And we’re off! (Maybe.)

Well, the semester is now underway, and I’m fairly certain that my students think I’ve lost my mind.  Nevertheless, here is the briefest sketch of part of my plan:

In all of my courses, I am using an entirely new model.  One goes like this: each class day, the students have assigned reading.  I asked them to find something in the reading of interest (I wrote and distributed two full pages on how to identify a spark of interest, and how to become interested when there is no clear spark.)  It can be anything: a word, a sentence, an idea, an argument, etc.  I ask only that they identify their spark, and that they use it do something else – to move beyond their personal reaction.  I don’t care, or at least I think I don’t, where they go with it, only that there is movement.  Then they write a few paragraphs describing their spark and their movement.  They end their writing with a discussion question of some kind – anything open, as long as they can trace it back to their spark.  I spend a few minutes in class glancing at the writings, and choose a few to start.  Then we talk.  

That’s it.  That’s the class.  Their final grades depend, as entirely as I can politically manage, on their engagement in this process. It seems to me that in order to do what I’m asking, they have to do a fair amount of what I remain committed to calling “thinking.” 

I don’t yet know whether this is sheer pedagogical brilliance, or evidence that my standards have sunk to an all-time low.  It starts this week.  I’ll keep you posted. 

In the meantime, if you’re reading this…any thoughts?

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10 comments on “And we’re off! (Maybe.)

  1. marsupialmouse says:

    Hi! I’ve just found your blog and look forward to following your journey! I’m an over-educated Australian future-unschooling mum with a background in science and philosophy. I have spent 9 years of my adult life at university and have had one (only one) professor (or lecturer as we call them) who used an approach similar to yours, in fact it was even less structured! He has been an important person in my intellectual development and after taking one of his courses on Foucault, I took every other course he taught. He would just set a reading per week which we would sit around a table and discuss for the duration of the class. Admittedly, there were only ever a few of us who really engaged with this process, and we were the older students (I was about 28 I think). One thing that helped the discussion along was that postgrads who were interested in the readings (only ever primary texts, never textbooks) would sit in on the classes, basically treating it like a reading group. They had a lot of good things to contribute, which helped the other students to understand the reading. The readings were often quite short, but challenging and fascinating. For assessments, we chose something related to the reading and wrote a long essay on it, in fact I think some students submitted artworks with commentary/ theatre pieces etc for assessment! Sadly, this didn’t go down well with the administrators who like exams, so his future courses had exam questions that very much allowed the students to write on almost whatever thay wanted. Good luck to you! You may well find only a small number of students have the kind of self-motivation to really engage like this, but you may well change their lives! As for the others, I am friends with a lot of the students who remained silent in the above class, and despite their apparent apathy, they still talk about that class and took a surprising amount from it.

    • Thank you for sharing this story. I’m hearing more of these kinds of things all the time. I agree that even the silent ones get a lot from it, but I do a lot to keep them from remaining on the periphery – again, a topic for another post soon.

      While I also agree that only a small percentage of students (already) have the “self-motivation” to engage like this, I I do have to quibble, though, with your conclusion: at its best, the process itself is a motivator. The students who are involve motivate the others, and pretty soon the thick of it all is the cool place to be. All it takes, I find, is enough of them to get the momentum going, and then the majority of the rest take the leap. I think it’s really about shifting the dynamic so that involvement actually *feels* better than disengagement. Again, though…at best; I have some stories of utter failure to share as well!

  2. Very Postman and Weingartner (1969) of you! I love it.

  3. sarahekd says:

    I’m a university professor (and unschooling parent) of speech-language pathology that has been trying to do this for a couple of years now! I’d love to chat with you about it sometime, but I’ll settle for following your blog in the meantime… good luck with your term!

  4. J says:

    So, how’s it going?
    I am an unschooling parent, a former progressive ed elementary teacher with distant aspirations to inspire teachers to do what you’re talking about here in your blog.
    Please come back and write some more.

    • Thank you for the encouragement, J! I’m determined to post regularly this time…yanno, as part of my larger change-the-world project. 😉

      • J says:

        Glad you’re back! 🙂 I’m glad to hear you’ve taken time for yourself to focus on establishing stronger footing. Hopefully you’re off and running, and I’ll enjoy reading about your work and feeling inspired! 🙂

      • Thanks for popping by again! Guess this one was before the other one..whoops…still getting the hang of this, obviously!
        Yes, I’m in a better place now, and I expect to be here quite a bit. Hope to see you around!

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