My Current Problem with Death

I teach a class in the Philosophy of Death.

Let’s talk about the ridiculousness of that for a moment, shall we?

First, the details. This class meets twice a week for 45 minutes. I have four students in it — the youngest is fourteen; the next youngest is seventeen; and the last two are eighteen. All four of them are engaged participants in every single class. They take  diligent notes, and even discuss passionately with me the structure of those notes, wanting to make sure that what they’re writing down is what I’m trying to get across. I shit you not. The class ends at 12:00pm, lunch time, and every single class, at least two if not all four students choose to stay in their seats and continue our discussion (including a student whose hunger knows no bounds).

These incredible young students come to class every week and expect me — me! — to teach them about the Philosophy of Death.

That’s ridiculous. Utterly ridiculous.

What do I know of death?

I’ll tell you what I know of death. One of my students died this year. He was nineteen years old. The young man was no saint, and he died in the company of known criminals, of a gunshot wound, shot in the early hours of the morning in a parked car with his friends, on a dare, with a stolen gun, obtained from a house where the homeowner was assaulted during the robbery, by one of the kids sitting in the car, where my student dared his killer to shoot him, and the shooter did.

I was this boy’s teacher at the last school he attended before dropping out. I was his last formal advisor. He was going down this path before he met me. And he continued down it after me. If anything, I only stalled him for a while and tried to put a smile on his face. I’m not sure I should have tried anything more. I did of course, but not by the end. By the end I only wanted him to know that I still cared. But this isn’t about me. It’s about death.

My great-grandmother’s death is the first one I remember. I remember it in part because my mother often tells the story of how I behaved at the funeral, but it’s not just the story I remember; it’s a visual. We’re seated near the front of the chapel, the priest is just a few yards from us, on my right, and up high, and he’s saying something, and then my eyes go incredibly blurry and I turn my head to the left, looking down and away from the priest, and then my shoulders are shaking, and my breath is coming and going in sobs, and my mother puts her arm around my shoulder and squeezes me tight, except now I’m making such a commotion that she has to take me out the side door of the chapel while the service is still going. In the story, my mother asked me if I understood what the priest was saying, and then she says she could just tell: I understood every word. I was four or five years old.

I really only have one memory of my great-grandmother, but even this could be based on a photograph I’ve seen: she’s seated on a folding chair in the middle of a shaded, sloping lawn. We’re at my family’s summer cabin, and she’s sitting alone up on the grass. Her feet are crossed at the ankles. She’s wearing what appears to be a thin bathrobe over eighty-year-old raggedy bones, but she’s someone who is always nice to me, and her bones don’t scare me. I can feel myself approaching her from her right. I can’t see her face, but I can see that bathrobe and the bones in her arm, her hand lowering to the ground near my head, moving towards me, welcoming me in.

When I was in my twenties, my best friend’s mother died. My memories of her are as strong as my memories of my own mother. I’d known her almost as long, and felt from her almost as much love. She wasn’t a daily presence in my life, especially not by the time I was in my twenties and living in a completely different state, but her son was my best friend and my brother, and so I was in contact with the spirit of her on almost a daily basis. Her death changed him (and changed me) for the better. In her death, she offered with such grace and love her life’s final lesson: this is what courage and dignity looks like.

There have been other deaths in my life. Friends. Family members. Acquaintances. Celebrities. No more than most others, and significantly less than some.

So what do I know of death, and what qualifies me to teach philosophy on the subject? I mean, I’m using the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as my guide, for God’s sake! — and when I say “as my guide,” I should say that what I’m teaching my students is the Encyclopedia; I’m teaching them its entry.

I know, I know. Lame.

In a class on the Philosophy of Death, you don’t just want to look at one source, and if you do, you sure as hell don’t want it to be an encyclopedia. That’s a rookie move.

In a class on the Philosophy of Death, you want to check out all the weird shit from Asia and Africa and South America; and you want to see what the Egyptians had to say about it — after all, if anyone made an art form of death, it was the Egyptians, the first dead people anyone decides to teach us about, in the sense that elementary school teachers seem to not show us pictures of George Washington’s grave or discuss the Colonialists’ burial rituals; they do, however, show us the pyramids and tell us they’re built as monuments to death and filled with kings and queens who have been mummified by priests, a process which could be considered totally creepy (hence, the Mummy as a monster), but is discussed more for its novelty than its sense (or lack thereof) of humanity.

