Gillian Rose: Teaching as “Struggle”

by Lauren Heimlich Foley

“Hope is not an idealized place, but grounded in daily struggle

and in taking the risk of comprehension”

Kate Schick, Gillian Rose: A Good Enough Justice

The workshop movement—grounded in the research of Donald H. Graves and Nancie Atwell—challenges and critiques educational philosophy, asking teachers to consider their role and their students’ role within the English Language Arts classroom. At its core, the Writing-Reading Workshop (Atwell 24) places students at the center of their learning. The structure of the class consists of a melding between direct instruction and student work time. In this setting, learners read and write with one-on-one student-teacher conferences, small-group instruction, and whole-class minilessons. Student talk-time and collaboration is also prioritized. Furthermore, the workshop model fuses whole-class texts and genre studies with independent reading and writing exploration, encouraging student choice.

Within this framework, the teacher becomes vulnerable as she offers up part of her authority and gives the students permission to make, grow, and develop; however, she never fully relinquishes her control, for without some semblance of power, she would not be able to empower her students. This governing structure enables students to become the makers and artists within the classroom like the new bourgeoisie in G.W.F. Hegel’s lord-bondsman dichotomy (115-19). Yet, the teacher in the workshop model does not act simply as the master but as a conductor of knowledge, willingly sharing her skills and expertise with her novice students. The teacher, assuming the role of facilitator, guides students through their meaning-making process as they encounter creative and critical thinking opportunities, discover new vocabulary words, analyze literature, share their ideas through written language, and master skills. There is a negotiation between students and teacher: students as students and students as teacher as well as teacher as teacher and teacher as student. One is not a means to the other’s end (Kant 157): One is not lost for the other to triumph. Instead, the student-teacher relationship is understood through the back and forth movement of Gillian Rose’s speculative thinking. Rose argues:

The law, therefore, is not the superior term which suppresses the local and contingent, nor is it the symbolic which catches every child in the closed circuit of its patriarchal embrace. The law is the falling towards or away from mutual recognition, the triune relationship, the middle, formed or deformed by reciprocal self-relations. (75)

Rose’s broken middle (75) applies to students and teachers, for it enables them to resist and restrain imposed oppositional binaries by entering into “mutual recognition.” If educators perpetuate the binary relationship with their students, they will prevent their students from actualizing their potential and capitalizing on their agency as the lord prevents the bondsman. Even if students are allowed to be the artisans within the classroom and create their own work, the polarization of the roles dismisses their work and prevents them from completely understanding themselves within the educational sphere and larger world (Rose 73). Re-considering the polarization of the student-teacher framework within the workshop structure problematizes the oppositional lord-bondsman dichotomy.

Likewise, speculative thinking complicates Paulo Freire’s problem-posing education in which “the teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is [herself] taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teaches. They become jointly responsible for a process in which all grow” (80).In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire merely re-establishes binary opposites, preventing education from escaping the contradictory student-teacher relationship. Instead of conceiving of this relationship as merely I am the teacher and I am not the teacher, and I am the student and I am not the student, society must look beyond this neat formulation for the struggle that exists—and must exist—for learning and re-learning to take place (“Gillian Rose and Education” 131). Nigel Tubbs in “Concept of ‘Teachability’” suggests that while “Freire sought a ‘new term’—the teacher-student and the student-teacher— . . . there is no new term. There is only the ‘growth of the self in knowledge’ within the struggles of all the old terms.” (90). Instead of seeking to recreate that which already exists through phenomenology, philosophers, researchers, and educators, must re-examine this contingency (“The Concept of ‘Teachability’” 77) and seek a way to break free from the limitations of binary opposites. The students and teacher “both are simultaneously teachers and students” (Freire 72)—and they are not, and they are everything in between as they slide along a never-ending continuum. The vacillating roles of the students and teacher as they navigate their fluctuating power allows them to transform.

