Critical pedagogy meets Year 9 library orientation (Week 2 #MOOCMOOC)

I write this post in the second week of MOOCMOOC which focuses on Chapter 1 of bell hooksTeaching to Transgress and two short videos from Anita Sarkeesian. As Jesse Stommel and Maha Bali write in their introductory post, bell hooks is writing about something more than just feminist or antiracist pedagogy. Maha and Jesse  talk about the way that bell hooks is influenced by Buddhist philosophy, believing that the whole person of the teacher and of the student should be part of the pedagogical process.

Showing vulnerability to our students is not part of our professional conversations at school. It is something some teachers might do instinctively while others might find it confronting and even wrong. Maha and Jesse quote Danielle Paradis who wrote about this in“The Pleasures, the Perils, and the Pursuit of Pedagogical Intimacy,”: Learning is uncomfortable, and the trouble with letting someone teach you is that it leaves a mark — an impression.”

Since we’ve just started the new school year, I’m keeping these thoughts foremost in my mind when thinking about my teaching goals for the year, and generally in terms of how to prepare my attitude to my classes and library supervision.  Teaching is easier to direct in terms of intimacy,  acknowledging  our responsibility to care for our students – and let’s face it, that’s easy to do with a new intake of students who are still well behaved and wide-eyed.

Library supervision is harder. Firstly, you don’t know all the students since there are too many of them. I’m really bad with names, and if I miss their name in the beginning of the year, I’m too embarrassed to ask later on.  A non-teaching relationship with students is both easier and more difficult. Easier because we can be more casual with them and we have the opportunity to chat informally without the pressure of teaching content, but more difficult because I think it’s the teaching/learning relationship which develops the intimacy through caring for the development of the student, and in the visible transformation of students over time.  We are also not supposed to be talking to students when they come to the library to study in their free periods, and that’s because we try to maintain a quiet study environment in one part of the library which we, as teacher librarians, supervise.

And: “teaching and learning ARE inevitably intimate.” Maha and Jesse talk about the importance of bringing our full selves to our teaching, and point out that teaching and learning are inevitably  intimate.

I guess that means that we would let the overly professional persona fall away when teaching, but it doesn’t mean we act unprofessionally. If we keep the students as our focus and care about the students’ welfare, remembering that we leave an impression whatever we do, then we surely transfer our focus from conveying content to interacting with our students.

I’m not sure if I’ve understood bell hooks’ feeling of estrangement from education but I know that there have been school or school library environments which made me feel uncomfortable, repressed and unhappy. I didn’t feel I was teaching well or relating properly to students. It didn’t have as much to do with the students themselves as the tone that was set by the head of faculty/library or other library staff. If I didn’t feel comfortable with that tone, that approach to the students, I felt as if I had to squeeze everything out of me, and put on a thin facade, copying the external behaviour and speech of others in an attempt to emulate them. It didn’t work for me, and it didn’t work for the students. It made me feel bad.

On the other hand, when the attitude to students and approach to teaching is compatible with my own, then I’m happy to be vulnerable, to expose my imperfections, as well as my personality. You have to be comfortable within yourself to be willing to expose vulnerability. Some people might, by their nature, do this seemingly without effort, but for others it takes practice, reflection and time, while others still will not do this at all.

It took me a very long time to expose my vulnerability in my role as a priest’s wife in the Russian Orthodox Church. Possibly because I took on this role at the age of 26 – too young actually. And also because I was not ‘groomed’ for the role, and did not grow up in a particularly devout family – sure, we went to church but not every week. I was not educated in Orthodox dogma and no doubt had unformed ideas which needed time to mature. In a way, I interrupted that opportunity for growth because I suddenly had to take on a role that was associated with high ideals and pressure from the members of the church community. I ‘took on’ a persona but one which was dangerously superficial, ungrounded, and somehow managed to keep going in that way for many years. Having children only resulted in a more passionate stance on what I’d become because I felt it was my duty to educate them in the way I had perceived they ought to be educated – from the outside. Of course, eventually, the cracks start to show, and I was faced with a choice: to continue as I had been or decide to do it my way, true to myself. This took time, as you can imagine, because I had almost lost who I was, or at least, lost the confidence in my own instincts and understanding of things. Doing this meant I had to grow a thick skin so that I wouldn’t care about what people thought about me as much as I care about my own survival, and my honesty. Not going this way would have been destructive. I believe that you can’t have any kind of faith unless you stay true to yourself. Taking on something externally doesn’t work. Understanding it from the inside (of yourself) is the only way.

