Learning Feelings, Part II

Since starting this blog a few months ago, I’ve been learning a whole lot about learning. I’ve learned about a few theories on how the brain processes new information. I’ve read studies on the effectiveness of particular teaching practices, like one-minute papers and the use of clickers in lecture halls.  Not only have I been reading academic papers on teaching & learning, I’ve learned that such papers exist as part of a recognized and well-established field of research. Why did I not realize this before ? I don’t know. I blame plain and simple slow-wittedness.  What else? I’ve developed a still-growing toolbox of active learning techniques to use in the classroom. And there has been more.

While it’s difficult to anticipate the unknown, I knew that actively researching the scholarship of teaching and learning would inevitably result in learning precisely the sorts of things I describe above: theories of learning, teaching technologies, and teaching techniques.

What I did not anticipate was how much I would be learning about the important role feelings play in the process of teaching and learning.

Attending the Idea Exchange held at Mac in June on community-engaged learning–where I had the pleasure of hearing Daniel Coleman and MarieAnge Brouillard talk about their experiences as instructor and student, respectively, in the “Voicing Hamilton” course, the pilot for the Discovery Program*–made the important connection between teaching and feelings even clearer for me. In my last post, “Learning Feelings,” I talked about how the speakers at the Idea Exchange reminded me that learning feels. It feels exciting. It feels encouraging. It feels self-assuring, even as it feels challenging. It feels good.

This week, I am excited to report that Daniel and MarieAnge have kindly agreed to share a portion of their presentations on Voicing Hamilton here. What follows are their thoughts on the Discovery Program, teaching, and a love of learning.

*The Discovery Program was conceived as a way to connect McMaster to the broader community in Hamilton, and vice-versa, by offering “university-level non-credit courses to Hamilton residents who face barriers to post-secondary education” (McMaster University).

from Daniel Coleman:

I have taught for thirty years and I have to say that [Voicing Hamilton] was one of the most moving and profound teaching experiences I have ever had. In part, it was profound because I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t know how remedial the class would need to be. Instead, the class was incredibly resourceful: time after time, we’d have a need, somebody would run into a snag with their work, and time after time, someone else in the class had a solution. We needed to get everybody to McMaster for the graduation ceremonies at the end of the class; how would we get there? One student had a bus! Another was wondering how to bind her seventeen poems together for the group exhibition of our work; and yet another student brought a coiler to class. It made me wonder how often a classroom full of resourceful people are reduced to passivity by the usual lecture and listen format that dominate so much university teaching.

And here’s the big thing: education comes from the Latin “educare,” to lead out. An education leads out the potential knowledge and wisdom you already have within you.

More than this, I felt nurtured and encouraged as a person, as a teacher in the room. The classroom was full of people who did not take learning for granted. For different reasons, every single person in the room had had their chances to learn curtailed, sometimes repeatedly, in their lives. So they were vigilant about taking care of each other’s learning, of making sure that no one was left behind or made to feel fragile or excluded from learning. Including me. They wanted to make sure I had the best chance possible of delivering a good class.

So I learned that the people who often can be perceived as lacking resources, who may appear to be marginal in downtown Hamilton, that they are remarkably resilient and resourceful and creative. And they cared about me and my chance of being a good teacher and learner. This made me feel a new level of belonging in the city in which I live. Lots of us feel alien in our environments, or at least in parts of the city that have been neglected or that are struggling economically, as is the case with downtown Hamilton. But the class made me feel the vitality of the city and of the people who live there.

Finally, the class helped me see what I do everyday in a new light. It’s easy to take education for granted, or to reduce it by seeing it only as a means to a job. The students in this class reminded me that learning grounds a person’s dignity and self-respect. That the chance to do something creative builds resilience and confidence. That knowing the history and geography of the place in which you live can give you a new sense of belonging in a place and community. And here’s the big thing: education comes from the Latin “educare,” to lead out. An education leads out the potential knowledge and wisdom you already have within you. It gives it a shape or channel to flow and grow into, but the point is that it helps you to see what you already have and to grow in confidence that it’s there in the first place and then in thinking of what to do with it in the world.

I came away from the Discovery class having grown in confidence that I am a teacher, I can adapt to the needs and interests of people very different from me and help draw out what’s in them. That makes me very grateful to the students and Jeanette [the course coordinator] and the student support team who collectively drew this confidence out of me.

from MarieAnge Brouillard:

Our class was composed of people ranging in age from early 20’s to late 70’s. People who never had the opportunity to attend university, because of familial responsibilities, for lack of money, for being single parents, for being marginalized, presumed not “good enough” because of mental, health, or physical disabilities.

Attiwandaronia – Waters Shining Bright
A history of its original inhabitants upon this native land and the changes brought by Europeans.
Final Project, Voicing Hamilton.
MarieAnge Brouillard, metis artist, 2011

When you put a digital camera in the hands of someone who’s never used one before, the chances of getting something amazing are slim. But add encouragement from your classmates, guidance from the student support team, as well as from your teacher and coordinator and you get surprisingly insightful results […].

When you give pen and paper to someone who throughout her past has been made to feel she has no voice, that she has no opinion, and you get poetry filled with pain yet with hope showing through time and again, hope for a better tomorrow, a better life….

Or the immigrant, new to the country, to the city, unfamiliar with the language, to be allowed into a group of people that gives respect, understanding, and the opportunity to voice aspirations and dreams, to realize that he can write a guide to help new immigrants to Hamilton, something he never thought would be a possibility but now is becoming a reality.

And yet others who worked menial jobs their entire lives wondering ‘what if’ and never thinking that one day that ‘what if’ would become an opportunity to learn the answer.

Beautiful paintings produced by a brush when put in the hands of someone whose voice is too soft to be heard. Someone whom, because of this class, has grown the tremendous courage to look up at the world instead of down at the sidewalk on his walk home… This is what this class has given us as students, as people: a voice that indeed does matter. […].

Over a short 8-week period, I came to know a group of absolutely fascinating people. We all come from different places; have different lives, and different life experiences. To come to this class sharing this richness made the experience that much more personal for all of us. The fellowship and support we all gave each other was a special and wonderful experience for each person involved. We encouraged each other to reach higher, to expand our horizons, and this blossoming was nothing short of amazing! […].

Last summer, if someone had told me that I would be working out the logistics of attending McMaster a year later, I would have laughed.

Another unexpected result has been students building the courage to go out of their comfort zone, to have the confidence to move into their own place, to find work, to become students at Mac, to be published, to have their voice heard.

[…T]his mix of students produced well researched, well thought out projects showcasing amazing talents in writing, photography, painting, drawing and cinematography. During this class, we were encouraged to explore further, to ask questions, to discuss. The spirit of sharing featured big in each class time. Because of this, we began to learn not just about Hamilton but more importantly about ourselves. We were made to realize that we could attend university, that this class opened windows of opportunity for many of us we thought would never open. It showed us that we are good enough, that disability, where you came from, and poverty do not matter and for that I am thankful.

So, here I am today, representing the voice of our class. To be given the opportunity to attend a university level class when such a dream had long ago died of loneliness was nothing short of a dream come true for all of us. Those 8 weeks were an experience I never thought I would be a part of. I learned so much about Hamilton, about my classmates, about our history, our stories and how they all connect to Hamilton’s humble beginnings but most importantly, because of this class, I have been accepted to McMaster as a part time student for the fall term. Last summer, if someone had told me that I would be working out the logistics of attending McMaster a year later, I would have laughed.