LETTER TO BRIGITTE
Today is March 19, 1996 and this side will be some thoughts on a paper which came into my mind this afternoon and that is the teacher as a facilitative person.
Frequently after discussing principles of the person-centered approach I am asked the question "But how do I apply these principles in the classroom as a teacher? How do I go into a traditional school system and begin to apply those principles so that it affects both teachers and students?"
The only response which I can make to this question is to talk about my own experience, an experience that extends back to the first years after college when I was a teacher in a small high school in western New York State and was responsible for developing curriculum for the four years of high school in English and English literature. From there it went to counseling experience in a large metropolitan university, namely Columbia Teachers College in New York City. From there to a small western Maryland college where I was a part time professor in the psychology and education department and worked mainly with undergraduates and theological students who were on the graduate level.
When I went back into the educational field professionally after marriage and a family, I began as counselor in a high school and for 20 years was counselor and administrator and researcher in a school system on Long Island where I worked with students from grades seven through twelve. Following retirement, I became involved and deeply interested in the work of Carl Rogers. I discovered that although I had not known the terms that were used in the work of Carl Rogers, I had been using it all my professional life. So, as it might be said, I was a natural.
From there my experience changed rather sharply to working with graduate students in two large universities on Long Island and in supervising interns who were preparing to qualify as counselors in the State of New York. So this is the base for my response to the question, "How can I apply the person-centered approach in everyday life in a classroom where other approaches to learning are expected and have been used traditionally?"
Fresh out of college I found the state recommended syllabus for the four years of English to be tiresome. After one year of following more or less the dull and worn out lesson plans of the teacher who had preceded me, I decided to find a new and more live way of teaching English to adolescents. One of my first steps in the second year was to get permission from the Board of Education to buy sets of three or four books of the same title for a classroom library and to obtain a copy for reference in each class of a series that was called "Literature and Life", a series that related various forms from poetry to short story to excerpts from novels to drama to biography, from serious to humor - all related to the kind of life with which most adolescents would be familiar. A set of those was available for each class in the classroom library.
My purpose was to help introduce the students to many possibilities for reading, discussing with their classmates what they had read, then reporting to the whole group. Thus what had been literature and public speaking, or speech, or dramatic reading, or whatever, became a part of the natural process in the classroom. I was not brave enough to undertake this change in all classes but in one class on each level in the second year of my teaching. This was the procedure that I followed.
I was not sufficiently sophisticated in terms of research to keep careful records so that I could compare and quote those comparisons of the outcome in terms of measured achievement but I do remember I found that there was a wider gap between those who did very well and those who did very little, between the high and the low in terms of grading. I did find, however, that more students reported that they enjoyed their English class and became more involved in reading in addition to those readings that were expected or previously required. On the whole I found that the average achievement was somewhat higher than the average achievement was in the traditionally functioning class. That result encouraged me to experiment even further in the following five years of my work in that high school. All I had done at this point was to give the students a choice of what they might read, to make the seating arrangement more flexible so that students could sit around tables and talk with their friends about what they had read rather than in the straight rows of bolted down seats.
I think one of the important steps in making all of this added freedom in the classroom possible was the link I had with the school librarian, a librarian who was wonderfully involved in a very unusual way with students and with everybody whom she met. She always had a book in mind that would interest you if you went into her library. Through her and the principal, I was able to get permission and appropriation of funds from the Board of Education for that school, to buy sets of books for what had always been called "supplementary reading." These sets of three or four books which I selected from a wide range of forms, as I have said earlier in this conversation, so that students would be able to read and share with others who have read the same book or the same selections from the book. I believe that enlisting the cooperation of the librarian, the principal, and finally the Board of Education made it possible that this whole shift in the atmosphere in the classroom was accepted much more easily than it would have been had I just tried to move into it on my own. We were working as partners (including the students) rather than as adversaries. So that answers part of the question that I often get, "Well, but how do you go about it? How do you actually do it?" Because change in educational systems is not easy. Sometimes it might take a longer time than it took me - a young person just coming into a school system.
