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Joanne Larson’s 2018 commencement speech

Joanne Larson’s 2018 Commencement Speech

University of Rochester President Richard Feldman conferred the 2018 William H. Riker Award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching to Joanne Larson, Michael W. Scandling Professor of Education at the Warner School, at the University’s Doctoral Degree Ceremony in Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre on Saturday, May 19. Larson accepted the award with a speech so powerful, colleagues and friends requested that her remarks be shared online following commencement.
Read Larson’s speech in full below: 

William H. Riker University Award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching
Graduation, 2018

Joanne Larson speaking at commencement

Thank you Dean Kearney, Provost Clark, and President Feldman. I am deeply honored to receive the William H. Riker Award for excellence in graduate teaching today. Thank you to Jeff Choppin, Raffaella Borasi, and Brian Brent for nominating me and for marshalling the case through the process. And I thank my students and colleagues who took the time to write letters. Most especially, thank you to all the students who have given me the gift of their trust.
I have had the privilege of working with students from preschool to doctoral study over the course of my career. I currently have the privilege of working with teenagers at East High School as part of our innovative Educational Partnership Organization. Teenagers are pretty cool when they are not your own children :-). Teaching is a sacred practice for me. When I am working with students of any age, the rest of the world fades into the background and the human beings in the room stand in sharp focus. We know that human learning is all about relationships and that the relationship between what Freire calls teacher/student and student/teacher is where human learning happens. There is nothing more meaningful and exciting than that look, that spark in the eyes of someone who has had a realization or figured out something they’ve been pondering as part of you working with them. I have been privileged to see that look in 3-year-olds and in 50-year-olds. Nothing is more exciting. I love it when students tell me they couldn’t sleep the night after class because their minds were blown. I do the fist pump dance secretly in my office at East when I overhear my 9th graders talking in the hallway about something we did in class.
A fundamental principle that guides my teaching is based on the work of Jacques Ranciere in the book The Ignorant Schoolmaster, and that is: all intelligence is equal. This view aligns with what Freire calls the armed love of teachers; an indispensable form of love required of progressive educators. As Crampton (2017, p. 19) suggests:

Teachers can and do choose to view each student as good, worthy, and whole, that staying in a deeply interactive relationship is a choice that requires moment-to-moment action. This isn’t pablum, it isn’t teaching ‘because I love kids.’ Remaining in relationship with students — responding with love, care, belief in their goodness despite evidence to the contrary — requires tremendous energy and work. It is generous, but not for reasons of charity or largesse on the teacher’s part, and, I hope, not in ways that would be considered colonizing; it is generous because it leaves open, over and over, the possibility of ‘shared mutual humanity.’

Taking these principles of love and shared humanity into account, teaching becomes showing intelligence to itself. I try to do this by constructing a safe interactional space for students to take intellectual risks, to challenge their beliefs and ideologies, and to step into unchartered territory. I know when intelligence sees itself when that look, that spark twinkles in their eyes. I am honored to be a part of those sacred moments.
Joanne Larson speaking at commencement I close by saying it is a special honor for me to be the first faculty member from the school of education and human development to receive this award and the third woman - the first in 20 years. Thank you, Dean Kearney. I see the receipt of this award at this time as an opportunity for all of us to work toward increasing the range of what counts as excellence in graduate teaching. I am honored to play a small role in helping this happen.

Crampton, A. (2017). Mobilizing Love in Literacy Classrooms: Connection, Resistance, and Pedagogy (unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN.

Freire, P. (1998). Teachers as cultural workers: Letters to those who dare to teach. Trans. D. Macedo, D. Koike, & A.

Oliveira. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. 

Rancière, J. (1991). The ignorant schoolmaster: Five lessons in intellectual emancipation. Stanford, CA:

Stanford University Press.