“Build Something That Matters”

That’s the fifth of Douglas Kiang’s “top five secrets” to a deeply engaging learning experience, and it’s obviously the same idea as building something meaningful together.  In some ways it’s the easiest of the five principles to apply, but in other ways it’s the hardest.  It’s easy when you have really built a joyful learning community; in fact, when there’s a joyful learning community in place, it naturally seeks to “build something that matters.”  “Can we create and solve mysteries for each other?” the Latin Family at District Q asked … and when I got that email, I knew that the community had truly formed.  But it’s hard because, if you want to build a joyful learning community, you have to do Kiang’s other four elements:

  1. “Wrap them up in the story,” which inspired my post on Monday;
  2. “Fail early, fail often,” which led to Tuesday’s post;
  3. “Provide multiple paths to success,” which we talked about on Wednesday; and
  4. “Scaffold and recognize progress,” which was our focus in yesterday’s post.

And of course those elements are interdependent … and of course “fail early, fail often” doesn’t just apply to the work that the learners do.  When you’re building a new joyful learning community, the lead learner or teacher or community organizer will experience plenty of failures and partial successes, too.  Sometimes it’s hard to find and frame the story in a way that works well for this particular audience, especially if school has meant Doing That Worksheet or Copying Ms. X’s PowerPoint.  Often it’s hard to normalize failure and struggle if the learners are used to a success- and perfection-driven school culture.  Multiple paths are a challenge for learners who are used to being told the One Right Way; I’m reminded of a story I know I’ve told before, a Ms. X colleague who was furious at her students for “doing Chapter 7 problems the Chapter 6 way” on The Test.

Scaffolding can be a challenge, too.  What does this group (or this person) need today, and how is it different from what they needed yesterday?  Celebrating progress is natural for me, but it can feel strange for a learner who only expects celebrations for absolute “achievement.”

And of course sometimes, when you try to get one element “just right,” you overcompensate and throw the whole structure out of balance.

But it’s not just in my personal life where I see signs of real progress on all five elements.  When K emailed me last night, he said he could feel the difference that the Unknown Vocabulary List process was making in his reading comprehension.  “It’s more like the Old Book,” he said, because the Former Teacher had given students the vocabulary list at the beginning of the chapter.  “Should we do that?” I asked him.  “Do you think that would help?”  I certainly don’t care whether I send the links to the VOCABVLA spreadsheets and documents at the beginning or at the end of a Lectio!  “Yes, that would probably help a lot,” K responded, and so we’ll talk about that in the intermediate and advanced classes today.  We may even bring back an old Latin Family favorite called Vocabulary Images, where you find or create images that help you remember three or four particularly troublesome words.

That’s a great way to “build something that matters,” both for you personally and for the larger Latin Family.  It’s also a great thing to share and publish on the Tres Columnae site … which I deliberately didn’t hyperlink in this post.  After so many issues with Joomla in the past week or so, I took the site down for maintenance … and when I bring it back up, I think it won’t be running on Joomla anymore.  CMS options are much better today than they were in 2011, the last time we had to make a back-end change in the site … and with a short week for District Q and District Y tomorrow, and end-of-quarter exams for District Y, I should have time and energy to build something better, simpler, and more flexible.

“But I can’t!!!” a Former Me might have wailed as recently as a week or two ago.  “The Old Site is old and familiar, and I’ve spent time and energy learning the software and finding those plug-ins.”  But as I think about old and familiar and time and energy spent in the past, those aren’t exactly compelling reasons to avoid a change in the present.  In fact, old and familiar can turn into stifling and constricting … and if you’ve already spent time and energy on something, that doesn’t mean you necessarily have to spend more time and energy on it.  Sunk costs can be upsetting and frustrating, or you can look back on them as time, energy, and money well spent.  But economists are right when they say that sunk costs shouldn’t guide your future investment decisions.  In less than an hour of experimenting, I found a solution that I really liked … and in less than thirty minutes of searching, I think I found plug-ins that will allow the Next Version of Tres Columnae Online to do everything the former site did, but better.  We may even be able to implement some things we’ve only talked and dreamed about before!

That’s the thing about the flexibility that suddenly emerges when you abandon the idea of perfect and embrace excellent for now instead.  That Old Thing worked well in its time, but is it still excellent for now?  If not, we can celebrate the good as we move on to the Next Right Thing, even as we know that it, too, may need to be replaced in time.  On a beautiful fall Friday, that’s an important lesson not just for me, but for everyone involved in building and sustaining joyful learning communities.  I wonder what else we’ll all discover in the days and weeks ahead!


Published in: on October 31, 2014 at 3:17 pm  Leave a Comment  

Progress, Not Perfection

Douglas Kiang’s fourth step calls for teachers to “scaffold and recognize progress” just as good game designers do.  Don’t expect perfection, whatever that is, from the beginning.  Do provide small, safe steps and spaces for learners (or players) to build their skills and to build on their prior learning.

I’m glad I was thinking about Step 4 today.