I was somewhat fearful of this informality and what students might do with it but I found that when they felt trusted to sit with three or four friends and talk about what they had read supposedly, that, usually, thats what they talked about. I was always present so that I could give some supervision and joined in with discussions while other students were reading at times. I think that having a choice, feeling that they were a part of planning what they would do in class and being trusted to sit with their friends and to talk quietly so that other students could be reading or carrying on discussions in the other part of the room at those times was a real mark of my trust in them and their trust in themselves. It also offered students both freedom and responsibility in the classroom, which I discussed later in Freedom to Learn for the 80s.
The following year I became a little more adventurous and tried a different approach to the reading, appreciation and writing of poetry. Im not sure whether this was my second or third year English class in which I initiated the use of color in the reading of poetry, provided each student with a packet of crayons, whether they were pastels or real wax crayons, Im not sure anymore, so that when they read a poem, they could use the colors that were brought to mind by the images in the poem. Sometimes I would read poetry to them. I think I initiated it by reading poetry to them and having them write the colors as well as the words.
We advanced from reading and using color to looking out the window and capturing images of what they saw, then putting down on paper what they saw and illustrating or decorating it with colors that came to mind. It was an easy step from there for students to write their own poems and to read them aloud so that all of us could share in them. This became a popular feature when the subject of poetry was introduced. A little further on the students could make little booklets or they could arrange a display on the bulletin board of poems or short prose paragraphs that they had written, illustrated with color or not. So it was a matter of experiencing what they were learning, of relating what they saw and what they heard and what they wrote or what they talked about, read, as part of a real living experience. Some people loved poetry from the beginning and took very easily to it. Others had scoffed at poetry and never liked to read it and began to think in terms of images more, which poetry really is - images and feelings. Some students, of course, were not as adept as others but however they wrote I tried to encourage their efforts.
I think that is illustrative of the kind of innovations that I tried to introduce into the classroom. When we came into some longer work like drama, I often had students read parts of it in class and then asked them to continue in the copies that they had, continue reading the next scenes and then talking about it or acting it out the next day. We tried to alternate the reading to themselves, their sharing with others, their reading aloud in class so that the various phases of what had always been considered the reading, the writing, the speaking as parts of the English course were made more informal and more a part of the way things flow in everyday life. I think that was a good part of it. Some students surprisingly enough became Shakespeare enthusiasts, not many but a few, and others were more interested in lighter plays or dialogues and some people even undertook to write little bits of dialogue. Sometimes it was telling a story or a joke but it was a part of literature and life if you please.
It is very interesting to me that these terms which I have used like "freedom" and "responsibility" and "experiencing" are terms that I did not use then, terms that I have used more recently as I became more accustomed to the process and more familiar with the concepts and the terminology and the practice of the person-centered approach. They fit very well.
Transition from Teaching to Counseling
I found that teaching in this way seemed to attract students to come for counseling after school with problems that they had. There seemed to be a different relationship between teacher and student so that they wanted to talk about their own problems individually in after school hours and they were willing to stay for it. This was certainly most encouraging but it became a heavy load after a time, and I decided that if I were going to counsel with students to the extent that they were coming, it would be better for me to learn more about counseling and what its all about. So I applied for a sabbatical year to go to Columbia University to spend time in graduate work on counseling. Wisely, my principal denied the sabbatical saying that if I went from this small time high school to Columbia University for graduate work, I would not want to be bound to come back as a teacher or a teacher/counselor. So he urged me to, as he said, "burn my bridges," and I did.
There was an interval in which I studied at the university, another in which I became an advisor to graduate students regarding their academic problems, the planning of their courses and so forth, an interlude then during which I was married and spent time with my family. Later I returned to part time work and my husband became a professor at Western Maryland College in the Psychology Department, became an adjunct or part time summer professor at the same college where I gave a course to undergraduates in counseling with students. It also gave me an opportunity for some experience counseling with theological students. There was a theological seminary attached to the college and I offered a course for them and did individual counseling with some of the theological students.
The next group with whom I worked became 18 years of counseling and administrative work. During the last five years of those 18, I divided my time between the administration of the counseling services of a school system on Long Island and a research project which originated in this way.
