Dream Syllabus…

cat dream

Angela Skinner Orr published this on Medium. The blurb stated this was her syllabus she wanted to give before she quit teaching. I have not, nor plan to, quit teaching anytime soon.

If you don’t want to do it, don’t. Don’t waste your time or mine by coming to class if you don’t want to be here. My time is valuable and so is yours. I am not more important than you; we are equals. That said, I have time and I have knowledge. If you want access to either, you’ll have to give up something to get them: you’ll have to give up your apathy. You will have to stop not caring about how you’re wasting your time and money. Get engaged in your learning or get out.

Hack your education. Unless you plan to be a surgeon or some other, carefully-vetted specialist, you don’t absolutely need college. If you can find a debt-free way to learn what you need to know, do it. The statistical probability is that your education will leave you with too much debt for your income and not enough skills to be an attractive candidate for employment in your field. It is highly likely you will look back, ten years from now, and wonder why you chose your current course of studies because you’re doing something completely different than you ever thought you’d do. So I highly encourage you to hack your education. You’re a lot more likely to gain the skills employers are looking for by going outside of academia. (What kinds of skills are employers looking for? See “Skills To Develop A Learning Mindset,” for a start.)

Use your iPhone in class. There is a world full of digital knowledge at your fingertips; use it. Anyone can look up how far Earth is from the sun or what a carbon cycle diagram looks like. Don’t ask a question you can Google. You may use devices in class (laptops, tablets, smart phones, etc.), but know that if you’re reblogging cat pics on Tumblr during a group session, you’re not going to do well. (Try that during a work meeting and you may be fired from your job.) You will also need other kinds of help and mentoring to get you where you want to go. Knowing what to do with your knowledge, how to apply it, share it, or use it to your advantage — those skills are harder to learn and ten times more valuable. This is where I, and others like me, come in handy.

I have no idea what you’ll learn. That is up to you. I can teach until I’m blue in the face, but if you don’t want to learn what I’m trying to get you to know, you won’t. How will you learn new things when you leave college? Start figuring that out now. If you can’t change with the times, the times will move on without you.

You will fail. (Please, please fail.) Take risks. You will learn more from your failures than you will from your triumphs. Make it a positive experience and you will come out stronger for it. I’m not talking about failing because you didn’t try — that’s laziness, or maybe even a fear of success. I’m talking about trying something new and falling flat on your face. Even if you worked hard (or were lucky) and only a stubbed toe, keep moving — and watch your step, next time.

Make something. The world is full of people who talk a good game. Put what you know to work for you and make something tangible: a research paper, a blog, a video, a work of art, an app, a piece of original code, a presentation, a song. Anything. Before he died, Steve Jobs said, “It’s not all about you and your damn passion. You need to get out there and make a dent in the universe.” Do that.

Travel. Find a way to save up, crowd fund, couch surf, whatever it takes to get you away from home for a while. It will change you. I promise. If you want to start traveling during this semester, go for it. Give yourself an “A” on the way out.

Give back. Think hard about how you fit into the world. Make a lasting impact, even if it’s a small one. Share whatever knowledge you gain. Share your time, your money, your strength, whatever you have. Be an active, responsible citizen. Be kind. The world needs more kindness.

There are no exams. Charles S. Maier, Saltonstall Professor of History at Harvard said, “Life is open book; it’s not closed book.” You will have to show what you can do with what you know. Did you learn something? Prove it. No one will give you a multiple choice test outside of school. (I take that back. Google might.)

Grade yourself. In the work world, you will often have to justify your usefulness to a company, save your job from budget cuts, or explain why you deserve a promotion. I am required to enter a grade for you at the end of the semester; you will tell me what grade you deserve and why. (Want an instant “A”? See “Travel,” above.) How would you grade yourself in Life? Hmm.

Document, document, document. Show the world what you have done, what you can do. Create a trail for others to follow. Set up a digital portfolio and keep adding to it. Try Degreed.com, for a start.

Start now. Do. Or do not. There is no try.” — Yoda

Her content mirrors much of my own beliefs, and it further contrasts how far off the path we’ve gone. We know what works, we know how to engage students (because the best teachers understand themselves), and recognize everyone is engaged in a variety of ways. However, and this is a BIG however: at the root of the conflict and strife between teachers and their supervisors (including politicians, parents, and administration) is that compliance is being confused with engagement.

This is very dangerous.

The Science (and Practice) of Creativity by Diane Cadiergue  breaks down a taxonomy is a new way, the first step being Memorization. Recently I spoke with a colleague about the role of content in her curriculum area, and how we all feel like failures because we don’t cover nearly enough content, nor do we always have the energy to invent new and entertaining ways to present content, have students take ownership, be thoroughly engaged (see compliance v. engagement), and moreover, RETAIN knowledge. Every year, the teacher/educator in the next grade will shake their heads and wonder what the teacher in the year before actually taught. Even now, those who have been in my classroom a few times assume I’m “not teaching reading,” or assuming I’m not doing anything at all I think. My compliance isn’t noted, or something, I suppose. A quiet moment at my desk while two students are talking about a project is seen as me not doing my job. It’s lead to me wondering just what is my job exactly, and how do I continue to have both confidence and reflection work together to increase students’ knowledge and skills. I have been vocal about how none of us can swim ‘in the deep end of the pool all the time.’ It’s exhausting, and metaphorically, if you want to kill the joy of swimming, then fine, make kids be “deeeeeep thinkers” all the time. Like any trope, overused leads to diminishing returns.

This is not to say that compliance doesn’t play an important role. Just being in a frame of mind where we can receive information helps foster deeper thinking, but it isn’t everything. For example, the other day I was doing a very rigorous lesson on thesis development, evaluation, analysis and synthesis. A bit too much for a warm Friday afternoon in sixth period, methinks. One girl, who wants to do well, has a big, beautiful personality, put her head down on her desk. To the outside observer, she was disengaged. She was. And I don’t blame her. That day was not her day for this particular idea. But that’s where the art of teaching enters: I made a note of it, and will follow up with her during small conferences time to get her caught up. That’s why I post lessons, Smartnotebook files, etc. on e-learning, our district’s on line tool. If it’s important to know, it’s important to re-teach and re-introduce. And, say for example I’m in a bad mood, things aren’t going my way, and then someone surprises me and says something unexpected, and pleasant. I’ve gone from non-compliance to compliance, and moreover engagement, in a flash. (I’m thinking when someone offers to run to the store from some Americone Dream…)

Now one key thing I admit is an issue, is:

Passive Compliance – student is willing to expend whatever effort is necessary to avoid negative consequences, even though student sees little meaning or value in the task (Schlechty, 2001).

So many students are just tired, bored, and cheated out of basic knowledge, so when they come to middle school are fatigued from feeling so lost.

I have turned every every rock I see to try to get students engaged and take ownership, and I still feel like a failure. I have them think of what’s important to them, drawn them out as best I can, and offer multiple pathways to thinking, multiple readings, multiple styles and prompts. And still I get “I’m confused,” or worse, shrugs of disinterest. Granted, these are things that are NOT important to me necessarily, so I just don’t get it. Perhaps I’m trying to hard, perhaps students sometimes want the clear, steady beat of a fill-in-the-blank.

Rhetoric and jargon are not the answers.

But what is? What would be on your dream syllabus?