But you also want to make sure it’s a philosophy class, and not just a class for a multicultural tourist. True, it’s a high school class and not a college class, so you don’t have to get too deep on the philosophy side of things, but you ought to reveal some of the major questions around the topic.

Even more, you want to make sure it’s an engaging class. You want the kids to experience philosophy in action. You want them to criticize what you’re trying to teach them and doubt the ideas you put on the board. You want them to scrutinize the language you use and to document your logic while not accepting its dogma. You want them to point out your lesson’s flaws and double-check its facts, even the most basic ones, such as what philosopher said what when. You want them to disagree with each other, challenge each other to define their terms. You want them to discover moments of both clarity and confusion and feel a passionate compulsion to express any questions or doubts.

But you’ve only got so much time in the day. And you have other classes, and other responsibilities, not least of which are your responsibilities as both a father and husband. As a whole person, and not just a teacher, you can’t just be studying death all day. So as a teacher, you have to make choices.

As a teacher, I have to make choices. Should I choose to put my effort into engaging my students each week with 90 minutes of active philosophizing, or should I help them develop a slightly deeper understanding than they may already have about some of humanity’s most cherished ideas?

To do the latter would be to invest a lot of energy into my own education, and would become an almost all-consuming project. It wouldn’t take into account my need to teach a class on women’s studies, a class on academic writing, and a class in which I must lead four young adventurers on an original and yet more-than-improvised campaign of Dungeons & Dragons. It would also mean neglecting many of my responsibilities beyond the classroom.

To do the former, however, to provide my students with the experience of philosophy, all I have to do is spend at least one or two extra hours a week really studying the topic, and then just try to teach the students whatever I learned the week before. Because the information will be so new me, I won’t really know what I’m talking about, which might sound bad, but that will give my students ample opportunity to criticize and question, and then watch and listen as I wrestle out loud with their implications.

With two hours of studying outside of the classroom, I’ll  definitely know at least little more than they do. And of course, I’ll already possess an undergraduate background in Continental philosophy, which means not everything I read will be exactly new to me. That background should also allow me to put up reasonable (or at least time-wasting) defenses on any of the arguments I haven’t fully researched or understood, which again, sounds bad, but will force the students to penetrate to the heart of an idea from more than one angle.

Two hours a week studying the philosophy of death? I can do that in my sleep. Literally. I can lay down at the end of the day with any text even tangentially related to the topic and study it as I fall asleep. Right now, on my own time and out of my own sense of interest, I’m already reading the King James Version of the New Testament, the book most responsible for what America’s dominant culture thinks about death. If I can support that by also reading some more analytically sound thoughts on death, I should be fine.

But I don’t want to read a whole book on death, per se, so articles it’ll have to be. But how to distinguish a reputable article from another? How to find an article or series of articles that will give me enough scope of philosophy’s take on the subject while also making sure I don’t get bogged down in any academic squabbling about details?

The Stanford Encyclopedia. I’ll start there. But shit, have you ever tried to read that thing? They don’t just give you a short entry on something. They break that shit down, take on various theories, reveal various biases on the part of the authors, etc. I’ve only got one to two hours a week, man! I can’t just knock out the Stanford Encyclopedia and move on to the next article. If I’m going teach anything about it, I’ve got to think that shit over. I’ve got to read it slow and re-read certain sections, make sure I understand the logic.

So that’s what I’ve been doing.

Which means, for the past three weeks. I’ve been teaching my students what the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has to say about Death.

Unfortunately, I’m only about halfway through it, and it’s starting to get old. The entry basically explores the philosophy around two central questions: What is death, and does it harm us? While those questions are interesting (I guess), they’re also not very exciting — or at least, the way they’re discussed by an old white man is not exciting.

I want to show my students more than what an old white man seems to think.

For that, I’m going to need something that comes from the darker cultures (in every sense of that word), something I can pull up from the moist wet soil of the Earth, a cultural philosophy of death that was once buried and forgotten but has now been returned to us, alive and vital.

I don’t want to talk about the Egyptians, unless it’s the Egypt of the Muslim Brotherhood and the military junta, the deaths of people in the streets. Nor do I want to talk about the Indians, unless its the rituals of the telephone operators when they go home at night, contrasted with the rituals of the farmers in the south. I don’t want to talk about the west Africans, or the Aztecs, or the Incas; not the Navajo, those stand-ins for the peaceful Indians, nor the Apache, the Spartans of North America. The Inuit is a possibility; northeastern Russia as well. Japan and China would be little more than a cliche, a blind-eyed choice that excludes the Koreas, Vietnam, and all the other cultures to the south, each with their own rich heritage.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead, alone, could be its own nine-week class.