I was asked to work with state education officials on a research project which investigated what they called the holding power of high schools in the State of New York. In the process of that study, which identified those students who drop out before they finish their high school course, it became very clear that some students who had a great deal of promise in the first four years of public school had been discouraged by conditions at home, by attitudes of teachers, by various kinds of deterrents. So over a period of time I had been involved in trying to find out the causes of students doing poorly in their schoolwork and eventually dropping out or intending to drop out.
This led me to the question of how could we nurture what I felt was the natural urge to learn new things because of the discouraging or stultifying effects of formal, traditional education. It led me to a research project of my own in which I investigated the relationship between creativity, intelligence and achievement and its implications for counselors. That project is summarized in a paper titled "Creativity and Intelligence: Implications for Counselors."
Then followed the five years which I previously mentioned briefly in which the findings of the research on creativity were used in the design and the carrying out of that design in the classroom part time, to give students the opportunity to be partners in the learning process. That experimental project was called by students choice "EXP," which stood for "experimental." Students from groups from 7th grade, from 8th grade and from 11th grade were chosen to become part of these special classes which were absorbed into the daily schedule and that project is described briefly in chapter six of Dr. Carl Rogers Freedom to Learn for the 80s and it is titled "Freedom Part-Time and its Consequences."
The experiment in learning began with an
almost desperate need to save myself. As a
counselor with administrative responsibilities in
a public school district, I had felt for some time
that I was dying a little every day. I had begun
to feel like a shock absorber, taking the
pressures, the anxieties and frustrations of
students, parents, administrators, teachers, the
board of education and the community, trying to be
at the same time an advocate for student growth
and learning. It seemed to me that everyone was
losing, especially me. There had to be a better
way! Unless I could find one, my energies and
enthusiasms would ebb away and I would become
another drop-out from the educational system.
One of my strong points is, I believe, that
once I have gained an insight, I do something
My first step was to apply for a sabbatical
leave, which I used for research into "Creativity,
Intelligence and Achievement in a Public
Secondary School: Implications for the Classroom."
It grew the following year into an experiment in
education in which I, a counselor, worked first
with a group of teachers, and later with those
teachers in their classrooms. Our purpose was to
create a climate in which the creative urge to
growth and the excitement of learning would be
nurtured. Much to our surprise we found that in
the nurturing climate which we were striving to
create, we ourselves were nourished, and found
within ourselves a renewal of excitement in
The next eight years were the most vital and
adventurous of my professional life - up to that
The program kept the title chosen by the students,
"EXP," although its form and the students involved
varied from year to year depending upon the grade
level and the school schedule for that grade.
Perhaps like many living creatures, plant and
animal, characteristics most essential to its
survival were its adaptability and its will to
live. It provided a place and a time for students
to learn what they wanted to learn - in their own
way - an opportunity to supplement and synthesize
their regular schedule of required subjects.
The principal of the building, having shared in
the enthusiasm of the preliminary workshop groups,
was cooperative in setting up his master schedule.
Some groups met two double periods each week plus
time usually allotted to art, music and reading;
others met one or two periods daily with adjacent
free periods used, with student consent, to make
larger blocks of time available for films,
discussions and art work. The "prep" and free
periods of teachers were also so placed in the
schedule that they could meet once each week for
workshop and processing sessions with the
counselor or counselors.
We centered the subject content around a loose-
leaf "Living Textbook" (patterned after the
"Living Textbook" developed by Dr. Elizabeth
Drews, then at Michigan State University) divided
for convenience into what we called "The Four
Worlds": the natural world, the esthetic world,
the technological world and the human or social
world. The Introduction was a personal message to
the learner, assuring her/him that "worlds" could
be combined or separated into others or ignored,
saying to the learner, "This is the beginning of
your book. The moment you make a change, add,
delete or rewrite, illustrate an article, make
something and include a photograph of it, or do a
page of your own, it becomes uniquely yours,
living as you are living and changing. Even if
today you only write a note in the margin it
We also used as a focus the "Being and Becoming"
film series, developed by Dr. Drews under a
federal grant. These films presented self-
actualizing men and women, at work, at play, with
their families and in their communities - as whole
persons. The films, by selection, challenged the
men/women career stereotypes presenting, for
example, a woman judge, a man artist, a woman
doctor. The "Living Textbook" together with the
films, stimulated heated discussions on ideas and
values, prejudices and ambitions. They encouraged
original work, wide reading; some students were
stimulated to become authorities on topics of
special interest to them, often newly found
interests. We discovered later that some of this
adventuring spilled over to after school hours and
family dinner tables - even to social gatherings
of their parents.
