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. 

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.