about.”
“Show us fifth position!” Devin cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled. I slid my feet into the fifth position, said “there” with a little bow, and then turned my eyes back to Travis.
“Well. In the band, we have these things. Dot books.”
“And what is a dot book?” I asked.
“It’s just this—”
“Marching band is NOT a sport,” Devin said, talking over Travis’s explanation.
Ignoring Devin, I repeated what Travis had said so the class could hear. “So. A dot book is an example of jargon because, if I used that in a paper and did not give the definition, and the audience of the paper was not familiar with the marching band…”
“…They wouldn’t know what you are talking about,” Travis finished. “Like, you need to think about if the reader can understand the word before you use it.”
Devin interrupted, “marching band is not a sport.” The students laughed.
“It is too,” Travis said, “We do formations. It’s tiring.” He looked frustrated.
I wanted to comfort him. “I know Travis. People told me dance wasn’t a sport either…”
“—because it is NOT!” Devin slapped his palms against the desk. “Bands, dance, they’re not sports.” A few students around him started to debate the issue with their neighbors.
“Okay, let’s bring it back in,” I said, flipping the slide. I had to talk over lingering side debates “Now, we are learning about denotation and connotation.” I defined each term. Devin was shaking his head at Travis. To engage him, I said, “see Devin, you had a different denotation of the word “sport” than Travis. You would both define it differently.”
“But I thought denotation was a dictionary definition,” Devin yelled, “you can’t have two different definitions.”
“Well,” I said, “one word can be defined in different ways.” I could not elaborate further. We had to move on. We were running out of time.
“Who can help me with connotation? Think about the words “puppy” and “dog.” What do they connote?” I asked. Blake, a student in the front, started to answer.
“Dogs are stupid,” Devin said, talking over them.
Blake shot out of their seat, turned around to face Devin, stamped their foot on the ground, and said, “Dogs are not stupid.”
“Whoa, calm down,” Devin rolled his eyes. “Did you see that?” He looked at me.
“Let’s bring it back in,” I said. Devin continued to laugh with his neighbor. My co-teacher caught his eye and gave him a stern look, shaking her head. He stopped, turning back to his notes, doodling in the margins for the rest of the class period.
Devin’s behavior during the “Six Traits of Good Writing” lecture is an example of student resistance (Toshalis, 2015), as he disrupted the focus of the lesson by interrupting his classmate’s attempts at participation, challenging the authority I had over the lesson’s flow by veering it off-track, and demonstrating a low academic commitment to learning the material. In analyzing Devin’s behavior from the lens of resistance theories of agency and power (Toshalis, 2015), Devin’s “outbursts” can be seen as acts of defiance rather than deviance (Toshalis, 2015). They are an effect of a content-focused lesson (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005) managed by task rewards (Stipek, 1998) and designed to deposit (Freire, 1972) understanding into students’ minds, without contextualization of how the results of learning might benefit the students or regard to differences in how the students might best learn the material. Smith and Wilhelm (2006) note that when students do not see a real-world “purpose or importance of what they are being asked to learn,” they highly perceive an external locus of control forcing them to do the work, saying things like “the teacher told me to do it,” or “my mom will ground me if I don’t do my homework” (p. 55). Stipek (1998) writes that this perceived external locus of casualty of why students are doing class activities, combined with rewards meant to control behavior and a lowered ability-perception caused by undifferentiated instruction, will decrease student’s intrinsic motivation to participate in learning. When students feel “persuaded, dominated, intimidated, bribed, or manipulated into learning” (Metz as cited in Toshalis, 2015, p. 48), they will often resist as a way to highlight that they decide whether or not to grant the teacher control (Toshalis, 2015). Devin’s outbursts were an attempt to gain a rightfully sought agency in a controlling environment.
