I remember the epiphany well—the look in their faces, a mix of ennui, exhaustion. Exasperation. That class of seniors, the first time I had taught that level in six years, when I was student teaching, staring back at me, beat. We had read through Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Macbeth. I dutifully doled out worksheets, carefully crafted questions to help them understand these ancient texts. I quizzed them, tested them, to ensure they remembered what was important to remember: diction, tone, theme—those universal truths that have stood true for hundreds, thousands! of years.
I don’t remember who said it, or what piece of classwork or homework the student was referring to, but their question matched their bleary-eyed look, and it woke me up.
“Can you just tell me what to do to get an A on this?”
At the semester I shook things up. I dismantled the rows of desks and gathered them into groups. I gave them a reading schedule for our next novel, 1984, along with the standards, and a blank calendar that lasted through the reading dates. Their charge? Show me what you know about 1984 over the next four weeks.
In their groups they had to prepare for discussion days by coming up with two kinds of questions: questions to help them understand the novel and questions to move a class discussion forward. We discussed the novel two or three days a week—on the other days they had to plan and carry out self-generated projects that demonstrated proficiency of self-selected standards. I told them they could use any activity they’d used in the past 12 years to help them learn, or they could create their own.
A handful of students launched into the novel with giddy abandon—thrilled at the chance to do school their way. Most fell back on education’s tropes, tried and true: quizzes, tests, worksheets, essays. A few others struggled to guide themselves through the novel.
Then a third of the way through 1984 a student came up to me and said, “You’re not even teaching us anything.”
This particular jab was especially jarring since it fell from the lips of a student in my video broadcast class, a class in which students are active participants and leaders in the structure and day-to-day flow of the course. I had assumed this student was accustomed to a more collaborative, do-it-yourself learning environment. I was wrong.
Twelve years of public education had shaped most of these students into baby birds, little seagulls, taught to sit cozy in their nests until mama or papa seagull come sailing in to regurgitate their meals, their knowledge, into the youngsters’ gullets. In “The Student and Society” Jerry Farber accuses the educational system of creating “authority addicts.”
I knew I had to keep doing something different. The status quo wasn’t preparing students for much more than taking class-based multiple choice, or standardized tests. And for all the talk of gearing students up for college AND a career such tests weren’t going to cut it.
One of my first pedagogical shifts was to give my students permission, permission to question the whys and hows of their education. If we’re gonna saddle them with tens of thousands of dollars (more!) of student debt, they should know why they’re sitting in our classrooms waiting to be netted up by all those big, fancy colleges they dream of attending. So before my students open up The Catcher in the Rye, I lead them through a question brainstorming session in which they crank out a list of questions based on this statement: school is the best place to learn. They pare down their list of questions to just a couple and then explore that question as they read Salinger, Prose, Emerson, Baldwin.
The next shift was to axe cumulative finals. Instead, students write, and publish to the web, reflections on what they learned and thought during the semester. In their reflections I hope students discover what Claes Oldenburg calls a “kernel of infinite expansion.” I read about this idea in Geoffrey Sirc’s English Composition as a Happening in which he suggests we teach “writing as growing, changing, maybe even culturally transforming” (166).
Sirc’s book, a 300-page riff on Charles Deemer’s 1967 essay of the same name, supercharged my classroom practice. In the chapter titled “The American Action Writers,” Sirc argues Jackson Pollock “became a real compositionist only when he began to follow his heart: discovering he had a vision and voice worth sharing.”
Then Sirc asks this question: “Are our students searching for a way to make the world see the world their way, or, rather, do we insist they be made to show the world the way we think it’s supposed to be seen?”
I want to see the world their way. I want to teach my students to write like Joan Didion who calls writing “the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind.” I hope you will, like I do, listen to these student statements that follow, pulled from their year-end reflections, and change your mind in some small way. Listen. They’re just minor thoughts…