This back and forth movement of knowledge and transference of power between students and teacher is necessary for the success of students and their teacher. They must work within Rose’s third term (75) to create openness. The “continual interplay between irreconcilable opposites” (Schick 26) generates meaning for both parties. It is necessary for this identity and nonidentity to occur within the student-teacher framework because the educational system can break free from the limitations imposed by binaries. Rose states:

For the separation out of otherness as such is derived from the failure of mutual recognition on the part of two self-consciousnesses who encounter each other and refuse to recognise the other as itself a self-relation: the other is never simply other, but an implicated self-relation. . . . All dualistic relations to ‘the other’, to ‘the world’ are attempts to quieten and deny the broken middle, the third term which arises out of misrecognition of desire, of work, of my and of your self-relation mediated by the self-relation of the other. (74-75)

By perpetuating the student-teacher binary, students and teachers will continue to mis-recognize one another and prevent the maximal growth and potential for both counterparts. Unity and the third partner are necessary to foster the reoccurring movement between students and teacher and teacher and students. Through consistent re-cognition and mis-re-cognition and identity and non-identity, meaning emerges in the moving toward and away from each pole; this exchange creates the respect and compassion necessary for productive, harmonious relationships. By embracing Gillian Rose’s broken middle, plurality exists.

Working together to make decisions in topic, genre, purpose, and audience empowers students to be part of the learning process and sit alongside their teachers. When students enter into a cooperative pact, the students learn from the teacher and the teacher learns from the students. Growth takes place through the “pinging” of conversation that occurs between mentor and novice and likewise between novice and mentor. Breaking from an earlier tradition in which the teacher acts as “a narrating Subject” and the students act as “lifeless objects” (Freire 71), students and teachers acknowledge the necessity of learning “to re-learn all the time” (“Gillian Rose and Education” 133). Nigel Tubbs in “Gillian Rose and Education” articulates, “Learning is re-cognition of mis-recognition and it is re-cognition of mis-re-cognition” (133). The workshop invites educators to consider and re-consider their role within the transference of knowledge and power—to acknowledge their initial conceptions and mis-conceptions, to understand their learning and need to re-learn. Through metacognition both the students and teacher break free from their polarized foil and find a common ground. Instead of teachers being the empowered, gatekeepers of education and students being the passive, receivers of education, they enter into a contract of coexistence as they meet in the middle. The back and forth movement of the teacher as teacher and not teacher and the student as student and not student promotes growth and denies binary opposites from actualization.

The struggle in negotiating the teacher’s role and guidance in students’ learning is essential. When a teacher works one-on-one with a student or prepares a lesson for the whole class, she must examine the knowledge her students already possess and consider how to best present new content while also allowing students to be the creators of their own knowledge. It is not ‘easy’ for teachers to negotiate this movement; however, it is required. Katie Schick writes, “Rose’s rejection of the utopian though is thoroughgoing: it refuses utopianism of the ‘good place’, as well as utopianism of the ‘non-place’. She judges both incarnations as manifestations of euporia—the easy way—and advocates in their place aporia—the difficult way” (122). Rose’s difficult path stresses the necessity of struggle. Her aporetic way prevents a prescribed educational history and philosophy from remaining stagnate. It fosters plurality. Rose’s absolute comedy (64) enables educators to continuously reexamine their reality within the classroom and grapple for understanding. She posits:

The reflections to be developed here on the soul, the city and the sacred do not begin with a prerogative claim based on the suppression of ‘the other’, which installs repetitive dualisms of power and otherness within the protest of power. Here it takes three to make a relationship between two: the devastation between posited thought and posited being, between power and exclusion from power, implies the universal, the third partner, which allows us to recognize that devastation. The aporia or gap in the Janus-face of the universal. Together, universal and aporia are irruption and witness to the brokenness in the middle. (Rose 9-10)

As the students and teacher participate in the workshop structure, mutual recognition occurs. The students understand that they have something valuable to offer to the class and to their learning; they bring insight and knowledge that the teacher does not possess. At the same time, the students recognize their own gaps in their knowledge and the need to be taught and mentored by the teacher. In the same way, the teacher is aware that she possesses a knowledge base that exceeds what the students know, but she must also re-cognize that her students bring a different knowledge to the workshop—one grounded in personal experience and previous learning—that she does not have. Each day, the students and teacher dance, moving back and forth in their learning and understanding of each other. The students and teacher navigate the once set binary scale as they exchange information, meeting in the middle for optimal growth. Additionally, the teacher must make sense of what the student offers and extend the knowledge further. In this sense, the teacher also becomes the creator and artisan within the lord-bondsman dichotomy because she is not stagnant. She assists the students to better understand who the students are and where they might go with their ideas. Neither are the students nor the teacher a means to the other’s end (Kant 157). Rather, they work together—jointly and respectfully—to enhance both of their knowledge.

