About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Monday, November 15, 2010

Working with Working-Class Students

This week I’d like to shift gears from issues of education policy and school reform and offer something on teaching. I was asked by the editor of “Diversity and Democracy,” a publication of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, to write a short piece on teaching working-class college students. Now I don’t believe that one social group needs to be taught one way and a different social group taught another – that would be much too reductive. Also, one must always be careful about painting any social group with a broad brush, denying the wide variation within the working class, or Latinos, or Gays and Lesbians or, well, you name it.

But there are some things that teachers can do that might smooth the transition to college for some students from working-class families … and, for that fact, from students from other backgrounds as well. Most of what I recommend is pretty simple, hardly pedagogical rocket science – but it can make a difference in some students’ lives.


I've been spending a lot of time lately conducting research in an urban community college, and I'm struck by how readily memories and feelings from my own freshman year come to mind. Like many of the students I'm observing, I was the first in my family to attend college. And as is the case for the students I meet, my first year was a mixture of hope and anxiety, moments of success and moments of being at a loss.

All new college students experience a range of emotions in this unfamiliar place, but chances are that children of working-class families are less familiar than their middle- and upper-class peers with a college's instructional practices and modes of interaction. They are often more prone to wondering if they belong.
I certainly don't want to claim that all students from working-class families experience higher education in the same way. As much variability exists within social class as in any other social category. And though socioeconomic status and educational inequality are closely related, some working-class undergraduate students attended well-resourced K-12 schools. Through school, possibly through enrichment programs, and perhaps through the social capital of extended family and friends, they were well prepared, cognitively and socially, for college. In this article, I focus on those who are having a harder time with the transition.

Sources of Conflict
If a working-class student does feel out of place, the sense of discomfort might well involve more than social and interactional factors. Because of gaps in previous education, there might be fairly basic material that students don't know and skills they don't have. That was certainly the case for me. My knowledge of mathematics or formal analytics was so spare that I had to drop introductory economics after a few weeks of fearful incomprehension.

Less dramatic but equally difficult to surmount are the mismatches between strategies students used to good effect in high school and the demands facing them in college. When I was running the Equal Opportunity Program's Tutorial Center at UCLA, I would regularly encounter students from courses like general chemistry who would labor night after night, highlighter in hand, memorizing facts and formulas--and would then fail a test. The test required students to think through a problem and apply what they had learned to solving it. Demonstrating what they had memorized was suddenly not working.

Related to this mismatch issue is the issue of "doing school"--that is, appropriating the routines and practices of schoolwork but not using them to their most effective end. I saw an example of this the other day at the community college I was visiting. A student in the fashion program pointed to her notebook with pride and surprise and told me that she recently realized that her notes were a resource, that she could return to them and consult them as she struggled with an assignment. Before this insight, notes were something she took in school and used to study for a test, and that was that. They were not a tool or a resource to aid thinking and problem solving.

Some working-class students can be reluctant to ask questions, fearful of calling attention to themselves and appearing stupid. Again, these worries are not held exclusively by less-affluent students, but they can be more acute for those who already feel out of place. We teachers are fond of saying things like "there is no such thing as a stupid question." But let's face it: there are ways to phrase a question that sound smart and mask how little one knows. This is a powerful defensive skill that calls for rhetorical savvy and a sense of academic assurance, the kinds of things that come with a privileged education.

A related issue is a reluctance to seek help. This reluctance can be rooted in pride and notions of self-reliance. It can stem from shyness or embarrassment. But something else can be at play: an unfamiliarity or lack of comfort with help-seeking behavior within institutions. Many middle-class kids are socialized from day one in seeking out resources and engaging members of institutions to help them attain their goals. This seems so much like second nature to most academics that we forget that it is a culturally influenced, learned behavior.

All of the above--the out-of-place feelings, the cognitive-behavioral disjointedness--are complicated by a larger conflict, one central to American cultural history: the tension between book learning and schooling versus practical experience and working in the world. "It took a guy with a college degree to screw this up," a cousin of mine is fond of saying, "and a guy with a high school degree to fix it." Some working-class students struggle with this tension or feel it at home. It's a complex issue. Many working-class families see education as a pathway to economic opportunity, and they bust their backs to send their kids to college. Yet they might also wonder exactly what their kids are learning and worry that advanced education will make their children grow distant, and, at worst, regard their parents' lives with disdain. All these dynamics affect a young person's experience in school, and might well emerge in class or during office hours.

Interactions of Consequence
The good news is that these tensions and reluctances are open to intervention. The teacher in the fashion program I mentioned above intersperses her lectures and demonstrations with specific tips on everything from how to keep track of appointments to how to use the textbook. Instructors can schedule students into office hours, make referrals to tutoring centers, and call or e-mail the centers ahead of time to smooth out the process. On several occasions, I've walked a student in distress to the counseling center. Some problems require substantial interventions (it would have taken a lot of tutoring to get me through that economics course). But some are more easily remedied, like the fashion teacher making tricks of the scholastic trade explicit.

