Why I work at The Infinity School

Since January of this year, I have been employed as a full time Guide at The Infinity School here in London, Ontario. (http://infinityschool.ca) I work there in addition to running DEMOI.

I wrote this essay explaining to parents and interested parties why I sought employment at Infinity and it is featured on the school website. I would like to share it here:

Why I Want To Work Here At Infinity

My first full time teaching position was at a Charter School in Fort Collins, Colorado. In 2002, I was fresh out of graduate school and looking to teach in an environment that valued creativity and intellectual rigour. For those not familiar with Charter Schools, they are an attempt to reintroduce the concept of the Community School in cities and towns across the United States. The institution that hired me was brand new and founded by a group of concerned parents who wanted to make sure that their daughters and sons were receiving a world class education and who were prepared to take a chance. This new school not only attracted eager families who were excited about becoming educational pioneers, it also drew young and energetic teachers who were zealous about bringing high performance learning to children and young adults. This school, Ridgeview Classical, has gone on to become one of the top performing schools in Colorado.

That first work experience, I believe, spoiled me. I learned right off the block what it means to work in a school characterized by frisson and daring; a school that thought of its educators as co- learners alongside their students. It was a school that also encouraged unconventional methods like Socratic learning and it was there that I discovered that I was a Socratic thinker and learner.

As I continued on, working in public, private and even university classrooms, I found that what I was seeking was, in fact, a return to that energy and sense of adventure I had encountered in Colorado. I knew that what I wanted in a teaching position was the freedom to float away from standardized tests and state/provincial mandated curricula and to encourage children and young adults to design and implement their own learning programs. This has been a journey that has taken me across three U.S. states and into Canada.

In 2013, I founded my own private teaching business here in London. That business, DEMOI Independent Learning, was designed to offer interested families the freedom of pursuing, in depth, a humanities and social sciences curriculum that I would co-design with their children. This proved to be a very rewarding experience, both in terms of the pedagogical challenges I faced and because of what I learned about starting, managing, and marketing my own business (I had never been an entrepreneur before). I literally started from scratch and had to discover how to earn the trust of potential clients and figure out just what it was I was offering to a marketplace already packed full of tutors and tutoring services. I think it is important to mention this because I appreciate, I believe, the challenges and risks of going out on your own and starting something brand new. The advantage of working at an established institution is that you get to trade on its reputation; when you are starting something new that reputation is entirely in your hands.

When I learned last year that Andrea and Vineet Nair were establishing the Infinity School I was excited because I recognized that this was an institution whose pedagogical, philosophical, and personal values were closely aligned with my own. The first clue I received was discovering that Infinity would follow “The Hero’s Journey,” a concept developed by that great scholar of mythology Joseph Campbell whose works I know well and had used with my students for years. I was impressed by the Nair’s dedication to pioneering a new type of school in Canada and it thrilled me to think that London would introduce the first Acton Academy to the country. As someone who helped pioneer a new school way back in 2002, I was delighted to think that I might be able to do so again.

As any educator knows, gaining the trust of parents and their children is essential and not to be taken lightly. And as every parent knows, the process of awarding that trust is delicate and requires that certain, often inchoate, needs are met. I am fortunate to be both a parent and an educator and this has led me to appreciate even more just what is happening here at The Infinity School. I know that I have found a home.

The ‘Big Book Initiative’ update

I am really getting a kick out of the fact that an increasing number of my students want to undertake the “Big Book Initiative.”

Right now I have a student reading Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy and another who is considering reading War and Peace. I have a third student who is currently looking over a list of books that includes Thomas Pynchon’s Against The Day, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

I love their ambition.

A sample of books I am (& have been) reading with my students lately

Here is a sample of some of the books my students and I have been reading lately. I’m immensely proud of them for undertaking all of these:

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky

A Complicated Kindness, by Miriam Toews

A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth

Logicomix, by Apostolos Doxiadis & Christos Papadimitriou

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Ecological Imperialism, by Alfred W. Crosby

The Birth of Tragedy, by Friedrich Nietzsche

Selections from The American Political Tradition, by Richard Hofstadter

In all cases my students have enthusiastically embraced these challenging readings. I could not be more proud of them.

An outstanding link for studying the past & present

I am posting a link to the Studs Terkel radio archive. http://studsterkel.wfmt.com

This archive includes broadcasts Terkel did over his long and distinguished journalistic and broadcasting career.

As a teacher of history and the humanities I am thrilled to be able to use this resource with my students but also to use it as a means of expanding my understanding of the American past and present.