This has been a week of scaffolding and progress for me personally.  American readers will appreciate what happens when you leave a long-time job that provided (not so great) health insurance.  I had an important decision to make: continue with that not-so-great insurance coverage through COBRA, or look for a better policy through the health insuranc marketplace.  (I realize that readers outside the United States are scratching their heads, especially if they live in a place where employer-provided health insurance isn’t “a thing.”)  Scaffolding?  I called a local agency and quickly discovered that better coverage for about the same price could be mine.  Progress?  I picked up the form yesterday, returned it and paid this morning, and the new policy takes effect at the beginning of the month.

And as I drove home, I felt free … more free than I’d felt in a very long time.  Readers outside the U.S. might not know how, in the “bad but not so old days,” many people with pre-existing health conditions felt like “health insurance slaves.”  They wouldn’t have been able to get individual or family coverage on their own, so they were shackled (as a friend of mine put it a few years ago) to their existing Large, Safe Company … or possibly, if they were lucky, to another Large, Safe Company.

When that changed, it felt like an answer to many prayers.  I was at a conference, and I “just happened” to turn on the news in my hotel room to see the Supreme Court decision.  And in that moment, I knew that, when the time was right, I’d really be able to build a joyful learning community outside of a “typical” classroom.

The last two years, as I think about them now, have been about scaffolding and progress toward that goal.  First I had to find, define, and refine the overarching story.  What isjoyful learning community that builds meaningful things together?  What does that look like in practice?  How does it happen partly on the inside, like the District Y and District Q Latin Family groups?  How does it happen entirely on the outside like the Gifted Homeschoolers Forum Latin Family?  That called for failing early and often; if you look back at blog posts here over the past few years, you’ll see lots of examples of trying, failing, learning, trying again, failing again, and learning some more.  In the beginning, influenced by the factory-story I’d lived in for so long, I just assumed there must be a single pathway to the goal; eventually I started to see multiple pathways.  And it was only then, when the idea of multiple pathways had taken hold, that I “just happened” to start finding the team, place, and time: the inquiry that “just happened” to come from my friend at GHF, the “can we talk” message from my friends at The Company, the unfillable openings for a Latin teacher at District Q and District Y.

Scaffolding … and celebrating progress.  Progress, not perfection.

It was a day of progress, not perfection for the District Y Latin Family, too.  “Where are they?” I wondered, when the Stated Time arrived and no advanced students had logged in.  It turns out there was an evacuation drill, a special one that called for students to report to a Particular Teacher because they weren’t officially in class at the time.  We had less time than usual together, but we were remarkably productive.  Then came the beginners, still all excited from the drill … and then came the technical glitches that knocked everyone off-line at least once, including me.  We salvaged the day, but W was upset because “people had been distracting” while I was gone.  Having read the log of what they said and did, I’m not as distracted as W was, but I reminded everyone that, whether or not I’m there with them, we’re still the Latin Family and we still hold ourselves to a higher standard.

That’s a hard lesson to learn when you’re a young teenager, especially if you’re used to having Other People manage you.  I don’t know the other teachers of the District Y Latin Family members, but I’m sure that they’ve encountered a Ms. X or Mr. Y or two at some point along the way.   My Ms. X and Mr. Y colleagues try to manage their students’ behavior, and some of them even try to manage their students’ attitudes.  But Ms. X and Mr. Y often have trouble managing themselves; they look to Powers That Be to “make those other teachers” do or believe certain things.  And Ms. X aand Mr. Y tend to believe that They (whoever They are) ought to provide certain things for Us … things like well-behaved students, new textbooks, regular salary increases, and (not so great) health insurance.  When They (whoever They are) don’t play by the rules Ms. X and Mr. Y have designed, you can feel the anger and disappointment from miles away.

When I started writing, I wasn’t sure how the quest for health insurance and the imperfect, but progress-filled day were connected with each other.  As I wrote, though, I started to see the connection.  Both have to do with progress, not perfection.  Ms. X and Mr. Y “just have to” keep their nice, safe jobs with nice, safe, but not so great health insurance … but one day, I realized I didn’t “just have to” anymore.  Like the Latin Family, I could take a step and see what happened; I could find multiple pathways and, when the time was right, choose one and follow it.  I wonder where this path will lead next!


Published in: on October 30, 2014 at 6:45 pm  Leave a Comment  

Many Pathways

There’s a powerful section in Seven Thousand Ways to Listen where Mark Nepo explores the implications of the Portuguese phrase e daí?  “And then?” is how it translates literally, but for Nepo (and for the Monday Evening Book Group when we talked about it this week) there are at least three different levels of meaning.  First, he says, it means “How is this thing important in the big picture?”  Then, once you’ve established that, it means “What possible courses of action are there?”  And finally, once you’re clear on the why and the possible responses, it means “What’s the right step for me to take?”

I’m sure you can see the connections between that phrase and Douglas Kiang’s five principles that I started exploring on Monday and Tuesday.  Art and life are mirroring each other in odd ways!  When you run into an unexpected struggle or setback, it’s natural to feel some fear.  If it seems really major, panic or despair may grip you, at least for a while.  But when you ask the first e daí question, you reconnect yourself with your bigger story.  And when you ask the second and third levels of the question, you reduce the fear and start to see what Kiang calls the “multiple paths to success.”  And once you can see them, you can make an intelligent (but not necessarily “perfect”) choice of which path to take.

