I am not raising free-range children nor am I a helicopter parent. I view these terms with suspicion, as they are generally used to berate parents or to brand the activity previously known as being a parent. But the fact that we have such modifiers reveals quite a bit about our cultural anxieties about interdependence and risk. We want children to be independent as quickly as possible, yet view with suspicion parents who allow their child to play in a park alone. These anxieties are not limited to the sphere of parenting, but surface in conversations about politics, money, and the coddling of college students. These anxieties do not resonate with my sense of myself as a parent — or as a teacher.
If I had to give myself a modifier, I’d probably go with loving parent, as brand-resistant as that is, because love includes most of the messiness I experience as a parent — the passion, exhaustion, the not-knowing, the ever-present distance between human beings. What I have tried to do – along with my husband and children — is to create home as a nurturing place for all of us who live here – parents, children, and animals alike. Home is where we can be most ourselves, share our vulnerabilities, be encouraged by those who love us most, and gather the strength and courage needed to take risks in the world. My children and I are sensitive, introverted sorts, and we really need the strength and recharging that comes from our home.
But of course then I send my children out into the world – to school, public spaces, and online communities where they get to practice being with others and expressing themselves. I leave the house too, and while I’ve been at it longer, I find that I still need practice being with others and expressing myself.
Courses that I am taking through the Digital Pedagogy Lab (“Teaching with Twitter” and “Learning Online,” although I’m sure they’re all great) have made me realize that I don’t teach the way I parent. For sure, I have taken my role as co-creator of the home base seriously. I think about the arrangement of the room or the online space and how conversations will, or will not, flow. I hold the space of the classroom with my trust of my students and my affection for them. I use humor and openness to create a shared space where students can express their ideas, ask questions, and be vulnerable. I encourage students to join me in creating this environment, and I celebrate when they do.
But I do not send my students into the world.
Of course, they are always in “the world,” (We are the world!) and I encourage them to connect the learning of our class with the other parts of their lives. But my class doesn’t give them active opportunities to practice being in the world — to cross the proverbial busy street, or to get change from the cashier, to keep the analogy going.
I’ve had experiments with this – Facebook pages were particularly successful (before students left Facebook), but now I see how that was little more than my being in the world and sending reports back for my students. I used Facebook to post news articles and other conversations that were relevant to our course. It was exciting to show students how people in the world were wrestling with the same questions that we were, and sometimes students would contribute to the page, but about 80% of the experience was akin to my traveling and sending back postcards for my students: Wish You Were Here.
Where is here? It is not one place, of course, but I am sure that it is not inside my classroom, whether physical or online. Just as I create a nurturing home to empower my children to leave my home, I need to rethink my relationship to my classroom.
Class is where we empower students to live outside the class, to be out “in the world,” to be engaged citizens and critical consumers — to be lifelong learners, teachers, partners, parents, humans.
There are, of course, many ways to do this. Some universities move students towards the larger world through internships and service learning, and these can be positive experiences. But we need more — particularly in thinking about experience beyond job training.
I see more clearly now how the traditional essay, meaningful only within my class, is not dissimilar from the way I played store with my kids in the living room. Separated from a larger context, the writing practice of an essay is valuable, but only as practice for an experience in the wild, with all of the relevance, reward, and risk that entails.
College students are adults and should be invited into conversations about relative risk. Even the most free-range parent does not send toddlers to cross a busy intersection on their own; rather, the adult assesses the risk and provides opportunities for the beginner to practice new skills. Assessing their own risk tolerance is a good mechanism for students to know themselves — not only as students, but as human beings. Some students will be ready to cross the four-lane highway, while others will want a lower-risk engagement. Still others will need anonymity on the internet for personal reasons.
I’m still figuring out what this will look like in my classroom, and I will continue to learn from those who are further along on this path. Right now, I’m imagining that allowing my students to experience the small risks of being in the world from within the supportive environment of my class might entail:
- Helping students to find relevant people to follow on Twitter and encouraging them to begin with retweets and favorites
- Hosting class twitter chats
- Overseeing public blogs written by my students and promoting them to my networks
- Asking students to engage in an activity and to share it in some way (social media, blogs, you tube video, etc).
- Asking students to create a photoessay on Instagram, engaging with the issues of the class
- Asking students to answer a particular question in their own worlds, and sharing their results through a public webpage. For example, students might be asked to find examples of interfaith cooperation in the world, and to post about them on our class page.
Different students will be ready for different levels of risk, and here too is where the role of the teacher is paramount. We have to help our students evaluate their own tolerance for risk, but also to introduce them to the pleasures of being “in the wild” – talking to new people about your ideas, feeling relevant to a conversation, making a difference, and having your work read and appreciated by someone outside of your classroom.
Of course, many students already know these pleasures; they can be the leaders in the class and teach their open-minded but ever-learning instructor.