Wrestling with these student-teacher roles is of utmost importance in order for true growth to occur, for “an aporetic way refuses to prescribe form or outcome—it ‘prevents the fixing of the outcome’—instead, it emphasizes the struggle for recognition that happens on a daily basis and the need to constantly revisit and revise the outcome of the struggle” (Schick 124). In each moment of struggle, the students and teacher break the binary opposition that has too long prevented optimal learning and re-learning to occur. When both the student—as student and not student— and the teacher—as teacher and not teacher—grapple with their roles in the workshop, they both promote the possibility of change within the classroom. This growth and development will ultimately allow both parties to achieve their desired outcomes.

Rose’s “educational logic—the logic of the reality of concept and intuition . . . [that] can recollect its activity, its learning, without ‘subsuming or denying the difference of that at which it looks back’” (“Gillian Rose and Education” 131)—offers a language and method for educators to contemplate best practices and further develop their teaching philosophy. Re-cognition, mis-recognition, and mis(re)cognition create the reflective teacher, one who is able to consider and re-consider the status quo. Through this re-imagining the teacher, the subject, undergoes a change in viewpoint, for “re-cognition implies not a seeing-into but a seeing again. It involves an initial experience, cognition, known as misunderstood, misrecognition, in being re-cognized” (“Gillian Rose and Education” 131). Educators, who practice this reflection as part of their profession, understand their teaching experiences and re-cognize that aspects of that teaching could be enhanced or reworked in order to better suit the needs of their students and improve the profession. By seeing and re-seeing, progress for teachers and students becomes possible.

One aspect of the Writing-Reading Workshop to re-imagine and extend is reading like a writer with mentor texts. Mentor texts—a model piece of writing whether professionally published or student generated—are foundational to the workshop. Offering strong examples of word choice, tone, craft elements, structure, subject, or theme (Fletcher 6) enables students to elevate their own writing by studying another’s. Teaching students how to read with the eye of a writer is an important and necessary skill for students to practice and master (Ray 120-31). Through whole-class discussions and small-group conversations, they enter into the zone of proximal development (ZPD) and enhance their abilities (Santrock 104). Within the workshop structure, teachers provide whole-class mentor texts and inquiry studies to scaffold learning. This direct instruction teaches students how to acquire a writer’s eye and offers exceptional writing that students may not receive otherwise (Ray 127). Although this mentor-text framework may appear to place the teacher as the holder of knowledge and the student as the receiver of knowledge, students and teachers do not simply inhabit either teacher as teacher and not teacher and student as student and not student. Rather, the students and teacher move back and forth along the sliding scale. The teacher provides the content, but the students select and explain what makes the writing exemplar. The teacher guides students to notice particular craft elements or conventions; however, it is the students who generate knowledge as they participate in the difficult work of meaning-making, analysis, and application through creation.

While there are times when a teacher must choose a mentor text, there are also opportunities throughout the school year that allow for the re-vision or re-cognition of this mentor text framework, inviting students to be even more active in their learning. Instead of a teacher always giving students the mentor text, students are invited to find their own mentor texts, share these with their classmates, and then apply their observations to their writing. Ray outlines a variety of guided independent options for teachers to experiment with (134-35); however, to this list, I would like to specifically add students’ Independent Reading Books.

By understanding that their independent reading books are not simply a pleasure reading book or a mentor text, but instead move between one and the other, students and teachers can employ this text for reading and writing instruction. Viewing independent reading books and mentor texts not as a dichotomy but as a plurality through Rose’s broken middle and absolute comedy allows for a different and difficult type of knowledge to take place. As students select their own mentor texts, the teacher supports the process. The teacher is not privileging her voice or her knowledge, but rather allowing plurality to exist within her workshop by facilitating student choice in mentor texts. The struggle extends from student and teacher to reader and text. Students grapple with comprehension as well as language. They enter into a dancing relationship with the text, in addition to the teacher, as they encounter how the style, vocabulary, and conventions can move a writing piece and its audience. By fostering students’ ability to wrestle with texts in this way, teachers will extend their students’ meaning-making ability. Becoming a critical reader—not because the teacher tells the students what to notice but because the students are invited to notice and believe in their own observations—promotes the change and development Gillian Rose seeks in the broken middle. Within the workshop, teachers do not need to choose between teacher-selected mentor texts and student-selected mentor texts: There needs to be a negotiation between the two texts for maximum learning. Student choice in mentor texts, so long as the teacher is guiding the process and showing students how to read with a writer’s eye, extends and challenges the prescribed learning that may occur when only one mentor text is chosen for a specific purpose.   