Before the debate about the marching band that Devin attempted to strike-up, he was engaging with the lecture content much like his peers: writing down definition after definition that I projected, highlighting the parts that I highlighted, considering the examples that I provided. His complaint halfway through the lesson that he only completed one-third of the number of pages of notes I had promised emphasized that he was taking part in these activities mostly out of extrinsic motivation (Stipek, 1998). His desire to engage with the learning task was contingent on the reward of completing three of the eight pages of Cornell notes he needed to complete for the week. At the beginning of the lesson, I presented the class with a learning objective—to be able to define the six traits of writing—that Wiggins and McTighe (2005) would call an “appropriate goal” based on the content standards. However, I did not go as far as to contextualize this goal as means to achieving enduring understandings or “transferable, big ideas at the heart of the discipline and in need of uncoverage” (Wiggins & McTighe, p. 28). As Smith and Wilhelm (2006) note, without enduring understandings that “explore and address” an “essential question that is debated in the world,” students will not see the learning task as necessary and meaningful (p. 56). Because the lesson was not results-focused (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005)— I did not provide the students with a meaningful reason for exploring the content that internally motivated them to engage in the learning tasks—Devin’s engagement was conditional to the external reward of finishing his Cornell notes. When he perceived he would only finish two pages of notes despite his participation at the start of the lesson, he saw no reason to comply with my treating of him as a passive receptacle (Freire, 1972) for information.
Despite my failure to connect the learning objectives to a real-world, enduring understanding, it was clear that some students found meaning for what we were learning by participating in the large-group discussion prompts I had inserted into the lecture as a formative assessment. For example, Travis realized that if he used the jargon-word “dot book” in a paper with little explanation, he would confuse the writer. He saw how the term related to his experiences and the personal narrative assignment he was writing in class. Understanding that the lesson was largely lecture-style, I wanted these discussion prompts to not only help me gauge student understanding but encourage students to be actively producing knowledge (Freire, 1972) by thinking about the term as related to their lives. Further, by asking the students to locate the concepts within their experiences, I attempted to exercise the “Assets” MnEDS (2018) Disposition Strand by leveraging student’s funds of knowledge as tools in learning. However, while I had thought about designing formative assessments meant to account for diverse experiences and ensure students were actively producing knowledge as they completed them (Wiggins, 1993), I did not consider how the design of my assessment assumed all students understood the concept from the provided definition and gatekept students who did not understand it from participating in the additional learning. By beginning the discussion with the phrase “Let’s talk jargon,” I alienated any student who did not perceive themselves as able to “talk jargon” from the conversation. In this, I denied these students opportunities to exercise agency and direct the flow of the lesson. The punishment for not yet being able to “talk jargon” was to continue to be externally controlled, receiving peer definitions and examples of the content. Understandably, Devin attempted to subvert this gatekeeping by inserting himself into the discussion in a way that required he did not have to “talk jargon.” By interrupting the conversation with “show us fifth position,” “marching band is not a sport,” and “dogs are stupid,” Devin achieved power over the flow of the lesson that was stronger than my own or that of his peers. I affirmed this when I engaged with his interruptions by showing him the fifth position and taking a side in the debate. He was proving his authority and power to all of his classmates.
I believe that Devin tried to disrupt the power and agency dynamics within the classroom not only because my lecture-based lesson failed to use practices that were “beyond the status quo” (MnEDS, 2018) to deconstructed the teacher/student binary (Freire, 1972), but also because its lack of differentiation denied him the opportunity to master the content. It positioned Devin as a student who “didn’t get it,” and provided him with no correctives to change that positioning. Because Devin was not ready to “talk jargon,” and I framed the ability to “talk jargon” as a prerequisite to continue learning in the discussion, I communicated that Devin’s ability was “fixed” at inability (Stipek, 1998). As Stipek (1998) notes, “people universally are born with a need to see themselves as competent, and they function poorly in contexts in which this need is not met” (p. 75). Devin attempted to derail my content-knowledge checks as a form of internal and external “impression management,” a means to “avoid looking incompetent” (Stipek, 1998, p. 76). His desire to demonstrate his intelligence was apparent in the way he challenged me by saying, “I thought denotation was a dictionary definition…you can’t have two different definitions.” When I told him he was incorrect by saying, “one word can be defined in different ways” without acknowledging that he correctly understood that “denotation is the dictionary definition,” I hurt his efforts to manage his impression. Understandably, he spent the rest of the class quiet but disengaged. Stipek (1998) notes that impression management can take the form of self-defeating strategies, such as resigning from learning.