It’s the same with any relationship, and teaching must be intimate, surely, and must be vulnerable, if you are to connect honestly with students, if learning is more than a transmission of content knowledge. Obviously that doesn’t mean you expose every part of yourself which would be inappropriate, but it means that you don’t shut off who you are so that students see you relating to them honestly. And I think that’s the only way you get real satisfaction from teaching. A lot of this is unspoken in schools but you can tell when there is that kind of relationship between teachers and students.

So when I first started as a teacher librarian, having ‘forsaken’ the classroom (English, French and German), my library orientation was all about where the printers were,  the cost of fines, how to use the library catalogue, how to use databases. It was so boring, I was bored and unhappy about it myself. I was following the procedure of others because I was inexperienced.  In not showing my full self was really like not showing up at all. Presenting my authentic non-neutral self in the classroom has made me very happy.

Today was the first day we had students at school – just the Year 9s, all brand spanking new. In my ‘library orientation’ sessions I wanted to connect to my students first foremost, and convey information to them as the second priority. I was aware that they didn’t know each other on their first day and spent some time asking questions and encouraging responses to start that ball rolling. How could I possibly waste my first time with these young men talking about rules and regulations only? I wanted to make a much deeper impression than that.  I wanted to challenge their perception of the library, talk about information (the fire hydrant), the dangerous ideas, freedom of speech and expression, respect for others and their ideas – but most of all I wanted to be myself and get to know them a little. I wanted to start the process of getting them to know each other in their classroom community. I definitely wanted them to challenge their perception of the library as being just a space with books and bookshelves – which was the standard answer when I asked them.

Perhaps, to not show up as our full selves to the act of learning is not to show up at all. This means placing our authentic non-neutral selves fully in the classroom — with all the risks and challenges that brings. (Maha and Jesse)

My focus today was not on the listing of rules or information but on engaging them with me and each other, to give them the chance to consider important questions before they were sucked up into the wave which would push them through the year at a pace that might not have time for reflection because they were intent on survival.

Here’s the slideshow I created which serves as a prompt for discussion with the students. Some slides resulted in long and deep discussions and others just covered some necessary facts. Of course every session was different depending on the dynamics of the group and the response I received from them

It so happened that just minutes before my session, amidst the predictable technology failings and panic, I read Maha Bali’s post and was reminded about the aspect of vulnerability in critical pedagogy.

Now, I find a lot of difficulty talking to people without knowing anything about them.

Yes, and I imagine that students feel a lot better meeting a teacher who says a little about herself.


So since they don’t all know each other that well, I asked them to do a round of “Name+something no one here knows about you”

… so the person on my left, he felt really uncomfortable sharing something about himself. He said his name. I said, “and something about yourself?” and he was like “no”.

I became aware of vulnerable beginnings. I shared something about myself first. I told them I had 2 sons and that one of them was completing a Masters degree in Urban Planning and the other was doing third year Music – both at Melbourne Uni. Suddenly they see me as a parent.  A little peek through the ‘teacher librarian’ exterior. I told them that, contrary to popular belief that librarians spent all their time reading fiction, I had not read much fiction in the last few years, that I felt like I wanted to learn and keep learning about things, and so I read information (non-fiction). Suddenly I’ve broken the librarian stereotype. It’s a start towards bell hooks’ holistic education, her ‘engaged pedagogy’.

