“We Are All Necrophiliacs”: An Unschooling-in-the-Classroom Success Story!

Best. Class. Discussion. EVER.

In another course I’m teaching this semester, the students write collaboration papers every day, and we use those to launch our discussion. After a handful of readings, we have what I call a “Play Day.” I was reluctant to call it that, since that’s really what I want each of our class meetings to be; the intention is that that their papers will facilitate class as “Play Day” every day. But a designated Play Day means that they don’t need to write a paper that day, and that – I had hoped – relieves them of some anxiety and helps them to feel freer to play. [Freeing students to play is an integral aspect of deschooling, and  understanding learning as play is the foundation of unschooling. I keep wanting to write that post (Part III), but stuff keeps happening in class that I want to share immediately!]

This semester is the first time I’m trying this Play Day thing, and today was our first one. In the interest of full disclosure, I must reiterate that this is a class full of people who have had me as their professor before, which means that most of them are already sufficiently deschooled and fully on board with my unschool-y approach.

And this, folks, is incredible. It makes the course what college should be – what I assumed it was until I made it, 17 years removed from my own undergraduate experience, to the front of the classroom on a regular basis. Each class meeting so far has blown me away. The energy in the room is fantastic. The students are reading and writing and coming up with amazing stuff in class.

The course is Sociology of Sexuality, and I won’t deny that that helps. But that is far from the entire story. Consider, for example, the kinds of questions students are offering for discussion – and, importantly, bear in mind that many of these students are non-majors, who have not read any primary-source theory in my field or area (and probably in any other areas, truth be told). They have read exactly five short articles for this class so far, all of which were used as inspiration for thoughts in their own direction, and none of which we have discussed in any detail. The readings have been: Horace Miner’s classic “Nacirema” article, an essay on the culturally-situatedness of fantasy, an article on the role of the state in policing sexuality, and an exploration of (heteronormative) sex as dramaturgy. Here are some of the places they went – all on their own, armed with nothing other than instructions to “end up (intellectually) somewhere different from where you began.”

Are we our sexual selves when we are alone, or are they constituted in interactions with others?

Is sexual harassment an element of front stage or back stage performance?

What is the relationship between taboo and obsession?

Do we measure the success of a performance by its ability to match the fantasy and the backstage performance?

Do we fantasize about what we desire, or do we desire what we fantasize about? (Incidentally, this led us to a conversation about the construction of eroticism, its relationship to the state, ideas about fear, purity and danger, and the politics of respectability)

Why do we wish to derive meaning from sex? (Okay, one more: this led to a wonderful discussion about the difference between “derive,” “ascribe” and “imbue” meanings, which, in turn, highlighted differences between essentialist vs. constructionist notions about sexual interactions.)

I understand that the depth and richness of these questions might not quite “land” for readers who are not in the social sciences or humanities, or perhaps for anyone who does not find sexuality to be an important realm of critical study. Regardless of whether these seem important or interesting to people outside of my field, they are, I hope, recognizable as what they are not: basic, deductive, content-seeking, rote-focused questions. They are imaginative. They are big. They are catalysts for even larger questions and more exciting conversations. And, most importantly, they reflect the intellectual curiosities of these students. Which means, of course, that these students were able to feel, identify, follow and articulate their intellectual curiosities. They are, at their very core, critical thinking questions (more on what the hell that is another day).

Professor: 1.
The Anti-Intellectual-Administration-Heavy-Market-Driven Educational Establishment: 0.

Today – Play Day – began with me asking them what they wanted to play with. One student good-naturedly admitted that she was still trying to figure out what was going on in this class; nothing made sense to her yet. Someone else wanted to start with a question that had been posed in a previous class, but we hadn’t gotten to: How can we use dramaturgy to understand sexual taboos, such as necrophilia, bestiality, etc.?

The students opted to try necrophilia as an example, and we did some very fun stuff with this – different definitions of the situation, defining the agents and purpose in necrophiliac encounters, binary conceptualizations of life and death, and death as “prop failure” (Goffman 1959) in “regular” sex, but life as prop failure in necrophiliac sex.

Momentum waned a bit, and one student shared an unrelated thought she had had recently: Can we look at the consumption of celebrities’ lives and bodies as a kind of public sex?

Neat! We played with that idea for a few minutes. Another student suggested that perhaps it (our attention to celebrities) was not about sex at all, but about “living vicariously.” I asked her to explain, specifically what “living vicariously” meant…and then suggested, drawing on a previous conversation we had had about narratives of “good sex” and “bad sex,” that perhaps sex itself is always about living vicariously – a collection of moments in which we seek to feel alive through another. We mulled that over for a bit, and this took us to Bataille, and sex as the simultaneous quest to live and the quest to die. Many of the students had not heard the phrase “la petit mort,” and the link between sex and death was new to them. Some were skeptical (okay, maybe a couple were horrified). So we talked about what happens with the body during climax: the cessation of conscious thought, the loss of control, grotesque facial expressions. One student said that she can’t actually breathe during climax, and that imminent orgasm feels ambiguous and uncertain: “You don’t know whether you’re going to die or what’s going to happen; you just know it’s big.” This helped; they were on board about at least the conceptual link between sex, death and rebirth.