What I and many others find so fulfilling about teaching working-class students is that by making the hidden visible, by putting in a few extra minutes to strengthen a referral, by just talking straight, you can make a difference in someone's life. There were about a half-dozen people who made my journey out of high school and through college possible. I'm not exaggerating when I say I couldn't have done it without them.

And there's something else, something that doesn't get articulated nearly enough. Teaching people whose backgrounds don't fit the mold can be a deeply rewarding intellectual experience. I was tutoring a student who was reading excerpts from Plato's Republic for a political science class. The student was mystified by the passage on the cave. I talked through the passage paragraph by paragraph, situating Plato historically and offering my prepackaged definition of idealism. It didn't work. Frustrated, the young man blurted out two or three questions: How can anyone believe we're like shadows? Why did Plato use fire and a cave to try to convince us of this?

These basic questions made Plato strange to me in a way I hadn't experienced since I was an undergraduate. Frankly, I felt uncomfortable. And then, probably because I didn't know what else to do, I repeated the student's questions, asking them of both of us. That questioning set us off on a more thoughtful consideration of this central Western text.

Moments like these get us to return to basics, first principles, and long-held perspectives. The intellectual unsettling that happens, the fresh take on things, is what brought us to this work in the first place.


bkanes said...

Do you remember "We Make The Road By Walking"? It's the "conversation" Myles Horton & Paulo Freire had about facilitating low-income, low-skilled adults' learning by focusing on their life contexts, and helping them analyze their and their classmates' myriads of real-life experiences to construct new meanings and practical new answers to their current "needs to know." And, just like what Rousseau found with Emile; what John Dewey urged for us all; as Lippet, Lickert, Lewin, etc., discovered to be necessary for change and growth; as Malcolm Knowles, Stephen Brookfield, Jack Mezirow, Tom Sticht, etc., have shown to be effective and efficient adult education teaching & learning, non-traditional learners do best when they’re following their own pathways, their own “needs-to-know,” to get where they want to be.

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Denise said...

The discourse of the academy can easily be lost on the working student. We need to keep using the 'talk' so that students eventually become familar with it -- in the event they go beyond 2/4 years of college. Yet we should always remember to make the link between that discourse and real world expectations. We can do this as teachers, if we remember those days when we held jobs outside of education ourselves... and remember what our bosses expectations were of us. That link is so essential.

la giTaNa said...

I have read both Lives on the Boundary and Why School, and appreciate reading your work.

I definitely think that the issue of prior knowledge/study skills combined with the fear of speaking up in class or outside of it to ask for help is a huge issue for students.

Thank you

Tanya said...

Working class students' families and backgrounds, as much of Mike's work shows us, are not only obstacles and deficits, but also often a huge wellspring of love and support and funds of knowledge which, while they may not directly support success in college, can be drawn on as general support.
School situations that pathologize or make strange students' home experiences can make school hard. Wondering whether there is still a place for them at their home table if they talk and think like this can be as off-putting as being afraid of looking dumb in class.
Some students may reconsider, reject, and even leave higher ed not because they are afraid they can't think/look/sound like us, but rather because they are afraid they might.

Lauren said...

I couldn't agree more with this entry, especially the end where you recount the story of having to sort of re-experience what it's like to discover an important text or idea for the first time. In my work with developmental students (some of whom are working class -- and certainly, not all working class students are developmental!), I am always having to question my assumptions about what's important, what needs to be taught, and what needs to be read and learned, because my students will ALWAYS ask me "why?" And I think every teacher should be able to answer that question! I think as college-level instructors, we can get stuck in grad school mode, where everyone is past that initial discovery stage and into a more serious and analytical stage. I certainly know through conversations with colleagues (other TAs who are also grad students) that they are eager for students to have similar revelations as they've had in grad school: profound critical insights at the textual level. Which is great, but sometimes we forget how many stages we had to go through as learners to get to the point that those revelations would be meaningful or worthy of pursuit. I love going back to the start with developmental learners, and always appreciate students who are willing to speak up and question our institutionalized practices. I think some teachers find that questioning offensive, because it strikes at their investment in and identities as scholars. I find it wonderful to be constantly reminded why reading and writing as so important to human experience. Bring the questions on, I say!!

Natalie said...

Regardless of social classes, I really admire people who strive hard just to finish education. To parents who work almost all their lives just to send kids to school. It's a given fact that sometimes, working-class students may not feel the belongingness or may feel a little alienated, but whichever way you look at it, they are all students and learning the same thing.

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