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UIC TA Handbook - Making UIC Student Demographics Come Alive

By Maria Varelas

Professor
UIC College of Education

 

Every classroom constitutes a small society embedded within a complex web of social entities whose overlapping systems of laws, customs, and traditions it partially shares and sometimes adds to or contradicts.
                                                                                                                                       Jackson, Boostrom, & Hansen, 1993, p. 12.

As teachers we are involved with several small societies. And as UIC’s student body becomes more and more diverse, these small societies become more and more diverse. How does this impact your teaching at UIC?

I consider teaching as a socio-cultural practice in which students gain entrance to a body of knowledge constructing their own meanings and understandings of the topic explored. Helping students make sense and articulate concepts, ideas, procedures, tools, and artifacts that, for example, the physicist, historian, mathematician, political scientist might use is a critical aspect of the art and science of teaching. In order to reach this goal, we [the teachers] need to help our students link the intellectual achievements of the field with their prior understandings and meanings of the topic. An essential way for such a link to occur is the establishment of a common framework between the teacher and the students through dialogue and argumentation (which, taken together, define discourse). Classroom discourse [oral or written] is a powerful tool we can use [in our classrooms] to reach out and help students develop meaningful understandings. If we examine how practitioners in any of the academic disciplines develop and expand the knowledge base of their field, we find that discourse plays a critical role.

Our original question can now be broken into several questions: Knowing that our students come from a variety of ethnic, racial, linguistic, socio-economic, gender, religious, cultural, and academic backgrounds, how do we, as teachers, who may share one or several of these backgrounds:

  • Encourage and challenge each student to make meaning and sense out of what he or she is presented and asked to do?
  • Engage all our students in meaningful discourse?
  • Help students link their own, possibly less structured and developed ideas with the meanings and understandings that practitioners in the fields we are teaching currently accept?

There is no "magic formula" that will give us the exact answers to all these questions. However, there are a variety of ideas, strategies, and approaches that can bring us closer to achieving our goals. Many of these ideas are presented in this Handbook I will try, in this article, to capture some of the guiding interrelated principles that are central for me as a teacher and a researcher of teaching and learning.

The first principle that can lead to good teaching is: Do Not Assume . . . all students learn in the same way we do . . . all students are attracted to our discipline
. . .students prefer the same modes of communication that we do . . . our students understand the fundamental ideas explored in their previous courses . . . we help our students construct meaning because we present our subject matter well . . . students learn because we use the latest pedagogical techniques in our classroom, such as cooperative learning . . . our students share our value systems [our systems of laws, customs, and traditions].

Students bring to our small societies, our classrooms, a variety of attitudes, knowledge, perspectives, biases, just as we do. We will have difficulty developing a common framework with them unless we become aware of their realities. By realities I do not mean their knowledge of the subject matter we teach. A chemistry teacher does not only need to become aware of where her or his students are in terms of chemistry knowledge. She or he also needs to become aware of where her or his students are in terms of the following characteristics:

  • some students may express themselves better orally and others in writing;
  • some students may have a difficult time participating in class, while some try to dominate;
  • some may have learned not to challenge the teacher, and therefore avoid asking questions and interacting with the teacher when they do not understand, while others will do whatever it takes to make something meaningful to them;
  • some students may see their class work in terms of their individual achievements, while others may put more emphasis on working together with their peers in order to reach a higher level of understanding; and
  • Some students may be able to work with problems that are situated within meaningful contexts, yet others may find the context more confusing and less helpful and would like the problems presented in an abstract way.

Although research has documented that such differences sometimes differentiate students across ethnic, racial, linguistic, cultural, and gender lines, it is important to remember that every student has had unique experiences in life and that he or she may not fall clearly within one group's characteristics and preferences. We need to think of each student as an individual with her or his own ways of experiencing school and life and as a member of a specific cultural, ethnic, gender, and racial group.

Ways to reach out to our students include providing them with multiple entry points in the lessons, multiple ways of engaging in the lessons, multiple ways of assessing their developing understandings of the lessons, and multiple ways of connecting with us. At the same time w need to listen very carefully to what our students are telling us, to what they are revealing to us through direct and indirect ways. It is only then that we can become aware of the differences between their perspectives and understandings and our own. This awareness is an important first step to bridging these differences and helping our students develop meaningful knowledge in our classes.

