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What Does it Mean to Teach With Unconditional Love?

Jeniffer Montaño (New York ‘15) shares her reflections on the value of bringing unconditional love into the classroom.

Jeniffer Montaño

By Jeniffer Montaño

April 9, 2018

In The Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, he speaks about the power dynamics within traditional classrooms: teachers behave as experts who deposit information and students receive passively.  In urban classrooms, where students live the dehumanizing reality of an oppressed existence, the practice of banking information is detrimental because it continues to perpetuate the narrative that oppressed people have no voice to improve their realities.  My ego—my self-centeredness—within my classroom is dehumanizing to my students. Love cannot live in a space where my students do not have access to their full humanity.

When I stand at the front of the classroom and speak for extended periods, I am guilty of the “I am the sole expert” mindset. I make many assumptions about my students, their needs, and experiences within my sixth-grade history classes. I spend little time reflecting on how I can contribute to our classroom outside of delivering information. I claim to be a woke, social justice, culture-focused educator, yet I am guilty of loving myself first and putting conditions on how and when I love my students.

With this realization and new self-awareness, I recently created a plan to bring unconditional love into my classroom. I turned to fellow educators for insight, and through conversation, I realized that love for students means to have a genuine and continuous curiosity about their humanity and overall experience. In doing so, I have observed love manifests itself through dialogue and action.

In his book, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood, Chris Emdin writes about observing his students engaging in a rap cypher and notes unity and power in this interaction. He recreates his learnings from the cypher in the classroom through Cogens (Cogenerative Dialogues) or Educational Cyphers. The purpose of the cogen is to engage in a dialogue with students about their experiences within the classroom and then create action steps to improve their experience based on what is shared. Cogenerative dialogues are a tangible way to break oppressive practices and bring love into the classroom through dialogue and action.

In celebration of Women's History Month, I decided that I would engage my female students in a rap cypher. As black and brown girls, they are often rewarded for being docile and obedient and are reprimanded for speaking up. In hopes of shifting this oppressive practice and planting the seeds of love, I selected four female students, as suggested by Emdin, each with different personality types: outspoken, extremely shy, academically driven and unengaged. One of the primary goals of a cogen is to engage in dialogue that captures various viewpoints.

The tone of the cogen has to be set through how educators ask scholars to engage in the cogen. The facilitator must make sure that he or she is accommodating to the time of participants by asking questions like, “Does this time work for you?”  Once all scholars agree on a meeting time, I created an agenda.

I took Emdin’s recommendation about making scholars feel special during the first meeting; I gave my participants awards and a one time homework pass for their participation. I brought some food for us to share to make it a more welcoming environment. I also made sure to stay true to the Cypher principles, placing seats in a circle. I also set some simple rules for us: one mic, all our voices matter and our main goal is to bring solutions to the issues within our classroom.

We finally choose a name for our group: The Lionesses. Below is an overview or our time along with insightful quotes my students provided me.

Our group mascot for the Lionesses

Gathering Feedback

Montaño: “Don’t worry about hurting my feelings. I want you to be honest about what works and what doesn’t. I also give you my word, nothing you say will be used against you. What is working for you in history class? What are things we’ve done that you’ve liked?”

The Lionesses:

  • “I like when I have the opportunity to teach other students”

  • “Writing activities because it helps me internalize the material better”

  • “History is ancient and sometimes feels lame, so being able to write content in my own words makes it more interesting”

  • “I like when my parents have to sign-off on homework so that I’m held accountable”

Montaño: “What doesn’t work, particularly when you think about your experience as a girl within the classroom?”

The Lionesses:

  • “I’d like a variation between group and independent work because we have little time to reflect independently”

  • “I want a way to hold my partners more accountable when they aren’t helping during partner work”

  • “Please correct the boys when they make gender insensitive comments such as, “girls should have never have gotten the right to vote

  • “Please be stricter. We don’t always have a balance between playing around and being serious.”

  • “Change-up our seating! Place students who struggle with behavior issues in the front!”

What I Learned

Based on the Lionesses feedback, I was able to make the following changes to my classroom:

  • I’ve re-structured class time as follows: independent time, group work, and independent time. This allows scholars to internalize and reflect at keys points, and the new structure focuses the transition to and from my class.

  • We’ve created signals!  

    • Tugging on the left ear is our signal that she is struggling with an unsupportive partner

    • Three continuous stomps is a signal that I need to be more strict because the class is off task

  • Sexist comments require an on the spot correction and a whole class discussion

  • I’ve placed a red mailbox in the front of the classroom for students to privately share information with me

Following the changes I’ve implemented, the class has flowed better. There is a higher engagement from quiet girls, more student leadership, and more transparency. As a result, I have felt more love and support from my students; one of the left me a kind note after class, celebrating me.

Moving forward, I will continue to commit to curiosity, leading with my students’ truth first and compassion every step of the way. My students are every bit as much my teacher as I am theirs.