How to choose? And how to figure out the reasons to choose? I’ve only got one to two hours a week, one to two sleepy hours, and at least a portion of those two hours must remain committed to reading something analytical, if only to exercise the analytical skills I need to successfully teach the class for ninety minutes a week.

But wait a second! Don’t I work at a democratic school?! At a democratic school, the teacher doesn’t have to be the one who makes the choice. I only have to present the options as openly as possible to my students, and let them decide. I’m confident I’ll be able to take it from there.

But then it strikes me — What if I’m going about this all wrong? Shouldn’t a class on the Philosophy of Death consider more than just the human community?  Shouldn’t it embrace the entire community of life? It could explore if animals mourn, for example. Enough videos on YouTube prove that other species process the loss of loved ones, so why not use the class to explore that? Why not bring up some environmental and ecological questions about death? I could pose the question of death from the point of view of climate change and political terror, as the death of humanity as we know it, and the potential extinction of all life on Earth.

So many questions. So many possibilities. And only so much time to figure it all out. That’s my current problem with death.

My New Learning Plan

Yesterday, I spent about an hour working on something called a Learning Plan. At the school where I work, we use Learning Plans to record where each student stands in relation to their education.

A good education doesn’t just happen to a person. Education and learning are activities to be worked on. A student has to want an education, and they have to be willing to put some effort into it (incidental learning is all well and good, but incidental learning should not be a goal; active and engaged learning should be the goal).

To accomplish this, my school puts the student in charge of their own education. The school is there to provide resources — the time and the space to work on projects; the support of caring and curious adults who actively want to see them succeed; access to a network of community partners eager to collaborate with them on a mutually beneficial internship; material support in the way of computers, books, paper, and pencils; and, not the least, the opportunity to receive financial backing for well-researched investments in their future — but (and this is important) the school itself is not there to provide an education.

Only the students, themselves, can do that.

The Learning Plan is one resource we use to help them. The product of several conversations between the student and their advisor, the Learning Plan records the student’s long-term goals and short-term objectives.

It starts by asking them to identify their passion. This is a tough-ass task to accomplish. We use all kinds of tools to get at possible answers, but unless the student wants to seek their passion, coming up with the right answer is all but impossible.

So next we ask the student to consider their interests. They may not know their passion,  but they can almost always come up with something that fascinates them: sharks, battle-axes, tornadoes, etc. If they can’t come up with a detailed answer, they can come up with a broader genre: video games, science, blowing stuff up.

Between their passions and their interests, we can come up with a project or a class that has some real teeth to it in either an academic and/or skill-building sense, something that the student can enthusiastically say “Yes!” to (the best ideas come out of the student’s mouth, of course).

But that’s not the whole Learning Plan. Because a student can’t just come to my school, do whatever they want to do, and then graduate with a high school diploma. It’s not that easy.

As a school, we decided that it means something to earn our high school diploma, and it’s not the same thing as earning a diploma from one of the state-based high schools (and when I say “we decided as a school,” I mean “we” in the broadest sense because my school is completely democratic: staff and students have equal say in the way the school runs, provided they show up to make their voices heard). As a school, we decided that our diploma means the student has accomplished not only the development of basic or college-ready academic skills (which is what most diplomas signify), but that the student has also developed their social and emotional skills.

Every student who graduates from my school must accomplish a suite of over 100 different goals, spaced out over the lifetime of their career. These goals range from the development of their reading skills to the development of their ability to cope with adversity. They not only have to know how to write and do  algebra, they have to know how to build and maintain healthy relationships and understand and manage their moods.

The Learning Plan is where this progress gets recorded. It’s completed on a quarterly basis and attempts to stand true for a period of nine weeks. The students use the Learning Plan to record which specific goals they’re going to pursue and how that pursuit fits into the long-term development of their passion and/or interests.

(Sometimes, because of a failure of either time or imagination, the student and the advisor fail to succeed, and nine weeks pass with very little progress. That’s okay. We don’t penalize either the student or the advisor for that. Students do not “fail” or “stay back” at my school — we refuse to place a label on their progress — instead, students give and receive honest assessments of their work. Education isn’t a race with winners and losers; it’s a craft, requiring patience and discipline from both the apprentice and the master, and its method of assessment should respect and reflect the time and effort put into it.)

