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.

Reference

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

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Unschooling at Home and at Work, Part III: Strewing

I regret the delay, but it’s been an especially busy couple of weeks. The good news (sort of) is that I’m finding I really don’t like it when I can’t seem to find the time to blog.

So…apart from my deschooling efforts, what do I do in my classrooms, that I am, increasingly, coming to see as unschool-y? Here’s the next part of what appears to be turning – albeit verrrry slowly – into a series rather than merely a multi-part post.

Some years ago, when Monkey was quite young and I was first learning about unschooling, the (online) community was split on an issue called “strewing.” The term appears to have originated in a post by unschooling-guru Sandra Dodd, and while I admit that no longer follow the debates these days, it appears to be a much less controversial practice among unschoolers than it was a decade ago.

Strewing, sometimes called “littering the path,” is the practice of opening doors for kids…without shoving them through. I remember bitter online arguments over whether deciding to litter the path with particular books or toys or art supplies was fundamentally manipulative (and therefore coercive), and whether taking a child to the library on one’s own accord (rather than at the request of the child) really “qualified” as strewing.

I never had a problem with strewing, whatever the kind. I saw it as our role to open our kid’s world as much as we could – and yes, admittedly, this meant that we took initiatives in the directions that we valued – and then to follow her interests wherever they led. “Strewing” in our house generally takes the form of buying and borrowing lots of books, traveling and introducing her to an array of play, art and music possibilities. I have no problem whatsoever with handing Monkey something and saying, “Hey, I thought you might like this,” and if she never cracks it open, no worries.

Some folks call it strewing when they bring home projects or materials or books or movies and leaving them about. Some view their family travel as a form of strewing, or visits to museums or farms or browsing online. These days, it seems to me that placing anything that might spark the interest of a child in her path – literal or figurative – can be considered strewing. What most unschoolers likely agree on, though, is that pushing kids into particular activities or materials or conclusions is inconsistent with unschooling principles.

Therefore, until quite recently, I did not conceive of what I do in the classroom as anything remotely related to strewing. After all, I have assignments, which they must complete if they want credit in the courses. In most of my courses, out of sheer practical necessity, I choose their reading material, and then I go to great lengths to ensure that they read it. I do push them into particular activities and materials, if not conclusions. I have not been trying to strew. I have not even been thinking of strewing. My unschooling is one thing, and my professing another. I am the expert in the room, and I am simply trying to teach to the best of my ability.

And yet when I sat down to think about my pedagogy as a professor and my unschooling as a parent, I realized that the way I approach course reading is, in a strange way, really an awful lot like strewing.

I am always aware that when I teach two sections of the same course in a semester, they are vastly different from each other by the third week. Similarly, in terms of content, the same course is entirely different from one semester to the next. I understood the cause of this as the fact that my courses are “discussion-based,” and thus each class is different than the next. I get bored easily, I say to people who ask why all of my courses are a new “prep” every semester. This works for me.

But there is, it turns out, more to it than that. My approach to teaching is based firmly and heavily on reading. I want them to read closely, deeply, carefully and critically. I want them to read smart, well-written, interesting books and articles full of ideas, concepts and illustrations that are germane to the discipline. Beyond that, though, I really don’t care which books and articles they are.

This is because I view the material I assign as merely inspiration: sources of a spark… “litter” in their path. It is because I am fortunate enough that teaching my particular discipline is tantamount to teaching a way of viewing the world, a way of thinking, an approach to intellectual processes, and the tools with which to take that approach. I can teach it using almost anything.

In my fieldwork workshops and senior seminar, my typical approach is that students choose their own course reading lists. Because they lack the knowledge to do so, I make recommendations in their areas of interests along the way, and by the end of the semester, 15 students have all read different books and doing very different projects. Each time I listen to a student describe her work and excitedly blurt out, “Ooooh, you may want to check out (this book!),” I am strewing.

In lower-level courses, I usually choose a few books with which to begin, but I stay flexible on two levels: 1 – Whether we stay with those books and what we switch to, if not, and 2 – What we do with the material: what we talk about, where it takes us.

For example:

I often assign a primary text to begin, and then leave it open for the students to decide, based in the readings and discussions through the first third of the semester, what they would like to read, talk and think about for the last 2/3 of the semester. They tell me what they’d like to read and learn more about, and I find the materials and bring them into the classroom.

