As many faculty are focusing more intently on our syllabi for the fall--after mulling them over all summer--many people are trying to figure out what to have students DO. Should they write term papers? Five-paragraph essays? Compare and contrast pieces? [The answer is NO.]
There are lots of exciting ways students can engage actively with their learning, both to further their understanding and to convey that understanding. (Writing is for thinking, ideally, not just for following a safe recipe.)
The key is to figure out what the ultimate goals are--really going back to fundamentals--and then start from there.
If students are supposed to draw connections between the course material and the rest of the world, then allowing them freedom to explore is appropriate.
If students should master a particular, real genre, not necessarily a "school genre," then having them understand the conventions of that genre is helpful.
If students are supposed to become expert in a spinoff topic, then giving them free rein is appropriate.
If students are to become lifelong writers who have options about how to best convey their message to particular audiences, then having them figure out what's appropriate in diverse moments prepares them to think it through.
If students are supposed to achieve perfection in academic-style writing, following every arbitrary (it seems that way to students, believe me; I've asked) instruction, then it is asking for corner-cutting, imitation, going through the motions, and dread.
There are lots of colleagues all over the place engaging in, well, engaging assignments. Some fall under the general container of "unessay" (here and here).
Here is a list of what my own students have produced, just in the last year:
Nobody could argue that the authors and creators weren't learning, or that they were not putting in effort.
Some of the work was brilliant, inspired, amazing! Some was a first, brave, risky effort at trying a new format, genre. A football player wrote his first poem since middle school. A doula created a series of paintings depicting different food prohibitions during pregnancy, having interviewed people of different ages and from different countries. A student made a mosaic; another made a cartoon of the ways personhood remains the same and changes over the lifespan. Someone created a food-waste brochure. One student wrote a letter to his younger self. I welcomed this experimentation. I learned a lot, and ENJOYED, what my students were doing. They did too.
Learning, writing, doing don't have to be painful drudgery to be worthwhile.
Comment below with your own ideas, if you like!
Living and Learning with Risk: Against Rubrics and Grades. How "Ungrading" Allowed My Students to Try Some New Things
I gave my students freedom to write (present) what they learned however they wanted. They were terrified; how could they get an A without a rubric??--and then they reveled in it. We took risks together, and learned together.
Parents of college students: When you see your kids at Thanksgiving, don’t ask them how they are doing (in terms of grades). Ask them what they’ve learned. Ask what they have enjoyed. Ask what is magical, transformative, even useful.
And students: Don’t play for praise. Don’t learn for me.
Sink in, really be there, and forget about your teachers. Forget about me.
Play, learn, climb the log for yourself.
Gym class is good for you. Vegetables are good for you (and me). It's prudent to know how to avoid credit card fraud. Everyone should know about climate change. We live in a diverse world so we need to learn about cultural diversity. But 1) random disconnected bits of knowledge do not make a person live a meaningful life and 2) when we force students to do something, even when it is good for them, they often try to avoid it or use the minimal energy possible.
t’s spring in the Midwest, and I’ve been walking in my neighborhood. Mid-May is the season of flowering trees, the return of loud yard equipment, and the end of the school year, either post-graduation for college or just short of the end for K-12 schools. And, as always, I find parallels between how our society regards nature and how we regard children.
In both, I see strange mistakes made in the last century. They have to do with confusions between ends and means, and with disregard of obvious ill effects, and with non-attainment of goals except by violence.
I want to compare lawns and a fixation on degrees and credentials.
Here’s some advice:
If the goal in a residential yard is a perfect green mat with no flaws, then put down a carpet instead of a lawn. You can skip the pesticides, herbicides, runoff, bee-destruction, water waste, labor, and noise pollution.
If the goal for schooling is a credential and a degree, then offer the degree for a fixed amount of money. You can skip the cramming, textbooks, cheating, anxiety, and labor.
If the goal is college admission for the poor, then offer a lottery. You can skip the application process, the unfortunate high student-advisor ratio, the sense of low self-esteem, the suspicion about affirmative action.
If the goal is college admission for the affluent, then offer a lottery. You can skip the college admission counselors, the test prep, the summer service abroad, the Adderall, the ghost writers, the false self pretending to like resume-padding activities, the adult puppeteers in science fairs beginning in elementary school, the system-gaming with early action, the applications to twenty colleges.
If the goal is good jobs for all….then make that happen. School won’t—hasn’t—done that.
We are pretty confused as a society between ends and processes.
We have images of peaceful landscapes where harmony soothes the spirit.
We have images of restful suburban lawns emulating British aristocratic manors and estates.
We have images of docile, productive, knowledgeable children—a sort-of noble goal. We have aspirations of educated, reflective citizens.
We have a need for effective workers.
We like the idea of both equality and equity, equal opportunity and equal outcomes.
We have ideals of equality, merit, and humaneness.
But we aren’t getting what we want. We are often getting ersatz versions of what we want (with exceptions), along with a lot of serious side-effects.
In lawns and education, a rethinking is in order.
Personally, I’d willingly take a few weeds, or a lot of weeds--bees love dandelions in the early spring, when there are few other sources of energy—over the destruction of the Gulf of Mexico.
I’d take a few students daydreaming and being inefficient over drugged, depressed, competitive zombies.