Blog Post

Towards a Pedagogy for Everyone (Not Just the "Oppressed"): The Engaged Classroom Today

How do we update Paulo Freire's 1970 classic Pedagogy of the Oppressed  for today's graduate and undergraduate students?  That's the question.  The specifics (in step-by-step How To detail) of how to create an updated, Freire-inspired "problem-posing" engaged classroom are described below.   All of these methods were used in the first four weeks of my course "American Literature, American Learning" as preparation for handing over the design of the course to the eleven Master's and Doctoral students enrolled.  They will be designing their own student-centered syllabus for the second half of our class: first each will post an individually-created hypothetical syllabus and then, working collectively, they will design how the last half of our course will unfold. 

How is this possible?  That students will be designing their own course?  We might think of it as the essence of research, another way of thinking about "problem posing."  Research means starting with a topic or problem about which one does not know everything and pursuing an original course of research to find out more information about the topic, to synthesize that from information gleaned from many sources, and to draw one's own conclusions based on that synthesis of research. 

Building a syllabus requires original, deep, problem-posing research and creative, original thinking into what a course on "American Literature, American Learning" could be.  Backed up with some sound principles well articulated, this course could be anything a student wants it to be.  (NB: I can't wait to see the array of ideas that they come up with!)


Student-designed Syllabus

This week we had a special session designed to prepare for this ambitious midterm syllabus exercise in “American Literature, American Learning”   In addition to designing six class sessions, the students will decide on a final project or projects that, in some way, contribute to public knowledge. 

Introducing Dr. Jade E. Davis

To help prepare for this activity, we were joined this week by an expert in learning design, collaboration, and group practices, Dr. Jade E. Davis, Associate Director of Digital Learning Projects at LaGuardia Community College.   Jade often facilitates workshops, THATCamps, and un-conferences, including for HASTAC (where she served as a Program Coordinator in 2015).  She was also a doctoral student in a previous class that designed its own syllabus.  That course on “21st Century Literacies” took the syllabus assignment just about as far as anyone could.  Eight graduate students from Duke, University of North Carolina, and North Carolina State University decided that, instead of research papers or projects, their final, collective contribution would be to write and publish a book together.  They posted it on, on GitHub, on a proprietary annotation site Rap Genius, and even published it as a physical book on Over 30,000 unique visitors have now read all or parts of that book on and you can too:  Field Notes to 21st Century Literacies: A Guide to New Theories, Methods, and Practices for Open Peer Teaching and Learning


Pedagogy for Everyone

I will recap some of the methods and readings Jade E. Davis used below, after I describe the classes building up to her visit.  Even before, though, I want to single out a great moment in the class (and one I will characterize as “pure Jade”: I’ve come to expect the unexpected from her).  Among the readings assigned for her class session (see agenda) was perhaps the single most influential pedagogical theorist of the late 20th century, Paulo Freire.  Most students in the class had not read any Freire so we assigned Chapter 2 of Pedagogy of the Oppressed where Freire distinguishes between the “banking model” of education (where the professor's job is to “narrate” and the students master what they are told) versus the “problem-posing model” where the student is a teacher and the teacher is a student and everyone learns together, as a process not a product. 

Jade held up her copy in which she had carefully blotted out the word “Oppressed” and showed us how she had gone through and obliterated that word and a number of other words that implicitly put the learner in the subordinate, victimized, limited position.

Freire wrote in 1970 when “oppressed” was much a part of the Existentialist, activist, and Liberation Theology vocabulary.  By turning “the pedagogy of the oppressed” into the “pedagogy for everyone,” Jade removed it from half a century of a different and dehumanizing history and helped us see the text with new eyes—exactly what Freire and Frantz Fanon (another of the readings for the week was from his Black Skin, What Masks) esteem as “learning.”

A Pedagogy for Everyone.  It was a great way to open a great conversation.  A term, a word, can open a conversation and it can shut conversations down. Jade asked us what the subject-position of "oppression" opens and forecloses. 

* * *

Workload, Syllabi, and the College Classroom

Before I focus on the specific methods Jade E. Davis used in class this week to help prepare for this year’s syllabus exercise, let me summarize what we’ve done to date.  I am teaching this course with the assistance of Danica Savonick, a doctoral candidate in English at the Graduate Center, who has been invaluable in helping to organize the materials, to build the course website, and to prepare the various materials for class (whether a Google doc or poster-sized post-it notes and markers).  I mention this because, even though we work hard not to dominate the classroom itself, it takes two of us to plan and to document the class so others can learn from these methods.   Understanding work and labor issues is, to my mind, a key to faculty and to student success.  Too often faculty assign syllabi as if they believe their students really will read 300 pages that week.  We know they will read the summaries online. 