We went back to the idea of living vicariously from here, and sex as an undulating (an unintended pun which I regret, as I write this, did not occur to me in class) movement back and forth between feeling alive and feeling dead, countering and being countered with the “opposite” force in the other.

And then, of course, we came back to necrophilia, which was no longer some mysterious, incomprehensible fetish, but a much-more logical extension of a sexual narrative that we recognized. Via Mary Douglas and Bataille (whom they had not read, but I infused those into the discussion), we are all, in a sense, necrophiliacs.

Suddenly, we could view necrophilia as a vicarious effort – to live and die through a corpse, to experience death as closely as fully as possible, to be enveloped by it while affirming one’s own aliveness through the definition of the situation, and, we imagined, the phenomenological experience of sex (however defined) with a dead person.

We were out of time, but we had come full circle. The room was bursting with intellectual energy. The student who had confessed the profundity of her confusion thus far, stopped by as she passed and said “This was great! I really got it. I understand now, and I can’t wait to tell my husband about this class. Thank you!”

On the way out, I walked with a few students. We were all still brimming. One brought necrophilia back to the consumption of the celebrity, arguing that celebrities are, in a sense, dead to the public – one-dimensional, flat, lacking the mundane aspects of alive-ness. And “consumption” of the dead celebrity, of course, extended necrophilia to cannibalism.

I had no plans whatsoever for where today was going to go, as I have no plans for where any day is going to go when I teach (in most courses). My plans are to follow their thoughts and curiosities, and to help them connect what they are thinking about to other things, other ideas, other people’s thoughts. More on this when I (finally) get to the next unschooling post – but this is what it’s about for me. This is play. This is privileging the process over specific, rigidly defined content. This is, for me, unschooling in the classroom. It is clear to me that our discussion helped students think creatively and critically, and from atop the shoulders of giants. There is not a doubt in my mind that these students walked out of my classroom smarter than they were when they walked in.

I certainly did.


Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. London: Penguin

Heartache in the Classroom (or “Higher” Education, my ass.)

Remember that course I described a couple of weeks ago? Here’s what happened in it today.

Backstory: The course is nearly entirely group work (yes, yes, the unschool post is coming, I promise!) One student, whom I’ll call “Abby,” after two class days, was contributing absolutely nothing and was clearly disinterested. I changed the groups up a bit, as I do (more on that in another post also), and she was in a group with three other students who had been quiet in their groups. The other three were much more comfortable, but Abby remained unengaged. On the second day of work with that group, she was sleeping with her head on the desk – during the group conversation. Today – after she had her head on the desk again – I moved her again, into a group with three students who are talkative but clearly struggling (or not even bothering to struggle, I can’t tell yet) with the material. (And yes, yes, an entire post on group work, pedagogy and unschooling is coming soon!)

Fifteen minutes after the change, she had done nothing. She saw me looking (glaring?) at her, stared down at the book and began to speak, thinking I would assume she was offering an insight or a question about the material. She was not, though; she was complaining about it and about the class. I called her out of the classroom to speak with her. And, make no mistake about it, I was pissed.

Me: I have moved you into three different groups now, trying to find one where you won’t fail the course. It looks to me like you’re determined to fail the course.
Her: I CANNOT read this book. I can’t do it. And I love to read. I mean, I love to read! But I CANNOT read this book.
Me: What do you mean? What happens when you try to read it?
Her: I just – I don’t know – I read it and then I don’t remember what the first part of the sentence said. I just don’t understand ANY of it. NOTHING.
Me: Hold on.

I go into the classroom and bring out my book. I ask her to follow me while I search for an empty classroom. Finding none, we sit on a bench in the hallway.

Her: Wait, I have a question. When we’re reading, what are we supposed to be looking for?
Me: Okay, there’s the first problem. If you’re reading it that way, you’re already lost. You’re not “looking for” anything. You’re reading. You’re reading the words and thinking about what they mean.

She sighs. I open the book and point to a paragraph.

Me: Read that. Not out loud, just to yourself. Read it, and stop and tell me when you don’t know what’s going on.

[This is the sentence:

“In the preceding chapter we may have given the reader excellent grounds to decide that sociology is ready to take over the title of “the dismal science” from economics. Having presented the reader with an image of society as a forbidding prison, we ought now to indicate at least some escape tunnels from this gloomy determinism” (Berger 1963:93). ]

Two seconds later:

Her: Okay, he’s, like, saying that in the last chapter….it was like…not so good….something about a prison…. but now there are going to be some tunnels?
Me: What about a prison and tunnels?
Her: Um…society is a prison?
Me: Read it again.

She reads.