But the Learning Plan attempts to capture all of that, and to do so in a single document. That was my job yesterday afternoon. To imagine a bureaucratic form that could best entomb such a living and dynamic process.

We kid ourselves when we tell the students that the Learning Plan is a living document. It’s not. It both captures and kills a whole lot of effort on everybody’s part.

There’s a superstition among creative writers that says it’s bad luck to talk about your works in progress because telling someone your story tricks you into thinking you’ve written it.

The Learning Plan has that danger as well. It sometimes takes so much effort to create a Learning Plan that it saps all of the student’s inspiration and energy, and the rest of the nine weeks may pass with little to no movement. This sets them up to feel like a failure as they neglect to get any real work done.

But here’s the thing: When a person has a Learning Plan, they know what they’re supposed to do, which means they also know when they’re not doing it. This can be a lot for the teenage mind to handle, and it can lead to feelings of depression and guilt, which then can manifest in behavior that looks like anger or aggression. Make no mistake: It’s dangerous goddamn work putting effort into the education of an American teenager, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth it.

Of course, one of the goals of the student and the advisor is to either avoid or learn to cope with such feelings and/or behaviors by making steady progress on an academic and/or social-emotional level.

But how can a bureaucratic form do that utterly humane and naturally chaotic process any real justice? It’s like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. If you want to know exactly what direction a thing is moving, you can’t also know exactly where it is in space. A Learning Plan can show us where a student is right now, but it can’t show us how quickly they are moving.

That’s why my form needed to strike a balance between long-term goals and short-term objectives.  It can’t tell you how they got here or when they’ll get there, but it can tell you where they are right now.

What’s hilarious to me is that when all of this thinking is going on in my head, my students just see me with my feet up on a chair focused on my computer screen. If they actually come around to look at my screen (as they often do), they see some new form on Google Docs with spaces for things like “Name” and “Today’s Date,” and bulleted lists with placeholder text that reads “Select here and start typing.” It must look so friggin’ boring to them.

Little do they know that the Learning Plan I pursued in my twenties and thirties led me to a job where every day I get to utilize my passion for systems-thinking, further my drive to constantly extend my knowledge and comprehension, and act on my desire to make a difference in my community.

It may look boring to my students. But when it comes to my career, I wouldn’t want to do anything else.

Did I finish the form? I did. And then I assigned it to my students. The due date is Friday.

Seriously, doesn’t the completion of a form like that seem like a full time job, yet at the same time, so rewarding? As if it would take a lot of hard work and serious thinking to provide honest answers to its questions, but also and at the same, be totally worth it in the end?

But no, my students won’t see it that way. They’ll see it as homework. And homework is something you do at the last minute, if you do it at all.

Goddamn, it’s frustrating to work with teenagers 🙂

Of G.I. Joes and D&D

At the school where I work, students are required to end each quarter with a speech that reflects on their learning that quarter. But during a recent School Congress, the students proposed and passed a new law stating that one staff member had to give a speech reflecting on the quarter as well. And I drew the short straw. So, here is the speech I made a few nights ago in front of my students, their parent(s)/guardian(s), and some of the other staff members. I hope you enjoy it.

When I was a kid, I played a lot of G.I. Joes. For those of you who might not know, G.I. Joes were 3-inch tall action figures made from die-cast metal. Each figure had a name, a personality (detailed on the back of each box), and some kind of weapon or accessory. The conceit was that the G.I. Joes were a special service in the American military, kind of like Navy SEALs or Army Rangers, but these guys were the elite of the elite. Their task was to defend the world against COBRA, a terrorist organization whose goal was to wrap around the entire world like a giant cobra.

Unlike most action figures at the time, which could (at most) move their arms at the shoulders and their legs at the waist, G.I. Joe action figures had joints in their necks, shoulders, elbows, wrists, waist, knees, and ankles, which meant you could pose them in almost any position you wanted. Not only were these elite soldiers, but they were also elite action figures!

Now, the way I used to “play” G.I. Joes was with a couple of my friends, Eric Goodwin (who I lost touch with back in middle school) and Adam Champion (who is still my best friend today). We’d usually spend at least an hour “setting up” the game, which meant figuring out exactly what the scenario was that day (maybe there was a kidnapping, maybe there was going to be an assasination attempt on a G.I. leader, maybe there was a raid on COBRA’s headquarters, whatever). We’d then take each of the action figures (which probably numbered close to 50) and themir assorted vehicles (which probably numbered more than a dozen) and place them around my bedroom or backyard, all in prepartion for the scenario.