Many of them shared things about each other, some being funny, and that’s all good. Their body language started to change. They were facing the front looking at me and the screen, and now they started turning to each other to exchange responses. The shift had begun. We talked about banned books, (burned books even), Charlie Hebdo, and many other things. I had added an extra slide to the end of my existing presentation.

I added Maha’s great questions: Why am I here, what are my goals, and what do I have to offer others here?

Photo source:

Thank you to Maha and Jesse for orchestrating this week’s #moocmooc goodness. So much more to learn – and now to read the Twitter chat retrospectively.




Waiting for Freire. A 15 second play

A tweet from Kevin Hodgson @dogtrax about a 15 second play (that day’s #dailyconnect for #ccourses (wow, that all looks a bit cryptic, maybe Freire would say exclusive?) made me think ‘why not? what’s 15 seconds’ and the example made it look like fun.

Kevin had introduced me to Notegraphy before and I liked the look of it and sharing options. Unashamedly I pulled a chunk out of Maha Bali’s post and pieced together a 15 second  play using Maha’s quoted material from participants of yesterday’s #moocmooc chat about critical pedagogy and Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. If this isn’t making any sense to you, don’t worry. It’s just a 15 second play with quotes from real people. No more, no less.


Critical pedagogy – fishing from others’ posts, haha #moocmooc


This post is a response to the first week’s ‘homework task’ for the online MOOCMOOC: Critical Pedagogy which is introduced here. The reading is Chapter 2 of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

So first of all a confession. As a student I didn’t read any of the literature about pedagogy. I’d been a conscientious student all through school and undergraduate years and I’d had enough. So when I started my Dip. Ed. year (my sixth consecutive year of tertiary studies) I chose the C stream (nicknamed the Communist stream – not sure why). I couldn’t believe my luck; there was NO prescribed reading and, apart from our methods classes (mine were English and languages), there were no formal lectures.  We were required to offer or take sessions from each other, and there were no limitations on these sessions. The idea was that we learned from each other, and we learned while teaching others. At that stage I didn’t think I had anything to offer (how would I feel now?) so I just signed up for other students’ sessions. We all thought it was a joke – was it a joke? I vaguely remember (this was 1983 after all) what sorts of things people offered to teach. Knitting.  Wow, that had nothing to do with real teaching (I thought at the time. Do I still?) I signed up for Greek and Italian – not out of my comfort zone (so how much learning was I doing? Hmm…) I signed up for Godzilla. Yep, we sat and watched Godzilla movies and then talked about them. That was out of my comfort zone; I’d never watched it,  hadn’t wanted to and still don’t. But it was fun. I really can’t remember what else I signed up for. In terms of written submission we ‘just’ had to keep a reflective/evaluative journal – so that wasn’t ‘real work’ I thought. I found that easy, blabbered away and actually enjoyed it. I don’t think we had examples of ideally structured journals so maybe some people felt uncomfortable about it but I enjoyed it. Those poor people in A and B stream; they really did look stressed. Their course was all about serious reading and writing, and they kept complaining to us about all the work they had to do, but we didn’t care, haha.

Did I care once I stepped into the classroom? At the time, no. My early teaching years were not smooth sailing but I didn’t often stop to think – hey, if I’d read this or that I would have known how to teach from the outset. Was I wrong?

It’s never too late to start reading about pedagogy, and now that I’ve established my ignorance in the field, I do want to add that I’ve been interested learning from the outset. Lots of questions – which I thought stemmed from ignorance only – and particularly once I had kids (2 sons) whose learning paths were very different but both, from my observation, in need of careful choreography. From me. The person who hadn’t read anything about learning and teaching. What I discovered was that I knew (as all parents do – and perhaps more intensely than some because I’m intense) that I wanted their learning experiences to nurture their evident keen curiosity and love of learning. Or at least not to kill it entirely. My observations as a secondary school teacher in schools with a low academic standard (read a sizeable proportion of challenging or disengaged kids) was that something happened throughout schooling to kill off their initial thirst for learning and ability to focus somewhere along their schooling journey. I was determined not to let this happen to my own kids. Some reading occurred and a lot of observation and evaluation, discussion with others and intervention of sorts.