Her: Okay, it’s like – in the last chapter he was saying that sociologists think society is like a prison, but….now…now in this chapter, there will be escapes from that.
Me: Yes. Exactly. So I don’t buy for a second that you can’t read this. The issue appears to me to be that you don’t want to. Try this one:

“This significance of role theory could be summarized by saying that, in a sociological perspective, identity is socially bestowed, socially sustained and socially transformed” (Berger 1963: 98).

Her: I can’t read this sentence because it’s about role theory and I don’t understand what role theory is.
Me: Change it to something else and make sense of the sentence. Make “role theory” “llamas:” The significance of llamas could be summarized…

Unfazed, she looks back down at the page.

Her: Okay, some of those words I don’t know…
Me: What’s “transformed?”
Her: Changed.
Me: What’s “sustained?”
Her: Umm….like sort of kept up.
Me: Yes.
Her: But SEE? That doesn’t make any sense!!
Me: What doesn’t make sense?
Her: First he’s saying that it’s kept up and then it’s changed. That makes no sense.
Me: What is the “it” in that sentence?
Her: Society.
Me: Read it again. That’s good, to stop when you’re confused because it makes no sense. But the next step is to read it again. If it makes no sense, you’re probably missing something in your reading. Read it until it makes sense.

She looks exhausted, but she reads.

Her: Identity. Identity is given by the social, kept up by the social and changed by the social.
Me: Okay, so first of all, no more saying you can’t. I have a dozen students in there who would have taken twenty minutes to do what you just did in 3. It’s not supposed to be easy. You have to work to understand some of it. But you’re perfectly capable. You just don’t want to bother.
Her: Yeah, you’re right.
Me: But WHY?
Her: I don’t want to read it the way you want me to read it.
Me: Well, how do you want to read it?
Her: I just want to, like, read the words.
Me: Without understanding what they say?
Her (and I swear her eyes lit up as if I FINALLY understood what she’d been trying to tell me): YES!
Me: But then what?
Her: Then I’ll be done with the reading.
Me (incredulous): Are you paying for this education?
Her: Yeah.
Me: Let me ask you something. Suppose you walk into McDonald’s and you order a burger. Do you eat meat?
Her: Yes.
Me: Okay, so you walk into McDonald’s and you order a burger. They take your money and hand you your burger. You go sit down to eat it and you open it up and there’s a bun, but there’s no meat inside. Do you eat it?
Her: No!
Me: Why not?
Her: Because I paid for the burger, so they owe me…a burger.

She gives me a slow, grudging half-smile as it dawns on her.

Me: This is what this school owes you, Abby. An education. Not your eyes glossing over words that mean nothing, wasting your time, sitting there day after day getting nothing out of it. You can do it that way; it’s your choice. And I’m sure you can pass other classes that way; you can get your degree – your bun – that way. You can drop this class and take it with someone else, where you won’t have to read until you actually understand what it is you’re reading. It’s up to you. But I gotta tell you, that’s a real shame, because you clearly can do this. You just don’t want to. Really, you’re just hell bent on walking out of here with just the bun, because it’s easier that way.
Her: You’re right.
Me: But if you’re staying in this class, you’re not going to pass like this, so you won’t even get the credits this way. You have to work the reading. And, quite frankly, I just took you out of a group that was going strong and put you into a struggling group. Now you’re going to need to step up if your discussions are going to help any of you to understand the material.
Her: You’re right. She sighs. I’ll go back through the other four chapters and read them in order to understand them.
Me: Glad to hear it. I look forward to seeing what you bring to the table from now on.
Her: Okay.
Me: And no more sleeping in my class.

More thoughts on this another time…and I’ll let you know how things go.


Berger, Peter. 1963. An Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective. New York: Anchor Books.

Unschooling at Home and at Work, Part II: Deschooling in the Classroom

Given that unschooling is really about following the child’s interests, the child’s rhythms, the child’s schedule and letting learning happen in a natural, play-based way, calling what I do in my courses “unschooling” is admittedly a bit problematic. And it is not what I set out to do in my teaching, at least not on a conscious level. What happened between the day I began this blog and the day I returned to it nearly two years later was that I realized that my pedagogy, as a professor, is really about trying to unschool in college. It took me far too long to realize that what I was trying to do in school was actually consistent with my unschooling philosophy. Impossible as it might be, I believe in the idea of higher education (a topic for another post!) and I am, doggedly, trying to make it happen.

I’ve spent the last week or so thinking in detail about the specifics of my teaching – my syllabi, my assignments, class discussions, my grading structure – and the ways that they have changed over the past ten years (since Monkey was born and unschooling in our house commenced). I’ve been trying to answer the question I posed in my last post: where do I get off calling what I do in the classroom “unschooling?” Here’s what I’ve got so far.

In the first place, to some extent, there is “deschooling” happening in my classes. In fact, I’d argue that 75% of most of my classes are more deschooling than unschooling, and it is only in courses full of students who have had me before that unschooling happens.

