Perhaps it’s just because it’s November, but I’ve felt extremely discouraged about my own teaching methodology and the state of education in general as of late. In my own senior high English classes, I’ve been practicing a model of freedom for my students: they pick what they want to study, how they want to respond to what they’re reading, and when they hand in each assignment (so long as it’s before the end of the semester). I’ve been supplementing their independent study with periodic explications of poems and short stories, generally keeping this to a half-hour per week, and with one-on-one help as needed during class time.
Earlier this month, I sat down and talked with a student from a different school, listening to her growing frustration and unease at her own schooling experience. In my English class, I believe that good writing takes time, and expecting students to only complete first-drafts in class for marks might make for secure and reliable grading, but it doesn’t encourage students to become writers. This student was frustrated because, although she’s a brilliant writer, she’s also a slow writer – a label that would be meaningless if school didn’t exist. If a novelist takes five months or five years to write a novel, nobody is concerned, after all; in the end, the novel is written and celebrated. But in school, all are limited by time and the bugbear of grading, and can creativity truly take place in such an environment? As the saying goes, have any poets been born as a result of an English class?
I’ll admit that I was feeling a bit smug about my own system when I had one of my own students sit down with me and express her concern: without any hard and fast deadlines, and without giving her percentage marks on her assignments that she’s turned in so far, she doesn’t know how she’s doing in class and feels like she’s floundering. I told her that, based on her work so far, she’s doing fine and shouldn’t worry, but she insisted that she needed a number to quantify her progress so far. Never mind the paragraphs I’ve written in response to her short story or essay; no, our school system has demanded that formative feedback take a back seat in favour of a two-digit percentage.
In the end, though I think that my own system does offer more flexibility and more freedom for students, ultimately it’s as coercive as the traditional model of education. Yes, assignments can be handed in at any time, but they still need to be handed in if a student wants to “pass.” Yes, there’s freedom in the class, but only within the confines of the class – the rest of the school hasn’t changed. No, I don’t provide grades for students’ assignments, but ultimately their performance in class will be judged based on a two-digit percentage, and that’s the number that will be considered by parents, administrators, and university admissions counsellors. As a teacher and a professional, I’m not judged by the hours I pour into my written feedback, but by these numbers and the nearly-meaningless statistical analyses that they facilitate.
I reflect back to my visits to Trillium and Clearwater this past March and still marvel that these students have been given the opportunity to be themselves at school, the opportunity to not just choose what they want to learn, but if they want to learn. My own students, on the contrary, have been trained since primary school to “grade-grub”, as Jack Black’s effusive character chides in The School of Rock. It’s for this reason that my wife homeschools my children, and at this point in my career I’m starting to feel the internal pressure of my own hypocrisy: the educational system in which I teach is not good enough for my kids, yet I take money from this broken system every month.
Perhaps this is just the November slump. Perhaps I’ll feel better after Christmas. Perhaps this bit of discouragement is exactly the wrong thing that teachers need right now, especially teachers (who read posts like this on the Coop!) putting themselves at the forefront of educational research and humane education as I write this. But right now in the school year, surrounded by gung-ho colleagues who see nothing wrong with the way that we educate our children, the isolation I feel is profound, and I question not just the impulse that brought me to this place in my life, but the inertia that allows me to stay within this system.
Is there hope? For decades now reformers have been talking about non-coercive education; Summerhill School, Sudbury Valley, and other free schools have shown that this model works, and that it’s far more humane for our students than the students-in-rows, note-taking, test-writing culture that’s embedded into our systemic DNA. But right now, sitting in the classroom and pondering the statement from a student that she has too much freedom in English class, I agree far too much with the sign Dante reads at the beginning of his journey: “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate.”