Jeremy Nathan Marks

Ecological Imperialism

I am currently studying environmental history with a student. The book, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 (by Alfred W. Crosby) is an eye-opening examination of the growth of European imperialism from the standpoint of botany, epidemiology, agriculture, animal husbandry and also includes a fascinating study of climate and sailing.

The book requires readers to rethink how they understand and imagine the meeting of cultures. All too often we’ve been led to believe that one civilization colonizes another because it has superior technology, belief systems and a more sophisticated cosmology. Crosby challenges all of that. He also challenges the idea that European colonization of the globe was an inevitable result of the sophistication of European cultures.

But one of the most interesting questions his book raises is how the Europeans themselves were suited to new and alien environments and how well they did or did not adapt their thinking, mores and habits. In this age of globalization and global tourism where a person can go to the tropics, stay in an air conditioned villa, eat imported cuisine and traverse the landscape in familiar vehicles, it is all-too-easy to forget that even in the most easily settled of European colonies (e.g. Canada, Australia) colonists were often ill-suited to their circumstances and held to belief systems and aesthetic values which not only did not serve them but often led to a violent relationship with the land itself.

One of the finest examples of this in literature and film is the novel and movie “Picnic at Hanging Rock” about a turn-of-last-century picnic gone horribly wrong in the state of South Australia. The tension between the daughters and matrons of British culture and the ancient, un-English landscape of the Australian continent is palpable in Joan Lindsay’s novel and in Peter Weir’s cinematic adaptation. What stands out for me is the difference between the children of the wealthy, whose parents made money in international business, and those labourers who appear to be the descendants of the original English colonists. The question of adaptation, acclimation and acculturation cuts across the matter of social class:

Jeremy Nathan Marks 

What kind of teacher am I?

What kind of teacher am I?

I have been thinking for a long time about what it is that I do as a teacher. Since I have taken what might be called a “non-traditional” route within the pedagogical world, I find myself thinking about how to explain to the people I meet the nature of my vocation.

How do I see myself? And what does it mean to be a teacher whose classroom is an office space in his house, the living room of a student’s home or even sits within a clutch of books carried around in his satchel? It certainly does not resemble the traditional institutional world I come out of: a world of hi-tech classrooms, large modern campuses and highly formalized curricular models. I have elected not to pursue that familiar pathway because I feel that my ideas and instincts, my pedagogical methods and my views on hierarchy and educational democracy do not quite fit within that institutional context. Instead, I see myself as part of a line of educators which includes reformers like John Dewey, Paulo Freire, Henry Giroux, Jonathan Kozol and Paul Goodman. I offer this admission not as an implied condemnation of traditional schooling but to help sketch out just how I am looking for a different forum in which to teach and to be taught.

I would like to begin by clarifying something: I am not, strictly speaking, a tutor in the familiar sense of the word. I advertise and offer tutoring services and enjoy helping students improve upon their critical thinking and formal writing skills but I do not think of myself as being primarily a “supplemental” educator, a term implied by the word “tutor,” at least in our North American context.

When I founded DEMOI Independent Learning in April 2013 I originally advertised myself as a tutor in the Oxford University sense: I am someone who works with students to design a rigorous course of independent study and then meets weekly (or multiple times per week) with each student to discuss their reading, writing and what they are thinking about in response to the work. I think the Oxford Tutor model is an excellent one because it affords the teacher and the student the opportunity of designing a course and then assigns both the responsibility of steering that course. I like to think that what I have done is taken this model and adapted it to the home schooling/un-schooling model of pedagogy by making it primarily a project of informal independent study. I have found this to be a tremendously stimulating experience because neither my students nor I can ever predict precisely where our work together will go. There is a spirit of adventure to our endeavours and I believe that the educational experience we share is truly a mutual one.

I will explore this concept of mutuality in a subsequent essay but for the moment I would like to pause over what precisely it is that students and I do together in our one-on-one “Oxford-style” sessions.