Learning to plan a syllabus for the real lives of students is respectful and encourages success, not failure and honest attention, not fakery, plagiarism and other workarounds.


(NB: Professors who say this is a problem of “this generation” are often people who were A+ students themselves and naive about how much their peers who were not planning to go on to be professors actually read.  Cliff Notes and Monarch Notes were touted as “study guides” but everyone I knew when I was in college used them to get through weeks where Moby Dick was assigned in one class and Paradise Lost in another.)


In “American Literature, American Learning” there are eleven students, all coming from a wide range of backgrounds.  Some are full-time doctoral students who also teach at a CUNY campus.  Others are working full-time on CUNY campuses, in K-12, or in occupations unrelated to education and are taking courses in addition to those careers.   Everyone is busy, very busy.  So we’ve set an ideal limit of 50-60 pages of outside reading per week, plus everyone reads the class blog written by one or, at most, two classmates each week and writes a response.


From “Banking Method” to “Problem-Posing Methods”

For the first four classes, reading assignments have been constructed as a “sampler” of ideas on education and learning theory, from documents about the founding of Harvard to contemporary blogs by undergraduate students.  In class and out, we have engaged in a wide variety of individual and group activities designed to disrupt the exclusive “banking method” used in most graduate classes, the one-way transmission of a received body of expertise and knowledge from the professor to the students.  Even before the course began, I and Danica introduced ourselves to the students in a private Forum on our class blog and invited the students to introduce themselves to one another.  We also constructed a survey so that we could understand more about students’ educational objectives, gauge students’ prior knowledge of pedagogical theory, and understand more about why students had registered for this course and what they hoped to contribute to and gain from it.   Changes to the planned syllabus were made in response to what we learned from this survey.


Graduate School, Professional School, and the Apprenticeship Model

In class, we’ve used a number of methods familiar to professional schools, professional development or management programs, and teaching and learning centers but still rarely used in graduate programs.  In general—and this is a subject we’ve discussed—professional school is designed to give students advanced knowledge of a subject matter and to give them skills necessary to succeed in their career of choice.  Graduate school places almost all of its emphasis on the former and, in most cases, leaves the latter to chance. 

Implicit in traditional graduate school is the idea that the apprenticeship model—learning from your professors in the way your professors learned from their professors—is the best way to acculturate students to professional practices.  In apprenticeship, the one thing that is not questioned is the role of the mentor, the role of the apprentice, or the process of learning through imitation what the professor learned through imitation.

In general, apprenticeship succeeds best in a situation where you wish to leave the fundamental structures of an institution—the status quo—untested and unchanged.  However, higher education is being radically changed from a range of external forces.  We also need to be rethinking our own structures, and the apprenticeship model of preparation for the future is one that any of us can change first.

“American Literature, American Learning” takes, as one of its objectives, exploration of a range of alternatives to the apprenticeship model of teaching and learning.  I wish every graduate program in every field had more classes where students are encouraged to be the teachers and to learn how to depend on one another as resources.  For those who are or intend to be teachers and professors, we need more emphasis in graduate school on the practice of engaging students.  (It’s hard to do this in your own classroom if you have never experienced it as a student yourself.) We know these engaged methods work for deep learning (especially retention and applicability) and for developing a sense of authorship and agency that extends beyond the classroom to managing one’s academic, work, and even personal life. 

We keep a record on our Futures Initiative site of what we do each week, including agendas, sometimes photos, notes, and other documentation so that others can try these methods too.  All are intended to create an environment of community, openness, dialogue, and engagement, where each student has a voice, each student is willing (and they are!) to voice disagreements with the readings and with one another, and yet each speaks to the other with respect—the respect that comes from knowing that, in being faced with genuine dialogue, one learns.  I can’t wait to see what syllabi each person comes up with—and what, collectively, they create.  (NB:  I won’t be there for the syllabus-creating exercise; one of my undergraduates, many years ago, noted that the different dynamic that happens when the prof is in the room during “student-created” projects and when the prof leaves.  He was right.  I now make sure to get out of the way for the big ones.)


Technologies used  “American Literature, American Learning”  (NB: nothing too fancy):

--Survey (Google Survey) tool

--Email and Listserv

--C-Box/Commons in a Box CUNY-based class website with both fully public options and Forums that are set to be private to the group.    (Pseudonyms possible if wished)

--Group on set to reach a wider audience  (Pseudonyms possible if wished)

--Facebook page (through Futures Initiative and HASTAC)

--Twitter (@FuturesED)

--Google Docs  (agendas are posted and emended on Google Docs and so are many of the collaborative written documents we co-create such as the class constitution).

