The Learner’s Bill of Rights in Practice

1. Learners deserve a map, so they can see where they are supposed to be going.

Like all teachers, I provide a syllabus and course schedule at the beginning of each semester. Before we begin writing our papers, I provide a  template of a research paper and a handout that breaks down the source sandwich that is the basis of every body paragraph. I also give students a map of what to do when things go wrong, including what to do if they think they are being treated unfairly in class.

I get permission from students each semester to use their work as a teaching example for students the next semester. I explicitly state that I use student work to illustrate what should be done as well as what should not be done. Students know the sorts of uses I make of student work, because I have used the work of former students to provide a map for them.

2.     Learners have the right to require a reason that makes sense to them to care about the subject and the task at hand.

At appropriate points in the semester, I provide a step-by-step overview of all the assignments in a unit, showing how each assignment teaches them how to do the work that will eventually result in a finished, high-quality paper. This map allows students to see the value of completing each assignment as well as they can.

Before writing me a letter selling me an object, an activity, or a service they have tried and liked, I invite students to interrogate me about my likes and dislikes.

I teach the uses of prepositions through the parlor game “Consequences,” breaking between writers at prepositions (see http://transitionsgame.wikia.com/wiki/Transitions Game_Wiki for examples from my classes. Click on the bold, blue title, “TransitionsGame Wiki”). Students enjoy taking a break from regular classwork, and they enjoy the opportunity to be silly and creative, with no negative consequences. These are sufficient reasons for them to participate fully in this exercise. Then I ask students what they learned. Generally, they learn that prepositions do real work to direct the mind of the reader toward the writer’s conclusions, and that some of their classmates have a gratifyingly morbid sense of humor. They end up caring which prepositions they choose to organize their papers.

I explain why we are doing a particular exercise the way we are. For example, after the first time we use small groups as a way of preparing for large group discussion, I point out that doing things this way makes it possible for quiet students to have their ideas heard and occasionally repeated to the larger group. Most noisy students know that they are noisy, but they think that quiet students should change themselves to be more voluble. Usually, these noisy students see the value of restructuring class activity to give the quiet students an opportunity to voice their opinions once in a while.

Close to the beginning of each semester, I provide students with an overview of the critical theory lens that guides my courses, via discussion, writing assignments such as the Field Analysis, and a series of YouTube movies I made for this purpose.

3.     Learners deserve to know that their strengths are recognized and valued by their teachers.

I warn students that we are going to talk about serious, real things this semester, and that at some point, someone is going to say something that can be taken as offensive. I acknowledge that I have expertise in reading and writing, but not in being Black or Romanian or Hispanic. For that expertise, I will rely on my students, who know far more about that than I do. I ask that they, in their turn, see the inevitable ignorant statement as a teaching opportunity, and explain to the offending speaker the things that they want him or her to know with the same respect that they would have liked to receive in the first place.

I acknowledge when students have made good points, even when their points contradict mine.

When students come up with ideas or assignment products that are outstanding, I get their permission and show their work to the entire class.

I keep a teaching and learning blog. I tell my students where it is and I invite them to visit and comment. On the blog, I review events from class, including my teaching strategies and what I think about how it went. I include student contributions from class and I comment on these.

4.     Learners deserve to know that they are valued as people by their teachers, no matter what strengths they do or do not possess. This is not the same as getting grades based on their personhood; grades reflect achievement. However, each student deserves respect for and recognition of her/his value as a person. 

I explain that particular exercises are included in classwork for the benefit of certain kinds of learners. For example, after the first time we use small groups as a way of preparing for large group discussion, I point out that doing things this way makes it possible for quiet students to have their ideas heard and occasionally repeated to the larger group.

Before class, I sometimes ask quiet students if they will prepare answers for group discussion on a particular topic. Then I make sure to follow up!

I hardly ever respond to student comments or ideas with, “No, you’re wrong.” Instead, I ask them how they come to their conclusions and I point out how they are participating in the inquiry process. Then I explore other ways of making knowledge about the topic they have raised.

5.     Learners have the right to personal privacy.

When I comment on my blog on student work or participation, I use pseudonyms for specific students whose activity comes up a lot. Otherwise, I just say, “a student.”

I never require students to reveal things about themselves in class or to me that are unduly personal. When students choose to reveal things about themselves, I will sometimes stop them when it seems they are revealing something that puts them in danger. For example, at the beginning of each semester, I inform my students in Spanish and English that I understand the reasons why a person might come to the United States without documentation, but that doesn’t mean they should tell me that they are here illegally. I explain that try to obey our laws, and I do not want to be able to tell anyone anything about my students that might put them in danger.

Students who give me permission to use their work in future semesters have the option of specifying that their names must or must not be used to identify them as the authors.

6.     Learners have a right to make their own knowledge, when, how, and why they please. The teacher’s role is to support and teach careful thinking, not predetermined conclusions.

After reviewing how human beings make individual and social knowledge, I have students write down five things they know, such as “The sky is blue,” “Girls mature faster than boys,” or “Cops are racist.” I ask students to explain to a partner how they came to know these things (observation, personal experience, hearsay) and what made this knowledge reliable. Together, we compare this knowledge-making process with those of other groups, such as parents, teachers, academic scholars, and scientists. (Note: The academics and scientists are not always more reliable than the other groups in making knowledge that reflects reality as usefully as possible.)

I accept papers on a wide variety of topics. The only reasons I might prohibit a specific topic are these: (1) I have read so many papers on that topic that I will not be interested in anything any student has to say on it. This situation predisposes me to dislike such papers. (2) There is no way the student can make any arguments on this topic that do not boil down to personal belief, irrespective of facts. Examples: gun control, abortion. (I have seen quality discussions of these topics, but never from undergraduate students, who usually lack the necessary life experience and perspective. See reason 1.) (3) I know from experience with the research resources that the student will not find sufficient documentary sources to support any argument on this topic.

I judge papers based on how persuasive they will be to the audience that the student has picked for her/his work. The student performs a field analysis that determines the criteria by which the paper will be judged, in addition to the fundamental requirements for writing for academia.

7.     Learners have the right to make mistakes, to take the consequences, and to have the opportunity to make new knowledge as a result of their mistakes.

At the beginning of the semester, I establish roles and boundaries by explaining to students that they should think of this class as their job and of me as their boss. Just as they would at work, they need to show me that they are trustworthy by keeping in touch via email, phone, text. See Decision Tree for Students to print.

I do not accept late work, but I do accept redone work for full credit. I reserve the right to refuse to regrade work if it is not redone sufficiently to merit a second look.

8.     If a teacher interferes in a learner’s process, it should be to figure out how to present ideas and information in a way that the learner can best understand and make use of. The learner’s needs are more important than the teacher’s needs.

Keep continually updated records on Blackboard for students as to how they are doing in the class and how that translates to a final grade

Explain to students before they do the work how their work will be graded, show examples of previous student work with my critiques

Ask students for permission to use their classwork to teach other students at a later time

No late work, but can redo assignments for full credit at any time if they are turned in on time

Professional development, adaptation of teaching practices to use new knowledge about learners’ needs, ask for feedback via reflections and essays

Scaffolding throughout the semester, including maze activity, dating activity, persuasive letters, source sandwiches, five-paragraph essays, field analyses, secondary source analyses, annotated bibliographies, outlines, drafts, presentations

Group work, embedded librarians, Writing Center visits, student-teacher interviews

Modeling, critique of models, then writing

Blackboard activity, including discussion board and wikis

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