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  • Virginia M. Schwarz

Curriculum & Instruction 830 Final (Prof Michael Apple)


“It is advisable that the teacher should understand, and even be able to criticize, the general principles upon which the whole educational system is formed and administered. He is not like a private soldier in any army, expected merely to obey, or like a cog in a wheel, expected merely to respond to and transmit external energy; he must be an intelligent medium of action” (Dewey, 1895).


Note: This is an essay originally written for Professor Michael Apple in the department of Curriculum & Instruction.


In this space, I’d like to reflect upon my own attempts to create a democratic classroom this semester at UW-Madison. This discussion will be anchored by my research on assessment as well as our course discussions. I will also use this space to pose questions about critical leadership.


This fall was my first term teaching in the Midwest and at a “research university.” I identify as a community college teacher, shaped by the experiences I had prior to moving to Madison. Immigrants, refugees, and students from diverse racial, ethnic, linguistic, and socio-economic backgrounds filled my English classes. I owe my education to these students, truly. In Los Angeles and then Portland, this wide range of students posed challenges but also opened my eyes to new instructional possibilities. Part of the magic of a community college classroom is its specialness: twenty strangers who would never meet outside of campus find themselves in a room working closely together for 15 weeks. In what other situation would that even be possible?


Unfortunately, during those years, I was shoring up unhealthy attitudes towards research universities and the “kinds” of students who attended them, foils of the students I knew and loved. When I was accepted to UW, I was told Madison was extremely homogeneous, mostly white, upper-middle class folk, so I worried my new students might be polite Midwesterners who wouldn’t think creatively or engage in difficult discussions. They also might show up late and miss assignments, or they would carry a sense of entitlement and self-confidence that would be unbearable. Now, I’m embarrassed to think of how wrong my assumptions were. Ironically, the first assignment I gave was the counter-narrative where students describe a community they identify with and a commonly held stereotype outsiders have about that community. Students were extremely brave and chose to speak about being biracial, vegetarian, growing up in a small town, working towards citizenship. I am happy to have come to an R1, if only to meet this group of undergraduates.


Part of our success was due to the students being in a FIG, or a first-year interest group. They took English 100 and some of their other classes together. Consequently, they became very close with each other, and we often talked about writing assignments their other teachers had assigned them. Additionally, this class of fifteen was already thinking about the social justice concerns in their nursing courses, and in some cases, these concerns mirrored those we have in education. In sum, there was a lot of potential already in place to build something meaningful and authentic.


There were four specific ways, as a leader, I tried supporting students in further realizing this potential: their journals, contract grading, feedback and Google docs, and my own honesty and vulnerability.


I also want to note that building (or rather attempting) a democratic classroom space takes a lot of culture building in the beginning. Students may need to learn democratic and critical concepts and the language to describe those concepts. Teachers have to model what they wish to see from their students. Otherwise, the same inequalities we walk in the door with will reproduce themselves in the classroom ecology, too. bell hooks says, “there is often a much greater need to explain philosophy, strategy, intent in ‘norm’ setting” (42).


The weekly journal initially started off as a joke, or rather, an experiment. As a teacher, I know you’re not supposed to assign students work that you don’t believe in, but I was curious, took a risk, and just wanted to get students comfortable writing. What started off as a “one page write whatever you want” assignment morphed into a two to three pages of deep analysis, outside associations with course themes, and descriptive reporting of freshman year. Journals gave me a chance to know the people in my class better and prompted their continuous assessment of the class, their writing, and me. Whether they treated it as professional or personal, students took advantage of this space and claimed it for themselves. What may initially seem like a casual or touchy-feely assignment actually benefited them the most. They loved it. And I loved reading their writing. As the term progressed, the quality and the quantity of content improved in almost every student’s journal, and I was happy I left the “standards” or “requirements” open. Students seemed to be practicing serious critical thinking and self-reflection without feeling bored or inconvenienced.


