Unschooling at Home and at Work, Part IV: Play…Where It All Breaks Down

I think this will be my last post under this heading, because a) I am finding that the structure I have created here – the sense that I need to finish what I’ve started before I can move on – is slowing down my posting, and b) increasingly, this entire blog is pretty much on how I understand my pedagogy as unschooling, so the bracketing of these posts feels unneccesary.

That said, I do want to address this theme here, because it’s significant. I think that I told the story, in an earlier post, of students looking at me as if I had just landed from another planet when I assumed that puzzles were fun. This happens to me in almost every class; I say, by way of reassurance and encouragement, “You’re just playing! Let yourself play!” and they mutter and scowl and it is quite clear that I am out of touch.

So I began asking my students, in office hours and on walks across campus, what they do for fun. This is by no means a representative sample, of course, and I make no claims whatsoever to generalizability. But, as far as stories go, these are instructive and, again, heartbreaking.

There was the conversation that went like this:

Me: What do you do for fun?
Him: Fun?
Me: Yes, fun. What do you do in your spare time?
Him: I dunno. I guess I sit.
Me: You….sit??
Him: Yeah. Sometimes I sit.
Me: Okay. What else?
(He thinks, apparently in earnest, for a few minutes.)
Him: I really just go to work, I do my schoolwork, I go to bed and then I go to school. And then I do it again. But sometimes I will just sit.
Me: What about on weekends?
Him: I work on weekends.
Me: What about at night?
Him: I go to sleep after I do my schoolwork.
Me: TV?
Him: No, I don’t have one.
Me: Video games?
Him: I don’t like them.
Me: Do you read?
Him: I like to, but I really only read what I need to for school.

I’m not making this up. Then there was the woman who was struggling to pass my class. She came to me because she did not know what she wanted to do for her final paper.

Me: Okay, well, what are you interested in?
Her: What do you mean?
Me: I mean, what interests you?
Her: Like about the class?
Me: Well, ideally, but really anything…what are your interests?
Her: I don’t really understand.
Me: What do you *like* to think about?
Her: Um…I don’t really like to think.
Me: But you think all the time! What are you thinking about when no one’s telling you what to think about?

She is quiet. Then she says, avoiding my eyes,

“No, I don’t really think.”

Me: Okay. What do you do, then? What do you do in your spare time?
Her: I don’t have spare time. I work and go to school. And I run.
Me: You run?
Her: Yes.
Me: You like to run?
Her: Yes.
Me: What do you think about when you run? I mean, what’s on your mind?
Her: Nothing. I listen to music.
Me: Okay, but when you’re listening to music, your mind is still doing things. What’s running through your head?
Her: Just the music. Maybe the lyrics?

This went on for another ten minutes. I’ll spare you the details. But I will share one more, with a student who was struggling to understand the reading.

Me: What do you normally do when you don’t understand what you’re reading? I mean, if you’re reading something you enjoy, but you don’t understand it…what do you do?
Her: I don’t read if it’s not for school.
Me (seeing where this was headed): Okay, but when you weren’t so busy – when you were younger, what did you do?
Her: I never read.
Me: I see. You don’t like to read? Did you read anything in high school you liked, even a little?
Her: I never read in high school. I mean, we just had, like, little bits from books in our textbook. We didn’t have books.
Me: Do you remember a book from your childhood?
Her: This book for this class is the first book I’ve ever read, like cover to cover.

The point is not whether these horrifying stories are actually true. The point is that, at my institution – a place, like many across the country, where students go to school because they think they have to, exactly the way they go to work and, some of them, exactly the way they feed and bathe their kids – the narrative they tell is that all of it – school, life, every moment of every day, is gruntwork. I have dozens of stories just like these. This is the story they tell of themselves – of their lives, of their identities, of their practices.

I’m not interested in anything.
I have no time for fun.
I don’t think about anything.
I don’t like to think.
I don’t have any hobbies.
I’ve never read anything before.

I presume that at least some of these students browse the internet, watch movies on their phones or ipads, hang out with their friends, have sex and/or engage in recreational drug and alcohol use. (And obviously, the runner has thoughts.) But these are the stories they tell me. To their professor. One might think that they want their professor to see them as dynamic, multi-faceted human beings. Instead, they appear to want me to see them as overworked, exhausted…utterly depleted, living lives of ascetic drudgery.

And here I am, trying to follow their “interests.” Trying to get people to “play” when they’re telling me they don’t want, like, or have time to play.

I don’t believe that real learning – intellectual, cognitive, conceptual, experiential growth – can happen without playing. I’m unconvinced that it’s really possible. Memorization, sure. Retention, maybe. But that’s not learning. So the question, for me, becomes: does “play” have to be fun for them? Does it have to be pleasurable? Do they have to experience it as leisure?