Apparently that’s a lesson I needed to re-learn this week!

It turns out that many of us in the Monday Evening Book Group are recovering perfectionists.  B’s mother made it clear to Young B that perfection was the goal and mistakes were unacceptable; decades later, B has mostly broken free of the perfectionism and the terror.  My family didn’t demand perfection, but when things were tough at home, school was a Great Escape for me … and the factory-model school story is all about perfection.  “What if I mess up?” you’re supposed to think.  “What if this ends up on my Permanent Record?”  There were actually a lot of growth-mindset messages too over the years, but that fear of permanent failure is hard to shake.

For a while I was convinced that the Tres Columnae site would be unfixable and that I’d permanently damaged or even broken a long-time friendship.  That’s when the voices of terror get really strong.

Mark Ensign’s blog post from yesterday “just happens” to be related.  Stop asking the fear-based questions, he says, and start asking “So, now what?”

Or, in other words, e daí?

“So someone hacked the site … now what?”  Well, there’s the emergency backup, the PDF copies I keep in a Google Drive folder in case of site problems or downtime.  And there’s a fairly recent backup of the site that could be restored if necessary.  “So I think I gave my friend an incorrect understanding of something … now what?”  I could call or email now, or I could wait to have a face-to-face conversation.  You stop focusing on the fear and terror, you reconnect with the why, and you start to see the what and the how again.

The District Q Latin Family has been reading the stories in Tres Columnae Lectio XXIX this week.  Young Vipsanius and Valeria, married for about three years, have a toddler and an infant, and both children (and their parents and nutrix) have been awake all night.  Exhausted, but wanting to display all the relevant virtutes Romanae, Vipsanius greets his clients at the salutatio and “just happens” to encounter a particularly rude (and drunk) client … whom he sends away without a sportula today but does not reject permanently.  There’s a lesson in that story, I realize, for all of us recovering perfectionists who fear that today’s struggle, failure, or setback will lead to permanent ruin.

It might lead to some pain or difficulty, but permanent ruin?  And no options?  When I hear those terrified voices in my head, it’s easy to fall under their spell … but sooner or later I find myself asking “So, now what?  E daí?”  And when I ask, and listen for the answer, the terror subsides and the options appear.

In Google+ comments on Monday, George reminded me that story isn’t as simple as it used to be:

I think the concept of story that we cling to has two challenges. One is narrative collapse, discussed by Douglas Rushkoff all over YouTube and in Present Shock. The other is context collapse, discussed in different ways by educator-friendly Mike Wesch and by danah boyd.
I have been reminded of this because my classes are reading Rushkoff this semester.
I’ve read and blogged about Rushkoff and boyd, but I didn’t see the connections until George pointed them out.  And I didn’t see the connection with the Agile development process until Mark pointed it out, then added these powerful words:
Building something that matters in the context of education is allowing a person to develop into a unique individual. When this process is focused on the person and not on content then there is far less chance of a story collapsing.Also when learning is personal no matter how bad the circumstances, the narrative never changes. Under bad circumstances where there are mentors and coaches involved, learners are guided through bad circumstances and this path is part of the narrative.

The issue today is that school is attempting to write a common story for everyone and the narrative has already been written by curriculum and course designers.

joyful learning community builds its own shared story, which will probably be quite different from the factory-school tale of perfection and permanent failure.  It embraces the struggles and setbacks and makes them part of the story, and it deepens and broadens the now what choices that are available.  I needed to know this today, and perhaps the Latin Family did, too!  I wonder what else we’ll discover with and from each other in the days and weeks to come.
Published in: on October 29, 2014 at 1:27 pm  Leave a Comment  

Struggles and Setbacks

Somebody did an Inappropriate Thing on Friday, and that required a chain of emails.  Somebody (not the same somebody) hacked the Tres Columnae Project site, but our hosting company caught the problem quickly and shut the site down.  I realized I owed somebody else an apology because I’d said something that, while not untrue, probably gave them the wrong impression of a situation.  And lots of other unexpected struggles and setbacks showed up on Monday, too.

My first thought? “I can’t do this, this is terrible, it’s the end of the world!”  Old factory-model mindsets and beliefs about failure and struggles are more tenacious than you realize.  You think you’ve fully embraced a growth mindset, embraced the notion of failing fast and frequently … but then an actual failure or struggle shows up, and all of a sudden you revert to the Old Familiar.

When I wrote yesterday’s blog post, I had no idea I would soon be living the first two of the “game design principles” that inspired it!  Here’s hoping that today and tomorrow will be filled with multiple paths to success instead!

But by Monday evening, I just wanted to crawl into bed and stay there … perhaps for a year or two.  Book Group had helped a bit; we were talking about a powerful section of our book where Mark Nepo explores forgiveness, community, and the notion that “breaking and burning” are inevitable parts of life.  That actually helped a lot.  When you run into struggles and setbacks, it’s easy to believe that you’re the only one struggling, that everybody else has a trouble-free life where things are all going according to plan.  But everyone had stories of struggles and setbacks to share … and as we shared them, I think we all felt better.

