OER: Drafting Possible Futures

Below is one of a series of posts by participants in the 2020 Open Pedagogy Fellowship. Fellows will share their unique insights to the process of converting a syllabus to open or zero-cost resources, and/or review a workshop from the Open Educational Resources Bootcamp held in mid-January.

Karen Zaino is a doctoral student in Urban Education at the Graduate Center and a Teaching Fellow in the Queens College English Education Department. Prior to graduate study, she was a high school English teacher for 12 years. She has also worked for the CUNY-New York State Initiative on Emergent Bilinguals and the College Access: Research and Action Center. Karen’s research engages queer theory with critical literacies and culturally sustaining pedagogies in English education.

OER: Drafting Possible Futures by Karen Zaino

When I began developing an OER course for Spring 2020, I did so with full confidence about how the semester would unfold. I knew my students well, having taught many of them previously in the English Education Masters’ program at Queens College. Most of them were first-year public school teachers, and they were overwhelmed by the discrepancy between what they had hoped to accomplish in their classrooms and the constraints they faced daily—required curriculum and high-stakes accountability in the form of standardized testing.

My assumptions, in December 2019, about how the spring semester would proceed were dictated by a vision of the future sold by those whom Audrey Watters, in a recent keynote, called “futurist-consultants.” I didn’t like this future, but I considered it inevitable: my students, as public school teachers, would be forced to spend months coercing their own students through mind-numbing test preparation and canned curricula. I wanted to provide an opportunity for my students to share in a different kind of educational experience, a collective endeavor in which they were invited to value each other as sources of knowledge about teaching and learning. I hoped they might find ways to build such endeavors into their own classrooms.

Site header for Zaino’s course, Drafting Possible Futures in English Language Arts.

I created a CUNY Academic Commons website as a container for the course schedule, required readings, presentation slide decks, and weekly student blog posts. This digital space, unlike most learning management systems, would not collect student data, and students were not required to log-in for access to the blog or the readings. 

I called the class Drafting Possible Futures in English Language Arts.  I was enamored with the idea that our work would be done not in the service of the narrow, neoliberal concerns of the educational testing industry, but in the service of a future like the one Watters described in her keynote: one “based on emotion, care, refusal, resistance, love.” Our little classroom community, I thought, could practice for such a future, sharing knowledge digitally and in-person. 

Ultimately, of course, the future did something that neither I nor the testing industry predicted. The future for which I had planned–a future in which my students would learn from and with each other, literally inches away from each other in a cramped Queens College classroom–no longer existed. The future for which the the futurist-consultants had planned–a future in which children prepared and sat for hours of testing--no longer existed.

Once CUNY closed all in-person classes, I reflected on the aims of the course: I wanted my students to learn from and with each other, and to produce, collectively, an archive of their encounters. As I created my course contingency plan, I realized that these aims remained possible, albeit in a revised manner. Because the course had centered the students themselves as the primary sources of knowledge production, they were not overly burdened with trying to absorb or regurgitate irrelevant material–their own lives remained deeply relevant to them. They continued to engage in activities, most of which I made optional, at relatively high levels. Of course, the website helped for accessibility purposes during remote learning, but the truth is, the course material was accessible because our own experiences are always accessible to us. 

The future is never inevitable. It is always unpredictable, and it is often beyond our control. But if we plan for the future we want, rather than the future that is sold to us as inevitable, we may find ourselves in a present that echoes, however clumsily, the future we were trying to build. 

About the Author

Elvis Bakaitis is the Interim Head of Reference at the Mina Rees Library.