This school year, my classes have an influx of students who speak another language at home. Additionally, this is the first year in five years that I am teaching eighth graders, who learn Spanish or French as part of their educational requirements. To honor students’ cultures, maximize the authenticity of their writing, and incorporate cross-curricular learning, students are discovering how writers use languages in addition to English to enrich their writing. All student names are pseudonyms.

In September Samantha refused to include dialogue in her micro fiction and Rob rejected internal thoughts in his memoir. After individually speaking with them and learning that language—or the lack of language—was the root cause, they both revised their writing with the techniques. Because the English language did not support their authentic, spoken language, they faced obstacles in their written work. In their final pieces, Samantha included her mom speaking to her in Albanian and Rob included internal thoughts and his conversation with his mom in Spanish. Their work and struggle inspired me to adapt my teaching. I re-considered how to teach dialogue and internal thoughts and promote a revised way of thinking and re-thinking for other students.

With their permission, Samantha and Rob’s pieces became mentor texts for their classmates. I coupled their work with young adult novels that exemplified this technique: The Astonishing Color of After, The Book Thief, Inside Out and Back Again, Salt to the Sea, and The Poet X. Three of the five texts were independent reading books that my students volunteered for the minilesson. Samantha and Rob helped lead the minilesson in their respective class periods, helping to explain why they choose this technique. I shared their writerly moves with my other classes. During these minilessons, the student-teacher scale fluctuated as Samantha and Rob taught the class and I clarified the techniques and answered questions. Afterwards, students explored the books and collected a list of how the technique worked in the larger text and how authors helped their readers understand meaning even if they were not familiar with the language. While I presented the mentor texts, students generated meaning. I acted as a guide, confirming observations and pushing their thinking further.

After this initial minilesson, where my students and I moved between student and teacher, other students began employing a second language in their writing. For instance, one student wrote about the Holocaust and asked her neighbor to help her with the German dialogue she included. Another student, who speaks Russian, included authentic dialogue in his personal narrative camping trip. As students continued to refer back to the initial minilesson, they taught me and their fellow classmates about their lives and expertise. We learned about one another and honored one another. Furthermore, students contemplated how to make their writing as authentic and accurate as possible.

Moreover, when students were prompted in March to post writing techniques from their independent reading books on our online discussion board, this language technique surfaced once more. Students brought this technique to the attention of their classmates and me again, letting it remain in the foregrounds of our minds, moving between possibility and actualization. Students continued to use this technique in their writing pieces through the third and fourth marking periods. Allowing students to notice the strengths of their independent reading books inspires them to experiment with techniques as they are ready to use them. The students who observed the additional language in their independent reading books had not implemented the technique previously. The independent work offered the opportunity for my adolescent writers to struggle with concepts and search for understanding. It propelled them to use a second language in their writing—a writerly move that would have been overlooked or forgotten if my students were not urged to take charge of their learning.

By showing students how to read with a writer’s eye and encouraging them to make their own observations, plurality exists. Within my classroom, I facilitated the skill of how to read like a writer and honored my students’ abilities by bringing them in as model texts. However, I did not stop there, I also invited students to wrestle with their own observations and consider how this technique would work for them. Moving a step further, my students and I continued navigating the student-teacher poles when I invited them to digitally post their observations for the whole class and take ownership of their writerly noticings (Ray 121). Not only did I relinquish part of my power in this instance, but also I allowed for the novels and materials my students were reading to take precedent over me.