Deschooling, in a nutshell, is a transitional period for former school kids, during which parents either help, or simply provide the necessary space for, their kids to “heal” from the structure and authoritarianism and emphasis on conformity of school. For some (many?) kids, this can look a lot like video games all day long for a few days (weeks?), and for others this looks like a lot of physical activity or sleeping or playing with their toys. Like the rest of unschooling, everyone does it differently, but the idea is to help kids break out of and try to “unlearn” the values learned in school. In most cases, the children are fairly young, and the lessons to be unlearned are primarily emotional and psychological.

Since I am being paid to “teach” my students my subject matter, and since they are paying for this education, my efforts to help them “unlearn” what they have learned up until my course does not leave room for them to heal and play video games instead of “working.” My students are adults – and I am not their parent – and thus my deschooling does not is not focused on their emotional, psychological and social well-being. But still I need them to unlearn the lessons about how learning happens. My deschooling is intended, often jarringly, to break them away from the content-based, authority-based, mindless distillation of “information” into unhelpful sound bytes that appears to me to be the major contribution of 21st century schooling in the U.S. This underlies my focus on “process” learning instead of “content” learning. I am, I now think, attempting to deschool by shifting them away (coercively, of course, so there’s where my unschooler membership card may be confiscated) from learning “stuff” into learning how to learn.

The nuts and bolts of my deschooling are:

1. No textbooks. Ever. Textbooks are the enemy of thought. Textbooks stand for everything that I am fighting so very hard to defeat. The entire point of a textbook, however “good” it is, is that someone else has combed through the complex and complicated material, distilled it down to what someone else thinks is most important, and presented it in a clear and easy-to-understand format so that the important content can be readily accessed, remembered and regurgitated. This is a travesty. Learning should not be clear and easy (another post to come on that soon too). Education is not – or should not be – tantamount to memorizing the outcomes of other people’s intellectual processes. It should be the experience, culmination and outcome of your own intellectual process.

2. No PowerPoints. Also ever. For all of the reasons textbooks are anti-intellectual, the PowerPoint craze is worse. (Check out others’ arguments about this, here and here and here.) While I am aware that it is possible for the technology to be used differently, and I would be happy to consider examples, the overwhelmingly common practice – and explicit goal, for Pete’s sake – is, as with textbooks, to distill and reduce nuance, to uncomplicate the complicated, to feed students “information” as if that is what is relevant – as if we are reporting the facts of the world to them. And students are asked to create PowerPoints also – to scan their textbooks for the bold-typed words and their articles for the subject headings, insert them onto screens, make everything look pretty, and call that thinking. On my campus, increasingly, the would-be wonderful programs to help facilitate student research and scholarship are requiring PowerPoint presentations. I now refuse to work with these programs, and I am glad to explain my reasons to anyone who will listen. PowerPoints are, at least in practice, quite blatantly about conformity and an authoritarian model of education and intellectual reductionism.

3. I strongly discourage – and, in classes full of particularly strongly “schooled” students (for example, those with a high number of education majors – again, a post for another time!), I have been known to outright forbid – their use. Highlighters, at least the way my students use them, reinforce the exact opposite of my pedagogical goal. It facilitates scanning for the most pertinent “information.” Highlighting avoids generating thoughts oneself (unlike, for example, jotting notes in the margin), instead contenting oneself with the words already written on the page, as they are. Finally, it virtually guarantees that every re-read will result in the same conclusions, since the point of highlighting is to direct the reader’s attention back to the same passages each and every time. I do not want my students to keep coming back to the same reading. I want them to find different interpretations, notice different words, find new frames, every time they re-read. Highlighting ensures that reading will never be an adventure. It is a plodding, banal, deductive exercise. It functions, with along textbooks and PowerPoints, to emphasize the retention of content rather than the engagement in a creative or generative process.  (So do tests; I think it probably goes without saying, but I don’t use exams either.)

4. I don’t have an attendance policy. If students don’t want to be there, I don’t want them there. Students who don’t want to be in class drag down the collective energy of the group, negatively impact the discussion and drain my spirit. Learning should be voluntary. The students at my institution don’t appear to think so; they have been beaten down by the system thus far, and they resent having to be in my classroom in order to get a job. I try to excite and inspire – but at the end of the day, if my efforts have failed and they just don’t want to be there, I really just don’t want them there. I can’t un-register them – but I *can* strive to create dynamics and processes that make my classes welcoming to people who want to engage, and unwelcoming to people who do not. So I do nothing for the students who want (or need) to play video games (metaphorically) all semester; they will have to stay home and fail the course. But for those whose deschooling can involve doing things in a much more self-directed and open way, I do what I can to provide them a space in which they can play and learn and enjoy the process.

