Kamikaze Pedagogy

It’s grading time again, end of the semester, when I must put a number on everyone’s forehead. Numbers make me a little crazy, which means that this must be Random Radical Idea Day.

I’ve been teaching long enough to have a few radical ideas. I do not equate ‘radical’ with ‘crazy.’ The word comes from the Latin ‘radix,’ meaning ‘root.’ (Whence ‘radish.’)

Radical ideas are those which dig down to the roots of things. True radicals are not those ranting against things. They are not the idiots who plant bombs in shopping malls to make their point. Nor are they the people who lament the passing of ‘the way we’ve always done things.’

True radicals are those who look for the simple idea hidden by all the weedy consequences that flow from its root. When things go wrong, we don’t blithely sprinkle more seed, hoping that something new will grow. We don’t burn down the garden. We go back into the ground, looking for the source of the trouble. We get dirt under our fingernails.

We are seekers of the one true radish.

I get a lot of mail that I don’t read. Aside from the sacrifice of innocent trees who never wished junk mail on anyone, it is a waste of time. I see my life slipping into the trash, one ad at a time.

School junk mail is even more annoying. I get catalogs of things my students can sell, programs that will let me get my master’s degree on the internet, and letters from downtown announcing new programs and opportunities that are really just the same old programs and opportunities with new acronyms.

One year, I threw away everything in my school mailbox without reading it, reasoning that it would make life simpler. I felt a zen-like calm. Several months later, my principal came to my door and asked, “Have you renewed your license yet? The board of education just called…”

If the board of education calls, the news is never good. Zen is a dangerous philosophy.
But radishes are still good.

The necessary evil of grades bring out the radish-hunter in me. Did Socrates give grades? Did Aristotle give tests? How can I be expected to value one student’s learning experience over another’s?

And what is an “A”? Is an A student the one who fills in all the right bubbles, turns in all the worksheets, volunteers an answer to question number 5? Is an A student the one who does everything I expect, or more than I expect?

Sometimes the students who get A’s have the least adventuresome minds. They do not thirst for wisdom; they grapple for points. These are the same ones who are dismayed when they eventually figure out that in life, doing homework is less important than passing the test. Life doesn’t give you participation points or extra credit for making a poster.

In my radical mode I thought it would be fairer just to give everybody a C. Those who really deserved a D or an F wouldn’t protest, and those who deserved a higher grade would come in to see me, to convince me that they were worthy of a higher grade. If (after a bit of Socratic dialogue) they proved their case, I would give them the grade.

That was just a notion, though. I’ve never had the nerve to try it. It might simplify my life, but it would also lower expectations. Not only are lower expectations bad for educating kids, they also make everyone whine a lot when you try to raise your standards later. And whining will certainly bring the principal to your door.

But I continue to dig.

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