By Steven Krolak
(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)–Sometimes your calling is right where you thought it would be.
Sometimes you stumble across it by accident.
Sometimes it arises out of the ashes of what you thought your calling was.
That last scenario describes the way it was for Steffany Comfort Maher, assistant professor of English education.
Maher entered college aspiring to be a nurse, a sure path to a secure income. But the reality of injecting patients was a horror she couldn’t overcome. She took a big risk, leaving the nursing program with no clear-cut alternative in sight.
She wandered into an Education class, and the rest is, well, education.
Today Maher continues to take risks in creating student-directed courses that encourage exploration, reflection and discovery among the next generation of English educators.
Control is an illusion
Maher teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in secondary English language arts education, reading education and young adult literature. She supervises field and clinical experiences in secondary English education, for which she is also program coordinator. In addition, Maher is director of the IU Southeast site of the National Writing Project.
To each of these varied roles, Maher brings a single motivation: to create the right conditions for student success.
The key to success, it turns out, is engagement that convinces students that they are seen for who they are.
“They need to feel as though their instructor cares about, trusts, respects, and empowers them,” Maher said.
Maher builds connection between herself and students, and fosters it among students themselves, through reading together, small group work, writing, speaking, discussing, partner work and other highly interactive processes.
But over the years, she has reached for ever greater levels of connection, motivated by the dedication to giving her students the most advanced tools to succeed over time.
Already as a graduate student and a middle- and high-school teacher, now nearly 20 years ago, Maher became aware of research and practice of student-directed classrooms, most importantly through the work of Paolo Freire.
The idea that students could be more effective and empowered if they were truly in greater control of their own learning journey resonated strongly.
Perhaps because was already implicit in her own approach.
In any case, it was a risk, but one that has proven itself worth taking.
“Once I determined that I would make student-driven pedagogy a priority, and I gave up my need for control over what and even how curriculum was shared in my classes, I found that my students often learned everything I would have wanted to share with them, but they would come to those conclusions through a process of critical inquiry and research and reading and sharing what they were learning with others,” Maher said. “Control is an illusion.”
Maher presents writings for the entire class to read and discuss, but crucially also gives students the choice of readings, based on their own personal interests. This allows her to devote more time to discussion than to direct instruction. Those discussions are driven by questions from the students, not from a preordained lesson plan. Maher often gives students additional time to refine their approach to the questions under discussion. Sometimes, a discussion is “tabled” so that it can be taken up again after a period of further research and reflection.
This process broadens coursework and shifts the focus from the limitations of a given work to the process of reading, writing and reflecting.
“When students read or research on topics of their choice, they present what they are learning to the class, so we all benefit from their learning,” Maher said. “In this way, we often address a much wider range of topics and issues in teaching English language arts than we could if we all read the same materials.”
Maher is not the only one innovating here. The process enables students to innovate as well, experimenting with educational technology in presenting their projects to the rest of the class. As Maher explains, they are expected to learn a new technology, and it is more reassuring for them to iron out the kinks in front of their classmates than in a real-school setting.
Maher asks her students to incorporate their learning into lessons that they then teach the class. These dry runs help students gain familiarity with the strengths of diverse tools, and the feedback from fellow students gives them added information about how best to use them.
Reflection looms large in Maher’s teaching philosophy, and she gives students plenty of time to process and share their impressions of the classroom experience. When it comes to new tools or methods, student reflections are important for one another and for Maher.
“These metacognitive discussions are valuable, and I often learn much from my students’ experiences about how beneficial a tech tool or text might be,” Maher said.
Maher also asks students to reflect in writing, not just about their own reading and learning but also about what they have gleaned from the presentations of other students.
The process reaches a pinnacle when students are asked to teach a lesson they derive from a book on teaching writing, a book they have chosen based on their very own personal interests.
“They must work at high levels of learning–analyzing, synthesizing, evaluating, creating, and teaching–in order to complete this assignment,” Maher said.
In this virtuous circle, the benefits accrue to the student presenting, to classmates and to Maher.
A safe place
In Maher’s student-directed approach to teaching, critical theory is strongly wedded to a fundamental sense of humanity.
Building trust with students is effective pedagogy that leads to greater self-awareness and empowerment. But it also reveals teaching to be, at its core, an act of compassion. Helping others to learn is to help them grow, explore and ultimately succeed.
Especially in the middle- and high-school classrooms as well as in the ecosystem of young adult literature, in which most of her students will dwell as teachers, bravado and vulnerability are intertwined. A novel in the hands of a middle- or high-schooler can be a powerful agent of awakening, if properly taught. To know how to be both inspirational and reassuring, to teach reflection as well as analysis, demands incredible emotional intelligence, patience and support. It is the moment when the passion for learning can really take hold, if a teacher can establish the personal relevance of the material.
“A book can provide a reader with empathy and provide validation,” Maher said. “Books are a safe place to experience a sometimes painful and even dangerous world.”
Besides empowering students to think more deeply for themselves, and to become more engaged readers and thinkers and ultimately teachers, Maher’s approach naturally helps them develop skills that will allow their classrooms to engage more meaningfully with the world around them.
While literature can provide a welcome escape from reality, especially in troubled times, what brings readers back is the ability of books to help explain that reality. For readers are also citizens, and reading can encompass a more vital grasp of citizenship that leads to more active participation.
“Teaching students to think and read critically is vital to our society, as these students are and will continue to be political members of our culturally diverse and still-developing democracy,” Maher said.
In her research as well as her teaching, Maher challenges students to look beyond the plots to find connections with historical, social and political realities, be it the lynch mobs of “To Kill A Mockingbird” or the struggles of adolescence revealed in young adult fiction.
“A critical pedagogy approach focuses on raising consciousness of power struggles within a society and how knowledge affects and is affected by those structures,” Maher said. “In the classroom, critical inquiry allows students to ask their own questions related to their rising consciousness, questions important to them.”
By creating the ultimate safe place, Maher strives to model the kind of teaching that contributes to the success of all students.
“I hope that through our learning together, and through my consistent example, students believe that they can develop their own student-driven pedagogy in their future classrooms,” Maher said.