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A de rigueur scene in sci-fi movies when the intrepid crew has landed on a potentially hostile planet:

Captain: What’s the atmosphere like? Is it safe?

Crewmember Who Will Later Have an Alien Burst Out of His Torso: Looks good, Captain, compatible with human life.

While in these movies there are always dangers beyond the potential poisonous nature of the atmosphere itself – like the aliens who will later burst out of torsos – the atmosphere is first. Without the atmosphere to support life, you won’t live long enough to be at risk for the other stuff.

I’ve been thinking about something similar regarding schools and learning, if we shouldn’t first be focusing on atmosphere before we concern ourselves with other monsters.

For example, while it wouldn’t be 100% dispositive, in terms of first-year writing courses you could measure the quality of the atmosphere by determining what percentage of faculty are, in the words of  Susan Schorn, Senior Program Coordinator and Curriculum Specialist for Writing at UT-Austin, “teaching in thin air,” that is, carrying loads well beyond disciplinary recommendations or even maximums.[1] 

If you have a cadre of instructors who are overloaded with students or shuffling between multiple institutions to make ends meet, there’s no curriculum which can compensate for that lack of oxygen. We could probably make significant advancements in the quality of instruction if instructor burdens were kept in line with disciplinary recommendations.

Not all determinations of a healthy atmosphere will be quite this straightforward. What makes for a good atmosphere often depends on one’s values and how those values are weighed against each other.

In the K-12 sector, there is often a tension between atmospheres geared towards “achivement” – doing well on standardized assessments – and those which are oriented around “learning.”

“No Excuses” charters often have atmospheres that in an effort to instill discipline and ensure student compliance look abusive (to me, at least), as in the Noble Charter schools in Chicago which engaged in “dehumanizing” treatment of students when enforcing their dress code. 

A video taken by an assistant teacher at a Success Academies school of a senior teacher ripping up a student’s paper and angrily sending her from the room cannot be reconciled with what I know and understand about a good atmosphere for learning. 

At the same time, many parents are supportive of Success Academies and schools like them, citing the benefits of their extreme orderliness and the resulting performance on high stakes standardized tests. 

I believe the ever increasing incidences of anxiety and depression among students should be a big, fat warning sign about potentially toxic school atmospheres.

In the spaces over which I’ve had the most control, I’ve learned that prioritizing the quality of the learning atmosphere brings out both my and the students’ best work, and the element I find most important is “freedom.” I settled on freedom as the core element in my atmosphere because when I examined the conditions under which I do my best work, freedom played a huge role. Freedom to write about my curiosities, freedom to write to audiences I wanted to speak to about topics that matter. Freedom from arbitrary time constraints. Freedom provided by having access to the resources necessary to pursue my idea where my thinking leads me.

In practice this meant things like eliminating a maximum number of absences policy, opening up assignments to allow students to write on subjects of interest, and finally eliminating letter grades on writing assignments all improved the classroom atmosphere providing space for students to learn more.

Other things inspired by James Lang’s “Small Teaching,” such as opening class with an interesting but seemingly unrelated question to the day’s task at hand seemed to create a sense of freedom to explore more freely, rather than worrying too much about reaching a specific objective.

Emphasizing freedom allows for the development of agency and self-regulation, two habits of mind I see as vital to developing what I call the “writer’s practice.”

Freedom is not a synonym for anything goes, or suggestive of anarchy. “With great freedom comes great responsibility” I tell students, paraphrasing Spider Man. The freedom to make a mistake and experience the appropriate consequences is an important part of learning.

But just as an atmosphere consists of multiple gasses, I also need a certain amount of accountability to do my best work, an element which takes two forms in my life, deadlines (weekly, but also somewhat flexible), as well as an audience to write to. I try to give that freedom to students.

If my goal is to help students become better writers, it doesn’t bother me if each student may be learning something different. It’s like if I was working with a bunch of musicians working on becoming composers. It doesn’t matter to me if they want to do classical, Afro-Cuban, jazz, electronica or punk. Music is music.

I also don’t like to think of school or a course as preparation for something else. Instead, the course is the thing itself. I’m more oriented on helping students explore their identities as scholars/thinkers, than preparing them to pass as academics.

A different set of values may lead to a different mix to create a different atmosphere.

I know how to measure the atmosphere in my own classes. I talk to students as to how things are going.

  • Do you look forward to coming to class?
  • Do you find the project you’re working on interesting?
  • Do you have a good sense of what you’re trying to accomplish?
  • Do you find the project you’re working on challenging?
  • Do you have enough time and support to achieve what you’re trying to accomplish?

Setting the right atmosphere isn’t a guarantee of success by itself. An alien could wrap its tentacles around us at any moment, but a good atmosphere is a bare necessity.


[1] The Association of Departments of English (ADE) recommends fifteen or fewer students, with twenty students as a maximum with no instructor teaching more than 60 students in a semester. Like most contingent instructors, I have spent the vast majority of my career teaching well beyond that maximum. 

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