This week in my composition course, I suggested to the students that there may be more costs to their education than tuition alone. I’m trying to use education as a critical category of discussion throughout the semester. The major reading and writing of the course will explore the aims of education. In the past, it’s always been a part of my courses but not made explicit. Student (and teacher) behavior often bothered me, but this time, instead of being bothered by it, I can be fascinated by it and make it the very topic of discussion.

Instead of being bothered by [student behavior], I can be fascinated by it.

So, we’ve begun the conversation this week with a lesson designed to get them thinking critically about their own educational/schooling experiences. (I’m using the terms education and schooling synonymously for the time being, but I believe the two things to be very different, in deed. I hope my students will come to see this soon too.) Here’s how I ran the class:

  1. As students walked in, I had them read Ken Macrorie’s “The Poison Fish” and prepare answers to the following questions: What is engfish and what are its two varieties?, What causes engfish?, Is it a possible result of our educational or schooling experiences?, What can we do about it?, What word or phrase could you use to describe the opposite of engfish?
  2. slide show to start a discussion on the costs and benefits of education

  3. After a few minutes, we begin the conversation of these questions. As they come to understand that engfish really is a kind of fake writing, I lead them to consider the possibility that school might ask us to become something we are not. Is their a transformative power to education? (By the way, I use the slides to the right to facilitate this lesson.)
  4. To provide a little more food for thought, I share with the students, this clip from the film Spanglish.
  5. The film clip generates a little more discussion before I have them get into groups of three or four to brainstorm and discuss some possible costs and benefits of schooling/education. I encourage them to think beyond the obvious, and I provide a few specific questions to push their discussion along.
  6. Ok, at this point, I tell students we’re going to break from the discussion to do something different–a little review of the syllabus before we get too far into the course. (This activity, of course, is designed to further illustrate or push the point about the power school has to shape at least our behavior–if not who we are.) I tell students that we are going to play a little game that I like to call “Carrot or the Stick.” Basically, I read questions about the course policies and choose students to answer. If they get it right, I literally toss them a bag of baby carrots (as a healthy alternative to candy, and as a nice illustration of the point). If they get the answer wrong, I take my trusty wooden ruler and literally whack the desk three times loudly saying, “wrong, wrong, wrong.” What good fun. We do this through a set of about ten questions, and then talk about the use of “carrot and stick” tactics in school–literally and figuratively. Can grades be used like carrots and sticks, I ask?
  7. This brings us to a the idea of conditioned behavior. No such conversation would be complete without the inclusion of B.F. Skinner and his very well trained pigeons. I show this clip, and ask the question “Are we being conditioned?” among these other questions. We talk about the possibility that grades as they are used in school can have a conditioning effect on our behavior, and then we consider the ethics of such methods.
  8. The point of all this, I tell students, is that we need to raise our level of critical awareness of what we are doing. Are we actively participating in a process that shapes who we are and how we think? Or are we letting this entire experience wash over us, as we sit passively allowing ourselves to be changed by it. As a means of managing or lessoning carrot-and-stick tactics in our course, I suggest we use a “learning contract” where they make some choices at the start of the course regarding their own course of study. I want them to have this freedom of choice (albeit structured choice). I think at the very least this puts students in a more active role than they are accustomed to when it comes to school. It’s a start anyway.

Next week, we’ll be reading and writing in response to Adrienne Rich’s “When We Dead Awaken.” So, we’ll see what next week brings us, or should I say where we decide to go next week…