Because at any given moment in my classrooms, students are “playing.” Some of them are laughing and moving and clearly enjoying themselves. Others are not.

If you sit in a chair and phlegmatically stick Legos together, halfheartedly hoping something comes out of it by the time you get to leave and go somewhere else, and hating every minute of it, are you playing with the Legos?

Sometimes I am trying to force my students to play with Legos, simply because they won’t tell me what they want to play.

They won’t tell me, many of them, because they really don’t know. Sometimes, I guess, I need to go Montessori rather than unschooling – surround them with stuff (going the opposite way, of course, of Maria Montessori’s calling everything “play” instead of “work,” since I’m dealing with schooled adults).

I’m often tempted to have my next class write their own syllabus. I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit. Maybe they don’t need to read anything. Maybe they don’t need to write anything. What is it that they want to do that will help them learn?

But for those who don’t actually want to “learn,” then no amount of ownership or play or autonomy will help. For those students, I have to find a way to make the classroom a different kind of space, or I have to just let them go without learning. They fail my classes. They find a professor who will help them memorize some stuff….maybe they’ll even retain some of those facts for years to come. And maybe that makes them feel “smarter,” more successful, better equipped to be a citizen in this world.

But I maintain that they’re not any “smarter.” These indicators of educational success are deeply, grossly, offensively problematic. They’ve spent their money and their time, both of which are at a serious premium for students at my school, and they’ve got nothing of value to show for it.

This is the tragedy here: we take the worst advantage of the least privileged students. It is precisely those who think that education is about a degree for a job, those whose alternatives would be low-wage jobs at best, who need to learn to play, to be creative, to think imaginatively, to free their intellects and trust themselves. It is, exactly and always, the students who don’t know better whom we are supposed to be teaching better than this. Otherwise, the “democratization” of education is a joke.

In 1956, C. Wright Mills wrote, “…in the hands of ‘professional educators,’ many schools have come to operate on an ideology of ‘life adjustment’ that encourages happy acceptance of mass ways of life rather than the struggle for individual and public transcendence” (319).

It’s nearly six decades later.  We need to transcend, people. Trans-fucking-cend.


Mills, C. Wright. 1956. The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press.


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!

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…

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.

Inspired, as always, by Sir Ken Robinson…

If you’re reading this blog, you may know who Ken Robinson is.  If not, though, you should.  Everyone should.  In fact, before you read the rest of this post, you should watch at least this video:


I am, of course, a tremendous fan of his work.  In my head (where, as he rightly points out, I live), I struggle with how to incorporate what he is calling for – the very reasons we unschool – into my classrooms.  I strive to value and reward creativity and risk-taking in my classes, rather than “right” answers.  I try to provide different ways of expressing one’s ideas and account for different ways of learning.  I am never entirely successful. I never struggle long or hard enough.  In the end, the students who can write well do better than the students who cannot, and the students who have read books in their lives fare better than the students who have not.  I continue, mostly wittingly, to privilege literacy above all other forms of knowledge and ways of self-representation.

I am partially constrained by my role in the university, of course.  But I can do more.  And this semester I am going to try to do more.  This semester, with one course in which I have more leeway than the others, I am going to struggle more aggressively toward these goals.  I am going to try to conduct my class as much like an unschooler as is possible, within the parameters set by the school and my colleagues.  Details to follow!

Another semester looms…

I’m rewriting my courses for next semester.  I’ve never been one of those people who can teach the same thing, year in and year out. Part of this is because it really is about the journey, from my perspective, and I like to illustrate that as much as I can.  The other part of it is because I’m easily bored.

So here I am, thinking again about what books to read with my students, and convincing myself that if I just think long and hard enough, I will figure out the magic solution to How To Get Them To Do The Reading.

I’ve tried pop quizzes.  I hated them more than the students did.

I’ve tried devoting class time to everything *but* the reading, and holding them responsible for the reading in the papers.  That does a disservice to students who do the reading but could use help thinking about it, and it leaves me in the position of basing classwork on readings that no one does.  In short, most of my students would fail, were I to stick to my guns with this approach.

I’ve tried building classes around one central requirement: very-clearly-based-on-the-reading class participation.  This actually works well, as long as a handful of students are in the game.  If there are only one or two, though, the entire thing falls apart, the semester is a nightmare, and all of us dread coming to class.

What I have not tried…what I hope to never, ever try…is to assign the reading and then come to class and explain the reading.  I suspect I would give up teaching from books before I resorted to that.  (See above line regarding being easily bored.)

But there’s much more to it than avoiding my own ennui.  It’s about the very purpose of the university classroom.  At its best, at what I believe was once the ideal for most professors, it is a place of exchange: a place where one of two different approaches justify the professoriate (and thereby, to some extent, the cost of college) and distinguish us from everyone else in who stands in front of a classroom.