--Zotero bibliography (to which anyone can contribute)

--Lots of index cards (machine-made paper and pencils are also technologies)

--Wired classroom:  Projected Agenda and other web documents, projector and desktop set up

--WiFi, when available (for student in-class collaborative projects)

--iPhones for recording audio and taking video and photographers for documentation

--Folded paper name tents (amazing how often students leave a class not knowing one another’s names, even in a small class)



--Survey of students enrolled, submitted before the first day of class: soliciting basic information about the student’s program, past knowledge, courses being taught, ambitions for the course, what students hoped to learn, what they could contribute  (private to instructors)

--Weekly blog by one or two students with responses by every student

--Self-Introductions on course Forum (private to group)

--First class:  Students work in pairs, interview each other, and then introduce one another to the class

--Inventory of three things one can teach, three things one can learn—and match up of needs and gifts

--Think-Pair-Share  (Explained in this blog: “Why Start with Pedagogy? 4 Good Reasons, 4 Good Solutions.” And in this YouTube Video )  We do a version of Think-Pair-Share in almost every class period.   It allows for (1) time for the student to write down a response independently (90 seconds); then (2) working in pairs, students take turns reading out loud their three things while a partner listens and then switching—promotes deep listening to one’s peers (a much under-rated and under-taught skill in the apprenticeship model) and then synthesizing, combining, or agreeing on what one thing to read to the group; (3) reading it aloud to the group as the basis for class discussion led by the pair; and ideally, sharing it online for a larger public audience

--Taking Stack:  In open discussion, when you have a question or comment, you raise your hand.  A person “taking stack” writes down everyone’s name in order.  No one makes a second comment or question until everyone who is on the list has had a chance to speak.  The stacker can also come up with a “preferential stack” if some people are dominating, starting first, or otherwise not visible enough. 

--One Student/One Question:  A method for hearing from everyone in a small class.  Each student writes one “thing” on a card—it can be a question, a response, an objection, a passionate agreement, something that is sticking with you after the reading.   Then, we go around the room and each person reads what they have written.  (Ideal way to break the “group think” of discussion and also the binary or reflexive format of discussion; each card is a new topic, each person frames the topic in a particular way and re-starts the conversation).  

See Danica Savonick’s blog post on these strategies and how, by everyone speaking, the whole shape of a dialogue was changed, as visualized in a Wordle of the class blogs before and after one student’s intervention.

--Exit Ticket:  Before leaving, each person writes one “left over” from the class session—a question, an objection they didn’t get to raise in class, an interest, an idea to pursue further.  This helps the professor shape the next class, write a blog, carry a thought further, etc.

-- Class Constitution   Using a template from a UC Berkeley class (inspired by one of my previous classes), students collectively wrote a “Class Constitution” from highest principles to basic practices (snacks, etc).


Methods Introduced by Dr. Jade E. Davis

--Discussion questions distributed in advance

·       Is community a given in the classroom?

·       What is the cultural role of failure both in and out of the classroom experience?

·       Are there practices we can create or incorporate that turns the classroom into a transformative space of learning?

--Flash Discussions of readings

·       Framing the world and creating a community of change

o   Format: Secret Comments/Questions [Note Cards]---Each student writes an anonymous comment about the readings on a notecard and passes to the professor (Dr. Davis) who reads them quickly and starts a conversation based on three or four varied ones. 

·       The space of failure

o   Format: Speed Dating:  Two people are stationery and two others rotate between groups.  Each person has written on a card a response to the open ended question, inspired by some of our readings, “what is the culture role of failure?”  The pair circulates and has 3 minutes to present their idea to the two stationery partners.  They refine their “pitch” as they go from group to group, including learning who talks too much, who talks to little, and learning how to respect one another.

·       Creating Draft Resources:  Jade divided us up into three groups, each with a leader who had lots of experience in the given area (Cathy, Danica, Jade) and asked for students to participate in the group in which they felt most knowledgeable, confident and practiced.   Next week, when the class is on its own, creating the collective syllabus, they will already have groups of leaders with expertise who have talked through three areas:

o   Rubrics:

§  Danica’s advice on student-designed rubrics on HASTAC and JITP

§  Evaluation resources from “Mapping the Futures of Higher Education”

o   Project Planning:   Jade handed out project planning documents she had made in previous classes in order that this group could see different tools for project management that they could rely on next week.

o   Goals and Assessment:  Jade’s group focused on how you plan a syllabus around an idea of goals and a sense of what you hope to accomplish and what, pragmatically and idealistically (both), works best to accomplish those.