Reflecting on my experience with Devin and Travis has made me more aware of the benefits of designing a unit plan following a Backwards Design framework (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005), as it encourages a student-centered design where “form follows function” because all learning tasks are selected for their appropriateness in helping students achieve essential understandings (p. 23). Further, I recognize that it is vital that, as a primary or cooperating teacher, I understand what student-centered, real-world needs or questions the learning objective helps students consider or resolve, and how the learning activities and assessments are the best choices for helping students achieve the goal within the learning environment. If I had taken the time to speak with my mentor teacher about why he wanted the students to learn the six traits of writing and thought that a lecture-style lesson was the best fit for the objective and students, I could have opened the lesson with a statement about why it would benefit them to direct their attention to the content and explain the methodology behind the agenda. Likewise, if my mentor teacher or I found we were unable to articulate why we had chosen to deliver a lecture-style lesson (besides needing to meet standards and provide students with opportunities to complete their Cornell notes), I could have re-centered our thinking by asking “what [we] want the students to take away from the unit” (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005, p. 30). In having these understandings, I would not have felt the need to justify the lesson content and delivery method by telling the students they would finish three pages of Cornell notes. This practice positioned the lesson as having an external locus of causality (Stipek, 1998), dictated by a need to meet Avid standards. In contrast, motivating students to engage through discussing essential understandings that will benefit them emphasizes an internal locus of causality (Stipek, 1998) for doing the lesson. This intrinsically motivates students to participate in the class and lowers incidents of resistance.
Further, in taking time to ideate how the learning tasks would help all students meet the objectives, I would have recognized the need to practice imagination and innovation (MnDES, 2018) to understand the diversity of my learners and determine how to differentiate content for their needs. Knowing that teachers cannot predict how lessons will unfold, I would have understood the necessity of formative assessments that measured all students’ learning so that I could exercise a disposition of flexibility and adaptability (MnDES, 2018) to differentiate instruction for learners. For example, upon assessing through a class-wide method (like a Kahoot response) that some students needed more scaffolding to understand the concept of ‘jargon,’ I could have divided the students into learning groups and provided appropriate corrective or enrichment activities. These peer learning groups would give students an outlet to take control of their knowledge generation, encouraging flow states and discouraging resistance. Block (1984) notes that when students perceive learning activities as personally meaningful appropriately challenging, they are more likely to be intrinsically motivated to engage in them. I would have provided students like Devin with feedback about their improvement through completing these activities so that they saw their ability as incremental and not fixed. The more-advanced content should not have been behind the “gate” of being able to “talk jargon.” Instead, I should have directed supports to students so that they could all achieve concept mastery.
Freire, P. (1972). Chapter 2. In Pedagogy of the oppressed 20th-anniversary ed. (Myra Bergman Ramos, Trans., pp. 52-67). New York, NY: The Continuum Publishing Company.
MnEDS (2018). The 8 MnEDS dispositions strands. University of Minnesota. Retrieved from https://sites.google.com/a/umn.edu/umn-dispositions-assessment-framework/the-mneds-8-dispositions-strands
Smith, M. W. & Wilhelm, J. D. (2006). Teaching so it matters: Where should we be going and how can we get there? In Going with the flow: How to engage boys [and girls] in their literacy learning (pp.54-79). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Stipek, D (1998). In Motivation to learn: Integrating Theory and Practice. Allyn and Bacon.
Toshalis, E. (2015). Make me!: Understanding and engaging student resistance in school [Kindle version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com.
Wiggins, G. P. (1993). Assessing student performance: Exploring the purpose and limits of
testing. San Francisco: Jossey-bass Publishers.
Wiggins, G., and McTighe, J. & (2005). Understanding by design, second expanded edition. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.