Some students worked almost exclusively in their
"Living Textbooks" and "hated" the films; some
"loved" the films and did very little in their
"LTBs"; some were highly verbal in class and
others rarely spoke; some withdrew and worked on
sculpture or mobiles while others wrote poetry or
storiesor gazed at the sky. A few who had
never written an acceptable "composition" talked
with a student friend or with one of the adults in
the group, into a recorder, then edited a
transcription and were amazed at the result
"Did I write that?"
For purposes of measurement and "feedback" most of
the sessions were taped, in whole or in part,
ready to be played back on request. Playback of
tapes, along with the group process of
establishing confidentiality and trust became
important parts of the learning process. After
years of feeling manipulated by adults, trust came
slowly, but by the second semester it became, for
many, permission to be a whole, real person in the
Students, teachers and counselors involved
directly in the program, teachers who knew
students only in "outside" classes, and parents,
all had a part in the evaluation process, and a
brief composite of the evaluations was placed in
the students folder along with the transcript of
academic record. There were no grades.
Students, adult members of the groups and parents
also evaluated the program. One boy wrote, "This
is the first time in nine years of school that I
felt I had a PLACE." Another said, "This course
did nothing for me", then added, "Except to give
me a few new ideas on education". A tenth grade
girl asked, "Why is it that in this class with no
teacher I have learned more than in my other
classes with regular teachers?" An eleventh grade
student wrote, "The EXP has brought me nothing but
trouble. When I have an idea now or disagree with
someone, I speak up. Usually the teacher doesnt
like it, especially if I disagree with the
We learned that we could not measure a students
participation or learning by what was apparent in
class. One young woman, whom the teachers and
counselor had felt "Probably gained the least"
from the program, came back four years after she
graduated from high school to tell us with great
excitement about what her EXP experience was
meaning to her in her practice teaching. She was
full of questions about the planning - "Or, she
asked "did it just happen that way?"
Teachers learned that students, on the whole,
accomplished more without the goad of grades, and
that discipline problems diminished, much to their
In general, students in these groups showed an
improvement in their English and social studies
following their experience; most were more
selective in the subjects in which they did well,
most were observed by other-subject teachers to be
more self-directed in their work and more able to
weigh values in class discussions rather than "to
see issues in terms of black or white"; most took
a more active part in diversified activities
associated with special interests after a year or
more in the program.
Now, eight years after EXP ended as a formal
program, there is a lasting effect on the teachers
who were closely involved. I am in personal touch
with four of the five who constituted a core of
the experiment. Two of them use almost the same
words: "After those years in EXP, I could never be
the same again." One is in administration, one
teaching music, another in English, the fourth
works with disadvantaged children and adults in an
impoverished farming community. In every case they
continue to see learning as a partnership, to
trust others to choose, to participate, to learn.
EXP is still having its effect.
We are also seeing the impact on education of some
of the participating students, who are now
themselves teachers or counselors. The long-
lasting impact of the EXP experience is best
exemplified by the story that follows. It is
written by one of the young women who was for two
years a participant and another year a student
assistant. Her account has special meaning for me
because my notes at the time describe her as "a
mousy, shy girl who didnt open her mouth in the
group until almost the end of the first semester,
and then with tentative uncertainty." This memory
is supported by her own comments at the end of her
first year in EXP.
Jeanne Ginsberg writes of what it was like for a student.
SHOCK AND CONFUSION
EXP - My first impression was that I had stepped
into a carnival funhouse; nothing was as it should
have been. There were no grades; teachers offered
minimal direction, students were addressed with
the same respect given adults.
There seemed to me to be little point in working
or in participating since there were no external
standards to meet. Even in our discussions there
seemed to be no right or wrong answer. Most
students seemed to feel the way I did and our
beginning discussions were somewhat dull, guarded
comments punctuated by long silences.
