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Kyle Bjorem ED3000 Jones 11/21/11

The Teacher/Learner Relationship and the Personal Significance of Academic Material in Fires in The Bathroom (High School)

In Fires in the Bathroom, many aspects of mid to late adolescence are explored through the eyes and minds of the adolescents themselves. The facets that I found the most interesting and rewarding were the sections having to do with the relationship to the teacher and how that, along with proven techniques, can lead to greater motivation and success in the classroom and in their lives. I will be exploring three key chapters of the book (one, five, and six) in correlation with articles we have read in class and the book The Inclusive Classroom that I believe shed much light on how a teacher can practically conform to what the adolescent wants from a teacher. It is no mere happenstance that the very first chapter of Fires in the Bathroom begins with quotes from students such as Get to know their neighborhood, and Every student wants to feel special and smart and talented, but at the same time we want to blend in (Kushman 1). The personal relation to the learner and their existence as a unique subject is absolutely essential to their entrusting their development to an other, particularly one traditionally seen as an authority figure who has power over their autonomy. The polarized nature of the adolescent is succinctly summed up in the special/blend in dichotomy. In chapter four, Cushman says

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Teenagers dont like to be lumped into a faceless crowd (86) and yet not two pages later a learner states that she [doesnt] want people to hear me talk because I dont want people to notice me (87). Kegan, building off of Erikson, posited the Affiliation vs. Abandonment stage tin which connection, inclusion, and highly invested mutuality (39) become extremely important. Though every learner comes with their own personal reserves of knowledge and unique strengths, and come to understanding via different paths, [] on different timetables (Cushman 97), it is important that they are not made to stand separate from their peers, either as better or worse. Instead, one should work to understand each learner without making value judgments and making your personal feelings toward each individual the topic of public debate/dialogue. In the same vein, a teacher must allow a learner his or her freedom to reveal aspects of themselves as comes naturally: It doesnt work when a teacher tries too hard to force the connection or try too hard to relate to us (1). In communicating effectively with learners, Mastropieri and Scruggs point out that several common elements are in place: active listening, depersonalizing situations, identifying common goals and solutions, and monitoring progress to achieve those goals (27). Dont just look at the students for answers, but look at who we are [] know them well enough to know what their faces mean (4). Some excellent suggestions are given by Cushman as to how to learn about your learners, such as having them answer a questionnaire on the first day of class (as well as perhaps having them think of questions to ask you), getting to know their neighborhoods and the cultures in which they were raised in, their familial circumstances, and having them keep a journal in which they can relate what they are learning in class to their own lives and also engage in free writing where they are free to express themselves on any topic of interest.

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The idea of connecting academic work to their lives is of vital importance. By making things relevant to them as they exist right now they will be more engaged and have an invested interest in the subject matter. One method I have contemplated in relation to studying a novel or a short story would be to avoid mentioning the piece of literature all together at first, instead instigating a class discussion that involves the major themes and situations presented in the book. After this, make the connection between what was discussed and their lives with the book itself. Instead of being something that is purely academic, the book is now a document that can engage in dialogue with the reader/learner on subjects that they themselves have already invested in. Eisenman states that self-determined motivation includes intrinsic motivation (I do something because I enjoy it) (3) and the learner is going to have much more intrinsic motivation if the subject to be learned has personal significance. In close correlation with this, and with me being a future English teacher, the section with the subheading Treat reading and writing as a window into our lives in Cushmans book is of particular interest: We can use [reading and writing] to come to terms with the things that matter most to us [] if you want us to care about reading and writing, relate it whenever possible to ourselves and those we care about (118). Further, an anecdote related by another learner illustrates further the point of personal significance: I never liked chemistry or physics or anything, but one day I brought in a Stephen Hawking book on the history of the universe [] He was talking about light, about how its in packets, and how you can use light to turn chemicals into certain things. So I asked: Couldnt you theoretically turn something into anything? And [the teacher] said: No. Thats science fiction, and went on with his class. And Im thinking: But Stephen Hawking said thatthis is the only thing I have to contributeI practiced all night to say this And so I just put my head back down on the desk (88).

