We are in the home stretch before summer break. Our students at the high school have already completed their humanities exams, are currently neck deep in a seven- page essay, with science and math exams are on the horizon. I look back at what my students have accomplished this year, and it is pretty amazing. We have read a diverse range of authors from Mark Twain to Edgar Allan Poe to Dorothy Day to Wendell Berry. We have had in-depth discussions on historical topics like the life of Tecumseh and Radical Reconstruction. We have meditated on passages from Paul’s letter to the Romans. I love working with teenagers. They surprise you all the time. But I never dreamed I would be able to engage with students in the sort of ideas we read, discuss, and write about on a weekly basis.
I’ve experienced a continual learning curve moving from a public school to an alternative education school to a private liberal arts school in the past five years. Part of the learning curve in coming to work at Ambleside this year has been grading and assessments. The exams from the fall and spring are the only tests I have given all year. Everything else has involved students exploring and communicating ideas through writing. This has been the first time in my teaching career where I did not have to structure my entire school year to a giant, scary exam. I believe it is what allows the curriculum at Ambleside to be so fulfilling. If Dorothy Day (not Doris Day, the American actress) is on the final exam, then I need students to know what parts of Dorothy Day is on the final exam. My job is to tell them what parts will be on that exam and what exactly what they should think and know about Dorothy Day so that they can do well on that exam. And the joy of learning has suddenly become a transactional experience. (I use Day as an example because it is fun to think of a Christian anarchist’s life’s work being quantified on a standardized test.) That is lifeless.
Instead, my students sat down, chose from a variety of prompts, and wrote two in-class essays on historical topics. Then after a thirty-minute break, they wrote two more in-class essays from the literature we have read this semester. That is the kind of thing I did my last years of undergrad. It is not easy. And the students did it well. I’m not sure they enjoyed it. They are teenagers after all, and writing essays is writing essays, but how much better for them to be able to put in their own words the things they have learned this year and to let that be the measure of their accomplishments? That is freedom. Freedom to explore. Freedom to test things. Freedom to be wrong. And in not making education transactional in nature, I have experienced the sweet freedom of not having twenty students desperately knocking on my door to ask how they can bring their grade up.
I am grateful for an environment where I work with students instead of feeling like the very nature of my job is in opposition to them. I am grateful that for the first time in my teaching career, I can look back and point to specific areas of growth for students. I am grateful to be able to sit and help someone work out an original thesis for a novel they read without worrying about students in the back of the room sensing weakness and creating chaos. And I am grateful to be able to place hopeful expectations on my students, knowing that when they finally make it to summer break this year, they have earned it. I am grateful that here we have the freedom to do hard things and to grow from them. That is a wonderful thing.