Holding On and Letting Go

As I wait for my children to finish the games they are playing so that we can go to Target to buy more storage bins, I thought about two seemingly unrelated trends in my life. I look around at a cluttered house filled with stuff nobody wants to get rid of. I think about the curriculum where there are topics that nobody wants to edit down. Both can be make me feel overwhelmed.

I am pretty certain of how I plan to solve the clutter problem. We will go and get storage bins, which I will fill with things I do not want to throw out or give away. After filling them, they will go down into the storage room in the basement. That’s what a storage room is for, right? While I certainly do not want to become a hoarder and will still take opportunities to pass along things I know we are done with, there is that in between zone of things we do not want to use right now, but might come back to later.

In my classes this year, I have been building in more opportunities for student autonomy in their learning. I have colleagues who have humored me and followed along. We have given students Free Research days to spend the class studying and learning about the historical topic of interest to them. They post a summary of their findings on a forum. In looking ahead to the junior year research paper, we had Free Reading day where students spent class reading a book about a topic that they thought might be interesting to pursue for a research paper. We have provided class time for student blogging. I feel strongly that if we value something in our courses, we should devote some class time to it. Overall, I have been pretty happy with these days. Not every student has taken full advantage of these opportunities, but that is true no matter how we use class time. Through conversations, blog posts, and forum posts, I can see that for a number of students these activities have been important, even treasured.

To provide these student-directed opportunities that do not necessarily further the shared curriculum of the class, we need to cut back on the amount of historical material that we cover together. While I believe wholeheartedly that we need to let go of the idea that we can create some sort of comprehensive narrative that students will take away from our class and even the idea that such an outcome is desired, there is still a part of me that does not want to let go of topics. I believe that students constructing their knowledge is more valuable in the long term, but in the short term it is less efficient. They will have a better understanding of what they do know, but they will have been exposed to less information and ideas. I am generally pretty comfortable with this notion, but not all of my colleagues are, and even I have my moments of inner doubt.

So, how does the teaching part relate to the cluttered house? I think we need to be packing away some of our favorite lessons and materials, as well as some topics that are near and dear to us. To increase the relevance of our content, there are things that we may choose to highlight one year and not another due to current events. There are some things that are so central to our courses, that they may never be put on the shelf, but some things may have clearly outlived their usefulness. Much of what we taught had value and still does, but given the time limits we have not everything of value gets done. We do not have to throw our cherished but dusty lessons away. We can store them for a day in the future we cannot predict. Just like I might want that Happy Festivus t-shirt from a decade ago someday, I may have the chance to teach about Che Guevara again in the future. Better yet, I could have a student who is interested in learning about him, and I will be prepared to go into storage and pull out materials that could help.

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