Expressions Presents: Eleni Duret: Transformative Teaching

by | Feb 12, 2024 | Featured, Research and Innovation

by Hanh Ha, ’24 English

This article was originally published by the College of Humanities and the Arts in the winter 2023 edition of Expressions, a newsletter created by students in HA-187: Creative Team Practicum. The internship course gives students the opportunity to gain professional experience in writing, graphic design, photography, and video production.

Being a biracial Black woman, Eleni Duret, an assistant professor of humanities in the liberal studies teacher preparation program, has had firsthand experience in not having an authentic safe space to express who she was in school. Growing up, Duret says, “I was in a predominantly white school, so I felt isolated. I felt like I wasn’t allowed to talk about being Black [nor] allowed to talk about being white.”

However, thanks to a high school teacher who structured an art classroom that focuses on students’ experiences and interests, Duret had a safe space to explore her racial identity. “He was very thoughtful in helping me explore materials and the process of mixing materials in order to get skin complexions that were representative of the different complexions of those in my family and throughout the Black community,” Duret explains. This experience further inspired her to explore how youths express themselves, especially around teachers who are of different identities.

Eleni Duret

Eleni Duret, assistant professor of humanities in the liberal studies teacher preparation program, believes in transforming classrooms into spaces that allow students to seek comfort in their own identities, especially with teachers who may not look like them.

After having experiences working in an art museum and after-school program in Los Angeles, California, Duret moved to New York to pursue a PhD in education. With the goal to return back to the Golden State, she saw an opportunity at San José State that could help in expanding her vision for creating a more inclusive and unconventional learning environment. Now an assistant professor, she’s taking on the challenge of transforming how education is approached in a constantly evolving world.

San José State also serves as a valuable platform in helping Duret address the concern of the underrepresentation of Black teachers, specifically in the South Bay. “I’m trying to think about how to increase the number of Black teachers that are in schools,” she says. She looks forward to using the resources offered by the university alumni network, such as connecting with Black educators, to provide community and sustainability for Black students regarding their futures.

Duret has not always had the best experiences with her former classroom teachers. Ultimately, she says, “Most teachers are following a script and unaware of the pain that script is causing.” As a result, this has motivated the creation of non-traditional classroom learning environments into the world of education—which she has already done at an art museum and an afterschool program. Rather than sticking to the status quo, Duret’s states, “I want to be a part of something that’s doing something different or addressing some of these problems.”

Duret’s dedication lies in transforming classrooms into spaces that allow students to seek comfort in their own identities, especially with teachers who may not look like them. She aims for radical honesty, a practice inspired by Bianca Williams, a scholar who studies race, gender and emotion in higher education at CUNY Graduate Center. Radical honesty takes the form of professors sharing their experiences that have brought them to the classroom. She remarks that students are also being honest, which ends up “building more of an exchange of knowledge and information, rather than always confirming the hierarchy that naturally exists between a professor and student.”

Critical aesthetic pedagogy is central to Duret’s research. According to Duret, critical aesthetic pedagogy focuses on the factors surrounding a student’s ability to grow in a classroom setting in a personal, academic and creative context. These practices include valuing the knowledge students possess, critiquing schools and exploring identity. This is where the practice of radical honesty becomes valuable. One of the ways the practice is applied into her classroom is simply analyzing radical honesty’s three factors: truth-telling, valuing narrative and personal experience, and acting. “My goal is to create academic spaces at San José State where students might get that same feeling. I’m being very honest, I’m trying to be very honest and trying to be very transparent about my experience,” she explains.

In her pursuit of this goal, one of the ways includes using social justice movements, specifically the Black Panther Party’s influence on education. She says, “The conversation starts with us exploring the political narratives and images we have learned about as it relates to the BPP, and what that means for what we can learn from the BPP and apply in classrooms now.” In her classroom, she provides her students this opportunity as a way to “represent what they’re experiencing in the world.”

The future holds the promise of fostering a learning environment that allows students to flourish in ways that Duret has wished for back in high school. She continues to strive for being radically honest with her students. “I hope the classroom can be a space where we each use our individual experiences and expertise to help each other learn,” she says.