5. Grading. Sigh. The bane of my professional existence.

During my junior year of high school, I was accepted into Hampshire College. They used narrative evaluations of student success in lieu of grades. Like any well-schooled student, I was skeptical that this could result in anything positive. When I visited the campus, I was floored by what these students did. On the tour, I walked across an elevated tunnel of sorts, connecting one building to another. The tour guide told me that the tunnel design had been someone’s senior thesis. I was stunned by the scope and quality of art projects, published literature, theater productions, machines used on campus – all of them had been senior projects. Not only had students produced these ideas, but the campus clearly supported student works. Narrative evaluations were obviously not in the way of liberal arts education at Hampshire College.

I did not choose to attend Hampshire. Partly, I now suspect, I was intimidated by the level of accomplishment of the students. At the time, of course, I was unconcerned about the direction of liberal arts education – about the demise of intellectualism. I attended another artsy liberal-arts school, much less intense and therefore much more comfortable for a student who had succeeded in the conventional grading system.

I have yet to face a semester’s grading work without fervently wishing we had a system like Hampshire College did then. (I don’t know whether they do now; I keep meaning to check on that…) I have yet to calculate a grade without being angrily aware of its inadequacy, its uselessness, its limitations.

The very worst part of it – the part that makes all of it so tragic – is how much grades mean to my students. They have so much riding on them. The emphasis on these grades – which many, many professors will admit to you, if only after a scotch or two or three, are all but utterly meaningless – is built into their financial aid, their participation in sports, their membership in Honors societies, their ability to land internships and to study abroad. On practical and significant ways, their grades matter.
The problem is that on ideological and pedagogical ways, at least for process-based learning, their grades are, in a word, silly. Nonsense. Jibber-jabber. Not. The. Point.

But their grade anxiety is directly, squarely, forcefully, angrily, obstinately in the way of their learning.

I cannot get rid of grades and still keep my job, but I can make them mean something else. I can shift their representation to that of having read closely and thought thoughts and nurtured and developed those thoughts. After years of tweaking and experimenting, I am close, I think, in most of my classes, to a grading system that values what I value, and devalues what I want them to unlearn. It varies by course, but in general, I assure my students that those who engage in the process – who read closely, who think about the material and try to take it in other, new directions, and who talk and write about the material and these new directions – will do well. Students who do not do these things will not. Grading the process is difficult, but if I can get them fully engaged in this process, their product (term project) is immeasurably stronger – and then their grades mean as close to something as they can.

After some thought this week, I see these aspects of my teaching as my efforts to deschool in the classroom – to help them to move away from a system of “education” that prioritizes information-collecting, rubrics, memorization of “facts,” and a conformist trust in the “authority” on the page rather than one’s own thoughts.

Most of what I now see as deschooling is really about what I avoid in the classroom: the aspects of school that I explicitly reject, and push (if not force) my students to reject. The next post in this series – Part III – will explore what I actually *do* in my courses – the part that I am considering at least something akin to actual unschooling in the classroom. Thanks for staying tuned!

Unschooling at Home and at Work: Part I

Here’s how Monkey’s days go (I haven’t yet told her about the pseudonym):

She wakes up, too early for our tastes. Then she does pretty much whatever she wants until one of us gets up. Usually, that’s some combination of reading, playing, drawing/crafting, writing stories, watching television and playing video games. (We used to control her screen time, but we’ve moved away from that so that she could self-regulate, and she’s doing well with it.)

Someone makes breakfast – sometimes her. After breakfast, if no outings are on the docket, she does more of whatever she wants. Generally that includes playing games with whichever parent is home, playing with the dog in the yard, practicing the violin [okay, there are usually “reminders” (read:nagging) over that one], making various messes with chemistry sets (read: anything we keep in the kitchen), climbing all over the house, creating obstacle courses for her to jump over, recording herself making loud, crazy sounds into a digital recorder, playing make-believe of all kinds, covering herself in body paint, and generally causing more mayhem than one would believe one child could cause.

Once or twice a week, we get together with other unschooler friends for “free school” (several hours spent in a local space with space to run around, a stage and a bunch of tables and chairs) or outdoor activities. In between, she has friends come to our house or she goes to theirs, as often as we all can swing it. Once a month, she has her unschool book club, at which a handful of kids ages 9-13 talk about the book they decided to read at the last meeting.

She plays organized soccer and takes violin lessons. We don’t “make” her do either (though we do, as admitted, nag her to practice the violin).

The term “unschoolers” covers a wide range of folks, many of whom believe different things and do things differently.  Here’s an overview that fits with my perspective on it.  We are unschoolers because we reject compulsory education.  We reject the emphasis on conformity.  We believe that children learn best when they have the space to discover, the freedom to choose and the room to do nothing.  We believe that children learn best through playing.

We are not “radical unschoolers,” at least according to my definition of the contested term.  (By this definition and this one, we are, mostly.  But my sense of the term is from over a decade ago, and it still makes the most sense to me.  Radical unschooling, to me, involves a commitment to avoid setting limits of any kind in any realm, at least partly so that the child learns to set them herself, and thus grows into a confident, happy, unbullied, competent citizen.

