Head Training: The 36th Chamber

Bring the (pedagogical) ruckus

`This is Wu Gang, not to be confused with Wu Tang. He is often called the Chinese Sisyphus, and he might very well be a better mascot for us than Sisyphus has been. The axe certainly helps.

Education is meant to level the playing field, and it’s successful in at least one way: It exhausts all of us. We stay up late finishing a project, grading essays, marathoning a TV show — whatever the reason, we wake up far too early afterward. The alarm is a death knell. We lurch around like zombies, dimly aware that zombies are a dying metaphor but too tired to think of a better one.

Shouldn’t zombies be an “undying” metaphor? Puns are another thing that ought to send us back to bed.

After a while, we get to school, trailing limbs in our wake. The building seems to have been enveloped in a Kesey-esque fog, and each second is longer than the last. Perhaps, like me, you give your caffeine tolerance a workout in order to survive. Perhaps you do calisthenics in the hallway. It doesn’t matter, because we eventually get to that class. The one with the ponderous and interminable lecture or test or discussion. The chances of making it through those 39 minutes while conscious are just north of 0%.

If you haven’t experienced the resulting bout of narcolepsy yourself, you’ve likely seen it happen to someone else. It’s embarrassing. It might be inevitable, but no one, not even the most hostile or disengaged among us, likes the disorientation and shock of being startled awake in a puddle of drool.

The real question: Is that the apocryphal red phone?

The 36 chambers

Because of the way this class is taught, physically falling asleep is nearly impossible. There is an equivalent to falling asleep, however, and it needs to be clarified: If you don’t engage the interstitial elements of the course, you might as well be snoring through a lecture or drooling on a textbook.

Grade-abated instruction happens in a dozen different ways, but it starts with the posts and essays I write for you. That was the case on the first day of school. It will be the case on the last. It is a conscious decision made after years of trial and error, and even the name I coined for it is deliberate: It happens interstitially, in the spaces in between everything else, so that you can determine when and where you learn.

When we call this an interstitial classroom, it is to recognize the interaction between physical or face-to-face instruction and these Internet-driven elements. It might help to see that in a visual, like so:

You are in a classroom in Brewster High School for 40 minutes; the rest of your 24-hour day gives you 1400 minutes to play with. Broken into units, and basing those units on approximately how long each class period lasts, that’s one 40-minute chamber for English and 35 for everything else.

Those 35 chambers, of course, are taken up by many other responsibilities and interests. That’s why the governing idea is, again, interstitial learning: finding five minutes here and there to review lesson plans online; finding ten minutes before bed to ask questions and read responses online; finding a 20-minute window in which to read a lecture like this one.

These sites also train the skill of close reading, because nothing is spoon-fed or hand-held. That is sometimes the specific lesson (as in this old assignment), but the advantage you always have is being able to work your way through instructional material when you have the energy and attention to do so.

There is a helpful clarification of this idea on our course’s erstwhile subreddit:

Those students are right: The course is difficult, but not in a traditional sense. It is difficult in that it asks you to think differently, learn differently, and benefit differently from being in school. It is, in a strange but important way, like the head training scene from The 36th Chamber of Shaolin:

You are building skill and strength, too, and there is no way to circumvent the hard work involved. There is also no way to circumvent the class itself; now that you’re here, you need to headbutt your way forward.

Your training in this course is all about foundations. It happens interstitially as often as it happens in front of an instructor, because the instructor has frozen his teaching online. Under the guidance of that teacher and other students, you develop the strengths you need — and you need that strength to create.

Look again at that makeshift graph:

The first thing it tells us is that you have a lot of time to engage with the interstitial stuff of this course. The second thing it tells us is less obvious: The physical classroom setting is more important than everything else. That’s where the most powerful creative work occurs.

Back in 2015, students were given a test — as it says there, “very much a test of how [they] organize and spend the crucial 39 minutes we have each day.” But we don’t need a test like that to conclude the obvious: Our class periods are an opportunity to deal with each other face-to-face, and no amount of interstitial teaching and learning can replace that.

As you read over old posts and essays, however, you should notice that only through the interstitial teaching do you learn why that face-to-face work matters so much. The two elements are inexorably linked, and only by embracing both will you realize the full potential of this class. That is the 36th chamber.

A particular kind of promise

Ask yourself four questions:

  1. Have you closely read everything posted by your teacher?
  2. Have you reviewed these posts and essays as you would any other lecture or textbook?
  3. Have you reached out to your teacher interstitially for feedback, clarification, etc?
  4. Have you met with your teacher face-to-face and in person for feedback, clarification, etc?