By late morning, we had (apparently) corrected the site issues.  I’d heard back from my friend, who didn’t think I owed an apology at all.  Things were definitely starting to look up, and I’d figured out what the intermediate Latin Family branch at District Y needs to do today.  We’ll be working in small groups in class to do the Unknown Vocabulary process we attempted as a homework assignment.  They’ll all have editing access to a Google Document where we’ll compile the words, and as they’re compiling them, I’ll add the meanings.  We’ll see how much and how well we can read together after that, and we’ll try some more independent reading as homework for tomorrow.  Then the advanced District Y Latin Family will do a Cultural Exploration about theaters, actors, and plays in the Roman world, and then we’ll continue reading the stories in Lectio XXIV where the families actually attend the play … and where poor, anxious Cnaeus dreams that they attended the play.

Poor, anxious Cnaeus!  When I first started writing the Tres Columnae stories, he was a simple character, a spoiled child whose foibles would stand in contrast to the “good boys” Lucius and Caius.  But as I kept writing, and as the Latin Family added their contributions, I started to see a different side of Cnaeus.  I realized he was anxious and perfectionistic … which makes sense, I suppose, since the family’s expectations suddenly rested on him after his older brother’s mysterious death.  And I realized that struggles and setbacks were shaping and molding him into a much more sympathetic character.

I resisted that for a while.  I wanted the simple, easy, flat character I’d designed originally.  But all of the “younger generation” characters have grown more complex as we’ve built out the storyline, and I’m pretty sure that’s a good thing.

Struggles and setbacks complicate your life, but on the other side, they also deepen your story and make you stronger.

But without a sense of the overarching story, it’s easy to get lost in the struggles and setbacks, easy to assume that This One Failure means a permanent stain, a lasting inability.  “I won’t ever be able to” isn’t generally true, but it’s easy to believe when you adopt the factory-school story as your own.  Somehow or other, a joyful learning community has to normalize failure, has to celebrate struggles and setbacks … and that’s hard in a world where most people, most of the time, would rather hide their struggles than celebrate them.

I wonder what other new insights and discoveries await in the days to come!  And I wonder what multiple pathways to success will emerge from these struggles and setbacks.

Published in: on October 28, 2014 at 4:16 pm  Comments (1)  

Finding Our Story

This Edutopia post “just happened” to show up in my Google+ stream this weekend, and as I read it, I had an insight about the question that bothered me on Friday.  Why are the students at District Q and District Y so much more ready to own problems and results than their counterparts at Former School?  And why is it, more generally, that some people own problems and results while others look for helpers, enablers, and excuses?  Those are huge questions with many layers of answers, but as I read the Edutopia post, I saw connections with the five principles that Douglas Kiang addresses:

  1. “Wrap them up in the story”
  2. “Fail early, fail often”
  3. “Provide multiple paths to success”
  4. “Scaffold and recognize progress”
  5. “Build something that matters”

The more connected you are with those five principles, I realized, the more likely you are to own problems and results.  And finding a story that you can wrap yourself up in is the part I want to focus on today.

Stephen Krashen calls it compelling input … “so interesting you forget that it is in another language.”  That was the goal when we started building the Tres Columnae Project storyline: to “hook” our readers and subscribers so that they didn’t want to stop reading, so that they wanted to know more, so that they wanted to create their own stories to fill in the gaps.  “That,” said the beginning branch of the Latin Family at District Y on Friday, “is a really creepy doll!”  Now they want to make up stories about Lollia’s doll: where it came from, whether it’s really as creepy as it seems to be.  Compelling input leads to finding our stories and sharing our stories with one another.  For the advanced group at District Y, the first really compelling input was the storyline in Lectio XXIII about Lucius’ crush on Lollia; for the District Q group, it was the reading that led them to create their own mysteries.

Once you have a shared story that you love, everything else falls into place.  But the intermediate branch of the District Y Latin Family hasn’t found a shared story yet; I think that’s why we’re struggling with vocabulary and reading speed.  It’s my hope that the combination of romance and violent entertainment in Lectio XV and XVI will help us find our story … and we’ll throw in the gladiator fights in Lectio XIII for good measure.  If that’s not the right fit, we’ll have to create some stories together, possibly building on their shared interests in science and technology and history.  What aspects of Roman technology might we explore together, and how could we build our explorations into a shared story?

(Looking back at what they told me in September, I also see they like an “organized and focused” learning environment, that most of them don’t like English classes where they do a lot of writing but do like concrete things: working with numbers, working with their hands.  As we find ways for them to feel more in touch with the underlying structure of our shared work, to involve our hearts and hands in the work we do, that should help us find our shared story, too.)