Even then, teachers did not interfere. I began to
feel that something was not right and that no one
was doing anything about it. I began to feel
anxious as the realization hit me that since there
was no external approval or punishment - no adult
with a special knowledge and power telling me what
was "right," I was going to have to figure out for
myself what was "right," what I wanted to get from
this experience. If someone was going to make this
interesting or meaningful or fun, it would have to
It was this realization which helped me to open
and fill with light and air and movement, a door
which until that moment had been tightly closed.
The first component of the program which caught my
attention was the film series. I come from a home
in which the roles and options for men and women
are clearly defined. There are correct and
incorrect ways to behave in each situation and
there was a tremendous amount of fear associated
with any move away from the standard ways of
The film series "Being and Becoming" (I remember
an interesting discussion about what these words
mean and how they fit together) represented
unconventional professions and did not always
present the "proper" (that word again) gender for
that role. Suddenly the options, which had
previously been so constricted, widened for me.
I began to gain a sense of independence and
enthusiasm and self-respect.
LEARNING AND SELF-DISCOVERY
Soon after this, I read one line in an article
from the "Living Textbook" which suggested the
possibility that dolphins had a language of their
own and that a man named John Lilly was studying
this language. The idea that people could actually
learn to decipher dolphin language, in a sense to
realize what it felt like to be a mammal living in
the sea and to share their history, caught hold of
me and I began to explore this tidbit of
information for no end other than my own interest.
I wrote to John Lilly, found articles and books in
the library, talked to people about my findings,
and felt enthused about something I had discovered
at school for the first time. Eventually I turned
my exploration into a paper for a biology class
and received an A+. The difference, however, was
that I did this paper for myself. The grade was
I gradually stopped doing things for a teachers
approval and started doing things because I wanted
to do them. How did this happen? I think one of
the main factors was that the teachers seemed to
accept everything I said. They didnt approve or
disapprove; there didnt seem to be any judgment
attached. They simply seemed interested. So, there
was no point doing something for someone elses
As I stopped doing things for someone else I began
to realize what I was interested in; what I wanted
to learn; what was important to me; essentially,
who I was. I began emerging from the shell of my
parents and teachers expectations and into my
FREEDOM VS. RIGIDITY
Perhaps the image which is most vivid to me now,
years later, is that of the difficult trip down
one hallway, through a crosswalk, and down another
hallway to the left from EXP to Latin class. The
entire trip took no more than two minutes but
within that time I had to adjust myself from what
seemed to me at fourteen years old the difference
between life and death.
Life: I think of change, action, conflict, colors,
feelings, risk-taking, growth, choices. Death: I
think of stagnation, sluggishness, no conflict,
grays, controlled motion, certainty, and no choice
the belief that there is only one way to do or
think or feel. I remember reading a statement of
Maya Angelous: "Childrens talent to endure stems
from their ignorance of alternatives." In EXP I
was asked to think about things, to delve more
deeply, to explore, to feel, to develop and to be
myself. Our textbook was the Living Textbook. The
class provided a place to "jump off" into
material, into discussions, into interaction, and
into the world outside of the classroom. It was an
introduction into a way of relating to the world
and to other people.
In Latin class, I was told to sit in a row in
alphabetical order by my last name: the notes to
be copied from the board made up our notebooks.
Our text was a translation of Julius Caesar. The
teacher moved up and down the rows to see that we
were copying the notes nearly and exactly. A test
was given daily on the material we were instructed
to memorize the evening before. Homework: work in
the most dead sense of the word. I remember
practically nothing of my two years of Latin
study. No wonder I was often late for this class,
had nightmares about it, and dreaded eighth
THE PRESENT IMPACT
Now I am a teacher of emotionally disturbed and
neurologically damaged children. In developing my
own style of teaching I thought back to the walk
between Experimental and Latin class and the
feeling of darkness I experienced on that walk.
