Guiding Principles

The sunset will tell us which way to go

Much as I thought I was avoiding the “sage on the stage” complex, I could never shake the feeling that I was limiting my college students, rather than pushing them to grow. Last semester, I really felt like the assignments I used were doing more to preserve the status quo of the educational hierarchy by making students write papers intended only for me to read. After spending the previous semester teaching a class that emphasized audience awareness and the performative use of texts, it frustrated me to find myself saying that I alone was the audience of my students’ writing. No matter how much I thought they were learning, I felt they were limited in their expression of that growth.

This term, I want to fix that. I also want to make more time for myself—time that last semester had been eaten up by an endless barrage of essay-grading. Because grading and returning essays, more than anything else I do in my classes, reinforces the authoritative hierarchy in the classroom, I want to see if I can avoid it. I also want some more time to work on conference presentations and my comp exams. So I’m ditching the grading, and I intend to do so cold-turkey. I’m taking cues from Cheryl Ball. I hope she (and my other readers, but mostly Cheryl) will forgive this awful pun, but I’m not sure I have the Balls to grade the way she does: half for participation, half for a final project, and nothing else. It’s there in my syllabus, so I guess I’m sticking with it. I’ll be sure to report back on my thoughts after it’s over.

Basically, I believe I’m trying to break out of the mold of a traditional teacher and move into the role of a facilitator or a mentor. It involves trusting my students an awful lot more than I did when I taught high school, but I’ve learned over the past year and a half that if trust in students is misplaced, the consequences always seem to drastically play themselves out in terms of student failure. In order to create the dynamic, collaborative, and generally buzzword-infused classroom I want to have this semester, I have identified three core principles I want to keep in mind when interacting with my students. I want to emphasize choice, build interdependence, and push (rather than pull) students at every turn.


In conversations with Pavel Zemliansky and others on our program assessment teams, I’ve heard a lot about the benefits of using portfolios for identifying and measuring student performance. One of the main driving forces behind Zemliansky’s perception of effective portfolios (that is echoed in Reynolds and Rice’s handbook for students, Portfolio Keeping) is the issue of choice. In order for students to feel creative with their portfolios, and in order for them to take a genuine sense of ownership over both the process and the product, we need to provide them with an ability to choose what goes into the portfolio, how the portfolio is presented, or what the portfolio is designed to accomplish.

Last August, I participated in my first massive open online course (MOOC). The one I joined (called MOOC MOOC) happened to be about the MOOC phenomenon itself, and I was curious how a class could be offered and function with absolutely no teacher authority. The class offered no credit, had no associated fees, and offered no explicit rewards. The “teachers” graded nothing, and the “students” had zero accountability. Those elements directly opposed the fundamental assumptions of the classroom scenario that I had clung to for a decade. In my head, no classroom should be able to function if its students were not accountable to its teacher.

But that’s not the real point of learning, is it?

What students need to be able to do—both in classes and in their own lives—is choose how to direct their energy and attention. Providing choice in a class should not begin with the final portfolio; it needs to begin with the way the class operates in the first place, the way students approach their assignments, and the way students are expected to navigate the material. Students should be able to choose their path through the course and choose the resources they wish to use to make their journey a success.

In the MOOC MOOC, reading assignments were presented as optional. Again, my head spun with the notion, but I realized while working on these assignments that my goals in reading had completely changed. No longer was I reading for the arbitrary, external goal of finishing an assigned task. Now, I was reading for myself: I had understanding I wanted to gain, and the only way to get it was to explore sources. But only a few—I didn’t have a mandated quantity of reading to complete. If I got what I needed after reading one article, I could stop. Otherwise, I continued exploring. Reading for MOOC MOOC wasn’t a chore; it was an opportunity.

This semester, my class will be an opportunity for my students. Sure, we have required textbook, and sure, I have assigned readings from them both throughout the term. But one of the readings discusses how to attack a journal article when doing secondary research. If my source texts for this class rightfully tell students to strategically skip and skim, I see no justifiable way to expect my students to do otherwise with anything I tell them to read. (Indeed, one student last year specifically commented at the end of the semester that he wished we had read that one chapter earlier. He said it would have saved him a ton of time on his homework.) This time, I’m going to teach strategic reading earlier in the semester. That will require me to provide students with a strategic goal before I set them on a reading assignment. I’ll come back to this idea later, when I discuss pushing vs. pulling.

My students will have choice when it comes to their reading assignments. They will chose which parts of their readings to digest. They will also choose which readings to do. My course starts with a brainstorming unit in which students determine the topic they want to research for the rest of the semester. Student feedback last year suggested a 2–3 week unit was excessive, and that once students found something personally interesting, the rest of the reading was superfluous. This time, my goal is to make all the reading personally interesting…and therefore brief. I will present the reading selections to my students, as before, but rather than having them read each piece to ensure their exposure, I’ll give students the choice of which topics seem interesting, have them read one of the selections I suggest, and get them to provide a corresponding text that they find online. That way, students waste less time, get more invested from the start, take ownership in their explorations, and bring in more resources than I initially provide. All because of choice.


Once we start moving through the research assignments (aka the “hard work”) for the semester, I need to step back and let them work without worrying so much about keeping up with them in terms of grading. To do that, I want to foster peer reliance—a sense of interdependence that makes peer groups more important to students than I am. I’ve written a bit about that before, so I’ll not rehash it here. But in brief, students will be accountable to one another to determine success on assignments and to get feedback for improvement. Because students will rely on one another to complete and improve their work, I’ll be curious to see what attendance and retention rates are like this term. I expect that students will feel more responsible for the class and will therefore attend more predictably.

To push, and not to pull

The common complaint among high-school teachers is that “kids today” are unmotivated, lazy, spoiled, and resistant to anything we try to shove down their collective throats. Now, I don’t know about you, but I didn’t get into teaching to produce knowledge-based foie gras. I want my students to pick up useable knowledge and skills that will help them beyond my class. So rather than pulling them, kicking and screaming, through the endless educational standards expected in K12 schools, I want to push my students to go further and do more with the work they themselves bring to the proverbial table.

I mentioned earlier that I want to give my students goals before they read. Rather than pulling them through a text just because it’s a text that I think they should read, I want to present the text as a resource that will have real, practical, immediately applicable value to their work and lives. This can be tough because—let’s face it—FYC courses are rarely full of exciting content that students are eager to devour. So I need to do my work a bit differently, ensuring that they have goals for themselves that align with my expectations for the class.

To achieve this twist, I plan to make excessive use of questions like, “What do you need to learn?” or “What do you want to get out of this to help your project along?” By redirecting the focus and perhaps allowing the students to “take the wheel” of their own journeys through the course, I intend to make my class a meaningful and valuable resource they can draw from.

Long time in coming

These thoughts all seem to be what school should always be about, and I’m rather ashamed to say that I didn’t decide to try them out until the end of my 13th year as an educator. But late is reportedly better than never, and I’m eager to see whether I can make this work. I’ll keep choice, interdependence, and pushing at the forefront of my efforts this term, and I’ll see what sorts of miracles my students can work.

Class starts Monday. In the words of Dr. Sam Beckett: “Oh boy.”

[Photo by marfis75 on Flickr. Used under CC-BY-SA license.]]]>