Um, Permission to Rebel?

“With organic systems, if conditions are right, life is inevitable.”

Equal parts comedian and educationalist, Sir Ken Robinson’s talk, “How to Escape Education’s Death Valley,” has a serious—though, too, seriously optimistic—message: We’re all humans. We’re all organic. We, in the United States, are not setting up our students to learn. There’s a solution to make our system better.

As humans, we’re born to be curious by nature; and such innate curiosity is what makes humans so advanced, as curiosity is, in Robinson’s words, “the engine of achievement.” Likewise, however, it’s also been an “achievement” of the U.S. to “stifle that ability” to be curious at all. Many of our (mine, included) posts these past couple of weeks have touched on students’ (and our) desire to check the boxes in school. It’s what we’re taught to do, in fact, regardless of the reality that the desire to mechanically move from task to task is not what we’re drawn to do; it’s what we’re compelled to do; it’s a method of self-protection.

This rings true already in these first few weeks of me teaching the new incoming class of freshmen. Have my students come to me—in-person or over email—to discuss the assigned readings, to collaborate on exploring one of their writing assignments, to consider alternatives to their approaches? Nah. But how many questions have I received along the lines of Will we have a final exam or How many pages does this paper need to be or Will you ever quiz us or Could I receive extra credit this semester if I __ or Will we be downgraded if the MLA isn’t perfect?

As an educator, passionate about the content I’m teaching, when asked these questions—especially when asked in the middle of a lesson—I’m thrown off, I squint my eyes, I study the context, I self-question, I…I’m like…what?

Okay, okay. I can’t fault my students. I, too, am a recovering perfectionist and can strongly empathize with students’ fear over missing a detail. I’ve had teachers who’ve downgraded me for not adjusting my page-number font to Times New Roman and who’ve threatened to not accept a paper if it were a minute late. Those are misinformed, troubling and dangerous methods of “teaching.” Who are those practices helping?

In his talk, Robinson credits the No Child Left Behind Act for being part of the problem in teachers’ and students’ conforming approach to education. How, after all, are teachers and students going to teach and learn creatively when existing within a system of conformity that calls for standardized testing, for narrowing the focus on STEM disciplines rather than teach them in conjunction with a broad curriculum that includes and fosters talents in arts, humanities and physical education as well? How can we foster curiosity when teachers are not supported to teach creatively? When our system is set up for the antithesis of individualized teaching and learning? When we’re not attributing a high status to the teaching profession? When we’re giving the power to call the shots to legislators without any education in the field of education?

Again, to feed curiosity, we must teach creatively, and in order to teach creatively, we must support our teachers. After all, as Robinson says, teachers are “the lifeblood of the success of schools.” But, as we know, teachers don’t receive the treatment they’re due.

What especially troubles me now as a GTA and student is to see this system play out at the college level. Growing up with my father as a middle-school teacher who received low pay, who had to purchase his own supplies for his classroom, who brought breakfast to feed his kids (many of whom were below the poverty line and, likewise, not being properly supported), who protested in the state capitol when our governor (who does not even have a bachelor’s degree, himself, and who later felt empowered enough to attempt to run for president) decided to gut (and succeeded in gutting) teachers’ unions in Wisconsin, I was raised with the expectation that our public school teachers would continue to be treated like dirt (because, apparently, they can be), and assumed that helpless children would continue to be subject to the repercussions of the government’s mistreatment of teachers.

College educators, though…their conditions couldn’t be the same. We’re in places of higher education. Campuses saturated with knowledge and respect for those that promote it.  

Nope. Look at the number of GTAs who are thrown into teaching without being given any support beforehand. Look at the GTAs, like me, with 2-2 teaching loads, entire responsibility of classes’ syllabi constructions, of creating daily calendars, of giving daily class instruction, of grading, of corresponding with and supporting students…and, oh, who also have to take a full load of classes and publish and write theses and dissertations.

I am part of the norm. And while, comparatively, I should be grateful for my stipend that lets me cautiously live, I should also point out that this treatment—for me, for any GTA, for any teacher at any level—does not encourage best teaching practices. Quite the opposite. It’s burnout.

I can’t help but connect Robinson’s talk to Ellen J Langer’s The Power of Mindful Learning in which she discusses our culture of “mindlessness”—of entrapment in old categories. That’s what’s happening in education, no? In our treatment of educators? Of students? Our education system as of now is one that does not encourage alternatives, that does not open itself to continuous creation of new categories, openness to new information, and implicit awareness of more than one perspective. In a world marked by doubt and difference, why are we not teaching in a conditional, context-dependent way that values uncertainty? Or, the better way to ask this, as Langer teaches, is to ask: How can we teach in a conditional, context-dependent way that values uncertainty?

“Mindless learning,” Langer states, “ensures mediocrity.” Instead of keeping to this system, we must rebel against education myths that currently rule our system, that “undermine our true learning…stifle our creativity, silence our questions, and diminish our self-esteem.”

I’m standing by my will to teach my students the art of rebellion.

A student of mine said to me last week that, even though the author we were reading used four exclamation marks for one sentence, she, of course, couldn’t do the same in her own writing for class. In response, I asked, “Why not?” to which she responded nonverbally, cocking her head in a BUT GRAMMAR RULES! look of confusion. “Keep playing with your piece,” I said. “I can be convinced that four exclamation marks can be appropriate sometimes.”