This was the best part of the process, because we’d spend so much time trying to figure out where each character was, what they were doing, why there were doing it, and what they’d do once the action began.

Then, once everything was set up, we’d put the scenario into action. And about five or six minutes later, we were done. One hour of “set up.” Five minutes of “action.”

And that was how we played G.I. Joes.

Fast forward about a dozen or so years, and see me sitting in my boxer shorts at my computer in my tiny little home office, a window fan blowing on me, music playing from my little speakers, sweat pouring down my face and back. My wife is asleep upstairs. It’s about three in the morning in the middle of August, and there’s no relief, not from the heat, nor from the deadline for my creative thesis for graduate school.

And what am I typing away at so furiously? An anti-novel, a 360-page “set up” for a novel, but not a novel itself. I’m developing characters, giving them motivations, placing them in intriguing, highly-detailed settings, and surrounding them with a larger story having to do with the secession of Vermont from the United States.

But what am I not doing? I’m not writing the actual story of the secession. I’m hinting at it, imagining repercussions from its various stages, and predicting outcomes, but I’m not giving the reader any of that stuff. Instead, I’m spending hundreds of hours — HUNDREDS of hours — “setting up” a story, without giving any time to making the story “play out” for the reader. This is what I mean by an anti-novel: it’s all book, no story.

Fast forward again, to April of this year, when several students needed a staff member to play Dungeons & Dragons with them, and try to feel my excitement at the prospect of finally taking the time to play this really dorky game that I’d heard so much about but never had the wherewithal to actually play.

Now, for those of you who don’t know, Dungeons & Dragons is this kind of weird game where each player creates his or her own character by choosing a race (such as elves, gnomes, humans, halflings, etc.), and then giving it a class (such as wizard, fighter, bard, cleric, etc.). That character then becomes an “adventurer,” and gathered together with the other players, you all set out on some kind of quest.

The quest is run by the Dungeon Master, also known as the DM. The DM acts as the narrator for the quest. The DM also plays the roles of all the non-player characters in the story: from the innkeeper in the out-of-the way traveler’s lodge who can point the adventurers in the right direction or the evil wizard who is trying to open the magical gate that will set some hellish monster free.

So, this quarter, I got to play this game, Dungeons & Dragons, with Brandon, Damian, Dan, and Codi. We found a bunch of quests online that we could play, we printed them up, and then we got down to it. I was the Dungeon Master for our first quest, and I loved it. I was able to flex my fiction writing muscles a little bit as the students moved through the quest, making up descriptions and sound effects for all the various stages of the adventure. Unfortunately, all the characters got killed before they could finish the quest.

For our next quest, Dan took over as DM, and I created a character to join the others, a little gnomic bard named Wrenn Timbers. Over the next six weeks or so, our little band of adventurers completed two different quests, and with each success, our powers and abilities got stronger and stronger.

But now we’re at the end of the quarter, and our twice-weekly D&D game is going away (at least for a little while), and that makes me feel a little down. But our experiences this quarter have inspired me to try to build my own quest from scratch, and hopefully sometime this summer, our little band of adventurers will gather together once more to venture out into the wild to try to conquer the forces of evil.

What I love about Dungeons & Dragons is that, just like my G.I. Joes and just like the anti-novel I loved writing for graduate school, the process is all about setting up the scenario. It’s up to the DM to develop the world, create a series of potential plots, and put the various encounters in place, but then the DM takes step back and the characters take over.

The reason I’m talking about this though is because what I learned this quarter — or rather, what I was reminded of — is how important it is for me — how vital it is for me — to use my imagination in an active and creative way each day.

I mean, yes, I am an advisor here at LiHigh School, and I absolutely love my job, but in my heart, the thing I like to do most, the thing that makes me me, is to create wild and imaginative scenarios and then see how they play out. That might mean writing a fiction story, or designing a quest for D&D, or creating some kind of wild, school-based scenario where students can participate in a democratic system that gives them complete control of their own education — but whatever it is, it’s what I love to do, it’s what makes me me. And I want to thank Brandon, Codi, Damian, and Dan for helping me to remember that.

Thank you.

Meet Wrenn Timbers

This quarter at the school where I teach, I’m participating in a Dungeons & Dragons “class,” where the students and I are creating adventurers and embarking on quests using the Dungeons & Dragons rule-set (5th edition).

