Monday, September 21, 2015

Co-Constructing Identities: The Big Bang

After the glow wore off the Sunday brunch buffet and the meat that was called chicken became intolerable, my brother and I were pumped to be living off campus in our own house. No longer were we beholden to Donovan (the lovely RIC cafeteria) where you couldn’t get dinner past 7:30 pm. We had our own place with our own stove and microwave and cabinets and spice rack. We were free to make our own food decisions!

And also get under each other’s skin.

You see, we shared responsibility in the kitchen. But other areas of house maintenance lingered without discussion between us. I would complain to a mutual friend about the way he heaped his stinky clothes everywhere but the laundry basket, while he complained the to same mutual friend about the way that I left my hair tools (and maybe a few stray strands) in the bathroom each morning.

We weren’t in tune to each other’s thoughts and both characterized the other as messy, lazy, and inconsiderate. We wasted our energy feeling frustrated instead of just sharing what was on our minds.

Leonard and Sheldon share some pent up roommate frustrations.

I was reminded of this experience as I read the first chapter of Understanding Youth. One thing Nakkula and Toshalis emphasized was the important responsibility of educators to reach out beyond the curriculum and see teaching as relational. They cited Vygotsky’s conclusion that “children’s cognitive development is shaped by the access they have to the thinking of others” (8). They shared one of the criticisms of student-centered learning, explaining that “it is not enough just to give children books and lessons; development requires providing children with the workings of other people’s minds” (8). Educators must engage in “think alouds” where they “share how they themselves think about or make sense of this content.” But they also warned that this is not as successful if educators do not understand the level or nature of their students’ thinking.

In the case of my brother and I, we hit a roadblock because we were not sharing our frustrations with one another. We didn’t know what was going on in each other’s brains. How could we learn to live with one another peacefully if we didn’t share what we were thinking? (Luckily we had our mutual friend let us in on each other’s complaints and we negotiated various chores and responsibilities.)  

Reading theoretical texts like this can be overwhelming because Nakkula and Toshalis show that there is so much to consider about adolescent development and it can all seem so abstract. Their assertion that “optimal coauthorship can only occur through collaborative mental engagement and the open, transparent negotiation of meaning” (9) is a mouthful, but makes so much more sense when you realize that “collaborative mental engagement” and “open, transparent negotiation of meaning” is really important in any relationship - between teachers and students, siblings, best friends, and especially significant others.

An important difference between the story of my brother and me is that we are essentially equals. I am older, but I am not professionally responsible for him or his development. I found that Nakkula and Toshalis really emphasized the responsibility educators have to create rich experiences that allow students to productively imagine themselves and their worlds (5). There is a lot of power that comes from being in such a position. So what does it look like to “encourage and even join them in their experiments in possibility development?”

Luckily, Ayers included Katie and Mayra’s story (110). Katie recognized that “the full development of each is necessary for the full development of all” (72) and created an experience that would allow Mayra to imagine herself as a valued individual and allowed the other class members to imagine themselves as integral to a supportive community. I think Nakkula, Toshalis, and Graves would agree with Ayers example of Katie as a great teacher because of the way she “engages students, interacts with them, draws energy from them, and offers reason to plunge into classroom life,” (97) rather than leaving kids to invent ways to avoid showing their incompetence (like Antwon).

I strive to be like Katie. I believe that learning happens best when a class is a “close-knit, spirited, and coherent group, brought together by collective interest and enthusiasm” as her class was (110). But I recognize this is a work-in-progress because the community is not dependent on my imagination alone. 

Sheldon trying to create a friendship based on his imagination alone. 

Instead, it is a co-construction with each student and the universe they bring with them. Some days I absolutely feel like Ms. Peterson, aware that something isn’t clicking with a particular student but unsure about how to reconcile with a mind that I can’t read and an identity that seems so different from my own. But I keep going because I can't imagine my world without teaching and learning.

Sheldon struggles to imagine a world without his best friend.


  1. Okay, this might be my favorite blog post of yours EVER.

    1. The Big Bang Theory <3 need I say more? I feel like there are so many parts of LIFE that are depicted in the greatest way possible on that show. Thanks for totally making my Tuesday with these clips.

    2. You and Cameron living together. YES. This is totally it - the co-construction of reality. We aren't clairvoyant (as Melissa pointed out in her blog post), so we need to share our thoughts if we expect our students to share theirs. Everyone has to work together to create the ultimate learning space.

    3. I wholeheartedly agree with your final point here. Some days, it is so hard to even attempt to connect with particular students...but that is what makes us truly love and appreciate what we do.

  2. Yup, Tina! I agree...great post and great connections! (Even though I'm not a huge Big Bang Theory fan!) I really love the analogy you use about living with your brother...and I think it's sort of funny that you weren't really sharing your thinking with one another, but were actually sharing it with another friend. I think this type of miscommunication happens all the time between teachers and students as well. Students complain to other students about teachers and teachers complain to other students about teachers. It's like we are missing out on sharing our thoughts with one another for whatever reason...fear, intimidation, vulnerability, etc. I think if we were to really think about sharing our thoughts and our way of thinking with our students, they might feel more comfortable doing the same with us and it would be a win win situation!

  3. My student teacher has been working on getting to know the students, as am I but I did have experience with all three grades last year. This week Cary asked me about 8th grade Ty. I taught Ty last year for 5 months, then he moved out of my classroom for the last 5 months. I spent a lot of last year trying to "crack the nut." It has been nearly impossible get Ty to open up about anything, I tired the nice guy approach, tried making connections to his likes. But was never able to get past his exterior. If you ask him what he likes he replies, nothing, sports? nothing, music? nothing, what he wants to be when he grows up.... he literally replies nothing. The ELA teacher has given up, this history/religion teacher doesn't think it part of our "job" (don't even get me started on that). But Cary and I have been talking and we are going to keep trying, and find a way to connect with Ty this year. Often I think this pursuit for connection and understanding is given up to easily by teachers/adults/people. But as we see through Nakkula and Toshalis and Brittnay's interactions with her brother, we shouldn't.... connection and understanding are invaluable!

  4. Brittnay,
    As I was reading your post, it occurred to me that Nakkula does not go far enough in his mind melding, with just the idea that we, as teachers, need to offer our students transparency as to how we think and process information. In offering that, we run the risk of becoming preachy and know-it-all, after the transparency, we must also work hard to listen and support various ways in which others process, in order to allow that our way may not be the only way. You then hit us with Katie and Mayra in a deft connection, which I think illustrates the point exactly. I also thought your connection between Ms. Peterson and Antwon to yourself and your brother was spot on, and we should all be so lucky as to have mediating friends such as you. I am left with the question of "how do we self-mediate, when it is so difficult to be aware of our own biases?" Which just lends itself to the importance of building a professional network of trusted souls in which to bounce these questions off.

  5. Also, I really enjoyed your videos, BBT is huge in my household, although Key and Peele are making a strong presence in my classroom lately.