Patchwork Pedagogy:Personal Experiences and Reflections on Critical Pedagogy in Practice

Patchwork Pedagogy:Personal Experiences and Reflections on Critical Pedagogy in Practice

Kat Vivarelli
University of Colorado – Denver


I have agonized over this document, switching from idea to idea in hopes of stumbling upon something truly revolutionary to bring to the world of Instructional Design and Critical Digital Pedagogy. I was hopelessly stuck in the mire of my own deep desire for relevance. Then, I read the essay “But You Can’t Do That In A STEM Course!” by Karen Cangialosi. In it she says that part of a learning experience in her class is to create a meaningful artifact, but it does not need to be an original masterpiece. Rather it must serve the end of learning for the creator, as well as serve the greater community of learners. “Such projects don’t usually result in original data or publishable findings; but the remixing and recombining of materials in posts or articles that summarize, synthesize, and shape information so that the work is more accessible and relevant to other students is it’s own kind of originality.”11 Therefore, though I hope to have an impact on my reader, I have allowed myself the latitude to speak thoughtfully and openly without the pressure of creating my magnum opus of grad school. I decided that I have a story worth telling. I genuinely hope that you enjoy the anecdotes and research within, and that you find my shaping of information useful and relevant to you.


“Constructionism provides a set of principles for the design of learning: placing making at the heart of all learning activity, facilitating learner agency, situating learners as designers, engaging learners in designing for authentic audiences, and engaging learners in focused tinkering.”12
Jonan Phillip Donaldson

Have you ever learned a new language? I started learning my grandfather’s native tongue, Farsi, a few years ago. As a child I protested my mothers insistence that I learn, but as an adult I’ve come to deeply appreciate her efforts and regret my resistance. (I had to come to it in my own time and interest, while also overcoming some personal identity challenges.) In learning, I’ve noticed a retrospective ‘Baader-Meinhof’ type effect, (you know that thing where someone says to “notice all the red things in the room”, and suddenly you realize there were a bunch of red things all along.) Whenever I learn a new word, I realize I have heard it a hundred times before. I realize that word has always been there, I have just never realized the meaning of it or put the pieces together of its usefulness. This phenomenon has paralleled my exploration of Critical Pedagogy, where concepts once overlooked or unrecognized suddenly come into sharp focus. As I navigate these educational methodologies, I find myself exclaiming, “Yes, I recognize that!” This series of musings is meant to reflect those epiphanies, as well as combine them with stories from my own life to describe how I got to my accidental pedagogical constructionism.

Experiential learning crafted my patchwork pedagogy. Like convergently evolved animals on separate continents, unaware of their unintended twin, I built my belief systems to mirror constructionist approaches entirely by accident. In a most “Critical pedagogy” manner, I found my way to these principles through lived experiences— from my unorthodox childhood, to my school and college life, from flying in the circus to “tinkering” with my own science students and coworkers, I had been engaging with Critical Pedagogy all along. So, I welcome you to come on this journey down memory lane with me, as I piece together a patchwork of educational and instructional experiences of Critical Pedagogy in practice. My very own patchwork pedagogy.

Reflections on Critical Pedagogy from a former “Gifted” Child

Our school environment felt alien when we were outside the classroom. It didn’t help that the program we were in was called the “Challenge” program and we were bussed from outside the regular school district lines. (Can you say “Freaks!”?) We were often seen as outcasts, but not just because of our special status as ‘smart kids’, but also because of the way we interacted with each other and especially with authority. While other students experienced some version of the banking model, our classes were given an enormous latitude. We experienced agency as students. In doing so, at school events and recesses, instead of ‘normal’ kid things, we would hang out on the edge of the schoolyard and talk. As 10 year olds, we genuinely enjoyed chatting with one another, talking about class work, reading books, or discussing ideas. The administration came down on us for ‘anti-social’ behavior while we were meant to be playing. As an unintentional retaliation, we designed our own intricate game of what ended up appearing like a mix of dodgeball, rugby and soccer, with some extra rules thrown in for fun. As a very non-athletic kid, I had a terrible time at this game, but it was fun to come up with the guidelines. The game was seen as too violent (I don’t recall anyone ever getting hurt) and we were allowed to resume our talking circles. Our penchant for deep conversations and the creation of our own games reflected how we interacted with learning in the classroom. We shared a common bond that for us, learning would occur not just through prescribed lessons but also through the social interactions and collaborative processes that enabled our construction of understanding. Despite being labeled as ‘anti-social’ by the administration, our unconventional activities showcased the rich and dynamic learning environment fostered by our incredible teacher and a very unique situation.

