The Believing-ness of Why

I am a teacher educator. Because I’m a doc student and our certification program is a Master’s level Teaching of English (high school writing and literature) program, I can be teaching people who are already in their own classrooms, or people who have never taught but will leave our program and begin teaching.

One of my super-favorite courses to teach is Literacies and Technologies in the Secondary English Classroom. No matter what the course, though, I use the same process.
I start with My Basic Assumptions & Beliefs. Currently, these seem to be:

  • The way my students learn is the way they will teach.
  • The educational experience each of my students has accumulated is their touchstone for what they believe learning and teaching are and should be.
  • The accumulated educational experience of my students is a powerful weight. It tips them not only towards the status quo, but towards normative ideas about personhood, citizenship, and the meaning they can “get” from their lives. That is, ideas that keep them in place and probably in service to social, cultural, and political forces that  benefit from being in power. (OK, yes, Foucault is my hero.)


The Student is responsible for his or her own learning.

Myself as the Teacher

  • I am required to give grades at the end of the semester. Students want As. This means I have power. It also means I have a huge responsibility to make this a course where students can create meaning they can use to positively affect their lives.
  • I know some stuff. Usually it’s more than my students, but even if it’s not, I’m usually older than them, which means I know more about being alive. This means I have power. It also means I have huge responsibility.
  • My job is to share what I know in a way that enables students to use it, and in so doing, to think, to question and examine their beliefs, to reformulate and express these by the end of the semester, in particular, in terms of their ideas about the ways they will teach, what they will teach, and why.
    • This means they have to do stuff they might not want to do.  (Philosophical statement: Too bad, so sad.)
      • Corollary:  If they don’t like the stuff I am making them do, they can propose to do something else.

A plus

The Course Structure

  • I grade nothing they hand in.
  • I create a structure that (I hope) guides them to take responsibility for their own learning.
    • On a Google Doc shared only with me, they write weekly goals.
    • At the end of the week, they return to the doc, see how they’ve done with meeting their goals & comment (usually just some bullet points). Or if the goals shifted, they comment on why and what they learned.
    • They also acknowledge how much of the reading & other assigned stuff they’ve done, assess on a scale of 1-7 their level of satisfaction with their work and the course (satisfaction typically = how much they’ve done and how deeply & personally they’ve engaged with it.)
    • They also list what they need from me to further their level of satisfaction with meeting their goals for the next week.
    • I comment, respond to questions, make suggestions.
    • Sometimes I suggest they bring a concern or issue to the table, i.e., the next meeting of the class. This can have

      Epic Fail Grade

      multiple effects, including changing the reading, the assignments, etc. It also can be a time/place where I make observations about their assumptions about what it means to be a member of a learning community. (Philosophical statement: You don’t have to like anyone in the class, but you have to love honor their work and strive to help it get better.)

Meta-ness as a tool: We spend time talking about the meta of the class: how we’re doing as co-creating knowledge, supporting each other’s goals, dealing with frustrations, etc.

The best literacies class I’ve taught is where the students have just gotten it and shaped the class to their own interests, needs etc. They pretty much kept the content of the syllabus, but rearranged aspects of it to their own liking.  Once, when they were really ticked about something they were reading, I contacted the author and asked them to Skype into class. It was a lovely way for them to experience the aliveness of the active Web.

The worst class was when they weren’t getting it at all, hated everything about the class, and resented everything I wanted them to do. And me. They actively resisted me, found fault with all the reading, asserted their undying commitment to what they knew they were supposed to be doing. Mostly I stopped sleeping and felt like I was going to throw up all the time. Then two people made comments on their weekly check-in and I asked them to bring the comments to the table. They talked for more than an hour about what they needed to do, “because it’s not Karen’s responsibility to make this into something we’re going to get something out of,” one of them said.  It was a miracle.

There’s always one person who never gets it. This person also seems to never do the work, and because the end-of-the-semester grading thing comes, the not-grading-all-semester-thing can turn around and bite me in the ass. Once I gave a student a grade & he grieved it. He brought his work to the meeting. My boss paged through it all, and said that the feedback I’d given was detailed and clearly indicated that the student could be putting more into the course. The grade stood. Whew.


I’m writing my dissertation now, so teaching has stopped. Then I suppose I have to find a job. The next time I do teach, I think I need to do a better job of some things. Actually, quite a few things, mostly to do with the nature and pacing of the assignments. And letting them know more about the operating procedures. And probably other stuff.

I’ve used this method with up to 28 students at a time. I would have to make some major changes for a lecture course. That would actually be interesting.




A plus by Ludwig via Creative Commons by-nc-nd 2.0 

bitingness by Martin Fisch used via Creative Commons by-sa 2.0 and photopin

Epic Fail Grade by Nicolas Raymond via Creative Commons Attribution 3.0

2 responses to “The Believing-ness of Why”

  1. Laura Gibbs says:

    Karen, just to say: I WANT TO BE IN YOUR CLASS!!!!!! It sounds marvelous!!!!!! It is so fascinating to see how we have so much conceptual overlap between our classes even while teaching different students, different subjects, etc. Wonderful! 🙂

    • admin says:

      Aren’t you the one who suggested twins separated at birth? 😉
      Your storybook idea resonated with me. One of the things I have on my list of to-dos is to check out your repository of students’ work. Can’t wait.

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