George Mason University

News at Mason

Difficult conversations that educate teachers and students

April 26, 2018   /   by Damian Cristodero

Illustration by Marcia Staimer/George Mason University

Pablo Ramirez Uribe, a master’s student at George Mason University studying secondary education and English, said it was quite a revelation when he learned how to really be successful as teacher.

More than planning, more than constructing assignments, is the ability to connect with students.

“It’s go into a school and help these people grow,” Ramirez Uribe said.

That was Ramirez Uribe’s takeaway from a program called “Through Students Eyes,” developed by George Mason education professor Kristien Zenkov.

The project, at root, endeavors to enhance the learning experience for secondary school students, but it also trains Mason’s pre-service teachers, who help lead the discussions that occur mainly in Northern Virginia’s public schools.

In an exercise called “The Having of Difficult Conversations,” recently completed at T. C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., the 24 students in Laurel Taylor’s 12th-grade honors English class were asked to find someone outside the classroom with whom they disagree on a foundational issue, and simply speak with them.

First, though, students had to answer, through writing and photography, the same questions they would ask: What is it like to be you? What is your life like? What is it like to be known, and by whom are you known?

Those conversations were shared during roundtable classroom discussions and essays written by the students, who delved into politics, justice, leadership, the nature of community and navigating adolescence, Zenkov said.

“It’s useful for the kids because it is helping them write better,” said Zenkov, who began the program 14 years ago while teaching at Cleveland State University.

As for the pre-service teachers helping facilitate the discussions, Zenkov said, “It helps them see you can ask young people to consider grand issues as part of your teaching, regardless of what you are teaching. In fact, you have an obligation to do so.”

The key, Zenkov said, is linking the exercise to curricula. For example, the students at T. C. Williams were reading “Fences,” the August Wilson play in which the main character strives to overcome his past, racial and economic barriers and conflict with his teenage son, circumstances that fed directly into the questions the students were considering.

“We bring in the teams of pre-service teachers to come in and work with the kids so they can experience the writing instruction methods,” Zenkov said. “That way it becomes an authentic intervention for the kids so they can get something out of it,” Zenkov said.

Lisa Miller, who teaches homebound students for Fairfax County Public Schools, is taking Zenkov’s Teaching English in the Secondary School (EDCI-569) to add an endorsement to her teaching license. She said she was so inspired by the experience at T. C. Williams she is contemplating taking other Mason classes.

“It was amazing,” she said of her Mason experience. “It is so important to build a sense of community and encourage students to get to know one another. Community building in the classroom is foundational and should be a teacher’s priority from day one.”

“This was an assignment that prepared me to make those connections and not to doubt students of that age,” Ramirez Uribe said. “They can have these conversations. We should get them started as early as possible, because they are ready.”