A White Woman Pondering Power and Privilege in Classrooms

The discussion that occurred during our class about power in the classroom is still resonating within me – not because we found solutions, but because we got into some questions and wonderings. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about power and privilege within SoTL, especially when it comes to grading things like spelling and grammar/use of the English language, microaggressions in feedback, and how we may need to reimagine many of the principles that are defined in SoTL in order to decolonize and deconstruct the ableist, racist, and classist structures that are upheld by academic institutions.

In a course I took last semester I wrote a spoken word poem about research as reconciliation (as I currently understand it), and how I saw connections to music through this idea of deep listening (with the whole body/mind), an on-going two-way conversation, and dance of accountability in call-and-response style. I concluded the poem with some current axiological commitments, epistemological justice ideas, relational ontological orientations, ideas about seeking equity and inclusion in various learning environments, and this notion that I must “know” responsibly. This idea that I have responsibility, is extended within all my relations (including the more-than-human ones), and inherent to me because I hold many privileges and power as a TA, RA, white, able-bodied, cis-gendered, white, woman who has lived in Guelph all her life. I often think of privilege in terms of (lack of) lived experiences and, in some ways, gifts. Robin Wall Kimmerer discusses two aspects of receiving gifts: one is that I am now in reciprocal debt, and two “with gifts comes responsibility”. Likewise, “with great power comes great responsibility”. My point here is that I feel I have stepped into, and feel grounded by, my responsibilities within academia.

Reflection 3 – Micro-Teaching Session

As I move into my reflection on my micro-teaching session, I bring in many of the concepts I have been pondering about power and privilege in classrooms. My micro-teaching session was about epistemology and I was using Indigenous pedagogical strategies. In my preparation for facilitating this sessions, I read three articles and a book chapter related to Indigenous pedagogy and Indigenization within academia. I decided that I was not going to do a lecture for my 10 min session. I wasn’t going to teach about Indigenous content or use slides either. I did this because even though the use of slides and visuals are typically part of SoTL best practice, they did not align with Indigenous pedagogy as I am currently understanding about it. For my own learning, I wanted to err on the side of practicing these skills, rather than practicing my use of slides and visuals.

I ended up seeing a lot of overlap in the strategies I was reading about, and realized that I could implement several pedagogical strategies at once to break down the hierarchy that typically exists in teacher-student classroom dynamics. Therefore, I intentionally used 7 strategies (a lot, I see now) in my micro-teaching session. I put a lot of care into facilitating a lesson that was decolonized as much as possible, because this is what I had learned about in the articles I read, and because this felt like the step I really wanted to practice in terms of my skill set. The 7 strategies I used included:

  • Employing non-hierarchical teaching structure, as in no “us” and “them” culture between teacher and students (Papp, 2020). I did this by not presenting slides and instead having a more casual conversation. I also encouraged students to change their location (e.g., sit on a couch and turn off the camera) in order to mimic the environment described in Papp’s article.
  • Using a culturally responsive and affirming activity (Papp, 2020). I did this by encouraging students to include their own personal truths and what is individually meaningful. I included a medicine wheel as a prompt to think beyond academic forms of knowledge in order to think about embodied knowledge.
  • Employing relational pedagogy: building community, collaboration, trust, value and respect for each other’s ideas (Papp, 2020). I did this a little bit by including self-reflection and group activities rooted in the student’s personal knowledge. I tried to model being an accomplice for students’ success, rather than an evaluator.
  • Employing experiential learning (Papp, 2020). I tried to demonstrate this through the activities being connected to students own knowledge. It is difficult to facilitate experiential learning virtually in 10 minutes, but my aim was for this to be an internal experience of reconceptualizing knowledge.
  • Peer mentoring (Ragoonaden & Meuller, 2017). While I didn’t explicitly have students mentor each other, I encouraged students who answered that they knew about epistemology to take on a leadership role within the activity that we are going to do. The activity was collaborative and allowed for learning to happen between students via the jamboard. I also included an “up-vote” feature to build some feelings of connections between students.
  • Including (centring) Indigenous worldviews (Papp, 2020). This lesson is less about transferring any type of specific knowledge and instead encourages students to use self-reflection and embodied knowledge to generate their own insights, and then categorize their current knowledge by three broad categories of epistemology. I prompted students to think of how the medicine wheel might reflect the three broad types of epistemology, without directly teaching Indigenous content.
  • Allowing students to self-pace the main learning task (Papp, 2020). I did this by allowing students to continue to work on the jamboard at their own pace after the class.
  • Including Indigenous knowledges throughout the lesson at a variety of levels, not just in the content (as per Pidgeon’s (2016) lit review). I did this by not teaching directly about Indigenous worldviews, but by imploring my strategies in a variety of ways and by empowering students to think beyond Eurocentric ideals of knowledge.

