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Co-Creation in the Classroom

by Judith K. Lang Hilgartner

As a Myers-Briggs type ENFJ “The Teacher,” I feel like I have a dream job. Teaching is the reason I get up in the morning, excited to get to my 8:00 am class. Teaching complements my own learning process because my primary job as a teacher to learn from my students: the way they think, their core motivations, their fears, their sorrows, their hopes, and dreams. With these insights, I transform the classroom into an environment of co-creation. 

The traditional dynamic of teacher-student places the locus of power upon the “master,” but in my classroom, these roles are intentionally questioned and reversed. I try to put the power back in the students’ court—as the masters of their own learning. Over the course of the semester, I study my students: their tastes, personalities, backgrounds, interests, and hobbies. I observe their insecurities, fears, doubts, and preconceived notions. In order to empower them to co-create learning in the classroom, I must develop a bond with each student founded on trust, mutual respect, transparency, and positivity. As my relationship with the students grows, their power, agency, and abilities do too. My philosophy of teaching affects different levels and subject matters in a variety of ways, but the basic principles of co-creation remain the same no matter the course. 

An Example of Co-Creation in a Spanish I Classroom 

Before the semester starts, I send out a friendly email survey asking students basic information about themselves and their background with Spanish, but I also ask this question as well: “If you were to pick a song to be the soundtrack of your life, what would it be and why?” This question reveals my students’ character, but most importantly, it helps me develop a rapport with them. I want them to know that I am interested in who they are as people, even outside of the classroom. Secondly, early on, I design an activity where students cook a dish that is important to their family’s culture and they bring it to class. In so doing, we learn about direct object pronouns in context, “¿Quieres probarlo?” “Sí, lo puedes probar.” But beyond the Pavlovian principle that sensory input and repetition cements habits, this food activity is designed specifically to show the students that the Spanish language applies to sweet potato casserole or chicken curry, just as much as tacos al pastor or arroz con leche. We learn all the appropriate words for their favorite dishes, and in so doing, the students share a piece of their world with the class. I teach the class explicitly that everyone has a culture to share, and for our class, the Spanish language is merely the linguistic conduit.  

The second phase of co-creation involves an activity about the inherent diversity in Latin America. I ask my students to discuss in groups the first thoughts that come to mind when I ask, “¿Qué representa Latinoamérica?” Students usually answer a combination of the following, “comida,” “bailar,” “playas bonitas,” and “música.” I make no judgment upon the group’s responses. Then, I ask them to carefully watch the following music video, Latinoamérica, and think about what Calle Trece’s opinion might be. I ask them to consider in groups if the music video introduces any new ideas. The second group discussion always yields interesting changes. Most of the time, students respond that their original answers were based on stereotypes. They point out that the video highlights hard work, family, religion, perseverance, and strength despite adversity. Some students even go as far as to admit that they didn’t realize that “people in other countries worked hard” or they didn’t know “how many different types of people all belong to Latin America.” From here, I lead the students in a discussion about the role of observation versus judgement and curiosity versus assumption. I ask the students to consider their own role in proliferating limited visions of others based on color, class, race, gender, education, or any other marker. I have found that in Spanish I, this activity is helpful in empowering the students to take control of their inherited biases. By opening up a discussion about their own cultures, I lay the groundwork for co-creation in the classroom. 

Co-Creation in Group Dynamics

I strive to empower students by creating an environment of trust, team-building, and student leadership. Initially, I observe the class dynamic without interfering. I watch how alliances form and keep my eye out for exclusion. Most of my activities involve different group combinations, but after a few weeks of class, I switch things up, informing my students that they will be assigned teams. I explain that they are responsible for the learning of other members on their team. If I ask a teammate a question, and that person doesn’t know the answer, they are responsible for prompting their memory. If one of their teammates is struggling or having a bad day, it is their responsibility to encourage and help them. I attempt to model all of these behaviors: positivity, encouragement, non-judgmental correction, and respect, but I have seen that when students take ownership over the class dynamics, everyone is working towards the same goal. Mistakes lose their stigma; everyone begins to value a “teaching moment.” Each student has different skills to bring to the table, and I praise every effort on the students’ parts to show solidarity. 

Every semester, I teach multiple sections of the same courses and sometimes of different levels. One way that I like to take the team-building to a new level is to implement pen-pals among my different courses. For example, between two Spanish I and II courses, I assign each student a pen-pal and give them a piece of card stock upon which to write the other student. I become the mail-carrier for these creative missives. One week, the assignment might be to write about their weekend plans and give tips for taking the Conversation Exam. Another week, the assignment might be to report about a city in Spain and give tips for European study abroad. I instruct the Spanish II class to use less advanced grammar and gloss words to help the Spanish I students understand. In reality, this practice serves to re-enforce their own grammatical understanding and helps them use their knowledge to “give back” to the language learning community of the university. In the Spanish I class, I instruct the students to experiment with the language and look up new words in their Wordreference apps. This type of exchange encourages peer-mentoring and helps students see the language as it works outside of the classroom. 

As a first-generation college student in my family, I was forced to take charge of my own learning in order to succeed. I believe that habits of resilience and innovation must be taught no matter what the subject matter. As a teacher, it is my duty to help students exceed beyond their own expectations. Teaching students to embrace their role and responsibility in the classroom makes for a more enriching experience for everyone because in this way, each student finds the power of their own unique voice. 

Co-creation in my classroom means that students learn that no matter where life takes them, they should never stop learning, questioning, criticizing, and imagining. My students are encouraged to take their curiosity and questions into the world, sharing their perspectives with their communities and beyond. Sent out from my classroom, I encourage students to cross boundaries, ask hard questions, and boldly envision solutions to dilemmas that pervade our world today. In this way, the power of co-creation in the classroom extends far beyond the bounds of the university. As Plutarch once said: 

“The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be ignited”