Another challenge for me was adapting the grading system to the UW context. In the past, I’ve evaluated each assignment on a pass (P+, P)/ no pass basis (P-) basis; pass assignments count towards a total and not-pass assignments may be redone. I’m not fooling myself and know that to some extent I am still grading even as I use a pass/ no pass system. However, previously, the contract seemed to be more than mere rebranding and did the trick to start a classroom culture shift where students and I have meaningful conversations about assessment, education, and learning.


My gut tells me that in the classroom, particularly with something potentially new for students, teachers should be transparent with students about feeling something out together. This is to say that in some studies of alternative assessments, the teachers seemed skeptical, unable to field questions, and didn’t position the contract within a larger classroom culture that continually explores participatory and critical assessment. Teachers’ use of the contract, unfortunately, can become a strange mix of a grade-less state that still retains ideas of reward and punishment. Recently, I also read an article, in press, about T.A.s forced to use a contract, which seems problematic. Students can sniff out teacher resistance and uncertainty. And of course there’s imagined arguments from “A students” that the course is more difficult or, worse, levels the playing field—both horrible, horrible effects! I expect high-achieving students, many white and middle-class, won’t understand how this culture serves their interests, too, unless education, academic writing, and the class itself are up for honest critique.


In “A Grade-less Writing Course,” Asao Inoue (2014) discusses a writing class centered on labor. He proposes, “I think students stay in the class, despite its demanding labor, because they feel valued more in this environment, and because they would rather feel valued than do less work.” As an undergraduate in Jerry Farber’s English class at San Diego State, I felt the same way, even as a student who had previously “benefited” from traditional grading (note: I see now I wasn’t benefiting at all). He loved us enough to show us we didn’t have to be bullshitters. We loved our class enough not to bullshit. Coupled with a de-centered pedagogy, the contract seemed like a gesture of trust and reciprocity, and that’s something I think about a lot now as a teacher myself. I want students to feel valued, loved. I also think about how, left unchecked, the classroom and its participants reflect and reproduce social hierarchies and inequalities.


Anyways, since the contract might be more difficult to explain to those who get good grades, there could be potential work around how traditionally high-achieving students might also benefit from the contract—and not just academically, but non-cognitive gains as well. I hope to incorporate that idea into my dissertation. Maybe students who experience a compassionate and critical classroom go out into the world and hurt others a little less? At the very least, it gives them something to think about and the tools to re-imagine other courses. But yeah, many studies argue that the contract grading system might work better—or, rather, be quicker to implement—when the flaws and unfairness of traditional grading are most obvious. What would this mean for UW students? Those used to getting good grades?


Again, students surprised me. Many students had been burned my grades in high school, even those who were traditionally high achieving. Many also hated English and writing. I was surprised how little resistance they gave me; maybe writing classes are ideal for this kind of assessment because writing cannot be reduced down to points. One of the reasons why I really like grade-less/ mostly grade-less courses is that I can be really strong in my feedback and pose difficult questions without fear of hurting their feelings. And I’m sorry, but anyone who says feelings don’t matter or students should toughen up, should get a nice step on the toe. Feelings should matter. Writing without feeling and learning without feeling can only accomplish so much. In Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction, Ralph W. Tyler explains, “education is a process of changing the behavior patterns of people” (5-6). But what if behavior patterns could change education and students dictated what and how we taught?


In updating the contract, I tried to make the focus on labor and timeliness, whereas at the community college, I emphasized multiple drafts and was much more flexible with deadlines. Here, students needed to email me if they wanted an extension. My intention there was to encourage professional habits that I knew their other classes would demand. Perhaps that’s socializing students a certain way or exercising poor judgements in other ways; I am still deciding. The funniest surprise: students started using the P system as grade stand-ins! At the community college, few people cared about P+s, and they were a rare mark. Here, competition emerged at points and students, while not wanting a whole course grade, very much wanted marks on individual assignments. This took a lot of discussion (and laughter) to work through.


