Identity, vulnerability, and courage in classroom discussion

Christina VillarrealChristina “V” Villarreal, Lecturer on Education and Faculty Director of the Teacher Education Program, empowers, uplifts, and nurtures communities of students every year through her popular course Ethnic Studies and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE). With pedagogical approaches grounded in ethnic studies, she works with students to co-create a classroom community where vulnerability, courage, and honesty are encouraged and valued. Through discussion facilitation, Villarreal creates space for students to bring their lived experiences to topics and shares her personal and political views together with them. She also utilizes small break-out groups for in-depth sharing and a physical circle for large-group discussion to facilitate more democratic engagement.

The benefits

Students consistently reflect on the fruitful discussions and community connections they’ve retained and how the course personally affirms who they are, as humans engaged in learning. HGSE featured the course’s popularity and power this past year during the pandemic, which among other activities, concluded with a 700-person symposium with educators and people from all over the world.

The challenges

Villarreal notes that she will often have to adjust her lesson plan in real-time to make space for students to go deeper into topics that interest them, or to allow conversation to organically flow from the students. “The work of teachers is we are making 1,000 mental calculations at any given moment,” Villarreal explains. “During class time, when I find that discussions are going on longer than I anticipated, and I'm trying to in the moment negotiate and prioritize.”

Takeaways and best practices

  • Embrace multiple participation styles. 
    “So much of the ethnic studies class is really centered around and dependent upon the students' willingness and capacities to really bring their full selves and kind of their autobiographies to the table,” Villarreal notes. That’s why Villarreal not only works to create a constantly affirming, brave space for students, but also to honor how everyone participates and needs to participate based on their place in their learning as well as how they’re emotionally feeling in that moment.
  • Physically restructure the classroom. 
    Standing over the students in the classroom, Villarreal points out, only serves to underscore the existing power dynamics between students and teachers. To disrupt this, she reorganizes the desks in a circle and sits in the circle with students to emphasize that she is not only “here for you, but also here with you.”
  • Give students space and be responsive to their engagement. 
    Villarreal likewise gives students space to process a question, as well as space to jump into the conversation. When she sees students are engaged but the class is silent, she will wait out a response, rather than calling students to speak herself, to give room for students to engage on their own terms, in their own ways.

Bottom line

Villarreal’s pedagogical approach to discussions simultaneously affirms students’ identities while also helping them engage in challenging conversations around liberation and oppression. As a result, students not only are more active in the class, but consistently note how the course offers a transformative experience in how they relate to their work as educators and to themselves as members of a collective community.