We all came from different corners of the city. Some came from Montessori schools, and others like me, came from low income backgrounds. After assessments, we were transferred into a 4th grade class like no other. The teacher, who we will call Mr. R, was one of the most self-actualized teachers I believe I have had. In the words of bell hooks in “Engaged Pedagogy,” “teachers must be actively committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes their own wellbeing if they are to teach in a manner that empowers students.” He incorporated his whole self into his teaching, and in doing so invited us to do the same.

One of my most fondly recalled experiences was our unit on Greek history. He started controversially with asking us all to have a permission slip signed, which allowed us a class reading of excerpts from the Iliad and Odyssey. Instead of a textbook popcorn reading, he read one of the most famous pieces of Greek literature, including some of the more gruesome bits: “corpse on corpse he dropped to the earth that rears us all. And King Agamemnon, thrilled at the sight of Teucer whipping arrows off his bow, reaping the Trojan ranks, strode up and sang his praises…” If that wasn’t the “Engage” stage of the 5E teaching model, I don’t know what is! He had opened with a content warning, but the dichotomy of this poetic, violent narrative in the classroom was a shock to all of us. We were on the edge of our seats. Despite our parents signing waivers, there was a shared feeling of deviousness, as if we were engaging in something forbidden and therefore exciting. There was a trust between student and teacher. He brought the real world into class, giving us agency and the ability to apply learning in context. “Constructionism conceptualizes learning as the construction of meaning and development of learners as agents of change.”12  Constructionism is context-building, and what better way to build context than to experience it.

It is often difficult to project how an educational experience will impact a student in the future. Any data we may record is generally quantitative metric-based test data, and rarely relates to what true impacts an educational experience has had within a constructionist framework. Since each educational journey can be so distinct, and its impacts immeasurable by current methods, I decided to interview one of my peers from the “Challenge” program. I was curious to see what she recalled and how these experiences shaped her learning journey. As an adult, she now owns and operates a toddler gymnastics company, doubtless in part because of the powerful lessons learned from teachers who were not afraid to allow us the latitude to explore interests and enterprises and engage in the world-classroom in meaningful ways.
Here is a reading of that interview:


[Kat V.] Are there any memories from that time that stand out to you as meaningful?
[Rose P.] Most of my closest and longest lasting friendships were made in Mr. R’s classroom. I think that speaks volumes about how creating a fun, collaborative, engaging, and challenging classroom environment not only improves academic outcomes but has profound social-emotional impact as well.

[Kat] How did the experience there compare to other learning experiences you’ve had as a student? 

[Rose] Most of my school life feels like a blur in hindsight. Even my more recent classroom experiences have become fuzzy and the memories deemed unnecessary and erased by my subconscious. However, I have retained many clear and concrete memories from my time in Mr. R’s class, including both academic coursework and mundane things that had nothing to do with my learning. I think being in the supportive and creative environment we were has allowed me to make and maintain deeper memories of that time and the things I learned there. I remember that at field day one of our class group’s cheer was the Pepto Bismol song. I remember writing, recording, and performing our own blues songs. I remember that in every chapter test for our assigned reading book, option D on the chapter summary multiple choice question was a nonsense retelling of the chapter. I remember he drove a VW bus and we made fun of him for it, and he laughed too. I remember we called him Patty and he enjoyed the nickname. I remember we sat on milk crates covered in fabric cushions to listen to a book about elephants. I remember our teachers not minding when we created our own society of lima bean people complete with its own economy with pennies as currency, before the principal found out and put a stop to it because we were “selling things”. I can still list the entire ancient Greek alphabet and tell you three more specific projects we did related to that particular unit. What a difference between all of that, and the fact that I took 3 consecutive quarters of ASL in a typical college setting, by the end I was conversationally fluent, and all I remember of it now are the few signs I use for my current work with children. 