Within this re-imagined-mentor-text-read-like-a-writer framework, the teacher empowers students by relinquishing some of her power and then re-empowers herself and the students by guiding them in how to use the new technique. Teachers move between the ideal and severe teacher to offer the optimal learning experience for their students (“Teaching in the Severe Style”). By rereading and closely examining the genre, style, language, conventions, etc. of their authors, students participate in the tough work of re-learning and re-writing. When students search for passages and sentences to emulate, determine why their selection will strengthen their writing, and implement these techniques into their writing, they participate in critical, creative, and metacognitive thinking. The effort–to find, determine, and implement—is necessary for growth to occur.

Striving for the movement between the ideal-severe teacher and the severe-ideal teacher fosters the aporetic path for both students and the teacher. The ideal teacher provides students with the guidance to read like writers and analyze exemplar mentor texts: The severe teacher gives students the responsibility to wrestle with the content (independent reading books) themselves and find their own mentor texts. In this movement, the teacher is not the content. Although she provides the content, the content comes before the teacher. She does not privilege her personality but instead offers a variety of mentor texts to become the content. In this case, the teacher is severe leading into ideal and ideal leading into severe because she provides the structures for students to be successful and allows the content to take precedent over her (“Teaching in the Severe Style”).

As the students generate their own thinking and locate their own mentor texts, they become the struggle necessary to learn and progress. It is the back and forth movement between the ideal and severe teacher that allows for maximal student development. When this occurs, there is the “birth of intrigue” (“Teaching in the Severe Style”), which further enables Rose’s absolute comedy to come to fruition. Possibility explodes like fireworks within the classroom as the students and teacher are propelled to continuously re-examine their learning and mis-learning. This movement creates a spiraling effect on the teacher as she slides between ideal and severe and teacher and student. Similarly, students twist and twirl as they negotiate their relationships with their teacher, fellow classmates, independent reading books, and writing techniques. The continuous “pinging” of experience and re-experience offered through speculative thinking—and speculative teaching—creates the difficult way necessary for education to occur.

In the workshop framework, it is not the direct transfer of power as Hegel suggests in the lord-bondsman dichotomy or Freire in his problem-posing education that allows for progress. Rather, it is the ocean’s tides: a constant back and forth, natural pull that consistently acknowledges the old and allows new ideas to arise. Students and teachers must work jointly to find this ebb and flow, constantly negotiating their roles in the learning process and taking the risk of comprehension (Schick 106). Learning makes itself anew through the transformative power of plurality by re-considering previously established best practices and mis-conceptions. Like a piece of long-forgotten sea glass that surfaces from the depths of the ocean, speculative teaching offers the hope—through daily “struggle”—that the next generation needs in order to find knowledge, power, and compassion (Schick 106). By engaging in the “struggle” of education—and engaging their students in the “struggle” of education—teachers prepare themselves and the next generation to become the hope waiting below the surface. 

Works Cited

Atwell, Nancie.  In the Middle: A Lifetime of Learning About Writing, Reading, and Adolescents 3rd ed., Portsmouth, Heinemann, 2014.

Fletcher, Ralph. Mentor Author, Mentor Texts: Short Texts, Craft Moves, and Practical Classroom Uses. Portsmouth, Heinemann, 2011.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos, New York, Continuum, 1993.

Graves, Donald H. Writing: Teachers and Children at Work. Portsmouth, Heinemann, 1983.  

Hegel, G.W.F. Phenomenology of the Spirit. Translated by A.V. Miller, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1977.

Kant, Immanuel. The Metaphysics of Morals. Translated and Edited by Mary Gregor, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Ray, Katie Wood. Wondrous Words: Writers and Writing in the Elementary Classroom. Urbana, NCTE, 1999.

Rose, Gillian. Mourning Becomes the Law: Philosophy and Representation. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Santrock, John W. Adolescence. New York, McGraw-Hill, 2007.

Schick, Kate. Gillian Rose: A God Enough Justice. Edinburgh University Press, 2012.

Tubbs, Nigel. “Gillian Rose and Education.” Telos, vol. 173, no. 1, 2015, pp. 125-43, doi:10.3817/1215173125.

—.“Teaching in the Severe Style.” Backdoor Broadcasting Company. 18 October 2013, https://backdoorbroadcasting.net/2013/10/nigel-tubbs-teaching-in-the-severe-style/.

—.“The Concept of ‘Teachability.’” Educational Theory, vol. 53, no. 1, 2003, pp. 75-90. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=shib&db=pbh&AN=9841638&site=ehost-live&scope=site.