These particular children need a tremendous amount
of order and structure in their routine and work
since their inner worlds and perceptions are often
fraught with disorder and confusion. Yet, I have
learned that while modes of learning can be
classified into certain groups (visual learner,
auditory learner, kinesthetic learner) there are
as many learning styles as there are children. One
child needs to learn math through understanding
and experimenting with the concept. Another needs
to learn the rote operation, practice it fifty
times, and only then begin to understand the
concept. A child who throws his reading book on
the floor every day may be doing so because he
perceives the symbols on the page to be jumping up
and down. Another child, who is presently
enamored with dinosaurs (I remember my dolphins)
has become an expert on the subject and learned
division only when I superimposed the problems on
the back of a dinosaur. Each child is unique to me
and I find one of the most exciting aspects of
teaching is discovering and working with these
It is most important to me to make the learning
experience meaningful and personal by encouraging
the children to use their minds rather than simply
accept information. I want to challenge the one
dimensional viewpoint and offer alternate ways of
experiencing the world. In this way, I hope each
child can feel in part responsible for his or her
own learning experience.
This sometimes gives the class the appearance of
being slightly more noisy or disorganized or less
disciplined than a traditionally run classroom.
Actually, tremendous planning and a very
carefully organized program must be developed in
order to enable disturbed (or for that matter, any
child) to make discoveries and come up with ideas
and conclusions based upon their own experience.
I think one of the most difficult insights for the
children in my class to gain is that there may be
more answers or viewpoints than their own. As one
child screamed when I was helping to process a
fight between him and another child: "Case is
closed! He did it on purpose. Why wont you
believe me? Im right and hes wrong!" Actually,
the other child had hit this child with a ball
accidentally because he has severe problems with
eye-hand coordination. The first child only
perceived the hurt as purposeful.
When I heard this, I felt frightened. It brought
back old memories of Nazi Germany where Jews, gay
women and men, really anyone who expressed a
differing viewpoint to the government was deemed
not deserving to be free or even to survive. It
brought up new fears of a "Moral Majority" who
know they are right; of a proposed Family
Protection Bill which forbids the federal
government from interfering with issues of child
or wife abuse, forbids Legal Services Corp. from
using money for cases involving abortion,
divorce, homosexual rights or busing to achieve
racial desegregation, and over thirty more
subsections which would destroy the work and
progress American people have made over the years.
It brought up fears of the rising power of the Ku
Klux Klan and the killer of Black children in
Atlanta. If I react to this childs statement or
run my classroom with the same closed and stuck
finality of his thought pattern, I believe I am
helping to feed this childs pathology and helping
to create an individual who is incapable of
empathy or reason or the possibility of change.
Very simplistically, in order to form valid
opinions, I feel a child must learn how to listen,
to consider what hes heard, to form an opinion
based on his new information as well as his past
experience, culture, and individual personality,
and to express this opinion. I usually devote a
large part of my curriculum to developing these
skills with lessons as structured as copying
letters or words exactly from a model, to sharing
a personal experience in three full sentences, to
writing creative stories on a specific topic, to
discussing feelings and thoughts, and value
I can trace a great deal of my excitement with the
learning and growth process to the Experimental
class. "Experimental" - even the name suggests
that anything can happen if only you open your
eyes and mind and ears and feelings. I hope that I
carry this excitement with me into my classroom in
a way that the children can feel its energy and
It was after retirement that I entered into the more recent years of this saga of my experience. I was asked to work with groups of graduate students who were completing their internships as part of the qualification for becoming certified counselors in New York State. Here again I used the experience from the first years in Lakewood High School, from the work in counseling and administration in the Long Island school system and designed my classes for interns along the same lines. We, from the beginning, became partners in learning. Students met once a week for three hour sessions, brought their reports of their own experience in their various places of internship, to discuss them and to make notes to use them in the following week of their practice and to come back again with reports which were shared. They kept a daily log of their counseling experience. They understood from the beginning that they were responsible, along with me, for getting whatever they could get from this experience. This sharing of responsibility was a part of the larger design which included interviews with the supervisors on the job, so to speak, in the schools where they were interns.
It was understood from the beginning that all three, the intern and I and the supervisor for the University would be involved in determining the final evaluation. There was some protest that it was difficult to evaluate themselves, their own work, the supervisors on the job felt that it was my responsibility as supervisor from the university to make that decision. But after a good deal of hesitance and criticism and uncertainty, the practice was accepted. So the matter of evaluation as well as the process of learning became for each person involved a matter of freedom, responsibility and partnership.