[Kat] Are there any practices or strategies you experienced that you believe would help other classrooms? Why? 

[Rose] Particularly with children, but really for any age, I believe engaging someone’s innate creativity is the best way to teach them a concept if you want it to last. If it feels like work, they won’t hold onto the learning longer than it takes to pass the test. It follows the old saying “if you love what you do you won’t work a day in your life”—if they are having fun and interacting with the concepts in a fun and creative way they will truly LEARN it, not just memorize the concept for the purpose of the course.

[Kat] Do you feel the experience had any lasting impacts on your life or work?
[Rose] Personally, most of my closest friends I met in that classroom, and even those I am not very close with I still keep up with from afar which is abnormal for grade school friendships, especially when you didn’t go to high school together later. Professionally, I approach all my interactions with the children I teach through a lens of fun because I know I won’t truly reach them any other way.

[Kat] Have you ever felt especially “seen” or empowered as a student? In what context?
[Rose] 4th and 5th grade is a prime age for children to be obnoxious and silly in the classroom, not diligent. While I am certain we must have gotten in trouble at some point, I do not have any memory of that. But I do remember every silly and obnoxious thing we did being accepted by our teacher. We decided one day to petition him to release his toddler daughter from daycare and bring her to school so we could play with her. We made sign and picketed around the classroom and I only remember him laughing and telling us we needed more signatures. When we were getting antsy he would encourage us to stick to our work with the promise of getting to sing a silly song all together at the end of the work time. He had lyrics to many on projector sheets that he would put up and play the guitar while we all sang along. When math was boring, he had us move all the desks to the sides of the room and measure the floor to fit the biggest 3×3 square we could in the space, and once we accomplished that we were allowed to play 9-square inside until recess. For being a bunch of kids who were too smart for our own good and knew how to play teachers, he threw us a curveball by playing back. I don’t think any of us had ever experienced that before, and it made all the difference in the world.

“This is the stuff of progressive pedagogy: a principled commitment to the engagement of the learner and the democratic discovery of their own empowerment.”3 Mr. R allowed us to explore, whether it was the creation of Lima bean societies, or singing happy birthday to his best friend each year. He showed us not only how the world operated, but also how it should operate. “You are not just modeling a classroom practice but a social ideal.”9 In that model, we had the freedom to choose our individual and collective learning journeys. “Teaching is still about playing around with options, figuring out what you need to do to light that spark that will get students excited.”10 Rose mentions that we as students knew how to play teachers, but what set Mr. R apart is that he played right back. Much like an actor is taught in improvisation classes, instead of shutting down the ‘scene’, he said ‘yes, and…’ building upon our experiences and allowing space for continuation of learning.

“Teaching is a moral act… Progressive teaching, informed by critical attention to pedagogy, resets the variables and insists on the classroom as a site of moral agency.”3 This agency was afforded to us, without sacrificing the things the institution deemed we ‘needed’ to learn. It was likely only given due to the context of this particular class. We were all high scoring students, raising the state and district test score average. The institution knew we were valuable and so allowed us to learn as we liked, so long as we still fit within the larger mechanism of school. I believe, however, that these are lessons that can be shared. That this approach to school is not just for the ‘gifted’ children, but benefits all of society. “The answer does not lie in the rejection of the machine, but rather in the humanization of man.”16 I believe that when ALL students are humanized, allowed agency, supported and challenged in the way that we were privileged enough to be, that the fate of education will feel remarkably less hopeless, for students, teachers, and the greater society.