In edition to the journals and grades, another assessment mechanism I used was Google docs. Jesse Stommel, a professor of Humanities formerly at UW, gave me this idea when we were talking about peer-review and workshops. So two weeks before their first long assignment, the students invited me into their online “doc” at whatever point during their writing process they wanted. We worked together inside the document, sometimes even at the same time to question, revise, and edit. Peers also jumped into the document to offer feedback. Students loved this! I also tried something new: putting all my feedback in the form of questions rather than statements or judgments. Questions that would attempt to push and challenge them in critical thinking, clarity, and problem solving, but not statements that might allow me to put my own imprint their writing. The idea of consent in this new digital medium really appeals to me. During the process, several students expressed their enthusiasm for having writing situations (in both the scope of assignment and methods of assessment) where they had to negotiate control: they claimed their writing as theirs but were also afforded the opportunity to collaborate with their classmates and me in the process.


Even better than this, though, the students took this tool, Google docs, further. A few weeks later while I was sitting in my office, I got an email invitation into a student’s sociology essay. Whaaat? When I entered the document, I saw several of the other students already inside, typing away, messaging, and offering feedback and marginal comments. It was like walking into a classroom space, one that they created for themselves. And that’s what “transfer” is. These students had repurposed a model we had practiced in class–an assessment model, mind you–and used it for another writing situation. And this wasn’t just any kind of collaboration, what I witnessed was the kind of cooperation and coordination that furthers the learning of all participants. It was also an act of friendship and kindness. My class exists without me. That made my heart happy.


The last thing I want to add that perhaps helped my class function in caring and democratic ways was my honesty with students. Previously, I would always show students a picture of my cat on the first day (even though I’d always promise I’d wait until the second, at least!). I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to be myself at UW, but I could. Every assignment I assigned, I wrote with them. Every pedagogical move I made, I attempted to explain. And I was very honest about my lack of medical/ nursing knowledge. This was important because rather than just assign the department’s stock readings, the class and I started with those but found new readings and developed assignments together; they completed work that was relevant to their outside lives and interests. I’m pretty sure I looked ridiculous at times, pronouncing medical words funny or getting dizzy with the mention of blood, but I believe they still respected and valued me as a writing teacher after knowing my limitations. That really meant a lot to me because I felt very vulnerable initially, like I would lose control of the class. But when I gave the class over so that it was about writing and nursing, they really did do great work. I supposed I’d always thought of myself as enacting de-centered pedagogy, but I think there are lots of ways we circulate and share power, and this time I uncovered a new pathway I didn’t know existed before my UW students showed me.


So if we are a democratized, decentered space, then what makes a good leader? In a summer institute, a colleague of mine asked if we should leave our CVs "closeted.” For them, this was a matter of keeping their queer identity close and secret. For others in the discussion, numerous identities might be dangerous, unhire-able. Our conference presentations and publications reveal our values. I think one of the benefits of being willing to speak up is the possibility of making connections with like-minded folks. When I was “closeted” for years about contract grading, I had a drawer full of research ready to take out when they came for me. They never came for me. Again I realize that my ability to enact this assessment mechanism and being able to discuss it openly points back to how I am able to “come out” when others might not be able to.


Last summer I met with Professor Farber to touch base, and something he said stayed with me. He said that publishing about contract grading would, effectively, be “outing myself,” and might hurt my chances in program administration. His concern prompted me to think about the connection between these two parts of myself that sometimes seem incompatible. How do I reconcile my distaste and desire for power? In an “ah ha moment,” leadership came to mind. It’s always been about leadership. In sum, rethinking assessment has enabled me to form an identity as a leader—because without leading, without enacting a strong intervention, things will function just the way they always have been. Classrooms will embody capitalism: compete, conform, quantify (Kohn, 2013).


What makes a good leader in the classroom? Department? Institution? Organization? What are my values as a leader? How does a leader create, manage, and know when to step out of a space for things to become possible? How does a leader set up the conditions for all participants to feel empowered and valued? What does a truly inclusive environment look like, and how can a leader create the conditions for that to materialize? How does a leader rally a group of people behind a cause? And what should that cause be? Maybe I had resisted the idea of teacher as a leader because of the decentered pedagogy, but now I’m embracing the idea and running with it. I’ve seen too many examples of bad leadership or no leadership at all and realize how important effective leaders are, inside and outside of our classrooms. “Leader” kinda has a dirty feeling to it– maybe I am talking about something else entirely. Mentorship? Activist? I’m not sure yet.