In later years up to the present time, my experience centered largely with classes of graduate students in the course titled "The Person-Centered Approach to Education and Counseling" or "to Teaching and Counseling." Here again the process hinged upon the same principles.
Perhaps it would be helpful at this point to begin at the beginning as I prepared to work with my first students at the undergraduate and graduate level at the university.
I was expected to prepare a curriculum for the approval of the curriculum committee. As I read the directions and specifications for writing such a proposal I was immediately discouraged because the traditional approach, the mechanistic way of dealing with learning was foreign to me. However, though I sometimes felt discouraged, sometimes angry at the system, I decided that the best I could do was to learn as much as I could from what the committee expected. Perhaps I would gain more understanding, more empathy with their point of view. Although that did not mean that I would conform to the traditional pattern.
So after much indecision, after trying several times to write a proposal which would satisfy the committee and at the same time satisfy me that I was being real and honest and holding onto my convictions. I felt my way into an answer to the question "How do these people see their role in education? What do they feel is important?" It was interesting and very valuable experience because I did learn a good deal in that process.
Once I had succeeded, I wrote a curriculum which included all the things that I believed I could accomplish in that class using as many terms familiar to them as possible and submitted it. (In other words, I learned to speak their language). I was then asked to appear before the committee and answer their questions.
On the appointed day, I met with the committee and proceeded to discuss with them the proposal as I had written it and the objectives, that is as far as content was concerned. After we had talked for some time, the committee seemed convinced that this was a worthwhile course. They raised one question about resource references being primarily Dr. Carl Rogers and fortunately my department and the department head whose department I would be working with spoke up and said, "This whole way of teaching is based on Dr. Rogers philosophy and approach to education so it is not surprising that many of the references would be to his work." That is important that some person in the administration have some understanding of the difference between the traditional and the person-centered approaches.
When the committee had accepted the proposal, I said, "Now I want to explain. I want to be quite direct and honest. We, I am sure, will accomplish all that this proposal says but I shall not do it with the traditional methods and I shall report at the end of the course on the success or failure of the approach which I intend to use." At that point, we had developed a working relationship and they accepted it. I then proceeded in this way as I met with the graduate classes in the course as designated.
(Just now, as I am writing this, I realize that I use the same approach with the graduate group that I had used with the high school group many years before and it proceeded in this way).
At first when the class was assembled we took time to meet each other, to hear names, to hear where they had come from, but most important to hear what they hoped for and expected from this class. As they shared in some of the things (some shy people of course did not speak at once, others immediately took part), I expressed my feeling that every person in the room, including all the students and myself, were bringing many resources, that we could learn from one another, that we would be partners in learning in this class.
I also made clear to them that I was there to be with them, that I would be as completely with them as I could possibly be and with their fears, their feelings, their wishes, their expectations but that I could not take responsibility for their learning because that was their responsibility and what can be important in this class as we work together would be that everyone would be as present there, as much a part of the group as it was possible to be, and bring all of their wonderful resources into the group, that we could and would try to develop this partnership.
Of course the words which I used were slightly different for the young students, made it more simple than for the graduate students, but the intent, the thought, the purpose was the same. At first, there was a period of hesitation, perhaps complaint, that they came to be taught and that they didnt know what they wanted, but when their ideas were listened to and we began putting together a list of the things that different members were hoping for, attention became more focused and some interest and enthusiasm began to develop.
At this point it was essential that the facilitator or the teacher was really committed and really involved with the group, that no attempt to follow a method or to "do it right" would lead to the kind of group activity that was needed for this kind of learning, this partnership in learning.
This is not easy but it has been my experience that by the end of the session, the term, or whatever you call it, students will be prepared to accept responsibility in the evaluation. They know the direction in which they are working. They know they have an active part in the evaluation. Perhaps there will be some exceptions, but for the most part, they will have learned to trust the facilitator.
This has been my experience which held true with students who were in their early teens and with students who were in their late teens and beyond.