The Syllabus Exercise

American Literature, American Learning Syllabus   

Assignment: Design the rest of the class [in "American Literature, American Learning"] that you would love to take—meaning, you do not need to know or have read all you assign.  You just have to know enough to want to read it with a group of other dedicated, interested classmates.  This probably means doing research of the kind that you might do for a short term paper, looking at bibliographies and other sources for texts and ideas.  Remember, feel free to contact Cathy and Danica if you have questions.  That's what we are here for!

·       Here’s the basic architecture: You will be creating 6 classes: March 9, 16, 30, April 13, 20, and May 4.  

·       In addition: On March 30, there’s a twenty-minute Zotero workshop.  There’s also a co-working session on May 11 and some kind of “final” event on May 18 [with a public component of one kind of another]. Think about those as you structure your syllabus. Think about where Spring break comes and so forth.

You will be writing a course description and goals, creating the assignments and activities for each course, and designing a final project (individual  or group) that is some kind of Public Contribution to Knowledge.  (A public blog counts, by the way; so does tutoring in American literature in a local high school or doing a  poster and communications plan  of free literary readings in NY, an assignment my students did last year in an Art History course, a Music course, and a Theater course).     When you finish you will post it to the website.  Everyone will read every syllabus and make comments on each one.  

In class next week, you will then have all this as your basic “ideas” and will build a syllabus for the rest of our course drawing from ideas.  Our goal is that everyone is represented in this class so try to ensure that each person’s individual syllabus is represented somewhere, at least once, in the group syllabus.  And you will already be changed and have learned from reading the individual syllabi you’ve each constructed.

Good luck and have fun with it!  


Other things:

·       You can work in pairs for each class or you could be in teams of 3 or 4 and each take two classes—many formats possible.

·       Think about reading and viewing assignments (try to keep to our 50-60 page weekly maximum unless everyone agrees on an exception); bloggers have already been assigned for each week and each student will comment on the blogs.  Think about how to coordinate who is blogging with who is responsible for that particular class period. You may switch who is responsible for blogging each week.

·       So far, we’ve put the emphasis on “American Learning.”  You are free to insert more of the “American Literature” in your syllabi, from any period.  That’s not a requirement but permission.  If you assign a novel, consult with classmates about relaxing the page limits.

·       Feeling stuck? Consult our Zotero reading list, the syllabus designed by students in “Mapping the Futures of Higher Education,” or email Danica with questions (  

·       Think about other kinds of assignments, experiences, projects. You are welcome to invite in others per class agreement.

·       Remember to take advantage of all the SKILLS you all possess.  Music? drawing?

·       Think about how to manage the class period itself—which methods and tactics will you be using, introducing, experimenting with?

·       Required: PUBLIC CONTRIBUTION TO KNOWLEDGE:  you need to design a final project/paper in your syllabus that makes some kind of public contribution to knowledge.

o   This can be one large class project; several smaller paired or team projects; or a combination of one large-group project and several individual projects, etc.   However, all need to be public and presented as a totality.  So, even if individual, make sure they interconnect in some way and can be publicized as our class’s contribution to the public.

o   They should have their own page on FI and HASTAC such as “Public Contributions from ‘American Literature, American Learning” and a list of the contributions with links.  And a communications plan for outreach and impact 

o   Be aware that this is a very public course and you should include in your final project(s) how you will make as much impact as possible with your public contribution.  Public education is not a handout but the most vital contribution to the economy and to the future a society can be making.  (Cf eloquent article by novelist Marilynne Robinson, “Save Our Public Universities,” and the recent op ed by three Distinguished Professors at the Graduate Center in Crain’s Business.  

o   Here’s the extraordinary Public Contribution to Knowledge that Jade E. Davis participated in, an open-access student-written book on student-centered learning.

o   And here’s an entirely delightful, funny, fun Public Contribution if not to knowledge then at least to silly happiness: The Subway Project  Just to inspire some alternative, creative thinking.  Please add your own examples!


Instructions: Post your syllabus as a blog to our class site, making sure to check off the category “student-designed syllabus.” You should then be able to easily view and comment on each other’s syllabi by clicking “student-designed syllabi” at the top of the home page.


For March 2:  Read each syllabus posted by your classmates and make a few comments or annotations on each one.  

In class, divide into working teams or pairs or groups and design a draft syllabus for the rest of the semester.  

·       Do this on an editable Google Doc so that you can all be going back and tinkering and emending and so forth throughout the term.  


Make sure we have an assignment for March 9. 


(Here's full documentation of another student-created syllabus for a course offered at the Graduate Center in Spring 2015 see “Mapping the Futures of Higher Education" )


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