Black Feminism and Constructionism (Part 1 of 2)

Throughout my doctoral program, I have been “trying on” different pedagogies and theories that focus on working with diverse students using technology and media. After several semesters of exploration, I have found that I resonate with Black feminism and constructionism. As I have explained in a previous blog post, combining these two theories have been authentic to my perspective on teaching and learning.

As a result of this pedagogical awareness, I decided to implement components of Black feminism and constructionism in my work during the summer sessions with young people at my lab. I am fortunate enough to work in a setting that allows me to implement my ideas as my teaching progresses. Like most settings, there were limitations. In my case, the sessions last for a half-day for one week and timeframes during this week are allocated for user-testing. Even with these considerations, I was still able to apply some components of Black feminism and constructionism in my work. For the next two blog posts, I will share how these two theories impacted the environment, learners, educators, community, materials, and activities. For this particular post, I will focus on the environment, learner, educator, and community.

Environment
The Learning Games Lab has been holding summer sessions for over a decade and over time has evolved into a flexible space. The adaptability of the environment made it conducive for incorporating components of Black feminism and constructionism. Constructionism discusses the importance creating an environment that nurtures “collaboration in the air” (Kafai & Harel, 1991, p. 88) and “allows students to be flexible in their seating arrangements. This facilitates their movement, communication, and ongoing interactions” (p. 88). For me, this showed up through the adaptability of the environment.

Application to Summer Session

The ability to move the chairs, tables, and couches made it easy to adjust the room so the learners* could work in a manner that suited their interests and needs throughout the session. For instance, the setting would be set up differently based on the activities. The learners were able to decide where they worked in the space, if and how they sat or stood, and whether they wanted to use tabletops or clipboard. At times, there were issues regarding the environment, which led to discussions about fairness and how we could allocate space and furniture in a better way. Yet, overall the environment made it a positive learning space for the learners.

Learner – Educator – Community
Along with the environment, literature from constructionism and Black feminism state multiple points about the role of the learner, educator, and community. One of the major points that these two theories have in common is shifting the role of the educator from being a “sage on the stage” to being a facilitator. As Collins (2013) states, “Ideally, teachers and students in classroom communities might all strive to become more like jazz combo facilitators. In such groups, the goal is to get all instruments to come to voice, to sing their own songs, but to do so in dialogue with each other” (p. 135). This means nurturing the learners’ individuality and respecting and acknowledging the diversity and uniqueness each person brings to the community while working as a cohesive group. Other points presented by Black feminism and constructionism are giving the learners time to mess around, think for themselves, learn in the ways that work for them, and participate in learning experiences that are meaningful and relevant to them (Collins, 2013; hooks, 1994; Lorde, 1984; Kafai et al., 1991; Papert, 1980; Resnick, 1991; Turkle and Papert 1991).

Application to Summer Session

Each session included 11-15 learners entering grades 3rd – 5th or 6th -8th. There were two additional educators working with me in the setting. Before the sessions started, I informed the other educators about my strength-based approach to working with the learners. I also made it a point to learn about the other educators and tried to build on their strengths and interests. I also emphasized to them that they have a voice within the community and that they were instrumental in the young people’s experience as well. Gradually over time, I noticed how the educators became more confident in their teaching and presented activities that worked for the community.

Along with building on the knowledge of the other educators, the learners were also active in constructing their session. For instance, on the acceptance form, the learners were asked what they wanted to learn from their experience at the lab. This information was instrumental in designing initial activities for the session. Additionally, throughout the session, activities were modified due to the learners’ interest and feedback. There were times when the learners stated that they wanted time to play video games or needed more time for their projects, and adjustments were made to accommodate their requests. Final project decisions were influenced by the learners’ suggestions as the session progressed. This allowed them to learn knowledge and skills there were meaningful and relevant to them.

While the learners were supported in their individual expression and interests, they were also instrumental in building a community. There was a collaborative effort between the learners and educators to create a community that fostered learning, uniqueness, inquiry, and creativity. The sessions started with establishing community guidelines so that we, as a collective, were aware of how to interact and respond to each other throughout the session. Because the learners took ownership of the community, I noticed a difference in how they responded to each other and how they held each other accountable.  Though this wasn’t perfect, I found that this having them set guidelines and rules helped them recognize that they were valuable in forming this community.

As I worked towards empowering the educators and learners, I noticed how my position as a facilitator and learner were key.  This often meant that I didn’t give the learners the “right answer” that they were looking for and that sometimes I did not know the answer. My role was to encourage them to talk to each other, be comfortable figuring it out, help them shift their perspective, motivate them to keep going, and provoke questions to make them think deeper. Through stepping back as a facilitator, I noticed how they began relying on each other for support. I wanted them to understand that each person brings something valuable to the community and that seemed to manifest at times. Additionally, I was more cognizant of issues of power within the session and was mindful in negotiating issues related to dominant voices, space, and group choices.

One of the gifts of being a facilitator was that I became a learner too. hooks (1994) states, “When I enter the classroom at the beginning of the semester the weight is on me to establish that our purpose is to be, for however brief a time, a community of learners together. It positions me as a learner” (p. 153). I found that being a learner was a great joy and I was able to be authentically myself…curious, open, humorous, and a connector.

Conclusion

Utilizing components from Black feminism and constructionism provoked me to be more conscious of creating a learning environment that allowed all learners and educators to explore, create, and learn. By incorporating theories that resonated with me, I felt even more genuine and enthused about my pedagogy. This seemed to create an atmosphere in which the learners and educators felt confident and comfortable in authentically being and expressing themselves. Hopefully, this post has given you some ideas how Black feminism and constructionism influenced me as an educator, the learners, the community, and environment. For the next post, I’ll discuss these theories’ connection to materials and activities and ways they impacted my work at the lab.

— — — —

* The young people who attend the Learning Games Lab sessions are actually called consultants due to the expertise that they offer to the lab. However, for the case of explaining the integration of Black feminism and constructionism, I have used to term “learner” to minimize confusion.

References:
Collins, P. H. (2013). Intellectual activism. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom (Kindle edition). New York: Routledge.

Kafai, Y. & Harel, I. (1991) Learning through design and teaching: Exploring social and collaborative aspects of constructionism. In E. I. Harel & S. E. Papert (Eds.), Constructionism (pp. 85-106). Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing.

Lorde, A. (1984). Sister outsider: Essays and speeches (Kindle Edition). Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press.

Papert, S. (1980). Mindstorms: Children, computers, and powerful ideas. New York, NY: Basic Books, Inc.

Resnick, M. (1991). Xylophones, hamsters, and fireworks: The role of diversity in constructionist activity. In E. I. Harel & S. E. Papert (Eds.), Constructionism (pp. 151-191). Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing.

Turkle, S. & Papert, S. (1991). Epistemological pluralism and the revaluation of the concrete. In E. I. Harel & S. E. Papert (Eds.), Constructionism (pp. 161-158). Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing

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