The important thing to note here is that the facilitator does not abdicate responsibility, does not give it over to the group and stand aside. That would not be a partnership. The facilitator is very much a part of the group and a part of the group that has had more experience and is also in the position of a counselor at this point. I found with very, very few exceptions students at the end of the course said that they had learned a great deal about themselves, their strengths, their weaker spots, the way in which they can relate to other people, the attitudes they have toward life and their place in the whole scheme of things in which they live. They will, on the whole, gain a great deal more than the skills which they came to learn.
There are many variations on the living textbook idea that was used in the EXP program in the high school on Long Island. It is possible for students to make their own book of what they have learned. Some of it will be what they learned about themselves, about other people, about getting along with other people, what they have learned in terms of skills, whether it be learning to write a sentence, learning to solve a problem in arithmetic, if that is expected, needed, required, wanted, whatever, so that there will be some evidence that they can see for themselves, show if they wish to someone else and feel their accomplishment. That could include talents that dont have to do with reading and writing and arithmetic. It could have to do with artistic tendencies. It could have to do with other abilities which they have not really developed, with becoming aware of all the resources there are in themselves, with becoming a real part of the learning experience. A student who comes out feeling better about herself or himself will have succeeded to a large extent.
When Im working with graduate students, I talk with them at the very beginning of the course. I ask that each member of the group write a synthesis paper at the end of the course. This paper is not related to the final grade, but is rather a summary, sometimes detailed, of what the student has learned and experienced as a participant in the group. In it he or she will relate readings, observations on their own growth and development, emotional involvement, how their own experience in class has affected their relationships at home, at work, and possibly comments made by friends or relatives about changes in their behavior, and most importantly what they have learned about themselves.
This next step depended largely on the relationship of the facilitator, the teacher of this class to the administration in the school or institution. It has to do with the grading process and it takes a genuine trust in the members of the group on the part of all members of the group - facilitator or facilitators and students alike - and that is that the shared power and responsibility, although you may not use those exact terms, are shared in evaluation of their progress. That means that as the end of the course approaches, students will share with the facilitator how they feel about their accomplishment in the group, whether theyve been getting the help they need, the skills they need, how would they put a grade of achievement on their own work. Whenever there is a difference of opinion, there follows a conference with the facilitator to discuss how the grade or the evaluation should be reported. This is one of the most difficult points in the whole process. Students who have never taken an active part, a responsible part in their learning, will say or more likely say, "You are paid to give me my grade, to report on success and failure and I cant do this. This is very hard to do." One student expressed very well the experience of many others when she said, "In this class I found I am the hardest subject I have ever studied." It can be worked out if the facilitator can stay as a facilitator with the students.
Students usually find the writing of such a paper very valuable to themselves. The most helpful papers have been those in which negative feelings as well as positive have been expressed which emphasizes the importance of a complete separation of the process of evaluation for a grade and the writing of the synthesis paper. This allows freedom to express negative feelings about the course, the facilitator, other members of the class, and the university. These will be held in confidence by the facilitator.
This paragraph is especially for Brigitte and for others who raised the same question during my visit to South Africa in September 95. Black students coming into schools which have been integrated may understandably object to having white teachers whom they feel do not understand them or for whom they feel enmity or anger for past deprivation. It would seem important that for such classes if the system will support it, will approve it, that there be both a black and a white facilitator. It would be particularly important at this point to have established a working relationship with at least one member of the administration so that administrator and facilitator could approach the solution of the problem as partners. If this is not possible, the facilitator may acknowledge to the students that they have just cause for feeling deprived and angry that he/she really wants to know clearly and specifically what their past experience has been and what they really want from the school system. In other words the facilitator will be learning their language, establishing a deeper base for communication.
Once what the students want and expect from this class is understood, at this point this process becomes an engagement of the heart. No amount of method, technique, or how-to-do-it knowledge will be enough. As Carl expressed it, it becomes a matter of "the quality of the relationship" between the facilitator (teacher) and students. This process is not for the fainthearted. The facilitator may find he/she has stirred long pent up feelings which may result in strong expressions of anger and hostility which will be very difficult to hear. The process may take more time and patience than anticipated, and certainly a good measure of fortitude.