Playing with Teaching Words, Part 1: Homework & Bucket List

23 Jun

So, What if…

What if we stopped using homework to name that part of a learning process or practice that we want students to compose (and notice I’m not using complete here) when they’re sat down to do the work of learning (and notice I’m not using to do the assignment) ahead of participating in (rather than coming to) a next class session?  

What if we attend to what we know about where students actually are sat when they’re doing what we might call preparing for class assignments – because it’s probably not at home where they’re doing the work, and our students are probably not the only ones in whatever rooms where they’ve landed to do work.

And, what if we prodded students a bit toward seeing that they’re not working toward some Bucket List of later in life rewards, but working toward playing with ideas – which they might list for later consideration and use – that will last across a life and a lifetime?  What if we think about learning as part of life, as part of play, as part of what we do across cultures and across lifetimes? And what if we held these things dear as actionable Play Lists?

On Banning Words

I love words.  I love what people make from words: The meaning making that come when people gather together to share stories, to play music, to shape fun through comedy and sport, to make ways for lives emerging through drama and literature.

I love that learning involves making meaning in dialogue with others – using our words to pick up on threads of agreement, to invite multiple perspectives for illumination, to welcome dissent as a integral factor in knowledge making, and to hash through misconceptions, gaps and errors in knowing as part of enacting social justice.

It’s in that context – one that welcomes wisely playing with words as part of loving words – that I have been working to remove certain words from my teaching vocabulary over the past year in order to shake loose the (too passive for my taste) practices attaching themselves to the words:

  • Homework
  • Bucket List
  • Active Learning
  • Scaffolding

In their place, I’ve been

  • creating preparing for class assignments,
  • making room for play lists,
  • focusing on learning, and
  • considering ways to sequence, support, and sustain learning.

And why not?  After all, these last phrasing are closest to what I want to be doing in advocating for learning and teaching that goes on in courses I design as an instructor of record – and for the entire enterprise of higher education.

This week, it’s the rethinking of Homework and Bucket List that I’ll address.  Next week, it’ll be turning Active Learning to Active Learning, and the replacing of Scaffolding.

On Preparing for Class Assignments 

There was that moment a few years ago when I realized my observational data were telling me that students were largely completing “homework” at coffeeshops, in computer labs, at the table of a friend or family member, or in the hallway between work and class.  Not at home.  And in talking with those students, I learned that the work was being seen as being a task, an exercise, a lesson to be completed as part of a tick box listing of course requirements.  I remembered being that student – until the last year of college.

In that last year of undergraduate school, I completed a new major and made the Dean’s List every term.  I was not suddenly “buckling down” or checking out of classes by “giving the teacher what he wanted.”  I was preparing for class.  The work I completed ahead of class sessions was work I used in class sessions – sometimes talking with peers, sometimes to be part of leading a discussion, and as often to be referenced as I listened to the presentation segments my political science teachers presented that day – most of those presentations building on what we would already have read, made notes about, talked over with peers in comparing notes ahead of coming to class.

That last year of undergraduate school shaped me as a teacher – is, in fact, why I became a teacher and took on the masters degree school to phd school route.  I continued that spirit and tradition of creating “preparing for class” assignments that become launching points for discussions, for inclass problem solving activities with links to our dual classroom and beyond the classroom worlds, and for next presentations, readings and doings via larger assignments. 

So, as a teacher of teachers – with student participants who were themselves learning about learning and learning ways of teaching – why did the assignment created by my future faculty still feel like homework to me, to their peers, to them?  They were certainly planning interesting, innovative and spot on “preparing for class” and in class activities.  And they were still labeling this work as homework – on syllabi for courses they were designing as well as in sessions they were conducting within the class.  And I was still labeling all of this as “Work Due” on our course syllabus.  My spoken words and intent did not match my written words.

 I began excising the words “homework” and “Work Due” from my syllabus and stopped using the words in spoken and written remarks I shared with students.  With that shift, several anxieties were lifted:

Early in the term, students stopped wondering whether and when I was going to collect the work they had completed in preparing for class; instead, they came to see the many ways they were using that work in class to move ahead in their learning, and they came to annotate those documents directly to add new ideas, information before I ever collected anything, and I left them know ways I saw – and often heard – that they making use of the work, bringing it into discussions, drawing on what others had come to share, and capturing insights through these working in class moments that would take them in new directions.

As a teacher, I planned class sessions to build on what students prepared: the presentations, formative assessments and low- to medium-stakes assignments, teacher feedback, peer activities and feedback, uses of technology – all of these things I could build from their work.  That was, of course, true when my spoken words said “preparing for class work” while Moodle-published assignments still carried “homework” or “work due” reminders.

The big shift during this year of intentionally banning homework as a phrase in anything I wrote or said not only continued to reduce student anxieties about what to prepare, how to prepare it and what to do if they couldn’t sometimes fully prepare for class.  This small gesture affirmed for more students that they were, indeed, jointly responsible with me for class preparation, class conduct and course learning.  They “showed up” for and in class even more brightly than before.  They “showed up” for one another in connecting ideas, collaborating to name new insights, stealing (and attributing) ideas from one another.

Best of all, in this class bringing together future faculty designing course materials, the materials they designed more fully integrated the “preparing for class assignment” ethos into plans for learning students would engage before class and in class – whether on their own or with formal teams or informal peer groups in either of these settings.  The assignments acknowledged that work might happen in coffeeshops, in hallways and labs, over kitchen tables and shared computers.  Where this connecting was invited, that was noted.  When the individualized course was expected, that requirement was noted.

