Free is better. Why I’m giving away my course.

Part 4 of this project isn’t terribly exciting, but it holds the most promise. After I’ve created anti-poverty-course design principles, built a course based on those principles using free primary and secondary historical sources, and incorporated a panoply of digital history tools into the course lesson plans, I want to bundle this course and give it away under some type of create commons licensing. There have been a variety of efforts to collect and publish syllabi, which might help researchers and intrepid faculty willing to mine others’ syllabi for nuggets of androgogical gold.

I’m not interested in mining syllabi for research, and most of the best ideas I port over from other faculty come from conversations, not reading syllabi. My purpose in publishing the whole of the course (readings, lesson plans, assessment structure, course-design principles) is two fold. First, I want to show what my ideas about how to help poor students might look like in a course that is taught. I love educational theories, but if my anti-poverty course design principles end up in an education journal and die there, I will have failed. This is not a research project for me. The research component derives from the need to find solutions in evidence-based thinking. This is a hack, a solution to a specific problem that uses whatever tools I can to get the job done.

The second reason for publishing the whole course is that most world history teachers (and most teachers) are fantastically crappy teachers their first five years. Much of this has to do with how (history) graduate students are trained, but some is also the reality of adjusting to high teaching loads. There first time I faced teaching eight classes a years with 30 students in each class, I naively thought I could work as I had in past, simply expanding my teaching bandwidth. That failed. Then I started teaching at Normandale, ramping up to 180 students a semester. And I had to get better, fast, both to remain sane and to ensure my students were learning wanted they needed to.

Thus, I’m publishing this course because I want people to steal it, hack it, repurpose it in anyway as long as the course doesn’t get reconfigured in a way that screws students financially (I’m talking to you publishing houses). Which is why I’ll license it under some type of creative commons license, to ensure it stays open and non-commercial.

Finally, I've been toying with ideas for a better name for this blog. Calling it “Jack Norton” makes the project sound solipsistic. One night while comparing notes with my wife we both noted what multitudinous challenges students face. Where’s their next meal? Can they pay rent for the next month? What happens if their parents kick them out, or don’t pay their tuitions? Will they stay drug free today? Will they get the mental health care they need? Will the free wi-fi in their apartments laundry room work tonight so they can access our course management page? Most students don’t face such a litany of problems, but poor students often do. Metaphorically, they’re lives are train wrecks.

That sounds harsh, perhaps uncaring, but the my teleological task is to help poor students and I can’t do that with pollyanish thinking. So much of the train wreck isn’t the students’ fault. My task is to make that wreck just a little bit better, maybe so the student can walk away from it. Responses to poverty tend to focus on preventing train wrecks (all-day kindergarten, free community college education, silver bullets!) or putting everything back together once it’s wrecked (fire all the teachers, bring in consultants, ed-tech will save us!) I’m too small to prevent the wreck or to pick up the pieces afterwards, but I think I can make the train wreck just a little better. Improving a train wreck sounds ridiculous, I recognize, but I think the metaphor (has it grown to an allegory yet?) holds. I like the metaphor as it acknowledges the challenge, suggests greater forces at play, and allows for students to play the primary role in their own ascendance out of difficulty.

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