Aside: Creative Learned Helplessness

“It is the process of creating that knowledge that matters, because that’s what they will take with them for the rest of their lives.”8
You can plainly see the lessons my colleague and I have taken with us, even 20 years later. But what about the students who do not have these opportunities, and are subject only to the “banking model” described by Friere? When these urges towards learning are suppressed, I posit that we develop a Pavlovian response to creativity and new ideas. Where Mr. R accepted our rally to release his toddler with a requirement of more signatures, saying ‘yes’ to this learning impulse and giving us a real world consequence, many would not engage in that way. Not only does this denial of engagement make creativity and change difficult, it makes them socially painful. We are adaptive beings, and to shut us off from our adaptability, to place limits on the way we think, feel and experience the world, is to hamstring the very essence of what has kept humanity from the sabertooths maw. Our adaptability is our strength, and it will lead us into the future. Psychologist Martin Seligman coined the term “Learned Helplessness” through his research on depression. Learned helplessness refers to a psychological state in which an individual, after repeatedly facing uncontrollable and negative situations known as ‘aversive stimuli’, comes to believe that they have little or no control over their environment. They become resigned to their fate, and respond passively to challenges, even when opportunities for control or change exist. I believe this is what we do to children when we actively shut down their learning agency.

Students begin to internalize a belief that their efforts are futile or that they lack the ability to influence outcomes. They abandon innovative thinking because they have been trained to avoid drawing outside the lines. “The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions… What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish. The obligation of anyone who thinks himself responsible is to examine society and try to change and fight it- at no matter what risk. This is the only hope that societies has. This is the only way societies change.”6 When faced with obstacles, this prescriptive learning environment, which stifles individualism and joy-centered learning, may cause these children to fear creativity and innovation. Over time, this learned helplessness can become a significant barrier to the development of resilience, self-efficacy, and the willingness to take intellectual risks, hindering the full realization of their creative potential in all aspects of their lives. Rather than focusing on rigid, authoritarian metrics, we need to put more emphasis on “learning environment design.”12 that celebrates and encourages experimentation, resilience, and independence and cultivates and amplifies children’s creative capacities.

But You (Probably Won’t) Do That In A STEM Classroom!

Photo: Me in Junior year on Spirit Week, dressing like a nerd. The only changes from daily attire were that I tucked in my school polo, donned thicker glasses, and wore my mandatory flash drive around my neck, instead of attached to my backpack.

In high school, I continued my path in deliberately avoiding the public school system pipeline. I applied to a then only 3 year old high school, a (technically public) magnet STEM school in Washington state. I applied under the guise of a student interested in becoming an engineer. Though it was a genuine interest, my deeper motivations were merely to get a better education than an average public school could offer, without incurring the absurd fees of private school. I knew that I would flounder in a traditional classroom. That after engaging in academic creativity and the cultivation of a deep passion for learning by my parents and teachers, going back to the banking model would be tedious and soul-sucking. Not only did I resent the traditional school model, I feared it. Prior to the “Challenge” program, I was not interested in school. I found it easy and boring. I spent more time napping at my desk, being sent to the office for various offenses (including wearing lipgloss and critiquing other students’ work) and getting bullied at recess than I did learning. I loved learning and I did not want to abandon it by going to school.

In Jeffrey Moro’s essay “Against Cop Sh*t” he describes the modern militarization of the classroom, describing “Cop Sh*t” as “pedagogical technique or technology that presumes an adversarial relationship between students and teachers.” Where constructionism humanizes, “Cop Sh*t” dictates that teachers act as police, exerting dominion over students.  “When a classroom becomes adversarial, of course, as cop sh*t presumes, then there must be a clear winner and loser. The student’s education then becomes not a victory for their own self-improvement or enrichment, but rather that the teacher conquered the student’s presumed inherent laziness, shiftiness, etc. to instill some kernel of a lesson.” I saw the traditional classroom as a prison, as the domination of test scores and textbooks over Trojan armies I had come to admire. “The desire to know more is the genesis of learning.”11 so, I sought out other means of education within my district with the hope that interest-driven learning was out there somewhere, waiting for me.

