Sunday, February 17, 2008

Welcome to the Occupation: Teaching Rationale, P. L. Thomas

Rationale: Courses Taught by P. L. Thomas—
Welcome to the Occupation

Paulo Freire (1993) establishes early in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “One of the basic elements of the relationship between oppressor and oppressed is prescription. Every prescription represents the imposition of one individual’s choice upon another, transforming the consciousness of the person prescribed to into one that conforms with the prescriber’s consciousness” (pp. 28-29).

The course before you, your course, will be guided by some essential principles, beliefs, and research concerning the nature of learning and teaching along with the commitments I have to the dignity of each person’s humanity and to the sacredness of intellectual freedom within a democracy. The practices and expectations of this course are informed by many educators, writers, and researchers—many of whom are referenced at the end. But the guiding philosophies and theories of this course can be fairly represented as critical pedagogy, critical constructivism, and authentic assessment.

Now that I am in my third decade as a teacher, my classroom practices and expectations for students are all highly purposeful—although most of my practices and expectations are non-traditional and may create the perception that they are “informal.” For you, the student, this will be somewhat disorienting (a valuable state for learning) and some times frustrating. Since I recognize the unusual nature of my classes, I will offer here some clarity and some commitments as the teacher in this course.

In all of my courses, I practice “critical pedagogy.” This educational philosophy asks students to question and identify the balance of power in all situations—an act necessary to raise a your awareness of social justice. I also emphasize “critical constructivist” learning theory. Constructivism challenges students (with the guidance of the teacher) to forge their own understanding of various concepts by formulating and testing hypotheses, and by utilizing inductive, not just deductive, reasoning. A constructivist stance asks students to recognize and build upon their prior knowledge while facing their own assumptions and expectations as an avenue to deeper and more meaningful learning. My practices avoid traditional forms of assessment (selected-response tests), strive to ask students to create authentic representations of their learning, and require revision of that student work.

Some of the primary structures of this course include the following:

• I delay traditional grades on student work to encourage you to focus on learning instead of seeking an “A” and to discourage you from being “finishers” instead of engaged in assignments. At any point in the course, you can receive oral identification of on-going grades if you arrange an individual conference concerning your work. However, this course functions under the expectation that no student work is complete until the last day of the course; therefore, technically all students have no formal grade until the submission of the final portfolio. One of the primary goals of this course is to encourage you to move away from thinking and acting as a student and toward thinking and acting in authentic ways that manifest themselves in the world outside of school.

• I include individual conferences for all students at mid-term (and any time one is requested), based on a self-evaluation, a mid-course evaluation, and an identification of student concerns for the remainder of the course. You will receive a significant amount of verbal feedback (“feedback” and “grades” are not the same, and I consider “grades” much less useful than feedback), but much of my feedback comes in the form of probing questions that require you to make informed decisions instead of seeking to fulfill a requirement established by me or some other authority. Your learning experience is not a game of “got you”; thus, you have no reason to distrust the process. I value and support student experimentation, along with the necessity of error and mistakes during those experiments. My classroom is not a place where you need to mask misunderstandings and mistakes. I do not equate learning with a student fulfilling clearly defined performances (see Freire’s commentary on prescription above), but I do equate learning with students creating their own parameters for their work and then presenting their work in sincere and faithful ways.

• I include portfolio assessment in my courses, requiring students to draft work throughout the course, to seek peer and professor feedback through conferences, and to compile at the end all of their assignments in a course with a reflection on that work; my final assessments are weighted for students and guided by expectations for those assignments, but those weights and expectations are tentative and offered for negotiation with each student. Ultimately, the final grade is calculated holistically and based on that cumulative portfolio. All major assignments in this course must be drafted in order to be eligible for a final grade of “A.” The drafting process must include at least two weeks of dedication to the assignment, student-solicited feedback from the professor, and peer feedback. Assignments must be submitted in final forms in the culminating portfolio, but documentation of the drafting process must also be submitted with the final products. Any major assignments that do not fulfill the expectation of drafting will not receive a grade higher than a “B.” Revision is a necessary aspect of completing academic work.

Welcome to the occupation. This is your class, a series of moments of your life—where you make your decisions and act in ways you choose. Freedom and choice, actually, are frightening things because with them come responsibility. We are often unaccustomed to freedom, choice, and responsibility, especially in the years we spend in school. So if you are nervous about being given the freedom to speak and the responsibility for making your own choices, that is to be expected. But I am here to help—not prescribe, not to judge. That too will make you a bit nervous. I am glad to have this opportunity in your life, and I will not take it lightly. I will be honored if you choose not to take it lightly either.


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Dewey, J. (1938/1997). Experience and education. New York: Free Press.

Freire, P. (1993). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

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Kincheloe, J. L. (2005b). Critical pedagogy primer. New York: Peter Lang.

Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct. New York: Harper Perennial.

-----. (1999). Words and rules: The ingredients of language. New York: Basic Books.

Popham, W. J. (2001). The Truth about testing: An educator’s call to action. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

-----. (2003). Test better, teach better: The instructional role of assessment. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Zemelman, S., Daniels, H., & Hyde, A. (2005). Best Practice: Today’s standards for teaching and learning in America’s schools (3rd ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.