An overlooked ingredient in education
I’ve always enjoyed mentoring young people. As a college student, I tutored at-risk junior high kids; in graduate school, I served as an editor at the student newspaper, collaborating with teens as they developed their prose; as a professional journalist, I worked as an internship coordinator, interacting with talented and passionate high school and college students.
Over the past decade, I’ve had the good fortune of working in a classroom, teaching composition, literature, and creative writing at Cosumnes River Community College.
I love it.
Just last year, I walked into class and began my pre-lecture preparation; I expressed how excited I was to teach passive voice. I picked out one student in particular — a quiet dark-haired young woman — and asked if she had trouble sleeping the previous night.
Her eyebrow jutted upward, Spock-like. “Trouble sleeping?” she asked.
“You were so excited about my passive voice lesson that you couldn’t sleep. Right?”
The young woman, familiar with my personality, played along. She looked me in the eye and said, in a perfect monotone, “That’s right professor. I couldn’t sleep last night. I live for passive voice.”
“You know,” I continued, “I’ll allow you to live-tweet this lesson. It’d be a public service.”
Her: “Sure, Professor W; I’ll live tweet. I can barely contain my excitement.”
Then another student piped in. An older student, one with years of mind-numbing jobs to color his view of the world, seemed flabbergasted by my excitement.
“You’ve never dreaded going to work, have you?” he inquired.
I answered him honestly. “Never.”
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My pedagogical philosophy — that rigorous education should be a joyous process — came to me quite serendipitously. My first official teaching gig in higher education was a developmental writing class, a course I was woefully unprepared to teach. I had prepped for college composition, a class for students who could write at the college level. Instead, I ended up with English learners unfamiliar with verb conjugation, returning students whose last writing class had been 10 years ago, and high schoolers who were negligently passed through the system. Some days, students just seemed absent, disinterested. Usually, the detachment intensified when I went over grammar. Lectures just weren’t working, regardless of all the positive energy I tried to bring to the table.
So I became Alex Trebek.
I held a “Grammar Jeopardy” game show. I separated students into four groups, each group collaborating to earn points. Suddenly, with the altered format, students engaged. A skinny young kid in the corner — whose only contributions to discussions to that point had been monosyllabic — began encouraging his groupmates: “C’mon,” he urged. “We’ve got to win this game!” Students began to discuss and analyze grammatical riddles. The classroom transformed.
Grammar Jeopardy remains a staple in my curriculum, even in college-level courses. The winning teams earn nothing more than bragging rights and some candy, but for some students this lesson plan is transformative. I’ve seen English-language learners blush as their fellow teammates congratulate them for their grammar acumen. I’ve witnessed a student accurately define a gerund!
I’m lucky to work on a campus that encourages instructors to push the pedagogical envelope and make learning an enjoyable experience. It’s a place where academic freedom actually means something. It’s a stark contrast to many American high schools where — at least according to some stories I’ve heard — lesson plans are scripted and moribund curriculum is sometimes mandatory.
America’s current academic landscape troubles me. The landscape calls for constant testing and swift budget cuts for those schools that fail to live up to test-driven expectations. Education is a serious business; there’s not time for fun. I refer to this philosophy as the “Tiger Mother” approach to education, named after the Amy Chua book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Chua eliminated all joy from her home when she raised her two daughters. Television and playdates were forbidden. If a daughter refused to finish piano practice, the consequences were steep. Once, when her then-3-year-old daughter disobeyed her, Chua made her leave the house and stand outside in the snow.
The Chua approach works for some. (Her daughters are quite the musical prodigies.) However, I worry that this atavistic approach to learning also leaves many talented kids behind.
Our country seems to embrace the “Tiger Mother” approach to education. America tests students perpetually. Even amid educational reform — the pedagogical flavor of the decade appears to be “common core” — excessive tests continue to be a driving force in education. It’s all about that next test.
The result of this test-based overemphasis? Third graders endure hours-long tests — and children as young as first grade experience lesson plans about how to take multiple-choice exams. (At least that’s what happened to one of my sons.)
This mind-numbing approach to education has undoubtedly impacted some of my colleagues, colleagues perhaps unwittingly indoctrinated into the “Tiger Mother” approach to education. They view my whimsical lesson plans pejoratively. When students take other classes, they are sometimes greeted with a warning: “This isn’t fun and games like Weinshilboum’s class.” What amazes me is that my colleagues are incredibly wise — far wiser than I. Yet, some seem to embrace the illogical premise that academic rigor and fun are mutually exclusive.
Although my classes involve Alex Trebek impersonations and the occasional colorful metaphor, they remain demanding. If students fail to show mastery of the course, they will not pass. Allowing unprepared students to move on — to take other college courses that either recommend or demand success in college composition — is anathema to me. I have a fair number of students who either withdraw or do not pass because they simply did not meet my expectations.
But that doesn’t mean my classroom has to be a fucking morgue.
I worry that Academia Americanus’ somber attempts to improve student success through excess testing can be counterproductive. I would posit that American education is losing sight of the purpose of rigor, and perhaps forgetting an important component of education: passion.
I want my students to love what they’re doing. I want them to push themselves so they can master subjects and concepts that fascinate them.
Right now, the prevailing narrative in America is that education — particularly higher education — should lead to jobs. The implicit argument of the Tiger Mother approach to education is this: You might as well learn about suffering in school because that’s what you’re going to do when you have a real job. To me, this philosophy is not acceptable. If students leave my campus in search of “just a job,” my institution and my country have failed them. We should aspire for more: we should aspire to help the next generation find careers that they love.
David Weinshilboum is an iconoclastic English professor at Cosumnes River College. He lives in Davis, CA with his two sons. You can contact him at email@example.com.