Though this magnet high school professed a progressive learning model, many aspects of the school were incredibly traditional, even down to a strict “professional” dress code (I won’t get into the racial and socio-cultural bias’ baked into the term “professional dress”, but it was one subliminal way of asserting ‘cop sh*t’ into our classrooms). Aspects of design thinking and inquiry-based learning were used, but when it came down to it, rote memorization, teacher-centrism, passivity, and depersonalization reigned. The curriculum was rigorous, and certain projects were ‘student-led’, but only inasmuch as one could innovate within a strict directive. One such project was our first one in Freshman year. We designed a wingbeam out of paper mache to introduce us to concepts of materials science, engineering and the physical science of flight. Many of my peers remember this as their favorite project, but I would assert that the reason it was their favorite is because it was one of the few projects we were given relatively free reign in our decision-making. The school was still in development, and there were questions regarding how we would hit state metrics. I have a huge amount of empathy for that administration, creating something out of nothing, but as much as it was hard on the faculty, it was also hard on the students.

They were giving us job training. That was the goal of the school, to prepare for ‘college and career’. It was an invaluable experience for me, and I believe it changed me for the better. However, I do believe there is more that can be done, even in a career prep and even in a STEM school. It reminds me of the words of Julie Fellmeyer: “Too many modern educational calls for disruption tout themselves as progressive and revolutionary, and yet ultimately do not see students so much as they see future employees.”7 Not only were we seen as future employees, we were told outright that was what we were there for. Not to become future global citizens, voters, changemakers, spouses, parents, caregivers, ect. but workers. This emphasis was so intense that we regularly had recruiters from colleges, the Air Force, Boeing, Microsoft, and others come to speak or lead tours for our classes. While it is important to plan for the future, I would posit offering a 16 year old a 10 year contract with the military straight out of high school is not the pinnacle of agency development they made it out to be.

In Karen Cangialosi’s article “But you can’t do that in a STEM classroom!” Cangialosi presents a strong case for integrating “1)student agency 2) a commons-oriented approach to education”11 within the academic STEM arena. She says that “…while facts are very important, the ways that we have come to know them as facts are even more important for students to learn.”11 It is more challenging to think back on 9-12th grades as there are so many teachers that you come into contact with, but one of the things that really set them apart was by approaching STEM education in this manner. Projects like the wingbeam construction, or another where we were given 3 months over summer break to build the best heat shield we could to prevent a chocolate bunny from melting as it ‘re-entered the atmosphere’, these are the projects we remember. I remember hanging out with my dad to research heat shields, I remember going to the salvage yard to dig through materials, I remember trying to test my heat shield at home with my moms hair dryer, I remember my excitement in class when the the teacher let us set the bunny into our heat shield case and turn on the heat gun (much hotter than my moms hair dryer) and time how long the bunny would survive. These are the learning experiences that I remember because they are the ones that gave us agency, they are the ones that engaged us in community, in building on scientific knowledge even if it was just within our classroom community. We saw in real time what materials worked and what didn’t, we had the chance to iterate and collaborate and rebuild. These lessons that embraced methods aligning with critical pedagogy, succeeded in creating memorable and enjoyable learning experiences, underscoring the significant impact that teaching practices can have on student engagement and appreciation for education regardless of the administration of the school.

Growing Under the Big Top

 Photo: Enjoying some after class teacher practice time in the spiegeltent.