I think I’ll have more to say about the other five “game design” principles from the Edutopia post in the days ahead.  But at the moment, I’m focused on how hard they are in the absence of a shared story that you own.  Risking failure frequently?  That’s scary if your guiding story is the story factory-model schools tell, the one about how bad grades send you on a downward spiral, while good grades lead to success in life.  And even if you don’t exactly believe the factory-school story, you hear it constantly from the very structures and procedures of School As It Is … the very same procedures and structures that point out one way to success, that seem to recognize some fixed abilities rather than progress, that focus on deficiencies rather than success and don’t have much space or time to “build something that matters.”

I think that’s why it was hard for the Latin Family at Former School to own their problems … because the school-story they’d heard for years, the one they continued to hear in Those Other Classes, was so different from the Latin Family’s story.  “Just copy my PowerPoint,” that school-story said, “and turn in The Work, and you’ll Get Good Grades and do well on The Test.”  It’s not exactly a satisfying story, but at least it was familiar.  And I wasn’t sure how to help them hear and believe a different story.

It’s easier in some ways because I’m not physically part of the story at District Q or District Y.  The school-story obviously doesn’t fit with the physical environment or with the kinds of interactions we can have in our virtual environment.  But what does the new, different story look and feel like?  We’ve mostly decided, but there’s still the occasional glitch when somebody says or does something that doesn’t quite fit … but they don’t quite realize that it doesn’t fit.

And sometimes that somebody is me!

“Are the directions clear?” I’ll ask, and sometimes the answer is “No, they aren’t.”  And sometimes that’s because I wasn’t clear myself!  But sometimes it’s because the activity itself is so different from a school-story assignment: there’s not an exact number of details to find, no physical page to find them, no worksheet to write them on.  When stories compete, it’s important to realize what’s happening!

I still don’t know what our shared story will be in the intermediate branch of the District Y Latin Family.  But I’m less worried and bothered than I was when I sat down to write.  I know I can trust the process and the community; when the time is right, the right story will emerge.  I wonder what other insights and discoveries await us all today!


Published in: on October 27, 2014 at 1:55 pm  Comments (4)  

Owning Problems … and Results

It’s Homecoming Day at District Y, which meant that a lot of Latin Family members would have to leave class early to prepare for the Big Pep Rally at the end of the day.  I wasn’t surprised by that … but I was pleasantly surprised that they already knew when to leave and where to go, and that they told me before I asked.  At Some Schools I’ve known, the cultural expectation would be to wait for the announcement … because the mysterious, omnipresent They would be the only ones who owned (or even knew about) the schedule.  At other schools I’ve known, you’d wait for the announcement not because They had not provided information, but because you’d “just know” that the information would be inaccurate, the plans would change.

At District Y, the cheerleaders, band members, and fall athletes know the schedule, and they also own the process of getting themselves where they need to go at the scheduled time.  That was a happy, but not unexpected discovery today.

I wonder what came first, the ownership of the process or the traditional pattern of high academic achievement at District Y and District Q.  My old friends Ms. X and Mr. Y would say “it’s easy to teach Those Good Kids,” and I’d probably tell them that “kids are kids everywhere.”  There are certainly cultural differences between These Parts and Up There … but there are cultural differences between any community and any other community.  Cultural differences might explain some of the high academic achievement, but they wouldn’t necessarily account for the differences in the feeling of ownership.

Or would they?

When I talk with students, their families, and the colleagues I’ve “virtually met” at District Y and District Q, I get a strong sense that the schools belong to the community.  There’s a lot of we language … and it’s not us in contrast to the mysterious Them, either.  It’s us, the people of District Y, and our school to which we welcome you.

At Former School, it was always us in contrast with them, whether they were “those parents” or “those kids” or community members or Those Mysterious Powers.  I’m not sure whether that difference caused, contributed to, or resulted from the very different perceptions of ownership.

But I do know that at Former School, if I’d asked students to define a problem for me, they would have struggled.  Defining problems and proposing solutions?  That’s not “our” job at Former School; it’s “their” job.  But when I asked the intermediate branch of the District Y Latin Family to define the problem (why is it so hard for us to make these Character Diagrams?), they very quickly owned the problem: “too much unfamiliar vocabulary.”  We’re trying a different solution: everyone is looking at two “virtual pages” of the next few stories and sending me a list of the vocabulary they don’t recognize.  I’ll compile a master list, complete with definitions, and we’ll use that as we’re reading.

“I don’t know a lot of the words,” P told me last year at about the equivalent time.  “There should be a vocabulary list or something.”

Can you feel the difference between P’s response and the District Y Latin Family response?  They could both identify the problem, and the problem was actually quite similar.  But P, after a decade or so as a student in Schools In These Parts, wouldn’t have thought to propose a solution.  N, G, and the others at District Y?  Proposing a solution seemed natural to them … because owning the problem … and the results seems natural to them, too.

I don’t want to discount or diminish the good work we did in All Those Years at Former School.  But no matter what we did, it was hard for Latin Family members there to own problems … and results.  “You’re the teacher,” someone said to me more than once, “so you should….”  And when I talked with colleagues about problems they identified?  “That’s the principal’s job; that’s why they make the big bucks,” Ms. X or Mr. Y would generally respond.

