Silence, power and privilege in the classroom

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The Puerto Rican/Latin American Cultural Center hosts a conversation between students, staff and faculty about power, privilege and silence in the classroom. This conversation was led by an outside professor who spoke about unhealthy environments in the education system. (Julie Spillane/The Daily Campus)

The Puerto Rican/Latin American Cultural Center hosts a conversation between students, staff and faculty about power, privilege and silence in the classroom. This conversation was led by an outside professor who spoke about unhealthy environments in the education system. (Julie Spillane/The Daily Campus)

El Foco brought in Gilda Laura Ochoa, a professor of Chicana/o-Latino/a studies at Pomona College in California, to speak at their fourth annual plática on the topic of education Thursday. Her books and scholarly work have contributed greatly to Latino/a studies, with much of her efforts focused on increasing the representation of Latino/a’s in higher education. 

Ochoa had everyone split into pairs to discuss instances of power, privilege and silence in the classroom that they have either experienced themselves or witnessed. This was done to create more of an open discussion atmosphere rather than a lecture. Afterward, people volunteered to share what they had discussed. One woman talked about her insecurity in the classroom, and how she felt unable to speak during class throughout college. Ochoa pointed out that this silence of voices is a shame, since it causes a loss of ideas and engagement that could have otherwise been shared. Some women discussed that they felt oppressed by in high school and college by privilege, and how they felt as if they had to prove their intelligence. 

Since much of the plática was made up of faculty and staff from both UConn and other schools, Ochoa continuously brought the conversation back to them and how they could try incorporating this kind of discussion at the beginning of every class. That way, everyone could feel included and acknowledged. She said it is no one’s fault for not participating or feeling oppressed, but instead, it’s the system that needs to change to help facilitate open conversations. One woman said classroom spaces can either be humanizing or humiliating, and that it needs to be acknowledged to help students feel more comfortable and thus do better in class. 

“I took out a lot of reaffirmation, a lot of perspectives and it’s good to see a lot of professors and faculty here that care about shifting dynamics in their classroom to be more inclusive to all kinds of voices regardless of gender, race, personality type or sexuality,” Shelby Felix, eighth-semester speech, language and hearing sciences major with a minor in Latino studies, said. 

Ochoa discussed the difference between aesthetic and authentic caring in the classroom based on a 1999 study. In this study, teachers looked at how much students cared based on aesthetic — how they dressed, if they did their homework and if they did well on their exams. Students, on the other hand, looked at how the teachers weren’t caring for them authentically — they weren’t helping them succeed, they were just judging them for how they appear. In essence, teaching is about relationships between the student and the teacher, and if the teachers ignore a student’s needs based on appearance, then that student will likely fail. Good relationships, alternatively, foster a sense of belonging in students, which can help lead them to success. 

Ochoa also mentioned the Trump effect, and how many children are treated as a social “other” in their schools. Many teachers aren’t aware of how Latino/a children are affected by Trump’s intolerant society, and how it makes kids feel like they need to hide who they are and assimilate to so-called American culture and ways of being. 

The teachers in the room were asked to brainstorm what they would do if they noticed a dynamic of power, privilege and silence in the classroom. Some suggested starting a dialogue about what they were noticing. Others suggested beginning the semester with a conversation about this possible dynamic, thus giving themselves the power to confront this dynamic again if it begins to form in the classroom. Another had the idea of putting quotes on the board to encourage and empower the Latino/as in the room.  

When Ochoa confronted this problem in her own classroom, she had everyone do a written reflection in class on how much they participate in the class, why they participate in this way, if they felt they had prevented another student from participating and how they want to participate in the class. Afterward, the students got in groups and compared what they had written, and then the discussion was returned to the whole class. She shared many of these written responses at the plática, which helped showcase how different students will experience a class individually — in the same class where one student feels comfortable and successful, another may not. 

Ochoa ended the plática by discussing a class she had taught on “(Re)Claiming Voices and Sharing Stories.” This class allowed for students to connect with one another and find ways to create the same sort of community in classrooms of their own. This was done by participating in activities together such as creating shirts, painting, dancing and cooking during class time. By doing so, the people in the class were given a place to feel comfortable speaking and sharing their ideas and opinions. 

“I thought it was really interesting to see how I’ve seen this happen but other people have noticed too, and that there’s people trying to find a way to fix this,” Jacqueline Cuevas, second-semester undecided major, said. 

If more teachers took the steps to reach out to and integrate all of their students, then many more voices would likely be heard in the classroom. 


Rebecca Maher is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at rebecca.l.maher@uconn.edu.

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