Directly following high school, my first real job was teaching circus at a youth circus institute. I had 5 years of contortion experience under my belt, and an unrivaled passion for the arts. Throughout much of my childhood I pursued acting, ballroom dance, stage combat and musical theater, but that story is for another time. It gave me the skills and passion though to teach youth what I loved. This school was unique. It employed the professional performers as head coaches, and us amateurs as liaisons to the children. Some of us spoke other languages and were able to literally translate for the coaches, and some (like me) would take complicated concepts and find ways to translate those skills and ideas to the youth. It was my first real experience teaching on my own. It was scary, but I also had an incredible support system. Our director was our rock, the thread that held everything together. She trained us and encouraged us and the children to take a holistic approach to what we were creating together. It would have been easy to say this was only about the circus, but she took a systems approach. We were people, the kids were people, and we were learning how to people together within the context of circus arts. Augusto Boal says that “Theatre itself is not revolutionary, it is a rehearsal for revolution.” (Boal) We were not just forming little performing monkeys, we were shaping lives, the students as well as our own. Our days required structure and timing, but aside from that, we were encouraged to explore with the students. As we developed performances, it was not our choreography and music imposed upon them, it was our facilitation and collaboration of their creative vision. Even when we worked with as young as 5 year olds, we did not impose routines, but rather made suggestions and facilitated group decisions. It was my first teaching experience and from the get-go I was seeing the incredible impact of going “…from the cult of the expert to a culture of collaboration.”3 It was beautiful. One of my favorite projects we did was especially collaborative. We had an indigenous storyteller from one of the local tribes come in, and each day over the course of a week he would sit with the students for a storytelling session. By the end of the week, the students would choose their favorite story and create a performance incorporating all of their circus skills together. It layered history, culture, empathy, allegory, as well as movement and collaborative skills. It taught students other ways of knowing in a hands-on manner. Howard Rheingold says that “Our technologized culture shapes and fascinates us to the extent we don’t even see other ways of knowing and interacting with the world and each other.”4 I assert that these informal educational experiences fight back against that absolutism.  I guarantee these students recall these stories, as it has been 10 years for me and I cherish those memories for myself.

One of the head coaches who became a dear mentor impressed upon me this sentiment, which I hold dear to this day. That children rise to our expectations of them. If we trust them and support them, there is no limit to what they can achieve. She may have been talking about putting them on aerial apparatus, but it applies to all arenas, to any learner, of any age. We are empowered when others believe in us. Every great thing starts with belief. If we, in the words of Paolo Friere, separate students from teachers as hierarchical bestowers of knowledge, we take trust out of the equation. It takes no trust to thrust a book down. It takes a great amount of trust to engage in conversation, in the exchange of ideas rather than the bestowal of knowledge. There is an inherent risk, but in that risk, a much greater reward; the expansion of knowledge rather than merely transference.

Tying off the Tapestry

I feel this exploration just scratches the surface of my experiences in recognizing the impacts of constructionist theories on my educational and teaching journey. Many years are left out, but these anecdotes are some that mean the most to me and are meaningful examples of the practice and results of constructionism in action. I believe we can use these examples to craft more meaningful educational experiences for the next generation because it is imperative that we reimagine and recalibrate our educational systems. On many fronts, American education has become untenable, but by steering away from the shackles of rigid metrics and authoritarian models that stifle the innate potential of learners I think we have a chance to prepare students for the global landscape. The emphasis on standardized testing and one-size-fits-all approaches disregards the diverse strengths and creativity inherent in every student. To truly prepare individuals for the challenges of an ever-evolving world, we must prioritize agency and cultivate an environment that nurtures creativity. Education should not merely be a transfer of knowledge but a dynamic process that empowers learners to explore, question, and collaborate. By embracing a model that fosters curiosity and critical thinking, we equip students to become active agents of change, capable of navigating complexities and contributing meaningfully to society. It’s time to shift our focus from mere information retention to the development of adaptable, innovative minds – minds that can shape a future where learning is a continuous journey of exploration and growth. In the words of Cathy N. Davidson “…rather than despair about the things too big to change, start changing the ones within your control and that can make a difference in the lives of your students- and in your life too.”9


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