I think that the greatest gift independent study has to offer people of all ages is the ability to concentrate on a chosen field of interest. Too often we are told that we cannot just jump into a new field of study because we lack the requisite training or have not taken the proper “prerequisites.” I have encountered this mindset in graduate school and it succeeded in denying me the opportunity to study advanced topics that truly inspired me. In order to avoid this mistake with my students I encourage them to challenge themselves and tackle material that might seem, at first, to be a little “too advanced” to some. The material that we select is based upon their chosen topic. For example, this past summer I read The Iliad with an eleven year old student because it interested her and she wanted the challenge. It was a great experience. I also have taught a European history class to a group of 12 and 13 year olds using a university-level textbook. The reason I think this can be done is twofold: if someone shows an interest in a subject then I think this is an indicator that they are actually prepared to undertake it. Also, because I do not believe in grades or tests I am not worried about having my students pass rigorous examinations designed to determine whether they have truly “mastered” the material. (Mastery is another subject worthy of a future essay.) I do not think that “mastery” is necessary unless a student decides to pursue a professional career where specific forms of credentialing and testing require that they demonstrate quite specific skills in order to receive certification. And even there, we could have a fun debate about where and when credentialing is appropriate and why.

I will be exploring many of the ideas mentioned above in subsequent essays. My website is now in its final stages of development and when it appears it will contain a blog in which I regularly discuss the work that I am doing in the pedagogical field and what my students and I are currently up to.

Thank you for reading.

What is merit?

What is merit?

One of the topics which interests me pedagogically (and politically) is the question of merit. What is merit? And how do we know if an idea has any?
Since I do not assign grades I am always thinking about how to convey the notion of merit to my students. I know of one way from my experience in higher education: if a paper is cogently argued then it merits at least a passing mark. If a paper is well argued and has a command of source materials then chances are it is worth a higher mark. In other words, I can show students how to write a cogent essay and then instruct them on how I would evaluate that essay on its structural merits if we were working together in a formal institutional setting.

By now I probably don’t have to tell you that I do not feel that this approach on its own is very satisfactory.

In humanities and social science programs in universities it is commonplace for students at the undergraduate level to research and then write on a chosen or assigned topic. The turn around time for essays is usually brief and the expectation is that the student will demonstrate the ability to read, summarize and perhaps even synthesize the material assigned. From a practical point of view, the challenge of learning something quickly and then churning out a paper is a valuable exercise. I think that it is probably a truism to say that being able to write clearly and deliver a formal presentation is a valuable skill that can be applied in most venues including at a job interview, when making a sales pitch or even when volunteering, campaigning or fundraising. I think it is also true to say that if you learn how to do this quickly then you have gained a form of professional advantage. But what I think that this exercise does not do is teach someone how to test the merits of an idea.

If a student chooses to study within the field of the humanities and social sciences it is unlikely that she will be required to do any original research during the course of her undergraduate career unless she opts for an honour’s degree or elects to attend graduate school. Otherwise, the bulk of the work she will do is likely to be confined to secondary research and summarization. The sciences are different, though I admit I am not qualified to speak about what a scientific education looks like.

One of the advantages that independent study offers students is the ability to do original research, an exercise which may come in a variety of forms. Literacy or wide reading is one example of original research. For example, if you decide that you would like to familiarize yourself with the works of William Shakespeare and undertake the task of reading all of his poetry and plays, then you are positioning yourself to be able to speak as a critic and an informed reader of his work. Once you have attained the enviable level of literacy that comes with completing the Shakespearean canon you are also in the advantageous position of being able to think about the Bard’s work from a synoptic point of view. While I think that it is certainly useful to read the criticism of great literary critics, like Harold Bloom, who possess a widely regarded command of the Shakespearean oeuvre, you are now in a position to assess the merit of Bloom’s ideas.

I think that merit, in one sense, is something whose meaning we can begin to grasp when we allow ourselves the opportunity to test our understanding. While I endorse a systematic approach to reading and study, I do think that the best forms of independent inquiry are imaginative, creative and even whimsical. Often the most interesting ideas are the result of insight and accident on top of rigorous study. I also think that insofar as a teacher/student relationship is concerned, the best of all possible situations is when a Socratic dialogue is taking place while the research is being conducted. If there is a certain romanticism in our culture about the lonely scholar at work pursuing truth in some sequestered tower, the reality is that the most dynamic learning happens in communities and in conversation.

What I value most about the work that I do is that it affords me the opportunity to work with students to construct lines of independent inquiry which inspire them. This form of learning is something which many teachers and scholars (Henry Giroux of McMaster University, for one) have said is diminishing in our public schools and in higher education. I do not think that it is an exaggeration to say that the opportunity to focus on an idea and to explore that idea for as long and as far as you would like, is an increasingly rare privilege. I hope to discuss in a subsequent essay what I feel the benefits of focused study can offer students in their quest to attain a wider, cross disciplinary literacy.

Jeremy Nathan Marks