In the first, we think out loud, picking up steam as we do, finding new directions and new inspirations, modeling passion for our disciplines and for critical thinking and demonstrating how to follow an intellectual lead, deconstruct an idea, arrive at a position or insight.

In the second, we deliver the results of our latest, freshest thinking, in the fervent hopes that it will inspire our students, to say or write or think something new and exciting – and sometimes in the more ambitious hope that what they generate will, in turn, hone our own thinking and inspire us anew.

What we – professors – do not do, is stand there and deliver the results of other people’s thinking, without critique or augmentation or challenge from our own minds.

Increasingly, I suspect that many people at the front of college classrooms do exactly that.  I try to remember this when my students don’t read.  I remind myself that they do not expect us to “do” anything interesting with the reading in class.  They do not view reading as holding up their end of a bargain they have struck with me: my thoughts on this work in exchange for  yours.  My thoughts on the work hold very little value for them – and, tragically, theirs hold even less.

Lately, I have resorted to choosing “sexy” books, things that at least some of the students will actually want to read.  This troubles me.  As far as I can tell, however, my options appear to be:

1. Require actual reading of the actual books I want to teach.  This means that students who do not read will fail the course.  This means that most students will fail.

2. Assign books that I think  more students are likely to read.  This means that more students will pass, but I am pandering and lowering my standards and failing to challenge and develop my strongest students.

3. Assign reading and then spend class time telling them what the reading said.  This makes my salary a waste of money, undermines the role of the professor and is deeply uninteresting for me – because I did the reading, and I want to do something interesting with it.

4. Give up on books and use textbooks instead.

Even writing that one breaks my heart.  I know that there are plenty of excellent professors who use textbooks.  (Hey, some of my best friends use textbooks…)  In some fields, I imagine that they are indispensable. I’ve tried them myself, a time or two over the course of my career.  More often than not, though, they are the enemy of critical thinking.  No matter how critical the textbook, no matter how brilliant the author, regardless of how many “active learning” exercises they contain, textbooks exist for one purpose: to make it easier for students to glean “what they need to know.”

That is exactly the opposite of my mission.  I do not help students become better thinkers when I make it easier for them to glean anything.  Education is the process of gleaning.  Everything else is information.   “What they need to know” is precisely what they should be there to discover.  Education is not supposed to be a “greatest hits” album of what people need to know.  It should be a process of exploration and discovery…an adventure of trial-and-error…an archaeological expedition, unearthing thought that came before and deciding what to toss, what to keep, and how to use it.

If our elementary and our secondary educational system didn’t function this way, our college students would not expect this four-year “packet of information.”  If our children grew up viewing learning as play, viewing education as an adventure, with the freedom to decide what to read and what to think about – and what not to think about – then I firmly believe that the students in my classroom would be engaged.  They would be interested.  They would read what I assign, or they would say, “I don’t want to read that.  I would much rather read *this* instead, which is also relevant to the course.”

How I would love it if a student said that to me.  In the meantime, I’m still working on finding that magic solution.


I am a college professor and an unschooling parent.  Once upon a time, I thought these things were quite compatible.  Increasingly they seem to be at odds.  I am endeavoring to reconcile my pedagogical ideology with my actual job, and I’ve decided to write about it as I do.  Welcome.

Unschooling – at least the way my family does it – is largely based on the writings of John Holt.  After years as an educator, Holt concluded that children learn best by, essentially, not being instructed. His work has inspired a generation of unschoolers who “teach” our children by letting them play, traveling with them, providing them with access to things in which they are interested – by, in short, following their leads.  By and large, unschooled kids do what they want, and don’t do what they don’t want to do.  And by and large, unschooling parents work very, very hard (on multiple levels) to be able to do this.

For our family, this works beautifully.  For the other unschooling families with whom we spend our time, this appears to be working beautifully. The unschooled children we know are creative, open, confident, talented, kind human beings.  They know what it is to pursue a goal out of pure interest, to complete a task they devised themselves.  They know how to discern interest from boredom, and how to recognize and nurture their own passion when they feel it.  They know how to make connections across activities, ideas, thoughts, stories, paintings, music; things remind them of other things, and they know how to run with that.  Their worlds and their daily lives are not compartmentalized.  They know how to think.  They like to think, because they have learned that thinking means spending time and energy on interesting things.

Cut to my career.  I am an academic.  I research, I write and I teach.  I love teaching.  I have loved it since I began doing it, well over a decade ago.  I have always succeeded in fostering a lively environment, in which I focused much more on the process instead of the outcome.  Activities and assignments were difficult but quirky enough to appeal to most of the students, where their interests dictated the direction, pace, and often even the material of the course.  “Teaching,” though, has always meant “facilitating,” “inspiring,” “provoking.”  It has never meant “telling,” which is what my students increasingly seem to think it means.  In my early teaching days, I did not feel coercive.  I did not feel like I was pulling teeth.

