I got this note from a former student—I gotta say, one of my favorite former students—who said he had planned on writing this as a response to a recent post about the proper role of the classroom teacher.
This reminds me of an assignment for a class I took my senior year of high school. The class was an elective called Literature and Philosophy that 30 or so seniors had chosen to take instead of AP Western Literature. The registration guide said we would examine the fundamental assumptions driving our culture in an attempt to find an answer to the question: What do people want? This sounded loads more interesting than another year of literary critique and production of sample writing to demonstrate whatever style or technique was the focus that week.
After a year of reading everything from modern short stories and news articles to indigenous creation myths we got to the time of year when acceptance letters come in, the sun comes out, and a highly communicable condition called senioritis starts spreading around. It was then, seven years ago give or take a week, that our teacher informed the class that we had all successfully completed 75% of the graded coursework and that he was very pleased with the learning in our class thus far. He said that he realized many of us had already been accepted to college and had other things to think about than the grade we would receive on our final paper in the class. He told us that anyone who chose not to complete the final assignment would receive a passing grade of C as we had all gotten much out of the course already. He then gave us our final assignment, to write a 5-page paper, properly sourced, answering the following question: What is the point?
I was struck by the simplicity of the question and the complexity of the answer. Later that day I jokingly contemplated with a friend what would happen if we turned in, “Answer: There is no point,” with each word on a separate page. In the midst of attending school board meetings and writing letters to the district superintendent to preserve funding for our outdoor education program, coordinating the biology lessons for an overnight desert ecology trip to Eastern Washington for a bunch of freshmen, and all the usual things that high school seniors think about during their final month of school, I found little motivation to do any work that wasn’t required of me.
As I thought more about the prompt, I had some realizations. The first was that rather than requiring us to write this essay, our teacher had actually justified blowing it off. The second was that I was enjoying thinking about it. It hardly seemed like work to put energy towards things I enjoyed that no one was requiring me to do. After all, that was the nature of my involvement with the outdoor education program in to which I was sinking so many hours.
Over the next month I would generate over 4,000 words on this topic and many more stand alone fragments of thought that didn’t quite fit anywhere with what I already had. I incorporated ideas from media presented in class, group dynamics and interactions among classmates, readings I had done outside of class, concepts from my physics class, and even the promotional materials of the college I would attend the next year. I produced several pieces of writing and musings during this time and received feedback on them from my teacher, classmates, and parents. I workshopped, to use the literary term, my response with many people, but I never turned in a final draft. I found it was entirely unnecessary to me to get a grade on that assignment. There was no mechanism in place for me to receive, let alone benefit, from any feedback given on a final draft turned in at the end of the year. The result of this was the reception of my lowest grade in an English class to date.
What I learned from that class and had clarified by that assignment was what I wanted from my education. I wanted my learning to be supported, not required of me. I wanted an environment where I could experiment and fail or succeed with someone to give constructive feedback and encouragement regardless of the outcome. This was not always possible in the education structure of my high school, but it stuck with me when teachers made an effort to provide it.
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