Yesterday, Danielle Filipiak was gracious to participate in the above Google hangout with my Teaching Composition class (and Antero was gracious enough to record it for YouTube perpetuity).

Wow. I do not have exclamation points and ALL CAPS enough to emphasize how TERRIFIC Danielle was!!! I think the greatest testament came from a student, Stacy Hosek, who stayed after class to talk with me about how helpful the hangout had been. “She made all this real because she’s really done it,” Stacy said.

I agree. Even after all my years of teaching, truly enacting culturally responsive teaching, especially when you’re a white teacher in a diverse setting, can be tricky. One of my favorite responses from Danielle was in response to this question from my student Andy:

If you consider yourself and outsider to your students’ community (in terms of race, etc.), what’s the best way to be effective in that community?

[Isn’t that a great question? Ding-ding-ding! Extra points for reflecting our focus on positionality.]

Danielle’s advice was to be your authentic self as a teacher, to try to learn from your students, and to be vulnerable in that learning–though she admitted that can tricky. Even though her background wasn’t identical to her students, she described their common ground as “coming from a place of struggle.”

Here’s the full set of questions my students generated for Danielle (special thanks to Chelsea, John, Linda, Andy, Bethany, and Stacy for taking the initiative to pose them and to converse with Danielle during the hangout, even though, as Chelsea put it, it was a little nerve-wracking to “talk to someone famous!”)

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Some clear themes emerged for me during the conversation. First of all, I was struck by how relational all this work is. I’ve always believed that the relationships you form with your students are the what makes teaching the hardest job I’ve ever loved. Danielle described it as “teaching from a place of vulnerability” and explained that even though students may hate you sometimes and think you’re crazy, as long as they know you love and respect them and where they come from, they will take risks as learners and human beings. She emphasized that one of the most important habits we can enact as teachers is LISTENING. (This reminder is important for all of us, no matter how long we’ve taught. I bet that for most of us, the image that comes to mind when we envision ourselves teaching is of us standing at the front of the classroom talking. But what does listening look like? How do we configure our classrooms to foster that behavior in ourselves? How does a listening stance shift, quite literally, our positionality in the classroom?)

Another theme that emerged was the notion of teaching and learning bravely. It was clear to me that Danielle really puts herself out there and does so from a place of inquiry and intention. She poses difficult questions for her students to address in sustained ways throughout the year: What does it mean to be a human being? How is this related to language, power, and agency? What role does education play? Even though these questions can seem daunting, she insists that “TEENAGERS CARE ABOUT THESE THINGS.” That’s what makes the struggle to address them together worthwhile.

Finally (though I’m sure I’m missing something), I was very interested in Danielle’s pedagogical eclecticism. It was clear to me that a wide and varied set of tools, texts, and practices make brave teaching and learning possible–print-based, multimodal, and digital. Her students wrote, interviewed, and interacted with community members and one another to tackle the essential questions that guided her course. She also emphasized that the texts that surround students are as important as the texts that teachers bring into the classroom. She wants her students to know, “You are writing yourself into being” and to select the appropriate tools to achieve that purpose.

WHAT I’M WONDERING NOW: I want to know more about that practice of “writing yourself into being” because it seems hugely important for us to think about in E402. I also want to ask Danielle some more pointed questions about the complexity of teaching in a diverse setting as a white teacher. In class discussion last week, one of my students said that she would hate to think that she couldn’t teach in a diverse, urban context just because she was white (and middle-class, too, though I’m not sure she said that). What if you haven’t struggled in the way your students have? How can you teach with empathy without unintentionally communicating condescension? More than once, Danielle also mentioned activism and teaching with an agenda. I want to hear more about her experiences in that area, too, because I know from personal experience that teaching in ways that challenge your students’ (and their families’) world views entails risk.

Last thing: I really appreciated Danielle’s willingness to make herself vulnerable with us and her confession that this work isn’t easy, even though it may look that way on Digital Is.

teaching from a place of struggle

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