Clearly, I thought deeply about how to implement Indigenous pedagogy in practice from the articles I read. I also need to acknowledge that much of my understanding thus far comes from the conversations I have had with faculty and peers around decolonization, Indigenization, and reconciliation. Having been taught by Kim Anderson for a few guest lectures helped me challenge my own understanding of Indigenizing curriculum. Additionally, my mentorship by Andrea Breen was truly transformative for me in terms of understanding my own positionality and impacts of my privilege. There is no “how-to” guide for decolonizing academia, despite the above list that I provided. Like I said, I am a white woman, and for me to attempt to facilitate a lesson plan based on Indigenous pedagogy that I simply read about rather than getting mentored on by an Indigenous individual can be considered problematic.

All this to say that I knew I had a lot packed into my micro teaching session, which was intentional given the responsibility I felt for doing this task justice. And yet, when I facilitated my session, it felt like it fell flat.

What went well

I am very proud to say that I felt like I took a risk in trying to decolonize my own pedagogical practice. It was a valuable learning moment for me. I very clearly used BOPPS model (I did a pre and post assessment with menti), I used many active learning strategies (a jam board for a group activity), and I said my learning outcomes at the start of my lesson.

What did not go well

The concept of time is not something that is necessarily translated directly in Indigenous cultures, as I currently understand them. Having a 10 minute teaching session in and of itself goes against many cultural practices and beliefs of the peoples of Turtle Island (I think). Instead, learning unfolds overtime, and is something we are in relation with. Therefore the initial set up of the activity went against my understanding of how I could implement Indigenous pedagogy respectfully.

Beyond that, my initial reaction to facilitating my lesson was that it was way too full. I spoke quickly, despite being fairly calm, and I didn’t have enough time to allow my learners to try the last activity. I realized that without any visual information learners couldn’t refer back to some of the things I was saying.

I had mentioned in my session that I didn’t include slides on purpose, but I didn’t say why I did this, because it was tied to creating a non-hierarchical learning environment which was one of my strategies for using Indigenous pedagogy. I thought that this would be obvious to my learners, and that it would be silly to explain my teaching strategy when I was going to demonstrate it any way. But through feedback, I learned something different: it was suggested that I could have explained why I was not using slides. This was a useful perspective to consider and something I still contemplating for my next session. I likely just need to find a concise way to say what I said above, although I feel uncertain about making a link between a lack of slides and Indigenous pedagogy because I am not an expert on this concept, and many Indigenous instructors likely use slides. This tension is something I am working through as a white person, particularly in ensuring that I am not co-opting Indigenous oral traditions but that I am also growing my own capacity to teach outside of the traditional academic structure. Perhaps for the scope of this assignment, I need to just use slides. I’ll have to see how I feel after thinking about it some more.

Challenge: While I completely understand and agree with this feedback, I don’t understand how I could also create the time to explain my teaching strategies to create that transparency for learners in a 10 min teaching session. I could have easily spent 10 minutes explaining Indigenous pedagogy, and it felt like knowing some of the basic concepts of Indigenous pedagogy would be a prerequisite for me to have meaningful feedback from my peers. To do this topic justice, I think it would help to have a brief time ahead of the lesson where I can explain my intentions and why Indigenous pedagogy often doesn’t align with typical pedagogical approaches in University. I suppose my question is: who is my target audience and what relationship do we already have to one another when I do this micro teaching session?

Another piece of feedback I got was that I could include a written version of my learning objectives for learners to refer back to and for visual organization purposes. I hadn’t considered that what I was doing was inaccessible to students and not helpful for their learning. This is a piece of feedback I am going to use in my next session, but I am not going to do it via slides. I am either going to type it in the chat or put it in the jamboard link. Doing so just does not align currently with my understanding of Indigenous pedagogy and goes against my values for doing this concept justice, as I have mentioned.

Challenge: The irony to all this is that in all my effort to decolonize a lesson plan, I was kind of told … not to do that. I had quite an emotional reaction to this and nearly had to turn off my camera to hide tears that were forming. I wasn’t upset that I got constructive feedback – I crave that, and I attempt to welcome it with grace. I was upset that I felt resistance to my attempt to implement Indigenous pedagogy…in a session DESIGNED to facilitate Indigenous pedagogy. I thought “if I can’t feel supported in decolonizing a 10 min lesson that is ABOUT imploring Indigenous pedagogy, why are we including it in this class and how would be actually decolonize this institution?” I felt really disappointed and discouraged in that moment. This strong initial reaction led me to linger on the feedback I got and to deconstruct the feedback and my reaction.

What I learned about being an educator and myself

After having a strong reaction to getting feedback about my teaching session I realized I had some deconstructing to do. I had initially attributed all of this feedback to just be about Indigenous pedagogy, instead of attributing it to my own pedagogical skills. I starting asking myself: how much of the ownership to facilitate a session using Indigenous pedagogical strategies is on me? How much is on the learners and my peers and instructor in this course? I realized that I have some responsibility to take here. I can implement the ideas I discussed above, but I also also accept that I am not going to be an expert at using Indigenous pedagogical skills the first time I do so. To expect myself to be good at it is actually a very colonizing idea – that I can just take Indigenous concepts and benefit from them. So I’ve realized that I need to continue to build these skills, and perhaps it goes beyond the scope of this course to find a mentor to help me with this. That being said, I also would ask that if I am expected to demonstrate my skills in this area that my peers and instructor are able to understand this area of SoTL and think deeply about what it means to decolonize a lesson plan.

