Change the world

The Humanizing Power of Experience & Story

Prof. Carol Rodgers

Webinar: 28 January 2021, 16:00pm SAST      Webinar Series Homepage

Carol Rodgers is an associate professor of education at the University at Albany, SUNY.  Her research focuses on reflective practice, presence in teaching, the philosophy of John Dewey, the history of progressive teacher education, and the theory and practice of a humanizing pedagogy.  In 2011 she was a Fulbright Scholar at Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. She was also a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal in the late 1970s, worked for two years in Southeast Asian refugee camps in the early 1980s, and for nearly 20 years at the School for International Training in Brattleboro, VT. Her work is influenced by John Dewey, Caleb Gattegno, Maxine Greene, Paolo Freire, and her ongoing work with teachers and children. She is currently consulting and researching the use of descriptive inquiry processes (Himley & Carini, 2001) in a K-5 public charter school in the Bronx. In March of 2020 she published The Art of Reflective Teaching: Practicing Presence, with Teachers College Press.


In this blog I want to describe one particular online course that I believe embodies the tenets of a humanizing pedagogy. In particular, I will focus on how I make experience and story central to the learning of the course and will explore how experience, story and a humanizing pedagogy connect.

Before I begin, however, it seems important to define my terms. Borrowing from Bartolom√© and Salazar, I understand a humanizing pedagogy as “teaching practices that intentionally utilize the histories, knowledges, and realities of students as an integral part of educational practice and cast students as critically engaged, active participants in the co-construction of knowledge” (Bartolom√©, 1994; Salazar, 2013). I would add to this, teaching practices that cultivate compassion and presence. I will have more to say about these in a minute.

The Humanizing Power of Experience & Story

Borrowing from Dewey (1916), I define experience as the interaction between a person and the world. This “world” consists of other people, creatures, and the natural and human-made world as well as forces of context that exert power over the shape of these interactions. A human being is comprised of various experiences that build and connect into a shifting and evolving whole experienced as the self. We build the self through stories—the constant construction and reconstruction of our experiences that give them coherence and meaning. Consciousness of these interactions between self and world (experience) gives us agency to shape these stories in ways that are life-giving, in Parker Palmer’s (1996) words, or life-destroying. Presence to these processes as well as a stance of compassion towards the other, the self, and the planet are key to growth that humanizes rather than destroys.

So, given these definitions, what might a course look like that builds on them? The course I describe below, called “Understanding Learning and Teaching,” seeks both to train and to educate teachers to see— to see the human beings who are their students, the see themselves and their own internal complexities, and to see the cultural, political, social forces that shape their students and their selves. When I say train I mean to give students practice in developing a skill. When I say educate, I mean to give them a theoretical foundation for that learning.

Learning to See: The Course

Since graduate school (where I first met Denise Zinn) I have been fascinated by the question of how teachers learn to see. What awakens in them the capacity to see the truths of what is happening before them, in the classroom, what is happening inside them, inside their students, and how the invisible forces of context shape these interactions. How do then then come to respond with both compassion and the right next step?

The next part of this paper describes a fully online course I have taught since 2009 that seeks to answer this question. It is called “Understanding Learning and Teaching”[1]. The course “focuses on what it means to see (be present to) and make sense of (reflect on) classroom life (broadly defined), including the contexts of the schools, institutions, towns, and countries in which students and teachers work, and the social, political, and cultural forces that shape them.” It is based on the following guiding pedagogical principles:


  • All learning begins with experience and all experience is embedded in multiple contexts
  • Students come with “funds of knowledge” to draw upon
  • Reflection on experience allows for meaning making and meaningful work
  • Being present — through frequent individual and group communication and integrative lectures — nurtures trust, relationship, and investment.
  • Community in remote learning is possible.

Each module, or “container,” consists of the same elements.


  1. An focusing experience (poem, song, music)
  2. A grounding experience linked to the course texts (readings, podcasts, films)
  3. Texts (Readings, Podcasts, Films, etc.)
  4. Reflection on the experience and texts
    1. Through small group discussions (on Zoom and Blackboard)
    2. Occasional responses from me
  5. An integrative lecture
    1. My reflections on all the above, integrating students’  words
    2. Personal responses from me to each
  6. Descriptive Feedback from Students
    1. On their learning in the module
    2. Personal responses from me to each

ONGOING: A semester-long Descriptive Review project; Two Response Papers; Final Paper

I describe each of the elements of the container briefly then describe in more detail the Grounding Experiences and Texts and how they work to further refine students’ capacities to see.

The focusing experience is meant to support students’ entry into the module by giving them a few minutes to shift their attention from the concerns of their day to the work they are about to do. I usually do this at the beginning of Zoom sessions, but also make these offerings available to students to return to at any time. Students may also contribute their own offerings. I try to integrate as many authors and performers of color as I can. Not all offerings are “soothing” (though many are). For example, Billie Holiday singing Abel Meerpol’s “Strange Fruit,” a haunting song about lynching in the South, seeks to immerse students in an experience that alters their perceptions viscerally rather than through facts alone.

The grounding experience, the first activity of the module, is designed to give students a felt experience of the module content and grow more challenging as the course proceeds. I will describe these experiences in more detail in a minute.

In the past six months, the availability of texts (readings, podcasts, and film), especially those related to race, has proliferated. Although the grounding experiences give students increasingly complex things to “see,” with readings that reinforce each experience, the texts on context, particularly race, thread throughout the course, appearing in each module as a constant. I have found that many of my students are not readers, that is, they take in information in a variety of ways and so I seek to provide a variety of texts from articles to film to podcasts. More importantly, sticking with the principle that all learning begins with an experience, podcasts and film (along with music and poetry) offers stories that lodge themselves viscerally, engaging their hearts and minds. They then come to the readings with questions and curiosity born of these experiences. In particular, the podcasts 1619, a five-part podcast tracing the history of slavery in the US since the first slave ship landed in Virginia in 1619; Nice White Parents, a five-part podcast on the power that White parents wield in public schools; and This American Life’s, The Problem We All Live With about attempts to integrate a white school in St. Louis, Missouri, have been particularly effective. In addition, Race: The power of an illusion, a three-part documentary about race in America has been effective.[2]

Reflection[3] on the experience and texts happens both in person via Zoom and in writing on Blackboard. Discussion happens in small groups of about 5, in breakout rooms and Discussion Boards. I have found that when students are completely disembodied—only Blackboard posts—that it can be a dehumanizing experience for many. Delayed responses from peers and me, the inability to put a face or personality to a name, the lack of spontaneity, all chip away at what makes us human. On the other hand, I have found that many students appreciate having the time and space to gather their thoughts in writing and discover in more granular detail what they think, and who they are. I also appreciate seeing students in more nuanced ways. So, I have combined Zoom and Blackboard, beginning first with Zoom and followed up by a reflection on Blackboard on both the discussion and the texts themselves.

Once I have read all students’ posts I write what I call an integrative lecture that harvests the themes from students’ posts, including their descriptions of the grounding experience. As I read, I copy and paste certain passages students have written that I find capture particularly well points from the texts, or which raise issues that I want to make sure get addressed. This allows me to conduct a lecture (written) that begins where students are, rather than wasting their time telling them what they already know or starting beyond them and losing them. They are already primed to read the lecture because of the grounding experience and discussions, and, importantly, because they know they will see their own words quoted in my “talk.” They feel heard, valued, and, I think, amused. They are also appreciative of the 30,000’ view I provide and the effort that goes into it. For my part, I enjoy writing them and weaving meaning from their contributions. Students must each respond to the lecture in whatever way serves their learning, and I respond in kind.

Descriptive feedback is an essential aspect of each module. I have defined descriptive feedback as “feedback given by students to teachers on their experiences as learners. This dialogue takes place outside the confines of a lesson in a reflective third space where learners become teachers and teachers, learners.” (2019, p. 1) I see students as my partners in shaping the course and take their feedback and suggestions seriously, often making changes to course as a result. They in turn notice these changes and the relationship strengthens as a result. Additionally, they feel they have agency in the development of the course.

The ongoing assignment, a Descriptive Review of a Learner, asks students to describe a learner over time. I say more about this in the next section.

I move now to describe in greater detail the grounding experiences that students move through over the 14 weeks of the course.

Grounding  experiences[4]

There are six grounding experiences that students are obliged to engage in. Each is designed to hone students’ capacities to tune into (see, be present to) what is in front of them. The goal is for teachers to perceive their students, their students’ learning, themselves, their own learning, the content, and the contexts within which these elements interact with greater and greater nuance, compassion, curiosity, and appreciation. Below I describe the sequence of these grounding experiences.

Grounding Experience #1: Learning Stories

The first grounding experience is for students to describe a learning experience that have had that makes them feel more powerful, capable, enlarged, and able to see and be in the world in new way—in a word, a humanizing learning experience. It can be a learning experience that happened either in school or out of school. Students take this assignment seriously and have written beautiful accounts (rarely about school learning, sadly) that highlight elements of learning often bypassed in education courses—joy, beauty, relationship, surprise, curiosity, deeply felt emotion, practice, time, knowledge transfer, funds of knowledge, resources and lack of resources, making and doing, to name a few. They don’t necessarily see all these themes themselves and are certainly not told to write about them. Students have access to each other’s stories, are able to comment, and come to know a little bit about each other in the process.

As I read their stories—with a great deal of curiosity and pleasure!—I harvest themes from their stories, copying and pasting particularly rich passages into a master narrative that eventually becomes my lecture. I write about elements of learning that they read with relish because they are the main characters and their own words are positioned as words of wisdom, which they are.

Grounding Experience #2: The Leaf Drawing

Students’ third experience is drawing a leaf. They are instructed to select a leaf—any kind of leaf—from a collection of similar leaves they have brought inside. They must spend at least 30 minutes drawing and coloring the leaf as they choose, using a medium of their choice. They must then put their leaf back in the pile of leaves and see if they can find theirs. I have never had a student unable to identity their leaf. I then make a leaf album of their collected drawings. They not only learn to see things in leaves they never realized existed, they have also created a thing of beauty together.

 I again weave their reflections into a lecture that integrates their insights and the readings with my own.

Grounding Experience #3: Reading a poem

The second grounding experience asks students to read a poem (Lucille Clifton’s “miss rosie[5]) with at least one other person. They are instructed to read the poem aloud several times and to state only what they notice — images, the shape of the poem, language; they are encouraged to draw the poem and then to compare their drawings. They are forbidden to analyze the poem until they have seen all there is to see. If they feel compelled to analyze they must substantiate their analysis with evidence from the poem. This is more challenging the first experience partly because poetry scares them and partly because they are so habituated to analysis and getting the right answer. It’s hard for them the “just see.” Students will quite often see things are not in the text of the poem at all. With others having to join the discussion, they are forced to relook, to defend, and often, to change their minds. They then post their reflections on the experience, tying in the texts with what they have reconstructed.

As with other grounding experiences, I weave students’ reflections into my lecture and seek to bring them to a new level of understanding vis √† vis the themes in the texts.

Grounding Experience #4: Description of student work: The naked lady and the gun

The fourth experience asks teachers to describe a piece of student work, either a piece of writing or a drawing, much as they have been asked to describe their learning experience, the leaf, and the poem (though the description in the leaf is drawn rather than rendered in words). I usually use a student’s drawing done by a high school boy which is bound to evoke all kinds of assumptions about the boy. It is a drawing of a hand holding a gun that appears to have been shot. In the lower right hand corner of the drawing is a naked woman who seems to be crying. They are pretty good at just describing and withholding judgment by now—at least they understand it theoretically—but I also ask them to describe their own inner-actions—the assumptions they find themselves making about the boy (that he is disturbed, needs counseling, may be dangerous). When I reveal that the artist in question is my son, a perfectly lovely, well-adjusted young man (now 32) who now is a teacher of spiritual ecology, they are forced to grapple with those assumptions. I urge them to do so without judgment as well.

Once again I weave their reflections into a lecture that integrates the texts and their insights with my own.

Grounding Experience #5: Descriptive Feedback

In this activity teachers are instructed to conduct a descriptive feedback session with a group of students after having taught them a short lesson. The lesson can be one that they would normally teach their students, or an alternative lesson. In any case, it must be a lesson that allows teachers to observe students’ learning and allows students to actually learn something rather than merely remember what a teacher has said. Teachers can refer back to their learning stories and my lecture for insights into what such lessons might look like. They ask a series of about eight prescribed questions that focus on students’ experience in the lesson. The point of the feedback is to learn about students’ inner workings—what helped and hindered their learning, why, and what suggestions they might have for their next steps. It can a terrifying prospect for teachers, but the focus of the questions is not teachers’ teaching (though it is certainly implicated); it’s students’ learning. Making the shift from “all about me” to “all about them” is big.

Grounding Experience #6: Descriptive Review of a Learner[6]

The final experience is the Descriptive Review of a Learner. This activity asks students to describe a learner over time and from six different angles: 1) physical appearance and gesture, 2) strong interests and preferences, 3) disposition and temperament, 4) connections with others, 5) modes of thinking and learning, and 6) observed contextual forces in play. This is the culminating assignment for the course, though they work on it all semester long. It asks them to see a person in all their complexity, as fully as possible without trying to “nail them down,” or “sum them up,” but tentatively and with care and attention to their own interpretive lenses. Teachers share the reviews with each other using a rubric provided by me before passing them in for a final assessment.

The culminating experience is a live descriptive review of a child and a child’s work by the whole class on Zoom.

A word about texts-as-experience

As part of each module students read texts about teaching and learning and the socio-political-economic-cultural contexts within which they happen. They also listen to two multi-part podcasts: 1619[7], which recounts the history of slavery in the USA, and Nice White Parents[8], which explores the power that White parents (especially those with the best intentions) have in US public schools. Each of these podcasts has five episodes and students listen to one episode of each in each module. They also watch selected films and other podcasts that evoke similar responses. I think of these texts as vicarious experiences. They are told in story form, often through the voices of those affected. These texts evoke emotion and awaken in teachers an awareness of their own complicity as well as their limited knowledge of the lives of certain among their students/students-to-be, their own lives and, importantly, the history that has shaped them and the forces that continue to do so.


In module after module, year after year, learners report that their most powerful learning comes from these experiences and from the integrative lectures that I construct from their reports. Dewey (1916) contended years ago that education was “that reconstruction and reorganization of experience that adds meaning to experience and increases ability to direct the course of subsequent experience” (p. 74). Experience appears in this definition three times, and not by accident. It is our experiences that, when reconstructed and reorganized through reflection (and even without conscious reflection), determine who we become. We are our experiences and the sense we have made of them. Without having made conscious sense of them, they make sense of us. Education brings awareness to bear so that learners can determine their own selves; they can literally engage in self-determination.

Part of my job as their professor is to re-story, through additional reconstruction and reorganization of their collective experiences via my lectures. I seek to make visible the power, beauty, intelligence, and insight I see revealed in what they have told me and each other. I also seek to give them an experience of humanizing that they can carry forward into their own teaching. The power of experience and story lies here: “in providing opportunities for developing consciousness and agency in relation to issues of social justice/injustice, and teaching to enable development of people's full human potential” (NMU HP website). Or, in Freire’s (1970)[9] words,

To exist, humanly, is to name the world, to change it. Once named, the world in its turn reappears to the namers as a problem and requires of them a new naming. Human beings are not built in silence, but in word in work in action-reflection. (Emphasis added, p. 88)

[1] While the course shares the same title, the content, with the exception of the poem experience, is different.

[2] The website Facing History and Ourselves is an especially rich source of teacher resources.

[3] What reflection looks like and how it is taught is another crucial aspect of the course but beyond the scope of this paper. Please see Rodgers, C. (2020). The art of reflective teaching: Practicing presence. New York: Teachers College Press.

[4] All these experiences are described in detail in Rodgers, C. (2020). The art of reflective teaching: Practicing presence. New York: Teachers College Press.

[5] Acknowledgement to Lisa Schneier (1996). Apprehending poetry. In Tell me more, Eleanor Duckworth, (Ed). New York: Teachers College Press.

[6] See Carini, P. & Himley, M. (2012). Jenny’s story. New York: Teachers College Press.

[8] Chana Joffe-Walt, (2020). Nice White Parents.

[9] Freire, P. (1970/2011). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.


Posted on 18 January 2021 09:30:00

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