If you don’t know Dungeons & Dragons, it is a role-playing game where the players use their imagination to succeed in encounters with various creatures, some friendly and some not. It involves a lot of dice-rolling to determine the success of certain actions, but it also involves a lot of conversation about what to do next, since the game doesn’t necessarily tell you what you should do at any given moment. The educational goals of the class are for the students to develop their communication, collaboration, and problem-solving skills, as well as practice their writing and storytelling skills.

It’s that latter goal I’d like to discuss now. One of the ways the students are supposed to be working on their writing skills is by putting together an introduction to the adventurers they’ve created. Thus far, I’ve been less than successful in getting them to actually do that, and so I thought I’d write one for the character I  created to provide them with a model of what I’m looking for.

And so, without further adieu, I’d like to introduce you to Wrenn Timbers.

Standing three feet, ten inches tall, weighing in at thirty-six pounds, and having dark, wispy hair and neatly kept beard, Wrenn Timbers is a rock gnome who grew up in a small community on the coast of the Shining Sea. As a young gnome, Wrenn had a natural talent for acrobatics and performance, charming friends and family during community festivals and fairs.

When Wrenn was in his adolescent years, an elvish entertainer, the famous Peren the Bard, visited Wrenn’s village during a tour of the seacoast. Peren put on a wonderful performance, playing songs on his lute, telling tales of greater Faerûn, and demonstrating his mastery of the Weave through magical tunes and inspiring songs. Young Wrenn was captivated, and that evening, after a serious discussion with Wrenn’s father, the elf agreed to take on Wrenn as an apprentice, and the next day, the young gnome left his family and community behind to discover the magic hidden in the music of the bards.

Years have passed, and Wrenn has risen from an apprentice to a first-level bard. He is a gifted storyteller, instrumentalist, and singer, and his songs inspire his allies to dig deep within themselves to discover their strength when they need it most.

Peren has taught him the beginning elements of arcane magic, which allows Wrenn to pluck directly at the strands of the Weave to create magical effects. For example, Wrenn has memorized the simple spell, True Strike, to gain insight into his target’s defenses and then use that insight to gain advantage on his next attack. He has also memorized Vicious Mockery, which plays on his gift of words to unleash a string of insults laced with subtle enchantments and deal acute psychic damage to his opponents.

But more than a simple conjurer, Wrenn has also learned a few slightly more complex spells, giving him the ability to Cure Wounds for his allies, Detect Magic whenever it’s present, and sing a discordant barrage of Dissonant Whispers that wrack his opponents with terrible pain and send them running. Wrenn can also evoke a Thunderwave that sweeps out from him in a 15-foot cube, emitting a thunderous boom and slamming everything in its range.

Of course, as a rock gnome, he has the special cunning that is unique to his race, which helps him defend against any magical spells that attempt to attack his intelligence, wisdom, or charisma. He also has the special knowledge that every rock gnome learns as a child, giving him twice as much proficiency as anyone else when it comes to the history of magical items, alchemical objects, and technical devices. And as a rock gnome, he is a master tinker, capable of using his artisan’s tools to construct tiny clockwork devices that can serve as distractions in battle, expendable explorers of mysterious places, or miniature flamethrowers capable of lighting a candle, torch, or campfire.

When it comes to a more traditional style of fighting, Wrenn has a master’s finesse with his rapier, his dagger, and his throwing darts. He might be a little fighter, but when he cuts, he cuts deep and quick.

As an individual, the thing that most stands out about Wrenn is that he always gives credit when it is due. He is not shy about letting his compatriots know that he believes in them, and he is always supportive and complimentary of their efforts. He feels that the best thing he can possibly do in any situation is to use his magic and skills to aid and inspire his allies. Unfortunately, he is also charmed by bright and shiny stones, and he sometimes struggles to make the right decision when gems are involved.

Wrenn Timbers is still a young gnome and he’s just getting started on his way to mastering the way of the bard. His immediate goal is to become a jack-of-all-trades, which means he becomes slightly proficient in every skill in the game. He’s also learning a special Song of Rest, a soothing song that has the magical ability to revitalize any wounded allies during a short rest.

In the long-term, he’s beginning to think about participating in one of the Bard Colleges, which is a loose association of bards who gather periodically to share their learning and preserve their traditions. There is the College of Lore, whose alumni know something about most things and whose loyalty lies in the pursuit of beauty and truth, power and authority be damned. His other option is the College of Valor, whose alumni gather in mead halls to sing the songs of the mighty and inspire others, as well as themselves, to reach the same heights.

