Constants & variables

I blogged at the beginning of the year about what changes the year might have in store for us, and what might stay the same. Already the year begins to reveal its secrets! On the side of constancy, it looks like we will be staying in the East Bay for awhile: Justin was just accepted into the PhD program at Berkeley. Some of you might be saying, "But of course he would be accepted," but it's a pretty competitive process and he wasn't feeling all that sure of his chances. So, he's happy to have been selected and I'm excited for him. The constant of location will be balanced with the variables of learning and doing new things.

I've pretty well decided I won't be part of the independent studies program next year; actually all four of us teachers feel that it shouldn't exist as it is, so it probably won't next year. I don't know what I'll do. I'm thinking of doing something part time. I'm thinking of doing something besides formal teaching. I'm thinking of how I could teach in a completely new way, outside of the strictures of the public school system, while still serving the kids who need my help the most.


What I Like About Teaching
--getting to know people
--engaging with people in discussions of ideas, experience and feelings
--seeing people get excited about new ideas or having acquired a new skill or finally mastered something they'd been struggling with
--helping someone learn something new or understand something better or see something in a new way (that is, I like being a witness to learn just as much as I like being a facilitator of it)

What I Don't Like About Teaching
--assigning grades (to assignments or to people for the grading period)
--assessing people's work, especially work that has been done with little mind toward quality
--wrangling with, badgering, cajoling, or otherwise trying to coerce people into really putting their best effort into something
--being expected to get people to do things they don't want to do
--helping people keep track of what they've done and what they haven't done (and having to keep track of that myself--it's not that it's difficult, it's just that I don't like doing it)
--designing classes/curriculum that meet the impossibly broad and inconsistent range of standards that are now dictating be the State of California (actually, being told to design classes/curriculum based on anything other than student interest)

My Fantasy School: The School For People Who Want to Learn

You see that I don't have particular topics that I love to teach. I could get interested in teaching anything if I had students who wanted to know about that subject. So...what I really want is students who are interested in learning for the sake of knowing.

Who can attend my school? Anyone able to articulate what it is they want to learn (that means a 5-year-old could say, "I want to learn about how come the sun goes down and comes up again" or a 60-year-old could say, "I want a refresher on fractions; I never really understood them.")

Here's how it would work: a person or group of people request a subject. If I can teach it, I set a day and time. I need to get let's say $20 per hour of classroom time (I know I'll need to spend some amount of time outside of class preparing, but I am willing to work for cheap because I would really enjoy my job and because I don't want to just teach rich people; I believe people should be able to afford to learn.) If there’s one student, that person pays $20/hour; if there are 20 students each pays only $1. So someone who wants to learn a certain thing might like to round up other people to bring the cost down, or they might want more of a tutorial and be willing to pay more. Many yoga, dance, and music classes work like this, I think.

Class consists of discussion, lecture or problem sets, whatever is appropriate for the topic. Class materials, if necessary, would need to be paid for by students, but I'd be willing to try most topics without handouts or outside readings. Students could decide if they want it to be a class based on outside readings or not. If students want to do homework, that’s their choice. If they want me to look over and comment on their written work, that’s an extra fee. Students would have to make a special request to have their work evaluated, and I might or might not choose to accept it. The work needs to be easy to look at and the person needs to be interested in my feedback. Classes continue as long as there is sufficient interest in the topic.

I would be willing to spend up to 20 hours/week in the classroom. (The “classroom” could be any space—a private home, a public library, a park in good weather. I might want to have a portable easel with white board and/or flipchart pad.) That could be 20 different classes or one intensive class. If others were interested in offering classes, they could post them (somewhere) and see if there is interest. Anyone can teach at my school, and anyone can be a student. There would be practically no infrastructure, as we wouldn’t be accountable to anyone but each other. If you can’t pay, you will have to find a way or not do the class. If someone really wants others to be able to take a class, they can write a grant or find some outside funding, but I would have nothing to do with it. I don’t want to keep track of who’s there, how often they come, etc. I’d rather not have to keep track of who has paid either, but I think I’d have to. I’d come up with a very simple system. My job would only be to facilitate learning.

What's Your Fantasy Learning Environment?

Fantasy School

The final project for one of my classes was to design a school. The school could be any place where any people learn anything. I told them they don't have to worry about where the money would come from either. I gave them a number of questions to answer about their school. They presented their ideas today and the results were pretty interesting.

Five of the six students who had it finished (in time for class) still chose to invent an academic school, or at least schools that had academic subjects available. (The sixth school was a gaming school--as in computer games--which also offered PE as an option). One school featured a helicopter landing pad on top and a waterslide down the outside of the building. All of the schools had multiple playing fields (something lacking from our school and many other urban schools.) Several schools required uniforms and most had some kind of interview and/or essay as an entrance requirement. (This surprised me a little.) One school offered to pay students who attend, but they would have to attend at least 3 days per week to get paid. (To that, another student said, "I'm comin 5 days a week if I'm gettin paid!")

Two schools offered dormitories. One of those was an all-boys football school (there'd be a girls' school next door). The other would have no teachers and would be entirely based on peer-teaching. Two of the schools require students to have some goal or dream of their future, upon which their education would be based (that is, they'd take the classes that were appropriate to their chosen career).

Another part of the project involved students choosing authors we'd read during the class and saying why those authors would or wouldn't like to attend their school. Most of the imaginary schools had libraries full of books that their inventors said would please the authors who had written about their love of reading. (Our school doesn't have a library, although the public library isn't too far away.)

Overall, it was a successful assignment in that it engaged students in reflecting on the learning process and writing a bit more than they had for other assignments. They were all quite interested in hearing about each other's ideas (something they don't get to do a lot of in independent study, unfortunately).

Tomorrow, we're all going to see the movie Freedom Writers. It was a student's request and I asked our executive director for the money, which she agreed to. I have 13 or 14 students signed up, plus another teacher is bring about 20 students from the YAYI (Youth Against Youth-Incarceration) group. We're going to meet at the school, walk to the busstop, ride up to Berkeley and see it up there. I am looking forward to seeing it with them and hearing what they think afterwards.

Anyone want to share their fantasy school?