I might add one more question (“Have you then reflected and been metacognitive in writing about what you learned?”), but the point is this:

I have never had a student who answered “yes” to those questions not be successful. Since beginning grade abatement, I’ve never had a student invest fully and not like the class. The explicit goal is to empower you through individualized learning — who but a masochist could find a way to dislike that?

If you aren’t doing those things — interacting with these posts and with me regularly — then that is probably the reason you are frustrated or confused. If you’re not engaged, you might not even be aware that the last thing I want is for you to be frustrated or confused. When I’ve written in the past about the Dunning-Kruger effect, it hasn’t been to scold students; it has been to help them.

It might help to see how a previous year’s course developed. Consider the course calendar used in 2015–2016 for a moment, especially these statistics:

The blurriness is technically a result of poor Photoshop work, but more metaphorically a consequence of the ephemeral nature of time.

With two weeks off in December (the asterisks indicate posts uploaded on 1/1 or 1/2), the slight drop in Medium updates makes sense. Otherwise, the number of expansive essays posted to Medium was steady. So have the assignments due through Google Classroom each month. The interesting column is the first one: Posts to Sisyphean High (the umwelt iteration; in 2016, it switched to malachite) went from fifteen to eight to four — half as many each month.

What does that mean? It’s simple: It means that we started that school year with the foundational stuff. By October, students had everything necessary to understand and embrace this course, from the universality of grade abatement to the particular machinery of the interstitial classroom. The focus should have shifted to the individual — to experimenting and exploring an ELA makerspace.

But receiving instructions and following them are obviously different actions. Some students lack the foundations necessary to do work during the class period, so they waste that time. They are present… but not in a meaningful way. Those students need to go back to the beginning.

If that happens, however — if they learn the basics, create a feedback loop that has some power behind it, and enter that 36th chamber — I can promise without reservation that we will achieve a kind of greatness in here.

The actionable stuff: what to do next

Start by committing this stuff to memory:

Without the language and explications in those documents, we can’t organize the work you do and the choices you make in any meaningful way. It is also necessary to unpack the skills and traits of grade abatement:

Click the image to load the checklist. Then wonder a bit about why this guy is checking boxes that aren’t attached to a list of any sort, and whether that has something to do with his fade into oblivion.

Use that. Use the annotated exploration of it, too. Head back to the central (if haphazardly updated) hub for this stuff, and read the evolving guides for grade abatement. Read the resources posted to Google Classroom.

You are training a habit of mind, and that sort of inculcation won’t work without guidance. In other words, you can’t wing it, any more effectively than you could headbutt your way through heavy bags without a sense of purpose.

What follows is another attempt to take this process — not the only learning process, but the most likely — and convert it into a step-by-step overview. This is what should happen as you move toward an individualized curriculum:

  1. If you’ve not already done so, you register to receive updates from the course website.
  2. A post is created; you receive a notification. (Note: I will also post an announcement to Google Classroom to double the chances that you’re informed of new instructional material.)
  3. That post teaches you in some way. It might give an overview of a unit, provide the required readings, offer necessary background — whatever it is, it’s the most important stop.
  4. Google Classroom will assign the work a due date.
  5. If there are required templates or submission guidelines, Google Classroom will have those, too.
  6. Essays posted to Medium encircle the teaching. These will be lengthier and more interactive writings that explore the unit, explicate elements of grade abatement, offer general feedback, and so on. (There might also be links to old grindhouse kung-fu movies, because those are an important part of your learning.)
  7. After immersing yourself in all of this reading, you ask questions about the unit or lesson in the comment section of Sisyphean High.
  8. You might also annotate and respond to any Medium essays.
  9. Then you conference with me at the high school, receiving individual and radial feedback that answers your questions or clarifies your work.
  10. You plan out our 40-minute class periods to take advantage of my help and the help of your peers.
  11. You use Google+, Google Drive, any active subreddit, etc, for discussion, proxy teaching, and other interstitial collaboration.
  12. You complete any formal essay or ETA writing assignments as instructed — but focused on the process far more than the product, as always.
  13. You publish, when possible, any final essay drafts through Medium.
  14. Finally, you account for your growth metacognitively and reflectively through further discussion and writing.

Do you see how many steps are about laying the groundwork? A student should spend most of the time reading, thinking, and seeking feedback. The creative process comes last, and while it can last a very long time, it only works if we’ve put in the effort for the first steps.

That’s mirrored in the number of posts at the start of each school year, in the way the essay you are now reading meanders its way (as Paul Graham intended it) to an actionable list, and in the kind of reading and writing assigned: Everything in this course is front-loaded. Everything is connected. Embrace that kind of learning, and we will be just fine.