Regardless of his path, Wrenn stands, lute in hand and rapier by his side, ready for adventure.

A Heckuva Way To Spend Your Days

Sometime in October, I read an article entitled, “How Students Lead the Learning Experience at Democratic Schools,” which introduced me to the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts. At first glance, the Sudbury Valley School sounded similar to the independent school where I work, meaning we each have no tests, no grades, and a deep belief in the idea that if a person isn’t intrinsically interested in something, then that person won’t be able to learn it in any meaningful way. But that’s where the similarities stopped.

Because while my school doesn’t have tests or grades, we do have assigned homework, compulsory classes, grade level expectations, required exhibitions, and narrative evaluations. Sudbury Valley, on the other hand, doesn’t have any of that. Instead, they have…well…democracy.

(A quick caveat: I have yet to visit the Sudbury Valley School. I have, however, read several books and essays about the school, and so while I don’t have any personal experience to draw from, I do have plenty of book lernin. Fair nuff? Good.)

It all starts with the School Meeting. Every student (and at Sudbury, students range from four years old to nineteen years old) has a vote in the School Meeting, as does every staff member (who are far outnumbered by the students). This means that, when it comes to the School Meeting, a four-year-old child has just as much power to decide as a staff member.

And everything is decided at the School Meeting. It creates all the rules for the school, manages the budget (including the hiring and firing of staff members), negotiates contracts with outside vendors, and more.

But here’s the kicker: except for those things explicitly discussed, voted on, and enshrined in the school handbook, there are no other rules at the Sudbury Valley School. And if you peruse the handbook, you won’t find anything about having to take math, science, English, social studies, or anything else. In fact, you won’t find anything about academics whatsoever.

Which means at the Sudbury Valley School, if you want to go to school and just play video games, you are completely free to do so; if you want to focus all of your time on playing music, you are free to do so; if you want to build an entire metropolis out of LEGOS, or go out and explore nature, or bake cookies, or read science fiction until your eyes bleed, or sit on a couch with your friends talking about whatever, or build a tree fort, or play basketball, or hike through town to the pizza shop, or go fishing…well, you are completely free to do so.

And of course, if you want to learn math, science, English, or social studies, you are also completely free to do so.

Because at Sudbury Valley, school is not something you do; it’s the place where you are. It’s the idea of the school as a village, where young people come to practice and participate in real life.

In the adult world, our time is our own. It might not feel that way, with bills, relationships, families, and work (not to mention jury duty), but (excluding the cogent arguments of Marxism and the three waves of Feminism) we choose to live the lives we lead, and hence, we choose to take on the obligations required to support that life. In the adult world, if our time is not our own, it is because we have given it away.

The same goes for life at Sudbury Valley. When the students come to school each morning, they know that their time is their own, and it’s up to them to choose what to do with it (excluding jury duty, which exists at Sudbury Valley in the form of their Judicial Committee, a student-run group tasked with enforcing all of the school’s rules).

Both Sudbury Valley and my school believe that learning is a function of interest: if a person isn’t interested in a given topic or skill, then they probably won’t learn that topic or skill, no matter how hard or how often you drill it into them. The difference between our schools (at the moment) is that Sudbury Valley then builds their entire model without compromising that belief to the needs and desires of the outside world (including the students’ parents), which is a pretty radical decision.

My school, on the other hand, tries to negotiate a middle ground that will express our core belief while also satisfying the requirements for Vermont’s independent schools, the desires of the local supervisory union, the requests of parents, and what the staff members perceive as the academic needs of the specific students currently enrolled in our school.

But over the past few months, it’s become clear to me and my colleagues that we have strayed too far away from our core belief and that we are in danger of becoming a slightly more relaxed version of a traditional public school.

Thankfully, I work with some incredible and brave educators who have a real desire to constantly evaluate and improve the internal workings of our school, and over the last several weeks, we’ve been engaged in a serious (and sometimes contentious) debate about how to proceed.

Even more thankfully, while I’ve been greatly inspired by what I found at Sudbury Valley (not to mention my experiences with the progressive programs at Green Mountain College and Goddard College), my colleagues have come to the table with vast knowledge and experiences of their own, discussing models and educators who have inspired and excited them.

