Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Book Club Classroom (or How to Destroy School)




There is another possible working model for Alfie Kohn's homework free class that is worth consideration, the book club. When I lived in Columbus I co-chaired a book club for those on the autism spectrum. Every week we would meet for an hour and discuss around fifty pages of a given book. We did books ranging from two to four hundred pages so we did a different book about every one to two months. We did short stories like Isaac Asimov's robot stories, Sherlock Holmes and H. P. Lovecraft. We also did full novels like Killer Angels, Twilight, Catch-22 and Sabriel. Like any classroom, we had a range of people in the club. In our case we ranged from graduate students in literature to people who had trouble picking up books to read to begin with. Not everyone did the reading every week (some less often than others) so we usually did not have full participation. Also not everyone came every week. No one was forced to come to book club. We were there because we liked the company and liked talking about the books.

It is not unreasonable that our book club could be used to replace a literature class. The sort of "class" this would give us would be much more democratic and there would be no mandatory homework or tests. The teacher could come to the first day of class with some suggested books and the students could come with some of their suggestions. Everyone could make their case for their book of choice and afterwards everyone could vote. The book with the most votes wins. Other books that did not win can still be considered for the next vote and it would be even expected that books (like presidential candidates) will lose in their first run, which will serve to bring it to people's attention, only to win on the next try. After choosing a book, it will be announced that we will be discussing a certain number of pages or chapters for the next class. Some people will do the reading and take part in the class discussion and others won't. When the book is finished we can vote on the next book and the process continues. Since no one has to do any of the assignments there is no reason to give tests or even to give grades. Everyone is in class because they want to be. Some people might actually want to talk about the books and others might just want to hang out.

This process could easily be adapted to history. Greetings class in modern Jewish history, I am your teacher. For this coming week would you like to talk about Hasidism, the Enlightenment, the Holocaust or the founding of the State of Israel? Once we have picked the topic I can point you to the relevant parts of the textbook, primary sources, and outside academic literature that you may wish to read. Please feel no pressure, do the reading if you feel like it and if you would like to actively take part in class. If there is a topic that really interests you, I will gladly help you do further research and will even to write a paper. I am not in charge of you; you are all here because you wish to be. I am simply here to help run discussions and so that my particularly training in these fields may be used.

The potential problem with this is its mandatory nature. Those students who do not do the non-mandatory reading are for all intents and purposes not in class and are no different from the students who do not bother to even show up to this non-mandatory class. One can certainly make a very good case that modern Jewish history and even literature are not of critical importance and that therefore there is no need for them to be mandatory. These are nice things for students to engage in and so they should be available for those students who wish to take the classes. The moment we decide that class should be mandatory then we commit ourselves to making sure that students actually come to class and actually doing work. This means that we actually have to check to see if the work is being done. This means graded homework and tests.

The question of payment raises similar issues. As long as I am doing the book club on a volunteer basis it is only something of interest to me whether anyone actually gains something from coming to book club. The moment I become a salaried teacher then I become answerable to the school, which directly pays my salary, and to parents, who indirectly pay my salary. Obviously they are paying me to run my book club classroom for a reason and it is only reasonable that I offer some hard evidence to show that their money is not being wasted. By assigning homework and tests I can procure hard empirical evidence that my students have mastered the concepts that I was paid to give over (or that my students are lazy/stupid and it is not my fault).

In theory this book club model can be used even for math and science allowing us to turn the entire school system into a series of book clubs in which students can pursue their interests without ever being forced to do homework or take a test. Teachers would either be volunteers or baby sitters hired for their particular academic training. This would mean the end the end of mandatory schooling. Let us be honest, this means my childhood dream of destroying school would come true, leaving students with clubs to attend (if they wish). The adult me might also be willing to do away with school, but is this Kohn's plan?

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