Future Implications: Since I realized that I need to consider that the challenges that occurred could be co-owned by myself, my peers, and the instructor, I have come back to this idea of the importance of reflective practice and getting effective feedback. If I am not clear in my teaching strategy, regardless of how decolonized it may be, then I’m not being a good instructor. I would like to seek out a mentor or webinar or other learning space where I can practice some of the skills I mentioned and get feedback on them from people who are skilled in the area of Indigenous pedagogy.

Which feedback I will implement

At the time of writing this I am still reflecting on all of the feedback I got. I likely will implement the things I have mentioned above, in the ways I have mentioned them. Additionally, I asked my group about my topic choice (epistemology) I was given some feedback that perhaps it was a heavy topic. I was given feedback that I could include more Indigenous examples in the examples section that I had for the three types of epistemological orientations. Initially, I thought this was a great idea and a huge oversight on my part. But upon reflection, I realized that this is akin to simple injecting Indigenous content into my lesson. So I have decided I will include only 1/4 written examples in each section that is rooted in Indigenous Ways of Knowing, but I will verbally explain the active learning task using a land-based example. I think that in doing so this will make a more explicit connection between my topic of epistemology, Indigenous Ways of Knowing, and these 7 Indigenous pedagogical strategies I listed above.

While I wasn’t given direct feedback on the use of my 7 strategies explicitly, I am thinking I will need to just focus on one or two in order for my peers to give me feedback on those strategies specifically. I think it perhaps wasn’t obvious to my peers and instructor that I had tried to decolonize the entire lesson plan, and in many ways perhaps that was not the point of this task. While implementing the 7 strategies was helpful and meaningful for my own learning, I am thinking about focusing on, say, just not using slides, and getting feedback on how that felt as learners. There are additional features that may help with processing auditory information from an accessibility perspective, such as the transcript feature in zoom. Finding creative ways to still provide a lesson that is aligned with Indigenous pedagogy tricky, and it is a task that may require some flexible thinking from the learners. I may simply have to state that.

Additional Reflections

Giving Feedback

I wanted to reflect on some additional challenges I noticed while giving feedback to peers. If my peers had used the BOPPS model, it was easy to give feedback on those features. If they didn’t, but then wanted feedback on the BOPPS model, I hope it prompted some self-reflection for my peers. It felt like perhaps not the most productive use of our time otherwise. Additionally, I noticed that one of my peers did not implement a specific learning strategy but instead taught about it. I think some further clarification may need to be made, despite us as students asking many times about what the micro-teaching session was designed to accomplish.

Some feedback comments I heard from one student came across as concerning to me. These comments included that the one of our classmates should “smile more” when presenting and that their session was good for not being a native English language speaker. Neither of these feedback comments were asked for by the peer that had just facilitated their micro-teaching session. These comments were affirmed by the instructor which I found further concerning. In the moment, I understood that maybe prior conversations had elicited these comments in ways that I was not aware of, but I found them very startling, inappropriate, and condescending. I know that not everyone has the same knowledge about comments that are considered to be microaggressions, but I nontheless had a strong emotional reaction to this. I was happy to see some pushback on the second comment from another peer who spoke English as a second language. My thoughts were along the lines of “if we can’t give each other feedback that doesn’t include microaggressions related English speaking abilities, what does it mean that we are perpetuating as instructors? What views do we hold of students who may not speak English fluently or who do not smile?”. There are ways to give feedback on each other’s facial expressions or energy without directly telling an individual that they should smile more. I wish I had spoken up in the moment to challenge these comments and in the future I plan to address them in a gentle way. Additionally, it would be great to discuss microaggressions ahead of giving feedback to one another in order to consider how to address this is in the future.

Future implications: These kinds of mistakes can happen to anyone. Even though I identified concerning comments, I myself am not immune from saying a microaggressive comment to a peer or student within any of my roles. While there are many webinars and learning opportunities related to anti-racism and EDI, I am wondering about learning how to respond as an educator when we make these mistakes or when we are given feedback that something we did may have been inappropriate. How can we get that feedback from peers? I’d rather be told by somebody I trust that what I’ve said is problematic than to hurt a group of students. How can we create learning environments that hold space for calling each other into having these tough conversations? I would rather be part of a brave learning environment that had the capacity to stretch in order to address these concepts than focus on mastering content. And yet, as a white cis-gendered, able-bodied person, I shouldn’t be the one to fully decide this. I have heard from my Black friends that being in school right now as the only Black student in a class is exhausting. There are many conversations where white people are reflecting on their privilege and the Black student is simply called in for their perspective. We may need learning spaces where white learners don’t need to burden Black students with their reflections without reinventing segregation. Therefore, I am just wondering about seeking out and/or creating on going learning opportunities and spaces for educators to engage in reflective practice that relates to deconstructing how they handled situations. This things obviously informally exist in that I can ask peers or friends for their perspective, but this feedback is not necessarily informed by SoTL. I plan to continue to think about this situation and how I might support myself and my peers in learning from our mistakes, where appropriate.

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