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Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings, School Stories

“Above Us Only Sky”: A Writing Teacher’s Manifesto

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” John Lennon is right. From the time I was a small girl, people have told me that I’m idealistic, which always came across as a nice way of calling me naïve. But when it comes to teaching, I am one of Lennon’s dreamers. I really do believe that education should have meaning, and I believe students should, at least on occasion, feel the excitement of epiphany in a classroom setting.

Just the other day, one of my college-level writing classes experienced just that. We sat together in a conference room that had been reserved for our fish bowl discussion around this question “Is college necessary to be successful?” and for a time I felt like we were a group of ancient Roman philosophers analyzing the important questions of life.

You might be thinking that this was a tricky question that I came up with to get my students to think critically about why they’re there or to persuade them to reflect on what an education means to them, but you’d be wrong. I didn’t devise this activity at all. Sure, I reserved the room, but the students did everything else. All I had to do was give them permission.

See, I am a writing teacher, but I don’t want to teach students to write. I want to teach them to think. This is a cliché among teachers, right? Yes, but I truly believe, in a pie in the sky way, that writing classes can be a means to a more valuable end than just a well-written essay: they can be a catalyst for self-actualization and growth. So after spending the first half of the term focused on essay writing, a requirement for that course, I asked students to work in groups to come up with assignments that would meet the learning outcomes for the course and also spark the interest of other students.

Every group created exciting and interesting assignments. One asked students to interview community members about a local issue and turn the interviews into a ten-minute persuasive documentary film. Another prompted peers to choose a reality TV show to analyze and to write an essay focused on this question: How is reality TV shaping our social construction of reality? Yet another assignment required students to interpret the meaning behind a work of art and compare that meaning to another interpretation. Brilliant!

And then there was the fish bowl discussion. This group decided that, in order for students to get credit for participating in this activity, they must bring at least two credible sources to the discussion to support their points. They must also participate in the fish bowl for at least four minutes. However, anyone, including me, could participate just for the fun of it if they wanted. That all sounded good to me.

On the day of the event, I was a bit alarmed to find that only seven students had prepared to participate even though twenty-five showed up. I thought that maybe this was going to be a big flop and that I’d made a mistake by allowing students, albeit college students, to make choices about their own learning journeys. Nonetheless, I proceeded to moderate as if everything was going as planned, and so it was.

By the end of the discussion, which lasted for over an hour, much longer than planned, thirteen students participated, one of whom had spent the early part of the period looking up sources on his smart phone so he could enter the fish bowl prepared. (And to think that some teachers would have been frustrated at the sight of such a “distraction” as a cell phone in the classroom.)

What follows is a brief synopsis of some of my students’ insights, born purely of their own volition, while trying to answer the question of what role college plays in building a successful life (previously published on Facebook):

It’s what you find in college that matters: dedication.

We’re over-analyzing. Is college necessary? No. Will most of us be rich and famous like Bill Gates with or without going to college? No. But I want to be here anyway, for myself, because I enjoy learning.

I want to be a farmer and with a college education I’ll be the best farmer out there.

What bothers me is that they MAKE me take these classes when I WANT to learn.

You can’t feel successful living paycheck to paycheck…It’s all about taking risks and college is less risky.

By 2020, 75% of employers will require some kind of college education.

Do we look up to people who’ve gone to college more than those who haven’t? Yes, unfortunately I do.

Our parents had it different and didn’t need college, but we do now.

I never understood why I needed college until last week when something that came up in math class related to what I’d learned in physics last quarter. Even though I failed that physics class, I’m still glad I took it because I knew what the teacher was talking about in math.

Having a degree is a way of being measurable on paper, and you don’t always need it to go into business. Education is really an industry now.

One of my sources is the documentary The College Conspiracy, and it talks about higher education being an industry…how textbooks come out with a new edition every year so students have to keep buying new books and can’t sell back their old books…it’s becoming a bubble…if everyone has a college degree, then it won’t matter anymore.

I’ve done everything I’ve always wanted in my life, so I feel successful already, but college is part of my definition of success.

This is only a glimpse of what was a truly inspirational day with my students. At the end of it, one young woman said that, before this, she was only going to college because her parents pay for it, but now she feels like she understands why she’s there. But this discussion wasn’t really about that, not completely. It was really about allowing students to construct their own learning experience, to see that they can be their own teachers, and to help them imagine how high they might reach.

About JaimeRWood

Jaime R. Wood is the author of Living Voices: Multicultural Poetry in the Middle School Classroom (NCTE 2006) and co-author of the textbook The Word on College Reading and Writing (OpenOregon 2017). Her poems have appeared in Rattle, Dislocate, Matter, Juked, ZYZZYVA, DIAGRAM, Phantom Drift, Voice Catcher, and Dark Matter: Women Witnessing, among others. She has taught writing, literature, and pedagogy since 2001. When she’s not staring wistfully out her window, Jaime likes to dream about building a tiny house with her partner, Patrick, and making a creative retreat for all of their writer and artist friends. She’s also fascinated by polyamory, epigenetics, and the magic and ever evolving ways she and her friends overcome trauma to live their best lives. She currently lives in Portland, Oregon, with her cats Alistair, Phen, and Delilah, and over six hundred thousand other people.


6 thoughts on ““Above Us Only Sky”: A Writing Teacher’s Manifesto

  1. Thanks for sharing this wonderful experience in meaningful learning and teaching! What do your students have planned for you next?

    Welcome to the Coop, Jaime!


    Posted by dloitz | March 18, 2012, 4:19 pm
  2. Thanks for sharing out students’ voices from the fishbowl, Jamie –

    Are the students going to unpack some of these ideas further? What’s the next step for them?

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | March 18, 2012, 7:43 pm
    • Hi Chad,

      Thanks for the comment. Yes, my students and I spent some time after the fishbowl discussion talking about what it meant to them and how ironic it was that they were debating about the value of a college education in a college class.

      To further “unpack” the ideas, those students who decide that they want to use the fishbowl experience as proof of learning and evidence that they’ve met the learning outcomes for the class have the option of writing a two-page reflection on the event talking about what they learned, how it related to the goals of our class, and what they can take away from the experience to use in the future.

      Ultimately, the fishbowl was a great experience because it was a manifestation of my students’ own initiative to learn in their own way. A group of four students made up this assignment (including the requirement that participants bring credible sources and write reflections) and the whole class agreed to participate. It’s an example of what students can do when they’re released from the mindset that teachers have all the power and students are just there to do what they’re told, which too often is what schools inadvertently (and sometimes outright) teach students.

      Posted by jaimerwood | March 18, 2012, 10:37 pm
  3. Jaime, Great teaching description here, and a welcoming and honoring of your students. I’m so glad you, and they, are here.


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | March 19, 2012, 8:29 am
    • Thanks, Kirsten! I’ve been meaning to contact you to let you know that your book Wounded by School is on my high priority to-read list. I can’t wait to read it. Maybe one day soon our paths will cross. (Will you be at the AERO conference in Portland in August?) I’d love to tell you about the work I’m doing at Dream School Commons and to learn more about the work you’re doing.

      Posted by jaimerwood | March 20, 2012, 9:24 pm

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