I’m still struggling to define the differences, let alone explain them … and I’m not sure what to do if I do manage to define things clearly.  I obviously won’t be calling Ms. X and Mr. Y to tell them “This is why things are different for you.”  I won’t be emailing frustrated Powers That Be of my acquaintance to share my new understanding.  But there’s something important about the joyful learning community we’ve formed at District Y and District Q … and something important, too, about the ways we’ve formed it and the ownership the Latin Family members have taken.  On this Friday afternoon, as District Y students cheer for The Team, I’m cheering for all of them … and I’m wondering what other new insights and discoveries we’ll share in the days and weeks to come.

Published in: on October 24, 2014 at 6:22 pm  Comments (1)  

The Next Right Thing

This is Mid-Quarter Proficiency Check week for the Latin Family at District Q and District Y.  Almost all of us have finished the pronunciation check and the interpretation check, and the scores were uniformly excellent.  We all seem to be right where we “should” be or slightly beyond that, at least if you assume that a language learner should reach Novice Mid to High interpretive proficiency by the end of “level one,” Novice High to Intermediate Low proficiency by the end of “level two” and Intermediate Low to Mid proficiency by the end of “level three.”  We’re all definitely on track for that!

When I realized I wanted to add the Mid-Quarter Proficiency Checks for these year-long classes, it’s because I wanted roughly the same frequency of checking proficiency that I had with the Latin Family at Former School, with its semester-block schedule and roughly month-long reporting periods.  It makes sense to pause every month or so and see how much you’ve progressed … not just “to put some grades in The Book” as Ms. X and Mr. Y would say, but to see about the next right thing.

I don’t think I realized that when I was a new teacher … and even when I was “more seasoned,” as my friend N likes to say.  But the more I think about it, the more I realize that the primary purpose, if not the only purpose, of a formal assessment like the Proficiency Check is to see about the next right thing.

That’s made all the difference in my approach to assessment and in the ways I use (and ask my students to use) the results of the assessment work we do.

A Much Younger Me “gave tests” at the end of every chapter of That Textbook because that’s what teachers do.  Predictably, some students did well, some struggled, and some did poorly even though I had worked hard to align The Test with What We Did during the unit.  Much Younger Me took pride in returning tests the next day, and the Latin Family in those days enjoyed the test correction process which, as I told them every time, was at least as important as the test itself, if not more important.  We’d see why the answer was wrong, and we’d fix it, and the hope was that we wouldn’t repeat the mistake in the future.

Sometimes that worked; sometimes it didn’t.  But even in those early days, I had half-realized that The Test needed to be connected in some way to the next right thing.

The Current Me seems to have a deeper, better understanding of how that connection works.  As I listen to Latin Family members read aloud and tell me what they understood, I can see areas where we need to work individually, where Z needs to focus on this set of vocabulary or Q needs more practice reading.  But I can also see areas where all of us need work … and then I can find ways to plan for that work in the days that follow.  I think I did that at Former School, though the Incredibly Detailed Lesson Plan Format there was more of an obstacle than a help.  But at District Q and District Y, it’s somehow easier to make adjustments for the next right thing, to allow the extra half-day for This Story, to add This Activity or cut That One whose time is not yet right.

The intermediate and advanced Latin Family members at District Q have started doing more independent reading, and we’ve started making Character Diagrams and Products/Practices/Perspectives Diagrams based on what we read.  That’s still a real struggle, especially for the intermediate group.  We tried making one together at the end of the day on Wednesday, after we’d all finished reading the first two stories in Lectio XV  and doing our Proficiency Assessments.  I modeled and guided, and by the end of the day about half of us felt confident that we could make such a diagram soon, but the rest of us were still tentative or even fearful about the process.  I think they have an image of required perfection in mind, an image that comes from past experiences they haven’t shared with me.  The next right thing involves letting go of that image … but I’m not sure exactly how that will work.

I do know we’ll make some diagrams together today, do some paired reading work, and come back together to add to the diagrams.  That’s part of the next right thing, but is there something I’m missing?  I’ll ask them for suggestions over the weekend, and I’ll see if they have any insights.  And I’ll keep looking at the formal results from the Proficiency Check and the informal results from our daily work together.  When the time is right, the next right thing will probably be clear.

I do know that they love exploring Roman “cultural stuff,” and I think they’ll enjoy finding out more about chariot racing on Monday.  Maybe the next right thing will take us back to the gladiator stories in Lectio XIII which they haven’t yet read.  Or maybe they’ll want to create and share their own chariot-race themed stories, perhaps challenging themselves to include some “problem” vocabulary.

The next right thing for them might not be the “usual” next thing on Those Old Lesson Plans … and that’s OK.  Those Old Lesson Plans live on in a set of Google Drive folders, but that doesn’t mean I have to look at them, and it definitely doesn’t mean I have to keep using them.  I, too, am free to embrace the next right thing, free in ways I would never have been if I were still at Former School.  That’s a joyful realization, and it wouldn’t be possible without the joyful learning community we’re building together.

I wonder what other joyful realizations await in the days to come!

