Vulnerability and Risk in the Classroom…

As part of an assignment in a graduate school course, students were asked to review several articles and select one that captured our interest. I selected Elizabeth Whittenburg Ozment’s, “Embracing Vulnerability and Risk in the Classroom: The Four Folder Approach to Discussion-Based Community Learning” for what I considered obvious reasons: all students experience vulnerability and risk at some point in their college careers.

When students opt to pursue a college education it typically infers that they want, in some way, to progress. Yet, many students find the system challenging to navigate. This latter issue is particularly evident in the community college system, where I work, as students often come in with the desire to do well in college but are often unprepared to master the elevated reading and writing skills required to excel. This isn’t simply a community college problem, but it is also a university problem. It is for this reason that most institutions have first year writing programs. These programs allow students to build writing skills, regardless of incoming experience, which will eventually help them excel in all their college courses. Understandably, many students are apprehensive and anxious when initially asked, usually through writing assessments, to demonstrate their reading and writing skills. Whittenburg Ozment understands these apprehensions, and her article aptly explores the notion of student vulnerability and the risk one needs to take to be successful.

Her feminist background recognizes “the politics of power and difference…” so her aim is to create a “democratic learning community” in which everyone’s voice is valued. Although her system is contrived and organized, it is a useful “four-folder approach” that any teacher can use with nearly any subject. She literally uses four folders, each of which contain rubrics, questions, responses, and previous classroom discourses, as a tool to guide critical thought. The idea is to create a democratic classroom that will diminish the power differential by giving voice to everyone. Embedded in this approach is also a way to foster community and leadership skills through critical reading and discourse. Following a Paulo Freire approach, the students become the teachers in the classroom while the professor acts as facilitator. Students come prepared to discuss the readings and engage their peers.

Whittenburg Ozment’s idea is not new nor is it innovative. Many teachers have developed ways to facilitate student led discussions. But her approach encourages and promotes student participation. And this participation gives all students a sense of belonging. She understands the vulnerability and anxiety many students come in to the classroom with, and she uses this awareness to create a classroom in which she helps them acknowledge and value their studenthood. Her keen awareness of power and privilege help her foster a community of learners that do not abuse their status but instead promote learning by fostering support. The latter gives them a sense of belonging in an environment that is often intimidating and foreign even for the best of students.

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