I am sympathetic to this.  In general, I am an anti-authoritarian kind of parent (um…unless I’m highly irritated…).  There is no “Because I said so,” or time-outs, or punishments or “rules,” at least per se. This, to me, is consistent with my attachment-parenting philosophy, which I view as distinct from my unschooling philosophy, though nicely complimentary.

But we have our realms.  We insist that Monkey brush her teeth, give us our own space at night (unfortunately, our insisting on this does not always garner the desired result, but we insist nonetheless), eat the meals we prepare, and knock on our bedroom door before entering.  I say things like “knock it off!” and “If you don’t stop making that noise  this room I’m going to swing you around by your nose,” and do a host of other stuff that some unschoolers would find unacceptably authoritarian in nature.  Sometimes we even insist that she clean her room.  Monkey does not like this (okay, that’s a pretty major understatement), and usually these are awful days.  But if she does not, then either a) this will lead to problems for all of us, on the practical level like us getting out of the house for an appointment or the dog getting sick because he ate a toy or me cutting my foot on something on her floor or her tracking red who-knows-what-the-hell-that-is all over the rest of the house…into the carpet, or b) we will have to clean it ourselves.  And both of those options suck for many reasons on many days, whereas her cleaning her room sucks only for two reasons (we’re being coercive, and everyone is miserable) on only one day.  So we do it.  (Although I suspect that lately Partner-Person has been covertly picking things up  in there when I’m not home.)

What we do not do, is tell her what she should read, what she should know, what she should think about, what she should or should not play.  When I identify as an unschooler, what I mean is that I leave my child alone to learn what, when, how and as she pleases.  I am passionately committed to this.  I  wholeheartedly agree with nearly every word John Holt has published, and I unschool in large part because this is not how school works.

Here’s the thing, though.  As it happens, this kid is wicked smart.  (I say this as a both parent and a professor.) Monkey is a voracious reader, with a college-level vocabulary.  She is a steel-trap kind of logician. Her curiosity is insatiable and she possesses a sort of intellectual (and verbal) relentlessness that brings to mind the love child of a badger and a pit bull.

And in my most honest moments, I do not know whether we could, or would, do what we do if she were not who she is.

Therein lies, as they say, the rub.  I am unschooling a person who is inclined to read, inclined to think critically, inclined to learn – about pretty much everything.  As much as I believe that all children would be more like this if they were unschooled, I know that doesn’t mean that they would all be like this.  I know that my kid’s passion for academics makes it a breeze for her academic-type parents to unschool.  Given who she is, it feels a little bit as if, as unschoolers, we’re somehow… cheating.

My students have taught me this.  As much as I try to integrate my unschooling philosophy into my professional pedagogy, I know that I want my students to develop particular skills and inclinations.  I want them to be readers and writers and critical thinkers.  I believe that unschooling is the way to get there, but I very much want them to get there.

And many, many of them are not there.  They tell me they have never read a book – and I believe them.  They call every nonfiction book that I assign a “novel.”  They write dialogue without quotation marks,  and they find 250 pages as daunting as – dare I say it? – we found War and Peace.  (Yes, which we read while trudging six miles through the snow, shoeless.)

So unschooling in my classroom is not about letting them “grow up” to be whomever they choose to be. In the first place, my actual job is education.  When I chose this career, I did so under the mistaken belief that I would be teaching people who wanted to learn what I would be teaching.  I assumed that they had already grown into what they wanted to be, and what they wanted to be now was college students.  In other words, I take for granted in my daughter a love of learning that I cannot take for granted in my students.

Therefore, and in the second place, my students do not have the freedom to not read, or to not write, or to not think.   When they walk into my classroom, they make the decision that they want to commit something to this process of learning, much like when Monkey decides that she wants to continue with violin lessons she decides to make a commitment.  She does not have to take violin lessons.  This is her idea.  But she either wants to study violin, or she does not want to study violin.  If she did not want to study violin, we would just buy her an old violin, add it to her box of musical instruments, and she could fiddle whenever she got a hankerin’.  If she chooses to study, she has to do some heavy lifting.   My students have chosen to study, and I am there to facilitate their practice.  The problem is, they do not agree that they have made this choice.  They feel coerced.

Where, then, do I get off calling what I am trying to do in my college courses “unschooling?”  Tune in next time for Part II.


Report: Last year’s paper/reading/discussion initiative

When last we left off…(and I might be the only one of the “we” left)…I was implementing a new structure for all of my courses.  Since then, I’ve done it each semester, in most courses, tweaking as I went.  Here’s my summary and review, and where I am now with it.

I call them “collaboration papers.”  A CP is one single-spaced page that begins with the reading assignment for that day, and ends with a question for discussion.  At the start of class, I flip through and choose a few questions for the day’s discussion.