I’m sticking by my message. I won’t standardize my students, just like I won’t passively allow for keeping our system of education—at all levels of learning—at its current state.

We. Are. Not. Robots.

Last Monday, I found myself telling my students what I wish I never had to tell them at all: “I’m talking at you for almost an entire class period right now. Shout at me if you have questions. Here’s my administrative hoo-ha. Fifty-minute marathon. I’ll never do this to you ever again.”

Each syllabus day, I always later reflect on the fact that I need to make that class more engaging. My conflict is this: I hate talking at my students, so there’s the option of telling them to read the syllabus, themselves. However, I also hate when my professors leave the class structure up for interpretation, assume their own clarity, and get going because, as I’m sure we’ve all heard from a professor or twenty, “We have so much to cover.”

Like, yeah, what makes your class so unique? Does each subject not have an infinite amount of information to relay? If a teacher doesn’t think so, they should reconsider.

The need to reconsider course structure—to reevaluate the information-transfer approach that supposedly solves, but, just kidding, actually torches the so-much-to-cover problem—is what connects this week’s readings. An example is Mark C. Carnes’s “Setting Students’ Minds on Fire,” in which he emphasizes the need for students to become more actively involved in their own education. It’s not simply financial burden, Carnes says, that causes students to drop out (although, of course, that’s not a problem to dismiss, either), but it’s the lack of motivation and interest students have. Even Barack Obama, Carnes quotes, said that, while in college, he too felt he was just going “through the motions.”

The strongest gains in pedagogies, Carnes (and, quite ubiquitously, all the other related readings for this week) says, are found in those that feature teamwork and problem-solving. The examples found in Douglas Thomas’s and John Seely Brown’s A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change echo this assertion. “Play, questioning, and—perhaps most important—imagination,” they write, “lie at the very heart of arc-of-life learning.” 

Through each of the presented stories, Thomas and Seely Brown support the message that schools need a combination of exchanges between massive information networks as well as bounded and structured environments; or, in other words, they support the idea that we need to bridge the gap between the large information-based world and the “intensely personal,” structured one. This, they write, is how imagination is cultivated, and it’s imagination that will drive students to create something new and meaningful.

I wonder how our world could look if every student could have learning experiences like those from the “Digital Media New Learners of the 21st Century”—how we all would benefit from the same kind of academic stimulation. Creative teaching incites creative thinking, which, of course, incites creative, new ideas. Why are we still running with the concept that we suddenly become adults who love being lectured at? 

The kids (particularly the one calling himself the “daydreamer”) in the aforementioned video reminded me so much of my seven-year-old nephew—how excited he is about building new mini race-cars, about learning to draw a new Pokemon character, about asking questions, in general. And while I certainly wonder about and hope for his future education being stimulating, I wonder about and hope for the same of all ages of students. When is it that we have the desire to learn sucked from us? Why must we be drained of that thrill? What can we learn from the teachers doing creative work with these elementary-aged students, and how can we apply that to adults?  

Life Beyond the Classroom

As a person who wishes to continue teaching as a vocation—who, too, sees teaching as her calling—I hope to never lose perspective of what it is to be a student. And, if I feel that sense slipping, I hope I’ll have the self-awareness to know it’s time to go back and better empathize with my students.

I’m saying this because, as a composition teacher and creative writing graduate student here, I’m constantly empathizing with my students; we have a lot to juggle. As I sit writing this, I do so with the anxiety that I’m doing so with only so much time until it’s due, that I have to do work for three other classes I’m taking, that I need to grade and prepare for the two classes I’m teaching, that I need to write for my freelance position, that I need to work on my applications for future advancement opportunities, that I need to block out time to work on my thesis.

Notice how, in my rant, I unintentionally write I “have” to do this, I “need” to do that. As it seems, my perception of my work—of learning, in general—is currently one that’s being done not out of joy, but out of obligation. Not, as Gardner Cambell calls for, out of the “adventure” it should be viewed to be. Instead, in writing even this post, I’m wondering how to keep my head above water as a student who’s dealing with the “management structures,” the “mechanics of ‘student success.’”

Dr. Michael Wesch’s talk followed me throughout last week; I, too, kept discussing and wondering about the same questions he says all his students want answered, particularly “Who am I?” and “Am I going to make it?”

To be sure, my students ask these same questions to themselves, which is why I’m trying constantly to get my students to understand their purpose and worth on this campus, and to see those same qualities in themselves beyond the traditional learning environment. In class, I ask them what they want out of their lives. Then I ask them again—what do you really want? I ask them what they wish they’d learned, but never had. I ask them what they want from me. I ask them how they best learn. I ask them how they think they can accomplish their goals. And, while listening and responding to my students’ responses, I push them to at least consider the best practices, learning styles, and ideas beyond those with which they’re entering in college; likewise, I push them to, at best, consider themselves beyond the college environment. That’s what we’re preparing them for, no?

What happens to curiosity when we lose the will to be curious at all? How can we relieve the pressure from students? How can we prove to the world that this is necessary—that helping students discover the joy, the complexity, and the practicality in studying will lead to the most effective real-world problem-solving?