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confessions of an unschooling college professor

I am an unschooling dad–a life learner. This is the life my wife Chris, my six-year-old son Aidan, and I embrace quite fully. I am also a college professor–part of a state-run institution of higher learning. How can I reconcile these contradictions? How can I on one hand eschew “teaching” as a somewhat rude imposition when it comes to my son–allowing him instead to pursue his own interests, to figure out who he is and who he wants to be at his own pace, to learn naturally with only gentle guidance from his parents, to embrace the joy of life and learning without being continuously tested, evaluated, and judged–but then on the other hand participate as an agent of institutionalized schooling and get paid for it? This is something I wrestle with on a daily basis.

I find a good deal of comfort in that theoretically by the time people find their way to my college classroom, they are choosing to be there. It’s not mandated by law that they go to college. While on the surface, this gives me comfort, I know full well that in reality many if not most of the students are not their of their own free will but, instead, are being pressured by their parents or others to attend. Even if the students have freely chosen to pursue college, I’m quite certain that most would choose to opt-out of the required freshman composition course if the institution and state would allow this. The fact of the matter is I have a captive audience–quite literally–as my course is the price of entry to opportunities that lay beyond it.

I’m already a bit of a guerrilla teacher in that I bring into the class a good deal of criticism of traditional schooling experiences to get the students to begin questioning their own views and values on this matter. I try to use my own moral dilemma to deepen the discussion and to invite students to help me solve this problem. It works pretty well, but in the end I still feel like an agent of the state as I pass judgment on student work, assign grades, and decide who is worthy to benefit from the opportunities of passing my class and who is not. On some level, this just does not sit well with the “free-range” approach I find myself taking with the education of my own son. I feel somewhat hypocritical as my values clash at times with the procedural mechanisms of state-run schooling.

Now don’t get me wrong, I absolutely believe in education (in all forms), but also in the fundamental right for one to pursue their own brand of education–to pursue their passions freely and not to be forced into certain educational experiences before one can gain access to a better life. I believe that all people should have the chance to learn freely, at their own pace, setting their own course, and without fear of judgment.

As I work to negotiate the tricky middle ground between state-run higher education and authentic learning, I am trying to develop a personal code of ethics to guide me. Below is what I’ve got so far.

In my interactions with students, I will strive to uphold the following:

  • I will make explicit my views on learning and education, attempt to make clear my struggle to avoid duplicity in what I say and do, and try to raise critical awareness in others regarding personal freedom and responsiblity in learning, education, and life.
  • I will offer choice as much as possible to allow students to explore personal interests in their writing, while encouraging them to try new things and venture down unfamiliar paths with a spirit of adventure and curiosity.
  • I will make use of “contract grading” focused largely on the degree of engagement in the course rather than on the judged quality of the writing itself. This will allow me to more authentically and honestly respond to the writing of students as a fellow reader in the class. The “terms” of the contract will be as clear-cut as possible and will be agreed upon at the outset of the course to allow fully informed students to opt-out before they begin if they choose.
  • I will treat students with respect and work hard not to hold myself above them. I will encourage them to do the same.
  • I will work to cultivate honest conversation, community, creativity, and service in and out of the classroom.
  • I’ll will work with students to design learning experiences that have relevance beyond the “exercise” of the classroom and that can positively affect the lives of others. I’ll support students in their writing and learning efforts.
  • I will be kind and empathic and ask others to reciprocate.
  • I will not obsess over arbitrary rules but work hard to ensure fairness for everyone.
  • I’ll work to foster positive relationships with students as fellow human beings and to avoid the traditional adversarial trappings in the way teachers and students interact.
  • I’ll seek to communicate honestly with students and avoid combative stances–whether defensive or offensive.
  • I’ll enjoy what I do.

All right, so it’s a work in progress. Perhaps I spend far too much time agonizing philosophically over my job and my interactions with others. I suppose it’s all in the spirit of trying to be a better person…. Like I said, it’s a work in progress.

i don’t want to do math today

Every once in awhile I get this panic feeling when it comes to homeschooling. Even though we have thoughtfully and consciously made the decision regarding our approach I have these waves of uncertainty wondering are we doing this the “right” way. Typically these waves come after talks, or rather questions from others as to what exactly did Aidan learn today or how is math going?? This happened just the other day and I panicked. I started questioning everything. Am I giving him enough? Am I pushing him in the right direction? Am I making sure he has met all the kindergarten standards? Oh, the list of questions goes on.

I woke up the following morning after this “talk” determined that Aidan was going to “do” math that day. After a cup (or two) of coffee and watching a little PBS (he loves Curious George), I told him he was going to do some of his math workbooks! Man, that did not go over well at all. Now, we have workbooks in the house because Aidan does like them on occasion. But, we don’t force or require him to do them. We do remind him of them or suggest them when he uses that awful “b” word (in case anyone is wondering the word is bored) and sometimes he just gets them out because he likes certain ones. But this day I wanted him to do them (as I said I was determined). Long story short he didn’t do any math workbooks that day despite my requiring it and pleading with him. He wasn’t in the mood and since we’ve never required it before why would this start now. Needless to say I felt discouraged, disenchanted, and deflated with even more questions popping into my head about this homeschooling thing!

But, this story has an eye-opening ending (at least for me it did). A little later that same day Aidan asked about an online reading program that he had started awhile back. This was a program that he liked at first and had been doing pretty consistently for awhile and then just lost interest. Aidan and I read all the time together–I read chapter books to him and he reads short “I Can Read” books to me, but this is an online program to help reinforce certain sounds, sight words, and concepts. And it had been months since he wanted to work on this online program, but on this day he, himself, decided he wanted to start back up with it. And so he did. He ended up doing three lessons on this program that day and has done several more since then.

His actions that day helped reinforce and solidify certain ideas for me. I know that he is, and will continue, learning the skills he needs and that he will continue to learn about all the things that interest him. But I also know that he learns best when he chooses what interests him and when he is ready for it. We provide him access to a variety of tools and materials and are there to answer or help him find his own answers to the million and one questions that he easily asks a day. He is a natural learner, and I want to embrace and encourage this natural learner that he is.

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