Semester 1:  I provided students with a written description/guide to how to write these.  In a nutshell, it was:

1) Read the piece.
2) Read again and stop when you find something interesting.
3) Think about why you find it interesting.
4) Start writing and try to go somewhere else with it: What else can you think about from this starting point? What can you do with this insight or observation? Where can it go? In other words, what else in the world is related to this thing in which you are (now) interested? Explore these relationships.
5) At this point you will have an insight, a theme, a question or observation that is different from the one with which you began.  Use that insight to write a discussion question.

In the hope of minimizing their grade anxiety around these papers, I graded them only using broad ranges ranges: strong (B+), weak (C-) and failing (with the qualifier that consistent B+ papers would translate to an A at the end of the semester).

They did this for every class meeting.  It worked well for some students.  Most, however, struggled. They were worried about the grades, and the C- felt brutal to them.  They struggled to come up with a question that a) actually emerged from the thoughts they had been thinking, and b) was conceptually rich or theoretically versatile.  Too many of them wrote the questions they thought I wanted, or else moralizing questions like, upon reading about atheism, “Were atheists people who were neglected as children?”  Throughout the first semester of this experiment, I spent a good deal of time discussing the papers themselves and trying to provide tips, encouragement, and do’s and don’ts. (Don’t summarize the reading, don’t ask yes/no questions, do ask open-ended questions…) In any given class, there were some days when none of the papers made for juicy discussions.  In a couple of courses in particular, the papers were functioning as a way to police the reading, which was not at all what I wanted.  Also, it was absolutely impossible for me to keep up with the grading; 30 papers in each of 3 courses on nearly every class day was just too much.

Hmm.  The next semester, I made a couple of changes. 

Semester 2: I used them in only 2 courses and scheduled more time between readings. I changed my grade system to check-plus, check and check-minus, to lessen the emotional impact of the grades for them.

This worked a little better.  The grading schema was easier for students to handle this semester, anyway.  I had more experience helping explain the goal of the papers, so I was a bit better at it.  On my end, I kept up a wee bit better, but it was still woefully inadequate.  They weren’t getting them back quickly enough and I was overwhelmed. 

Still, also, I was getting a lot of chagrined or confused “Why are people so messed up?” kinds of questions.  And on days when no paper was due, they didn’t show up.  I had about six people in class on those days. Aaaargh.

Here’s what was working, though, and I was sticking with it despite the problems we were still facing:

1.  On the whole, they were reading!  They really, really were.  The papers were not easily fake-able, and they were so concerned about finding what I call their “nuggets” to write about, that they were doing the reading.  It was clear in all of my classes that far more people were coming prepared than ever before.  Since my pedagogy pretty much depends on their familiarity with the texts, I was not about to give this up.

2. Some students were making really nice moves in their papers.  I was convinced that because of this structure, they were spending more minutes of their lives actually thinking about what they were reading, and they were closer to what I consider critical thinking (more on that topic another time!) earlier and with more success.   Some of them were, in fact, coming up with great stuff.

3. It made the course theirs.  I had tried dozens of things to make the class more theirs than mine, and none had worked nearly so well.  Within the confines of the fact that most of my students don’t really want to be in college in the first place, this practically ensured that we were talking about things they wanted to be thinking about.

4. Once the papers got going, the students were engaged and enthusiastic.  In all but one course (7 of 8 so far), the papers were, from their perspective, a resounding success. End-of-semester evaluations, one after the other, contained some version of “The papers were a lot of work but I have never gotten so much out of a course before!”  So, you know… yay! 🙂

Last semester, though, one course was a complete disaster.  The whole thing completely blew up on me, and I didn’t figure anything out in time to stop it. 

Sometimes courses are disastrous.  It happens.  There are many possible reasons for that.  There were several reasons this time too, but one of them was the way these students responded to the papers.  They remained confused and frustrated throughout the semester.   They were utterly hung up on the implications for their grades, and I failed miserably at getting them past that, no matter what I tried.  In the end, we scrapped the papers altogether, in favor of a talking-point kind of approach.  The remaining class discussions were much better, but the majority of the students just stopped bothering when I stopped collecting their papers.

Okay, so 1/8 is pretty good, really.  But clearly, it needed more tweaking.  I made a couple more changes before this semester.  More to come at some point…

What Brought Me Back Here

On the third class day of the new semester, 30 first-year students were visibly grumpy with me.  I arranged them into the groups in which they will be working through the course material – each and every day – until the end of the semester, when their individual term projects will be due.   They glared at me with loathing, a white-hot hatred so intense that it was difficult not to hate them back.

After they were in their groups, they looked at me expectantly.  Having told them that they were to “make sense of” C. Wright Mill’s “The Promise,” I said something along the likes of “Ready, set, go!” 

Hands shot up. 

“How are we supposed to talk about the chapter if we didn’t understand it?”

Wow. (I think I might have blinked back tears at that one.)

If you understood everything there was to understand, there’d be nothing to talk about.  Play with it.  Work with it.  Poke it and see if anything comes out.