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Talk about counterproductive. Here we have a previously disengaged student actively attempting to be pulled into a deep, complex dialogue and he is met with outright dismissal. An incident such as this does not just lead to his disengagement from this class but also to all other classes, as now his experience is that if you try to veer the discussion away from the single-minded, rote path that the teacher is on you will be dismissed out of hand. Two of the preconditions for positive motivation and affect that Matstropieri and Scruggs explore are a supportive environment (including using statements that promote acceptance) along with meaningful and relevant instructional tasks (200). Neither of these are anywhere near being met in the example above, especially when you take into account that the learners quoted in Fires in the Bathroom are saying things like We dont want the teachers to be in control, we want to be more involved and When we get to choose what to read or what to write about, its easier to get interested in something (106). The fact is that Students who believe they have some ownership in what is happening in your classroom are also more likely to make an effort to help the classroom be successful (Mastropieri 209). Some of the techniques explained within the same chapter include sharing decision making for classroom procedures, soliciting student feedback, and encourage critical thinking rather than simple memorize and regurgitate questions. Fordham describes one way of fostering critical thinking which she calls strategic questioning: Strategic questions should focus on ways to make meaning rather than find meaning, to help students through unfamiliar territory by prompting them to think deliberately (391). Not questions that simply assess comprehension but open ended questions that foster thinking at a literal, inferential, and critical level. Not just what happened or definitions, but questions that fall into one/several of these key categories: activating background knowledge, predicting, making connections,

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questioning the text, inferring, visualizing, clarifying, self-monitoring, summarizing, and evaluating. Kushman states that teachers sometimes fall into a pattern of asking questions that call for a brief, correct answer.[] this technique doesnt help a classroom feel like a community. [] Kids learn more when teachers ask open-ended questions, then allow time for students to think something through together, gather evidence, and challenge the view of others. They find it harder but more interesting, and it gives more room for them to contribute at different levels (91). In support of this, the following are quotes from students: A lot of times students dont answer because its a question where you either get it right, or wrong. Instead, ask questions where there isnt a right or wrong answer. Ask students, Whats your opinion, what matters to you? (91) and I hate school when the information Im learning doesnt reflect the person that I am (103). Cushman adds that Teenagers are constantly seeking answers to some of lifes most important questions. They want to spend their mental energy on things that matter to them (104). In this same vein, Autonomy-Supportive Instruction as explicated by Eisenman, includes More student reflection, risk taking, and active participation; More emphasis on developing social responsibility and collaboration skills among students; More emphasis on fostering a sense of personal potency and enhancement of academic and social self-esteem; More social support for student achievement; More intensive and extensive instruction targeting critical areas of need; progress is carefully monitored (5). The Five Cs, as explained by Kantrowitz and Springen, seem to me to be invaluable in approaching the teacher/learner relationship. These are competence, confidence, connection, character, and caring. All of these are interconnected and raising levels of each in a student will effect all other categories, as well as when your own levels of each category are raised. With

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competence, comes an air of authority. Not the bad kind of authority but rather the kind that comes across as this guy really knows what he is talking about. Having had teachers in the past who were obviously lost (one high school chemistry teacher comes to mind in particular) was a sure fire way to make the class an abject failure. Closely connected to this is confidence, as with an overflow of competence a teacher will be more confident in themselves and the learners will be more confident in the teacher and in the direction of the class as a whole. Care may just be the keystone, however. If it is readily apparently that a teacher genuinely cares for the learner both now and what they accomplish in the future, many doors that may have been previously closed are opened up. The learner will trust the teacher more (giving more insight into character, forging closer connection), will try harder in the class to not let the teacher down, and will be more engaged in the dialogue that is necessary for effective teaching.

Bjorem 7 References Cushman, Kathleen. (2005). Fires in the Bathroom: Advice for Teachers from High School Students. New York: New Press. Eisenman, L.T. (2007). Self-determination interventions: Building a foundation for school completion. Remedial and Special Education, 28(1).

Fordham, Nancy (2006). Crafting questions that address comprehension strategies in content reading. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 49(5), 390-396.
Kantrowitz, B., & Springen, K. (2005, May 16). A peaceful adolescence: The teen years dont have to be a time of family storm and stress. Newsweek (International Ed.)

Kroeger, J. (2004). Identity in Adolescence. London: Routledge.


Mastropieri, M. & Scruggs, T. (2010). The Inclusive Classroom: Strategies for Effective Differentiated Instruction. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson.