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by Francisco Medina
The Peer Activist Learning Community
Many students at LaGuardia Community College may ask themselves, “What’s the point of learning?” They don’t see the relevance of the knowledge they are supposed to acquire in their courses. Thus, they aren’t motivated, and then struggle in their classes.
Dr. Eduardo Vianna with Ph.D. candidate Naja Hougaard and Dr. Anna Stetsenko of the Graduate Center put together the Peer Activist Learning Community (PALC) to address this problem. Inspired by the work of Anna Stetsenko, who posits that learning and identity are bi-directional, mutually constitutive processes, the group aims to help students discover and develop a connection between learning and the search for a path in life.
“Practically, from my experience as a teacher it was clear that students’ learning struggles were connected with their life activities, their pursuits, and future aspirations,” explained Vianna.
Based on psychological and critical social theories, the group engages students in a critical reflection of their motivation and attitude toward learning, discusses learning and life goals, and seeks to expand on the college experiences. PALC members engage in critical-theoretical learning to overcome conflicts, such as insufficient motivation to, interest in, and attitudes toward learning. More importantly, they develop a meaning or purpose in life. The group meets weekly to discuss ongoing learning and life experiences, read about critical social theories, consider current events, and help each other overcome obstacles.
Group members tend to become active learners and show improvement in academics, critical thinking, goal setting, connectedness, and leadership. Students also use the knowledge they acquire in the group to connect with course-related knowledge and their own situation, including how they relate with families, work, friends, and other nonacademic settings. Vianna said, “Those who become consistently involved in the group for a while expand their knowledge of learning and identity and how they see themselves, their place in society, [and] what they want from life.”
Michael Rifino, 21, joined the group a year ago feeling that learning was a burden and consequently worked below his potential. He was attending school to get a job and abandoned his dream of becoming an artist for a more “practical” career. The struggle to find a job that would satisfy his practical needs consumed him and left little time for learning. Rifino felt detached from current events, and, therefore was oblivious to their impact on his life. All of that began to change as he began to participate in PALC and read about Karl Max’s Theory of Alienation and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Rifino said, “The Learning and Identity group has made my education meaningful. Discussing what we learned has given me a sense of belonging in LaGuardia. I feel [now] a part of an active community. Reading critical social theories with other LaGuardians has opened my eyes to witness my true potential and ultimately made learning an exciting activity.”
PALC encourages students to find meaning in their education. According to Keiko Matsuura, “Doing academically well merely means that their GPA is high and not necessarily that their learning is meaningful or they use the knowledge to contribute to society. In our group you can be a little more critical.”
PALC also helps students become peer activists in education and beyond, supporting causes such as the fight for public higher education, budget cuts and social injustice. Most recently students protested tuition hikes and went to hearings held by the Board of Trustees. Meanwhile on campus students are becoming more involved in clubs, organizations, and motivating their classmates to do better.
For more information contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
1. When did you start the group? How long have you been working on it?
About 1 1/2 years ago.
2. Why did you start the group? In other words what motivated you? Was it because personal experience? Where did you get the idea?
The rationale was both theoretical and practical. Theoretically, I was inspired by the insight in sociocultural theory that learning and identity are bi-directionally related or mutually constitutive processes (one creates the conditions for the other to develop). This idea has been proposed by Anna Stetsenko with whom I have worked very closely and we co-authored a paper on this topic to be published in Human Development. Practically, from my experience as a teacher it was clear that students’ learning struggles were connected with their life activities, their pursuits, and future aspirations. I felt I need to work on both poles (learning and identity development) in order to be a successful teacher with successful students. However, what I could do in the classroom in terms of fostering identity development was very limited. Conversely, student services that address life issues typically do not tap into learning. Thus, the idea of a peer activist learning community where faculty and students could work collaboratively to promote synergistic connections between learning and identity development. My co-investigator, Naja Hougaard, and I conceived of this work as a type of participatory action research where students could be introduced to social science research as we collaboratively investigate our learning and development.
3. What’s the most challenging thing about the group?
There are many challenges. One is to have students commit to this work given their crazy schedules. This project functions on a volunteer basis. Hopefully we will be able to get grants in the near future to support student involvement. Another challenge is to find topics everyone is interested and have time to devote to learning materials (academic readings, news articles, etc.). This work also depends on developing trust and commitment, which is a serious issue for many people. There are other challenges but I will stop here for now.
4. Do you think that members have progressed? If so how?
Certainly. Those who become consistently involved in the group for a while (it takes at least a couple of months) expand both their knowledge of learning and identity (connecting academic theories with their own experience-based knowledge) and how they see themselves, their place in society, what they want from life. We have seen a few dramatic changes, although others have left the group or attended it inconsistently, making it hard to assess their development. We have barely begun our analysis in earnest, though. We still need to go over our data more systematically, and we need research assistants.
5. Has the original purpose of the group changed?
Not the purpose, but our method is constantly evolving. Not only are we refining our data collection methods but we are constantly reflecting on how best to engage members, how best to respond to their needs and concerns. We want group members to become actively involved in the curriculum of activities and in expanding the group.
6. Have you learn/gain something from the group?
I am gaining an invaluable experience as a researcher and scholar. This has helped me move forward with the Vygotskian insight that learning and development are intimately related, including this search for democratic and critical pedagogical practice that opens up developmental processes.
7. What has been [if any] the most surprising thing about the group?
Right now we are uncovering many intricate ways in which our cultural identity is implicated in how we connect learning with our lives.
The variants are in three groups, A, B, C and there are 6 to each group.
My favorites at the moment are A4, B1 and C2
Brontis Shane Orengo