By Chinonye Alma Otuonye
“Could you explain what it is the author is trying to say?” I’m at the front of the room, marker in hand going over this week’s reading. This is not the first time I’ve heard this question. While not a bad question, it highlights the particular conception of education that my students and many others have carried with them through their 12 or more years in institutional education. They see me as the authoritative figure; the person with the right answers. If they trust anyone in the class with knowledge that person is me.
While, they may be aware of the various types of knowledges that exist in the world, they are yet to truly trust their knowledge as valuable within the context of the classroom. Either that, or they’ve been simply taught that the experiences they’ve acquired in life are of little value in the classroom. They still look to me as the truth-teller, the one who will give them objective information about the topics covered in class. The fact is that education has often been an issue of grade acquisition rather than knowledge acquisition. The problem with that is that the topics I require my students to engage in are deeply imbedded in their lives. In other words, they matter.
The thing is that while I had created a syllabus that broke each week down into digestible topics, each topic, each week are integrated in the everyday lives of the people who exist in the world. They topics fail to fit perfectly into neat boxes. To stand in front of the board each week breaking down the author’s argument felt disingenuous to the learning process. The goal was not simply for them to have a list of authors whose ideas and words they could repeat but to place them in an environment where they understand that their experiences and their lives were valuable to the learning process. Their voices mattered just as much in the discussion of race, environmental degradation, gender, class division, and the like because each day they lived it. In a classroom filled with black and brown faces, my students are well aware of the intricacy of violence that exist in the world. The question for me became, how to show them that they should trust their experiences more in the ways they engaged in the classroom and impact it had on how they moved in the world.
This would thus require a shift in the ways I taught. As a first time teacher, experimentation and feedback are essential in success. So walking into the class the next day, I walked to the board and wrote general questions regarding the week’s topic and then more specific questions relating to the particular article for the week. Today they are discussing the human/nature divide. As they slowly began to trickle into class, a look of confusion washed over their faces. This wasn’t the usual set up they were used to. They were used to coming in to begin class with daily attendance, which was a written submission of their thoughts on the reading and me trying to facilitate an open conversation. The success of which being totally dependent on willing student participation from more than the usual five voices. However, today would be different. After their confusion had settled a little, I broke the class into two smaller groups and taking 15-20 minutes asked them to discuss the questions among themselves before bringing it to the larger class.
As they begin their conversations, there’s a little hesitation. Though they are familiar with each other at this point, asking them to look for answers in each other is new. As I walk around the classroom and listen to their conversations, it is clear that they are sticking to the questions on the board because they see this in some way as an assignment. However, as time goes on and they notice the ways in which the reading is applicable to them the conversation broads. I begin to hear questions around the phrasing of cities, especially their city, as outside of the natural world. If the city is thus not natural in the same way that non-urban contexts are what does that make them? In what ways are people of color impacted by environmental degradation. While they may not be making such explicit statements, it is clear they are making connections based on their experiences in New York City. With this openness, even those voices that remain the quietest in the larger class discussion, gently begin to insert themselves in the conversation.
The next class day we begin again with a new set of readings that expand upon our week’s topic. Their conversations highlight their frustration of living in food deserts, of having poor choices available. The 15-20 minutes of just them discussing what they know and what they’ve read brings un an expected excitement in sharing their groups thoughts with the larger class. Their excitement not only fuels me but also allows for a break in the hierarchical division between student and teacher. We are learning together and learning that the information they’re learning are not things they do not already know and possibly experience every day.
Chinonye Alma Otuonye is a doctoral student in Cultural Anthropology and teaches at Lehman College.