Does it matter to me now that I don’t have a background knowledge of pedagogy? Yes, I think it does. Despite all the good instincts – and they can’t all be good – I know that I need to read the important pedagogical literature so that I can gather all the raw, instinctive, confused ideas I have about teaching and learning (and my focus has definitely shifted from teaching to learning in the last few years of learning from virtual communities) and see where it fits in thinking that has been written out in a disciplined way. And another thing, my ideas need a voice. Just now on Twitter I favourited a retweet by Nick Kearney @nickkearney of Peter Shukie @ShukieOne’s shared link to this short video of Henry Giroux, one of the founding theorists of critical pedagogy in the United States (well, I had to look him up, didn’t I?) It’s a very short snippet, just over a minute long, but Giroux says that in his early years as a teacher he started playing around with things and moved the students’ tables and chairs into a circle, and his principal told him to move them back into straight lines facing the front. And Giroux says he ‘didn’t have the theoretical language’ to justify why he did what he did, and that, after reading a text on educational theory, he suddenly felt empowered (my paraphrasing) because he now had a language that gave him a way of theorising his practice/experience rather than just say ‘I think it works’ or ‘I think it’s good’.  “Something was happening… it was the beginning of moving from a position of being voiceless to having a voice.”

Had Giroux not read any education theory before he started teaching? I wonder how much this reading would mean to a pre-service teacher. Certainly it would have so many more hooks to hang on after some teaching experience. Although it is good to start with some formal ideas of teaching approaches and styles. Certainly I never felt confident that I could share my instincts about a positive learning environment in a serious way with people who were well read and experienced. And this is how some mothers feel, I’m sure, tuned in to their kids’ development but powerless against teaching professionals with no qualifications or language. Fathers too, of course, if they spend a lot of time with their kids.

So, conveniently, Martin Lugton shared on Twitter his summary of the chapter of Freire’s that’s been set for this week, of Freire’s explanation of the banking and libertarian models of education from The Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1996 Penguin Edition).  I’m not going to pretend to summarise anything. Instead I’ll pull out things which I’ve highlighted from the reading and from others’ posts. The banking metaphor still rings true today with teachers depositing knowledge into students without realising how passive students then become.

Another admission: There’s a lot of political background that I’m missing because  of my general ignorance of political things and history, so that’s not good because I often miss out on important context.

Certainly you can’t separate the way education works from the way society works.   The author of the blog NomadWarMachine makes a strong point in this post:

I picked up Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed this morning to reread chapter 2 for #moocmooc and, as I read it  was struck by how much it resonated with my feelings about our awful, bullying conservative government and the edits of the eejits like Gove and the rest of them, trying to turn all of our children into obedient little drones to service the capitalist empire that they and their cronies own.

Hmm… I do think there’s a large disconnect between the way our current world works and the outdated education system which worked well during the Industrial Age when students were skilled for specific tasks within a larger production assembly, when you could say with confidence: study hard and learn your content and you will have a secure career – not so anymore. Who knows what kinds of jobs and skills will be needed once our students finish their studies? I’m wondering if it’s all a vicious plot by governments to keep us passive and powerless or just lack of vision and refusal to understand change. But I plough on.

In his post, MMCP: The “critical” in “critical pedagogy”, Sean Michael Morris writes:

One of the most difficult things to reconcile as critical pedagogues is the exercise of our own authority… At times we are too ready to drag learners kicking and screaming into their own learning process.

Critical pedagogy could be thought of as a philosophy of teaching that shows more than tells.Telling” equates to what Freire calls “the banking model”of education — a model that leads away from liberation and down the road to oppression.

“Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention,” Freire writes, “through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.” (53) To “tell” is to rob the learner of her capacity for inquiry.

