Making Room for Student Emotion
By: Sylvia Hadnot
One of the first things we’ve learned about in class this quarter is how to teach to different learning styles in one lesson plan based on how students perceive and process information. We learned that some students perceive knowledge through their emotions, and others process by absorbing abstract concepts. Some process through thinking, while others process by doing. As an educator, I want to support every student in my class to the best of my ability, so I found this lesson particularly helpful.
Our professor asked us to reflect on our own learning styles, and in doing so, I realized I perceive information emotionally and process it by acting it out. In my primary and secondary education, this manifested in feeling what I learned and blurting out in class, and then being reprimanded by teachers. I didn’t understand why my natural way of processing things was not allowed at school, which was supposed to be a place where learning happened. Why couldn’t I learn the way I knew best? Fast forward twenty years, and I can tell my teaching style has been informed by those experiences—I encourage my students to actively engage with the lesson, whether that means blurting out, taking illustrated notes, or conversing with other students. My classroom tends to be one of organized chaos.
Currently, I teach Ecology and Environmentalism to 12- to 17-year-old students at the King County Youth Detention Center. I have three rules that help keep the chaos organized:
- We made adult decisions to get here, so we will act like responsible adults in the classroom;
- We respect our fellow students; and
- We don’t use inflammatory language in class. Teaching at a detention center does put some restrictions on my classroom ideals. But, with these rules as guidelines, my students are free to learn how they do best without stepping on each other’s toes. If things get too chaotic, we can circle back to our rules and pull ourselves back together.
My students are very rich in street knowledge—they have chiseled intuitions that keep them safe from things like gang violence or predatory police. They are curious and inquisitive, and they always want to know how classroom learning is relevant to their everyday lives. Last week, Cayden (all names changed for privacy) blurted out in class, “Miss Sylvia, how is eating organic even relevant to me? I live in the ghetto. We don’t have grocery stores, let alone organic food on the shelves. I honestly don’t care about recycling, either. I care about making money and getting out of this system.” I thanked him for his contribution and turned the question around on my students. “How is this all even relevant?” Jay-jay responded that he thought he could probably try to plant his own garden at home when he got out of detention. He commented, “Seeds are only a few cents at Home Depot, I already have a shovel, and I bet my grandma would let me have some space in her flower garden.” Antoine added that he “bet [he] could even try to sign up at the farmer’s market and sell some of the extra produce.” We all agreed that this seemed like a wiser option than selling drugs or stealing cars for money. I was proud of my students for applying the dollar sense they already had to create the beginnings of an ethical, organic produce business plan—a business plan that was sparked by Cayden blurting out in class.
I’m thankful for what I perceived as negative experiences in primary and secondary school, because I can use them to guide my teaching style now. There’s room in my classroom for all personalities and all learning styles. There’s room for mistakes, and there’s room to turn mistakes into lessons. In making those personal connections, my students leave the classroom feeling heard and more willing to explore the topics they learned about that day.
Sylvia Hadnot is an alumni of the Urban Environmental Education program.