Published in: on October 23, 2014 at 5:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

Strengths or Weaknesses?

A young teacher, about to attend some job interviews, asked the Latin-BestPractices email list for advice about what to say if asked how Comprehensible Input approaches might impact students’ “college readiness.”  My first thought was, “Friend, if the school is looking for a teacher now, for this year, they are probably not in a position to ask those kinds of questions!”  My next thought was that I can’t remember being asked about teaching techniques in any job interview I ever had at a factory-model school.  Classroom management approaches?  Sure.  Philosophies of education or discipline?  Probably.  Familiarity with That Particular Textbook or with the Required State Curriculum?  Quite possibly.  But as I think of the school administrators I’ve known over the years, and of my friends who “have schools of their own” these days, it strikes me that most of them don’t have time, interest, or energy to delve deeply into different brands of world language pedagogy.

It might be different, of course, if you were a language teacher yourself in your “classroom days.” But as I read my young friend’s question, I wondered if there was a deeper question behind it … perhaps a question rooted in those issues of proficiency or perfection that inspired my post yesterday, or maybe a question related to strengths or weaknesses.

“I just know I bombed this,” said W after his Mid-Quarter Proficiency Check yesterday.  In fact, W had met all the requirements for the highest rubric level … but his response wasn’t perfect, at least from his point of view.  As I thought about W’s response and the fears some of my District Q and District Y students felt going into the proficiency check, I realized that they, too, had a deeper question related to strengths or weaknesses.

Where will we focus in this joyful learning community of ours, they were wondering?  Will we really focus on our strengths as we seem to be doing?  Or will we revert to What Schools Usually Do and focus relentlessly on our weaknesses?

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know I try hard to keep the focus on strengths.  Over time, weaknesses tend to mitigate themselves, or if we have ownership of the process, we find ways to leverage our strengths in our areas of weakness.  “I’m not good at tests,” a friend of mine in high school said, “so I make sure to do all my homework in Ms. X’s class, and I still end up with a pretty good grade.”  Another friend, who “tested well,” could “ignore the stupid, petty homework” and still do acceptably well in Mr. Y’s class.  And of course I’ve known dozens, even hundreds of Latin Family members over the years who leveraged their strengths in those ways, and many who leveraged strengths of other kinds.

But in the Age of High-Stakes Testing and Lots of Data, factory-model schools are ever more focused on weaknesses … and not on leveraging strengths to overcome them, either.  That focus obviously explains W’s concern: all he could see was “the word I didn’t know” or “the place where I think I messed up.”  But does a focus on weaknesses also explain the young teacher’s fear about that possible interview question?

I think it might.  My suspicion is that after years and years in a weakness-focused system, the young teacher expects everyone to focus on potential weaknesses all the time.  Having received calls from schools that describe themselves as “college preparatory,” he probably assumes that their mission is to prepare every student for the Latin program at Some Elite University … and he also probably assumes that the Powers That Be in those schools and districts know and care what the requirements of That Elite University are.  Two huge assumptions!  He also probably assumes that Latin instruction at all levels at That Elite University consists of naming the grammar and writing literal translations … and then it’s an easy step to fear that you won’t get The Job because They will “just know” you can’t deliver what They want.

“If you’re looking for someone to teach a traditional grammar-translation oriented Latin class, I’m not the person you’re looking for.”  I said that this summer to the folks at The Company when they initially approached me to see if I’d be interested in working with them to build the District Q and District Y programs.  “Oh, no,” they said, “that’s not what these districts want at all!  They want something innovative and cutting-edge.”  Unlike my young friend, I wasn’t afraid of a potential weakness; I was curious to see if we’d be a good fit for each other.

It’s a small difference in perspective, but it makes a huge difference.

I’m not sure what, if anything, I want to tell that young teacher.  He’s already received a number of helpful responses, and I’m not sure what I could add to their good advice.  My first thought was to ask if he’d want to work in a school whose priorities were totally different from his … but then I remembered a Much Younger Me who was looking for a job and didn’t think he could be choosy.  I thought about walking him through the chain of assumptions I’d seen in his question and asking if I was right … but I’m not sure that’s worth the time or the effort on his part or mine.

What I think I want to tell him (and all the other young teachers out there, and anyone who’s sad and dissatisfied in a school is that joyful learning community is worth seeking, worth building, and worth waiting for.  I heard from a friend at Former School the other day: “We miss you,” he said, “but we’re doing well.”  I miss some individual people there, but I don’t miss the Whole Thing … and I’m grateful for the new joyful learning communities that we’re building at District Q and District Y.

I wonder what other insights and discoveries await!

Published in: on October 22, 2014 at 3:42 pm  Leave a Comment  

Proficiency and Perfectionism

After our painful conversation last week, the Monday Evening Book Group was much more at peace with our book and our process last night.  It helped that almost all of us were able to be there; it helped that we knew that T wouldn’t be able to attend; and perhaps most of all, it helped to be back in our regular location.  We’d moved, at the urging of one of our members, because some minor renovations are scheduled for That Room at some point … but the renovations haven’t started yet, and the timeline hasn’t been announced, and none of the other locations we tried felt like home.  It probably also helped that the reading itself seemed more accessible, or that we were more easily able to relate the themes Mark Nepo raises to our own lives and experiences.