Maybe I’m just another power-hungry administrator. How can you tell? Do you have a list of questions you ask yourself each day to keep the things you are afraid of in check? Are there ethical reasons to become a leader, for wanting control? Perhaps “control” is one of those verbs that we misuse as a noun, and rather than wanting to achieve control, I want to enact some form of it. In my prior experiences, I’ve watched assessment function as a gate-keeping mechanism. I’d like to stand at that gate to ensure it stays open or, you know, maybe take it down. Audre Lorde says that you cannot dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. What, then, would a critical leader or administrator look like in an educational setting? We know from Democratic Schools that there are teachers. Are there case studies of administrators (re)designing programs or institutions?


In closing, I think I built a somewhat democratic and critical space at UW, one where students were able to constantly surprise each other with their creativity, courage, and kindness. And at the very least, I think they knew I cared about their writing and their lives. As a teacher, sometimes I feel like I have such a small impact, but creating a space for possibility is no small thing. That’s what I hope students take from E100 and carry with them during college: memory of that space.


My E100 Contract Pilot’s Language

In my experience as both a student at San Diego State University (1999-2003) and a teacher at Portland Community College (2011-2014), I learned that a “contract grading system” is one way to create a class culture around cooperation, courage, and fairness. I want to emphasize that because you get rewarded for your labor (the number of projects you complete and their timeliness), contracts actually increase course rigor in two ways 1) you’ll be doing a lot more work, and 2) I am able to give you my honest feedback and you are able to give me your honest writing without grades potentially getting in the way of our working relationship. You can be yourself, and I will meet you where you’re at, demanding you try your hardest.


High school labels end here. Because you have the most control over your own course grade, you can reinvent who you are and challenge any writing limitations you think you may have without fear of punishment. A+ students, that means you, too. I want us all to figure out what “good writing” is to each of us— while there are certainly writing moves and habits that tend to work well, “good writing” varies from person to person and in certain situations with specific audiences. We are all writers and learners together.If you do feel uncomfortable with this arrangement, your concerns are important to me. After we meet, I’m happy to arrange an “opt out” for you and switch you over to a points-based grading system.


Student Feedback

“I owe a huge part of my survival to you. Without you being so understanding and sympathetic with the whole class giving us extensions when needed, I don’t think I would have made it. So thank you! Not only was English a class where I could go to learn and better my writing skills, it was a place where I wanted to go, where class felt like a little family. As I told you in the beginning of the year English was never my strong suit, and was never my favorite subject, but you changed that. I feel as if my writing is an asset in creating a bright future for myself. Not only can I do math and chemistry, but I can write very well which is not something many nursing majors can say. If I ever walk into another English class and I am asked to write a letter to the teacher being as honest as possible, I will say that I love English and writing. It is actually one of my favorite subjects. I want to thank you for believing in me and my writing and turning me into a person that used to hate English into someone who loves it. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without you.” Fall E100 Nursing FIG


“I’m basically going to use this journal to reflect on my first semester at UW-Madison and this class in particular. This class’s structure was on a completely different planet than every other class I’ve ever taken. I honestly think that this class was one of the more beneficial classes I have ever taken. You have found a way to improve us as writers (and humans) in a way that isn’t critical of our personal character. When I say that I mean you can critique our writing so we learn from our mistakes without making us feel like we’re bad people. That was one of the hardest parts of high school for me. Sometimes I felt like teachers were our absolute superiors and they knew it all. Soon after starting this class, I realized that is not how it should be. That is not how life should work. We are all human beings and we need to respect each other. You pushed me way out of my comfort zone, and I think it allowed me to improve immensely as a writer. Before taking this class, I was not comfortable having others read my writing. I had basically no confidence in my writing. I now understand that it will help me continue to advance my writing skills throughout my life. The things I’ve learned in this class will definitely transfer into my future classes as well as many of my future life endeavors.“ Fall E100 Nursing FIG



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