“How are we supposed to know if we’re right?”

Forget right.  Right is overrated.  Be fearless.  Be creative. Be wrong.

“Aren’t you just setting us up to fail?”

No.  In fact, I hereby promise each and every one of you that if you read each assignment closely and thoroughly and work to understand it before you get to class, make sure it’s fresh in your mind when you get here, and talk to one another about your understandings, your thoughts and your ideas, you will not fail this course.  You will only fail the course if you do not do these things.  I promise.  I am asking you to trust the process.  If you fully engage in the process, you will be fine. I promise you.

They looked dubious.  A few of them looked less hostile, but clearly I did not understand how education worked. They were stuck with a complete wackadoo for a professor.  And a passionate one, to boot.  What could be worse?

I flitted about the room as they worked.  A handful hadn’t bothered to read.  A few hadn’t bought the book yet.  They squirmed uncomfortably in their seats, for it was painfully obvious to their peers and to me that they had nothing to offer. 

The ones who had read flagged me by each time I walked by, every one of them saying something like,

“Okay, we think that Mills is saying X….are we on the right track?”

Each time, I grinned in enthusiastic support and said, “Talking to each other about what Mills is saying is absolutely the right track!  Asking me whether you’re correct or not, though – not so much.  Ask each other.  Stop trying to get it right. Try to get it… interesting.” 

They did not like any of this.  Some of them were outright pissy with me. 

But before too long they appeared to have forgotten their annoyance. They were caught up in the puzzles they were setting up for each other.  

“I don’t think that’s what ‘quality of mind’ means.  It doesn’t seem like that’s what he means.”

“Maybe he means that ‘private troubles’ turn into ‘public issues’ when enough people have them?”

“It seems like over here he’s saying X but then later, over here, he’s saying Y.”

And suddenly there was thinking happening.  There was thinking happening for the sole reason that I had given them absolutely no choice.  They were being graded on the process.  They had to play the game.  I was listening to them, their peers were listening to them, and everyone had to try to string some thoughts together.

Some strings were, of course, stronger than others.  Some strings weren’t interesting at all.  But they were stringing.  Most of them were thinking thoughts, questioning each other, pushing themselves.  I caught a few of them rubbing their heads.

With fifteen minutes to go, I called a halt and checked in.

“How many of you are smarter now than you were when you walked in here today?”

25 of them raised their hands – and only about half of those did so grudgingly. 

It doesn’t matter if they actually *are* smarter, whatever that means.  It only matters that they have more confidence in the process. In themselves.

It was, after all, only their first day. 

Responding to comments shortly…yes indeed!

To the generous folks who commented on my early posts…thank you, and please accept my sheepish but sincere apologies for my extreme (!) tardiness.  I am only setting it up so that it notifies me of comments, and learning how to respond to them quickly, today, and I suspect that you gave up on me long ago.  Even so, I am replying to all of them today!

I’m still here…

…or rather, I’m here again.

I got busy.  And I got scared.  I am on the tenure-track, and important conversations were happening in my department.  The idea of spending my evenings on this blog, rolling around in the radical teaching I was trying to do was appealing for several reasons, but suddenly I realized that disclosing the specifics of the activities and assignments might be a bad idea.  My identity might not remain anonymous for long and I would come under even more fire for being a non-conformist than I already was.

Because, really, that’s what unschooling is about: rejecting conformity, resisting the staggeringly high value our education system places on conformity.  Over the past year, this has become clearer to me than ever – and my fight against it has become more conscious and deliberate than ever.

I am less paranoid than I was two years ago.  I am also somewhat safer, which helps tremendously in easing paranoia.  But I am still concerned, because all around me, all around the US, people appear heavily invested in education that doesn’t educate.

It’s worse than that: I don’t think we agree on what education should be, on what its goals are, on what an educated person looks like.

I have been talking with my ten year-old (whom I shall call “Monkey,” until she learns this and insists that I change it, probably to something like “Valleria Calyx Montegue Serafina”) about college throughout her entire life using the phrase “when you go to college.”  Monkey is excited.  She reads my syllabi and my students’ papers.  I joke that I will live under her bed because otherwise I will miss her too much. We laugh over scenarios in which she is talking with her friends and I pop my head out because I am hungry.  We speculate about course offerings and the kinds of papers she will write and the relationships with professors and the quality of food on her campus.

Last semester, having just read Ginsberg’s The Fall of the Faculty and a slew of columns and blog posts on the state of higher education that I am unprepared to link just now, I came home and announced that I was unconvinced that she would want to go to college when the time came.  Startled, she asked me why.

“Because I’m not sure college is like that anymore, anywhere.  It might be that by the time you go to college, it will  be just like high school,” I told her. I was taken aback by the weight of the sadness I felt as I spoke.

And so I am back.  Because now, with a professionally tumultuous couple of years behind me, I am ready to fight.  I am ready to do whatever I can toward a world in which college is a good place for my daughter.