Thursday, December 2, 2010

My fifty-foot paperclip made of foam rubber

My advanced-level writing students had one final assignment to do after their education reform blog posts; I asked them to design (or redesign) their own university-level course. The bulk of the assignment would be spent justifying their choices (How will it be taught? By whom? Where? How will students be evaluated? What assignments/work will students do? What are the learner outcomes?), but this assignment was an opportunity for the students to re-imagine the university course as they know it.

When we first started talking about education reform in class, I showed them Sir Ken Robinson's animated video about changing the education paradigm. In it, he talks about divergent thinking and asks how many different uses we can think of for a paper clip. The idea is that if you can imagine the paper clip to be "fifty feet tall and made of foam rubber," among other ways, then you are pretty good at divergent thinking (and thus are more likely to be creative). I told my students, this assignment is your opportunity to try imagine your own fifty-foot paper clip made of foam rubber and what could be done with it.

Like this class was for me.

Look, I know that for a lot of people, assigning students a blog post instead of an essay and having them read up on and write about current events isn't groundbreaking. In fact, more often than not, my class resembled any other typical university writing class. Part of the reason is because the class is considered a general education course, and thus has to meet a whole list of university-imposed guidelines, standards, and learning outcomes. And, being a new, non-tenure-track instructor, there is only so much boat-rocking I am willing to do, just in case.

But, creating this class was still a challenge and an adventure for me. It was unlike any writing course I had taught before. I experiemented, and it seems to have paid off. Next semester, who knows what the course will look like? I'm learning as I go, and expanding what I am willing (and able) to do. I'm also hoping that my students will offer some ideas in their assignments.

Their ideas for courses sound great so far. One student thinks it would be a good idea to offer a cooking class for Freshmen. Another wants there to be a general education course in debating, to teach students how to argue and listen effectively and not just yell at each other. And yet another wants to bring students out into the field to do local sociological studies. I am eager to see how they imagine delivering the course; will it be the same-old lecture-essay-test format that so many of the class they have taken use, or will they try to move beyond that?

I told my students that I was going to miss them and this class when the semester ends next week. The course wouldn't have been nearly as successful if they hadn't been willing to come along with me for the ride. I had two sections, forty students, who have worked really hard and have been fantastically receptive to my crazy ideas. Part of my goal in this class was to show them what their education could be. I think that another small goal was to show myself, too.

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