All of this conversation has led us to start making some important changes at the school. For example, we’ll no longer have compulsory classes (excluding Vermont History, Math, and Health, because those are required by the State), and students will now be given even more  freedom to choose how they spend their time. We’ll still retain learning plan meetings with parents, grade level expectations, public exhibitions, and narrative evaluations (i.e., our various modes of assessment), but it will be up to the students to decide how they want to satisfy those requirements.

Second, we’ve empowered the students to take real control of the school through a School Congress and Judicial Committee. This change has already been instituted and the students are currently in the process of developing the first set of rules for their handbook (the first proposal laid on the table was “No dying”). Personally, this is where I think the majority of their education is going to happen, and I’m incredibly excited to participate in and be witness to it.

I suspect there are other changes on the horizon as well, but if we do our jobs correctly, most of those changes will not be coming from me or my colleagues, but from the students.

That’s what’s so inspiring about the idea of a democratic school. It empowers the students to take real control of their lives, and in the process, gives them real practice as they strive to become successful individuals. It will be scary at times, especially for us adults, but it will be incredibly powerful for these kids.

All of which is to say…man, do I love my job.

The Credentialess College

In an essay for The New Republic, “The Higher Education Monopoly is Crumbling As We Speak,” Kevin Carey writes that “the single greatest asset held by traditional colleges and universities is their exclusive franchise for the production and sale of higher education credentials.” He continues: “Just as people are ultimately interested in buying holes, not drills, higher education consumers aren’t buying courses or degree programs. They’re buying credentials.”

To some extent — hell, to a large extent — Carey is correct. The vast majority of college and university students go to school for purposes related to job training and career preparation. According to this 2009 article from the NY Times, only about 8% of college students pursue a degree in the humanities, and it’s been that way for decades. The rest of the students pursue degrees or credentials in business, technology, and the sciences. You also have to factor in the changing demographics of college students, where adult learners are quickly becoming the majority and where “slightly over half of today’s students are seeking a ‘subbacalaureate’ credential (i.e. a certificate, credential, or associate’s degree).”

Carey’s argument is that institutions of higher learning face a threat in the rise of a model “where the education itself costs students nothing—the availability of free open educational resources is constantly growing—and students only pay small fees to cover the cost of assessing their learning.”

All that might be true, but as a humanities kind of guy, I’m less interested in an education whose result is a professional-level certificate and more interested in an education whose process creates open-minded individuals capable of finding and creating meaning in their lives and in the lives of their fellows.

Six or seven years ago, when I was an undergrad at an environmental liberal arts college in Vermont, I designed a three-credit, independent study in the concept of memes (not “internet memes,” but “memes“). Now, the college I went to charged roughly $2,500 for a three-credit course. According to Kevin Carey, as a higher education consumer, I was hoping to receive some sort of professional benefit from designing that course. But as you can probably tell, unless I was to go into sociology or some branch of evolutionary studies, I wasn’t about to get a job or learn a valuable skill from pursuing the concept of memes.

So why I did design it and pay for it? Because it was a concept that interested me and I wanted to learn more about it. The studying of the subject was the value of the subject. I basically paid $2,500 — or really, when you factor in my Bachelor’s degree and my Master’s of Fine Arts degree, over a hundred thousand dollars — for the right to stop being a productive member of society and instead indulge myself with intellectual pursuits.

Unfortunately, we all seem to have an obligation to produce something for society. Ideally, for people like me, that means producing some sort of end result from each intellectual pursuit, a kind of travelogue of my mind’s journey, one that shows people either the value of following a similar path or wards them from chasing one of their similar thoughts into a dead-end. In reality, it means writing, publishing, and teaching.

But here’s the point. Kevin Carey’s article reports on the way the Internet is giving rise to a business model where the education is free, but the assessment will cost you. For people like me, however, where the assessment and credentials are not what interests us, the Internet provides an unlimited (and free!) education (and intellectual forum). The trick, I suppose, is to figure out how to build a business model on the idea.

I suppose I’m talking about a creating a kind of retreat…or monastery…where people pay for the privilege to be separated from the mundane drudgery of having to shelter and feed themselves while they explore the wonders of the human condition. They don’t receive a certificate from this experience, nor are they required to produce anything tangible as a result. What they’re paying for, in short, is spiritual and intellectual indulgence.

It’s a business model that would only appeal to those who can afford it, of course. But that’s essentially the business model of the entire vacation and tourism industries, and they seem to be doing okay.

Now I just need the land…