Partnerships for Change

An Ethic of Care in the Classroom

Four students from Making Media, Making Change stand on a ledge, making a presentation outdoors.

Welcome to our Partnerships for Change blog series. Curious about the name? Our inspiration comes directly from HECUA’s mission statement. We are driven to “build academic-community partnerships for social change.” Please check this tag for writings, reflections, critiques, and calls to action from HECUA staff, faculty, students, community partners, and alumni. Please submit your own writings as well! Keep in mind: these are individual perspectives from our community, not necessarily institutional positions from HECUA.

We’re excited to offer this opportunity to our community stakeholders! Each month we will invite writing around a monthly theme. This month we’ve chosen Relationships. The post come from HECUA Making Media, Making Change Program Director Erin Walsh.

An Ethic of Care in the Classroom

August 11, 2017

“No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.” – James Comer

 Our Making Media, Making Change students settled into a circle as we began our usual end-of-semester debrief. “It was almost unsettling at first,” began the first student to share, “to feel so loved in this class. I guess I just never considered that you all would care so much about me. About my work maybe, but not about me.”

Other students quickly chimed in with their own reflections on their experiences. Some commented on the technical skills they gained, or readings that energized them or challenged them. Others reflected on the work they created. In and around the edges of each of these reflections, a similar theme kept nudging its way through and asserting its importance: the impact that relationships and care had on their learning.

Long after the semester wrapped up, I thought about the first student’s choice of words: unsettled and care. Having gotten to know this student quite well, I know that overall he enjoyed school and had benefitted from many educators who cared about his learning. Yet the feeling remained clear: He had felt unsettled by being cared for.

It seems that as students get older, the system is designed more around content and less around relationships.

Brains on sticks

Around the same time that my college-age students were debriefing their HECUA semester, my oldest son was getting ready to enter kindergarten. I sat next to him as he perched nervously on the bench next to me at his new school orientation. His eyes and body communicated the things that he didn’t yet have a way of articulating – that entering this new big world was exciting, terrifying, exhilarating, and scary. He picked his nails throughout the entire presentation. As a parent, I knew that he would bring this entire set of feelings into his classroom a few short months later. The contours of his emotions and responses would shape his learning.

I don’t remember much about that kindergarten roundup event, but I do remember when a teacher assured everyone in the room that children would not treated like “brains on sticks.” They might be small, but their feelings were big and would be tended to in the classroom.

HECUA students are certainly not small anymore, but their feelings are no less big. In MMMC, we begin the semester by reading The Storytelling Project Model: A Theoretical Framework for the Examination of Racism Through the Arts. The authors use the concept of a  “learning edge” to signal a commitment to stretching and inviting new learning just beyond what we already know. The same reading introduces the idea of a “contact zone” instead of the familiar “comfort zone” to indicate that prioritizing comfort can sometimes come at the expense of transformation and learning.  The reality is that whether you are in college or kindergarten, learning can be simultaneously exciting, terrifying, exhilarating, and scary.

Your learning edge

Instead of separating feelings from content, experiential educators find a way to join the two.  Readings, theories, field speakers, and field experiences are presented in ways that ignite and amplify emotional connections. A growing body of evidence reminds us that this kind of emotional learning is not separate from cognitive learning, especially in the context of navigating ethical dilemmas and finding personal and collective solutions to the complex issues HECUA programs tackle. Indeed, as professor and community organizer Marshall Ganz reminds us, “If we cannot experience emotion, we cannot experience the values that orient us to our world.”

So how do we effectively hold both the cognitive (thinking) and affective (feeling/emotion) components of learning? How do we weave rigor and intellectual sophistication together with the emotional literacy that this kind of work and study demands?

In relationship.

Relationships do all kinds of “work” for us as learners and human beings. Relationships are the primary way that we manage all of our big feelings, including stress and trauma. They allow us to feel safe and secure enough to move towards our learning edges. They help focus our attention and bookmark important information. They help us practice the skills of responsibility, empathy, reciprocity, and collective problem solving that are needed for ethical engagement with information and ideas.

In Making Media, Making Change, practicing this “ethic of care” includes creating opportunities for personal reflection and sharing, collective meals, spending time together outside of class, and finding creative ways of linking course themes and assignments to our own lives. Sometimes this is a simple invitation. For example, MMMC students are asked to come to class a couple of times a semester prepared to share something that both relates to class and moves them personally. The poems, art, music videos, quotes and books that students share not only prompt us to think differently about course content but give us a window into what shapes students’ worldviews outside of assigned readings. Other times, the invitation is more challenging. The first film project of the semester is called the “Story of Self,” following a framework for public narrative created by Marshall Ganz. This assignment doesn’t require extensive research or piles of reading, yet students often find it the most daunting. It requires that they exercise the “courage of introspection” to excavate the moments that have been meaningful to them in shaping their own lives and bring them to life on film. Once they find those moments, they have to believe they are worth sharing with their classmates, faculty, and beyond. Over the years, these Story of Self films have explored racial and gender identity, sexual violence, eating disorders, siblings, abuse, religion, pets, neighborhoods, parents, mental health, geography, and more. They are moving, poignant, hilarious, sad, inspiring, confusing, quirky, and always powerful. The assignment is of course a launch pad to exploring the role of personal storytelling in social change movements. But perhaps even more importantly, it shortens the distance between us. It causes students to look up from the syllabus and towards each other.

While it may feel unsettling at first, being cared for in the classroom is not a “soft” component of learning. It is its fuel.

— Erin Walsh


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