Part of it is simply that I’m getting older (and my students are not).  The gap between us is widening.  They get my jokes less often and I have to ask them about pop culture references and new slang words more often.  I expected that part.

I did not expect their reaction when they grumbled about an assignment, and I naively said, “Really?  But it’s just like a puzzle!”

Almost in unison, at least fifteen of them raised their eyebrows and looked at me as if I were completely out of mind.

“Ah! You don’t see that it’s a puzzle…” I surmised.

“We see that it’s a puzzle.  Why would we want to do a puzzle?” one of them clarified.  The others nodded.

“Puzzles are fun!” I exclaimed.

They erupted in laughter.  Seriously, they thought it was a riot that I would say that puzzles were fun.  I was skeptical, and spent the next twenty minutes trying to hit upon puzzles that they in fact enjoyed.

I was unsuccessful.  Puzzles were not leisure.  They were tests in disguise.  They were sources of anxiety and tension, things that were used to sort the can-dos from the can’t-dos.  The point of all puzzles was to solve it correctly, and therefore, they could not be fun.

These are the children who were not “left behind.” They are adults now.  They have spent 12 years (or more) doing as they were told (or at least looking as if they were doing as they’re told).  What they were told to do, apparently, was pass tests by any means necessary, in subjects that meant little to them.  If they wrote papers, they did not see them as their creative products, but as another test.  Their papers were graded alongside rubrics; they either did what they needed to do, or they did not.  Many of them (have I mentioned, a heartbreaking number of them?) – are now completely uninvested in their own intellectual processes and products.  They resent me because they feel they “have” to be there, and I cannot understand why they are not excited to be there.  This, I absolutely did not expect.

My job, as I see it, is to help them to be excited to be there.  My job, as they see it, is to give them a good grade so that they can get out of this completely irrelevant class and get a job.

I teach sexy subjects, and I’m a charismatic, dynamic sort of speaker.  When I fail to ignite a spark class, I get radical.  I get desperate.  And I repeatedly make the same mistakes.  I ask them what books they want to read.  Most of them don’t care; reading is reading, they tell me.  “If you’re gonna make us read, it doesn’t matter what book.”

I give them the freedom to redesign the class; what do they like to do?  Would they prefer several shorter assignments, or longer ones?  Thirty sets of shoulders shrug.  I leave their paper topics open, so that they can write about what interests them, do something interesting with whatever they have gleaned from the material.  This drives them crazy.  Time after time, class after class, they glare at me and say the same thing:

“Just tell us what to do.”

Many – not all, but far, far too many – of my students are averse to intellectual freedom.  I did not expect them to resent me for empowering them in the classroom and in their own work.

Remember St. Elmo’s Fire (the movie, not the weather phenomenon)?  Mare Winningham worked in a social services office.  During one scene, a young mother (played by Kaaren Lee) brought her children to the office to pick up her welfare check.  Mare sat down with her and shared news about a new job opening that might be a good fit.

“Just gimme my check,” the woman muttered.

The always-well-intentioned Winningham tried again, pulling a piece of paper from a pile with another opportunity.

“Just gimme my check,” the woman said, a little louder.

Good ol’ Mare tried one last time.  When Kaaren Lee responded, the words were almost the same, but her tone captured a brilliant, poignant blend of exhaustion, desperation, hopelessness and rage.  Just gimme my damn check.

In 1985, of course, audience sympathies were with poor Mare, diligently trying to help a lazy, unmotivated welfare mother to a better situation.  But I heard in that line that the situation was simply insurmountable.  There was no way out, nothing was going to get any better, and why the hell couldn’t Mare Winningham see that and give her the money so she could go buy her fucking groceries?

I want so badly for my students to want to change their relationship to books, to writing, to thinking…to school.  Everything would be better for them if they did that.   They look like they simply don’t want to bother. But a handful of times each semester, Kaaren Lee’s voice echoes in my mind, and I hear that heartwrenching hopelessness… that aggressive and oppressive apathy.

Therein lies, for me, the tension between being an unschooler and being a professor in today’s world.  My pedagogy depends upon my students caring.  I am not an elementary school teacher or a secondary school teacher.  I would not want to teach in a setting that felt coercive to students.  I developed my expertise and my skills and my course syllabi out of the assumption that I would be teaching students who wanted to be there with me.  I believed that their presence in my classroom would be, at least a good deal of the time, an indicator of their interest.  I don’t know what to do with students who do not want to play with these topics and ideas, or travel through these readings or films, or create together, through talk or writing or art.

And so I am on a mission to figure out what to do in these apparently-increasingly-common situations, in which I am charged with “teaching” students who are there because they see no viable alternative.

Just gimme my damn degree.