A second principle that can lead to good teaching Is: Constantly Analyze and Reflect on Teaching and Learning. To become good teachers we need to be willing to spend time thinking about and examining in depth our teaching vis--vis our students' learning (Schon, 1983). Teaching is a craft in which we face many tensions and dilemmas. Continuously defining these tensions and developing ways of addressing them tailored to the specific needs of our students, is what reflection is all about. For example, when I teach undergraduate and graduate classes, I ask myself questions, such as:

  • How much should I push my students so that they are challenged but not thrown off by this experience?
  • Should I let them first explore their own ideas, or should I offer them some help to start with?
  • How do I achieve rich and in-depth discussions and, at the same time, make sure that all my students are engaged and contributing ideas?
  • How do I achieve a good balance in class participation between those students who are very articulate and feel comfortable taking risks and sharing their ideas and those students who are more hesitant and not used to sharing their thoughts?
  • How do I move the class forward and allow the free exchange of ideas and concepts and at the same time provide structure for those students who need it?

I do not always achieve a balance when faced with these dilemmas, but by constantly reexamining my teaching I can correct, to a certain extent, my actions so I can achieve a better balance. When we teach highly diverse classrooms, achieving and maintaining this balance is a challenge and, therefore, reflecting on our teaching becomes even more important.

As teachers, we are creators and bearers of meaning. Our work is to empower students to find their own personal meaning. But, we cannot do that year after year without attending to our own meaning-making and empowerment.
                                                                                                                                                       Bolin, 1987, p. 219.

This quote summarizes the third principle which Is: Attend To Your Own Meaning Making. If we are to help all of our students develop meaning in our classrooms, we should also attend to developing our own meanings, our meaning of the subject matter we teach and our meaning of pedagogy--who our students are, what they need to learn, how they learn. We often hear that in order to teach a topic we need to understand it. There is an important truth in this. In order to teach a topic well (i.e., in order to help our students construct meaningful understandings) we, as teachers, need to not only know the concepts involved but how they are linked to other ideas, the history of the topic, the conceptual frameworks that support

or challenge it, its application to other fields and our everyday life. So, uncovering and examining what we know and how well we know it plays a critical role in our development as teachers. This exploration enables us to appreciate the complexities of learning. At times we enter our classrooms with the belief and attitude that some topics we have mastered are easy and, therefore, we expect our students will find them easy as well. What we sometimes forget are all the connections, links, and associations that we have pushed to the back of our minds.

One final thought, the mastery of subject matter alone will not bring us closer to realizing our goal of good teaching, teaching that helps all of our students learn. Attending to our understanding of pedagogy by focusing on the three principles that I presented earlier, will allow us to teach the subject matter of our field in a way that makes sense not only to us but to our students. As teachers we are eternal learner, learners of our subject matter and learners of our students and their learning.

These are some of my perspectives, presented very briefly, on good teaching with a diverse student body. As with any form of teaching, in the process of putting this piece together I struggled with many issues, including how general vs. specific, how theoretical vs. practical I should be in order to reach a diverse body of Teaching Assistants. I hope you find this piece useful in developing your own teaching. I also hope that you think about these ideas, examine them further, and challenge them as you delve into the rest of this Handbook with all its breadth and depth.

I leave you with one additional thought. Teaching is or can be one of the most rewarding experiences in our professional lives. But, teaching students from a variety of ethnic, racial, linguistic, socio-economic, gender, religious, cultural, and academic backgrounds, and succeeding, even partially is a thrilling experience.

References

Bolin, F. S. (1987). Teaching as a self-renewing vocation. In F. S. Bolin, &

J. McConnell Folk (Eds.), Teacher renewal: Professional issues, personal choices (pp. 217-230). New York: Teachers College.

Jackson, P. W. Boostrom, R. E., & Hansen, D. T. (1993). The moral life of schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Schon, D. (1983). The reflective practitioner:  How professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books.

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