It occurs to me for the very first time as I write this that this is exactly how I approach the state-mandated documentation of what our homeschooling is going to look like for the year. True story from the last such exercise:

Me: Hey, Monkey, what do you want to think about or do this year?
Monkey: Gravity. And physics!!!
Me: Okay. Anything else?
Monkey: Yes. Video game music.
Me: Video game music??
Monkey: Yeah, like how they make the music that plays on video games.
Me: Ah…okay. Other interests?
Monkey: I want to learn more about dogs.
Me: Dogs, okay. Anything about dogs in particular?
Monkey: Different breeds and training dogs.
Me: Got it. What about history?
Monkey: Not really interested in history this year.
Me: Okay. Art?
Monkey: Maybe sculpting.
Me: Math?
Monkey: I like fractions.

And thus I spend far too many hours on Amazon, designing what the state considers her “curriculum.” When I’ve found books and toys and activities on the topics in which she’s interested, I list them for the state. She gives me a general sense of her interest and I strew related things about the house. They become holiday gifts and the objective of library runs and this is how we do it. Science: Physics and Biology (um, you know…dogs)! Art: Music and sculpture. Literature: Any of the zillions of fiction books she reads or I just decide to offer. Math: Fractions. Social Studies: All of our travel, and whatever else has come up in the course of my research; art leads to Renaissance life, and an interest in dogs leads to a book about how particular breeds emerged in particular times and places.

Sometimes – as was the case with “video game music” this year and “buildings” last year – Monkey is no longer interested by the time these things come to fruition, or perhaps she never really was and it just sounded good to her at the time. This is fine. They sit on the shelf or in the attic and wait for her. Maybe she’ll be interested again someday. Maybe she won’t.

This flexibility, I am now noticing, is integral to my course design as well. It is not unusual for me to change the entire content of the course based on student interests. (Yes, yes, my syllabus says this):

“In the interest of a productive and dynamic learning experience for as many students as possible, required texts are subject to change, and/or additional texts may be added, according to the needs and interests expressed by the students in class. Changes will not be made without class discussion first.”

And because I am focused on the process rather than the content, I can change the pace of the course to follow student interests also:

“Our reading schedule will change based on student interest. This means that you should obtain the contact information of classmates now, in case you miss class, to ensure that you are writing your collaboration paper on the relevant reading.”

This means that we can, in most cases, just drop readings in which there is just no interest and spend more time on things that do interest them.

The challenge, as any unschooling parent with a child who is not academically inclined can tell you, is getting them to be interested (or being okay with them not being interested). Monkey always wants to read about something, learn about something, do something. That makes it easy at home. Work is another story.

In the first place, people are just different. In the second place, nearly of my students are products of our current public school system, and what curiosity and imagination and interest they once had has, in many cases, been droned and roted and gold-starred and graded and right/wronged clear out of them. My goal is to follow their interests – but as a staggering number of them claim not to have interest (sad, sad stories on that in another post), this can be rather difficult.

My most recent attempt to deal with this has been to require, explicitly, that they find a way to make themselves interested in something. Anything.

“Each month, you will complete a written assignment on the readings and discussions thus far. I will not give you a question to answer, nor a required length. The goal is to be creative, in your representation and in your content, and to own your intellectual involvement and process. Your work in the course will culminate in a senior project. This is to be a project in which you have invested intellectual energy and time, and of which you are proud. The mode of representation is entirely up to you. It may be a performance, a short story, a painting, a research paper, or nearly anything else. Do not do something that does not interest you. Do not do something that you hate doing. You will not be given any guidelines.”

Or:

“This course is a collaborative effort among all of us. In my view, it is my job to inspire and facilitate learning, rather than to provide you with information. If your preferred mode of classwork is to sit and say nothing, this course will require you to stretch beyond your comfort zone. To a significant extent, the course is what you make of it.”

This semester, in what is turning out to be the very best course of my career thus far, I’ve stumbled upon more effective ways to describe how to write “collaboration papers:” Don’t. Just don’t. Give them only one rule, said many different ways:End up somewhere different than where you started. It shouldn’t end up on the same topic as the reading. It doesn’t need to end up on the same topic as the course. Go somewhere. Go anywhere. Make connections.

And while you’re working on that… read this. Try this one. No? Okay. What do you want to read? Do you like this? How about this one? I say to them: you just think, about pretty much anything you want. And you will get better and better at it. Don’t mind me; I’m just strewing.

“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.
 
 
 
 

REFERENCES

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

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.

 

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:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iG9CE55wbtY&feature=player_embedded#!

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.

Introduction

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.