For now, I’m going to continue on this pathway of banning the word homework from my vocabulary, and I’m going to keep talking with others about how and why this is a wise conceptual and practical move for the complex, mutually responsible, highly interactive learning necessary for our contemporary world.  (And, it’s time for that 2018 survey of then recent Teaching in Higher Education students, there will be questions about whether and how they have continued to think – and talk – about how they create and name their own preparing for class assignments.)

On Making Play Lists  

I watched The Bucket List on an airplane bound for London in 2008, my first trip abroad.  I didn’t much like the movie – and in that wasn’t different from many movie reviewers.  Like them, I called the film schmaltzy – excessively sentimental, maudlin, corny, fussy without any “there” really “being there.”  Empty sentiment with an edge of “poor cancer victim.” 

To be honest, and when am I not that as a writer, the “Bucket List” idea completely turned me off even before I saw the movie.  I’d been trying to convince my parents to go out and play after long physically and intellectually demanding work lives.  I’d worked with them to address their working class fears that money would run out if they travelled and their paralyzing belief that aging bodies posed too many “what ifs” for pursuing travel and other interests penciled onto their imagined Bucket Lists.  

Really, doesn’t fulfilling the “Bucket List” wish list – as a concept and practice in the real world, in this globalized world – require economic advantage, physical wherewithal, and a grab bag of other positional privileges?  For most of the world, such a list can only be a listing of things we hope to – and know we will not come to – accomplish or do during our lifetimes.  We put them on an imaginary list, and when we don’t get to them, no one need see the “failure” or “regret.”

On landing for my sabbatical journeys in the UK – which I could afford only with a small sum I’d inherited on selling my growing up house after each of my parents died at age 70 –  I shaped the Play List wording as part of my learning and teaching vocabulary.  Using my Diigo social bookmarking account and blog posts, for example, I could record ideas I wanted to try as a teacher as well as note readings I hoped to read someday.  In these moves, I could share, be accountable for, contemplate and revise “playlists” holding together what I hoped would shape a next course I designed or that I could mine in planning the next day’s class session.  

Maybe a Teaching/Learning Play List could be about courses we dream of teaching, of the study abroad opportunity we’d like to pursue, of assessing student learning after we teach a class the first time, of adding small writing assignments into our STEM courses, of trying out some of the learning technologies that we “really like to try out” someday, sooner rather than later.  Maybe the lists grows from readings, recommendations, observations, and discussions taking shape in our serendipitous campus and community, teaching and learning lives.

I select playlists in my iTunes account to structure my days – different lists for different places, moods, work tasks, learning or contexts: Manchester [England] Music, Mankato Music, Welsh Music, Carter-Cash Family Music, Folkies I Love, and Country Americana Rap Roots.  I shuffle and choose from and rework these regularly.  These are daily touchstones as are my playlists of world-wide radio stations via TuneIn.  Playlists invite engagement and reciprocity: I curate them, I share them, I make choices daily about when and which music to play alongside my work.

My Teaching/Learning/Life Play List (none of which includes skydiving and all of which include travel as well as engagement with music, art, reading, teaching and people) contains four strands that I broadly carry in my head –

  • Create Fun
  • Make Possible More Learning 4 More Students
  • Enact Multicultural Learning is Everybody’s Everyday Work
  • Keep Learning

– as daily ways of being active, operative, or relevant, all of which are additional definitions of play.  As with iTunes, these playlists exist in digital and analog spaces I have carved out.  Like iTunes each list lives somewhere where it can be dynamic, can be used now, can be shared, can reshape, and can exist beyond my lifetime to suggest where I have been and where I had intended to head.

I will continue exhorting my students, advisees, colleagues, friends and family to “Play well” each day, and I will suggest they play a bit of kick the can with that Bucket List idea, and begin to engage in a bit of play – that creative endeavor children know not to give up in the here and now for the promise of some future play date. 

On Playing with Teaching Words

What words might you want to re-shape, drop from use, infuse with other – though less common – connotative and denotative meanings?  While dropping the active from my way of talking about learning and unpacking scaffolding are high on my list, I’m also wrangling with moving references to “soft” and “hard” skills or academic disciplines out of my daily parlance, and to not making “developmental outcomes” something different from “learning outcomes.”  

Why play with teaching words?  Our students change, our concepts change, our worlds change – all of which indicate that our words can grow and change as part of our own learning work in the practice of teaching.

Part 2 – On Scaffolding and Outcomes: https://uminntilt.wordpress.com/2014/07/07/on-banning-my-own-frequently-used-words-part-2/.

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2 Responses to “Playing with Teaching Words, Part 1: Homework & Bucket List”

  1. Tim G. 24 June 2014 at 12:54 pm #

    Great post–I think that “homework” has almost entirely negative connotations of busywork, perfunctory points-accumulation, and resentment. I’ll re-think my usage. I’ve long avoided using the phrase “rough draft” in writing assignments, as I think it implies “careless work” rather than “work focused on ideas as opposed to surface features.” Instead, I ask students to develop “workshop drafts,” that is, drafts that will receive comments and undergo revision.

  2. UMinnTeachLearn 24 June 2014 at 2:44 pm #

    Yes, yes! I like workshop drafts as the phrasing – makes clearer that composing a full draft is the task, and a nice signal for that next requirement of bringing questions with the draft to spark/guide reviewers in responding.

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