And left me with this question amongst others:

  • If it is not our task to “make deposits” into students’ minds, to reinforce learner passivity, but rather to spark inquiry, where is the best place to start?

The best teachers will always spark inquiry but how difficult is this in education system (VCE in Victoria, Australia) which requires the TEACHING of specific content and skills with little time for alternative teaching methods, and no time for diversion in the last 2 years of school? I know I keep banging on about this but we are a 9-12 school with a reputation for ‘helping our boys to achieve the highest ATARS’ so they can get into the courses which need the highest ATARS and then… presumably achieve long lasting success. Hmmm….

Our classrooms are still largely all desks facing the front with the teacher as the focal point and authority – but not always. Some subjects more than others. How much time would it take to recreate the learning environment in our classes and ‘give up’ our authority so that our students could become active agents? Is this possible in VCE? There are so many distractions (sports days, chorals, etc.) and so much to cover. Yes, this is the language of the oppressed – both teachers and students! We are all slaves! (You see, so many questions and so few answers. Am I being lazy? Certainly dramatic.)

I love Ann Gagne’s post entitled: Critical Pedagogy as Ethical Pedagogy. Ann’s opening paragraph tackles Freire’s ethical pedagogy head on:

Ideally education should treat all participants equally and humanly/ humanely but it often doesn’t. Often the need to monetize or highlight KPIs institutionally prevents/ erases humanization.  There is no one simple solution to bring the human back to education but I believe the first step is a focused on an acknowledgement  of lived experience. Curricula, syllabi, lessons should all incorporate (in all senses of the word) lived experience.

This is something Nick Fairlie and I have been doing with the year 9s and 10s – before they get serious – bringing their writing back to personal experience, and it’s yielded much fruit through the students’ blog reflections and reading of their colleagues’ thoughts. Connecting to themselves, writing about what they think and what matters, and guess what? the writing just happens and it keeps improving – along with the self confidence and enjoyment of writing. Otherwise many of our boys are very dependent on prescriptive instruction – more than our teachers feel comfortable with. It’s a bit like what Ann says here:

Sadly more and more students are becoming increasingly comfortable with the banking model and want the teacher/instructor/ professor to “just tell me what I need to know to get an A.”

Very sad indeed.

And more goodness from Ann:

Nothing can be advanced with conviction unless it creates community, works towards tearing down boundaries, and engages as many as possible. This is the core of authenticity in pedagogy. The participants (students and educators) can only be true and authentic to themselves by acknowledging their relation to others- an ethical creation of learning communities requires reflection and open communication.

Community, engagement, relationships, reflection and open communication. Who would deny that these are important things on which to focus in education – aren’t these the most important outcomes? Is our teaching style and classroom design conducive to these things or do we not even have the time to think about them?

As you can see, I’m avoiding a wholly personal interpretation of Freire’s chapter and instead piecing together others’ responses because they’ve done a damn good job and because I’m a little uncertain about how I feel, ie I’m fishing around and pulling out fish but I’m not up to making the final meal. This is the way I learn.

I’ll finish with Ann’s words again:

Learning and spaces for learning, should not been seen as confining (or a jail as dear Emily Dickinson suggests in her poem), but rather ever expanding and critical engagement with pedagogy allows for that expansion and hope for an always inquisitive and knowledge producing future.

Amen. And here is dear Emily’s poem From all the Jails the Boys and Girls:


From all the Jails the Boys and Girls
Ecstatically leap—
Beloved only Afternoon
That Prison doesn’t keep

They storm the Earth and stun the Air,
A Mob of solid Bliss—
Alas—that Frowns should lie in wait
For such a Foe as this—

If you’re interested in critical pedagogy or want to read what others have written about Freire, there’s a collection of all things #moocmooc.

And Kris Schaffer @krisschaffer has shared a list of recommended readings for Critical Pedagogy. Thanks, Kris! I’m currently reading Now you see it by Cathy Davidson and it’s so good!