All of us, whether we’re professional teachers or not, loved the three aspects of teaching (and learning) that Nepo describes: deep listening, deep speaking, and deep questioning.  And as we talked, and as I thought about the week just past, the weeks ahead, and an important question someone had recently asked, I realized something: Deep listening, deep speaking, and deep questioning are steps on the road toward proficiency, not perfection.

Those are very different destinations!  And when you’re not clear on the destination, it’s easy to feel lost and frustrated on the journey.

We’d been aiming for perfection in our Book Group discussion last week, and that’s why we all felt so frustrated.  We wanted to “understand his argument” or “follow his logic,” as several people said during the hour.  But that wasn’t the purpose of Nepo’s writing!  It’s not about an argument or logic; it’s about “becoming awake,” as he puts it, and understanding things more deeply.

There’s always a deeper level, so you won’t ever be perfect.  But you can become more proficient, more able to ask the questions and lean into the paradoxes.

It’s a Proficiency Check day for the Latin Family at both District Q and District Y.  As we work on a fairly large thing, re-reading some familiar stories and creating an analytical diagram (for the intermediate and advanced groups) and creating some noun forms and a story (for the beginners), I’ll visit each pair or group with the Proficiency Check document and ask them to do three things.  They’ll read aloud in Latin for a Pronunciation Check score, tell me what they understood for an Interpretive Reading score, and find some familiar noun and verb forms for a Language Control score, just as they will on the Major Assessment when its time comes in a few more weeks.  We’ll talk about the rubrics before we start, just as we did with the District Q group this morning, and everyone will notice something important from the outset: even the full-credit, 100% response doesn’t call for perfection.  It calls for an appropriate level of proficiency, one slightly beyond where most of us are at the moment … but it doesn’t call for perfection because perfection isn’t a reasonable goal for language learning.

Sometimes I need to remember that perfection isn’t a reasonable goal for most aspects of life, either.

I was thinking about proficiency and perfection as I read an anguished plea for help from a young Latin teacher on the Latin-BestPractices email list.  He wants his students only to hear “correctly modulated” Latin, so he wants to do all the speaking (and, I gather, almost all of the oral reading) in his classes, but his local Powers That Be are pressuring him for “more engagement” from the students.  It’s early in the conversation, but I’m hoping I can persuade him that perfection (the “correctly modulated” Latin) isn’t necessary for progress or acquisition.  Does anyone, even a native speaker of a language, always “correctly modulate” every sentence?  I certainly don’t.  Like everyone else, I sometimes pause, sometimes stammer, sometimes start over in a different direction.

I hadn’t realized how much that happens until I watched some video lectures where the closed-captioning was turned on by default.  The speakers were educated professionals; they’d clearly prepared for the task; and they were talking about areas of interest and passion.  But they still stammered, paused, restarted, and even misspoke from time to time.  Perfect?  Hardly.  Proficient?  Definitely.  Able to communicate?  Of course.

I hope my young, idealistic friend will embrace the excellence of proficiency and step away from the false idol of perfection.  But I understand how enticing perfection can be … and how powerful perfectionism can be as a driving force.  I remember sleepless nights in pursuit of perfection when I was a young teacher … and I remember my anger, too, when my perfection sometimes collided with students’ indifference.

In a joyful learning community, the quest for perfection quickly seems ridiculous.  If you pursue it too zealously, somebody will say something … and before too long, you’ll find yourself back on the right path, seeking proficiency or excellence instead.  That’s important to remember today as I tabulate and record proficiency scores, but it’s also important for the daily work and operation of any community.

I wonder what other insights and discoveries await us all today!

Published in: on October 21, 2014 at 2:01 pm  Comments (1)  

Fast and Slow?

Many years ago, when Powers That Be decided that Former School would move from a “traditional” schedule (with seven 45-minute class periods each day) to a semester block with four 95-minute class periods, Ms. X and Mr. Y were incensed.  They would lose time, they insisted, and they did the math to prove it: 150 “clock hours” were allocated to each subject under the Old Schedule, and there were only 135 “clock hours” per subject for the New One.  “Our test scores will go down because we have less time with Those Kids!” One Ms. X loudly insisted.

In the end, Those Test Scores didn’t change very much.  I could have predicted that … and if memory serves, I think I did.  Ms. X and Mr. Y got used to going faster in some ways while going slower in others.  They moved copying the definitions and outlining the chapter and making Those Flashcards to be homework assignments.  They “used technology” from time to time, and Many A Ms. X and Mr. Y added filling in the blanks on the printed copy of the PowerPoint as an activity in class.  Nothing much changed … and if memory serves, I think I half-expected that, too.

If you did the math, you’d see that both District Q and District Y have fewer “clock hours” than Former School did … and yet the beginning group at District Y is slightly “ahead” of where a comparable group at Former School would have been, and everybody else is either on track with where I’d expected them to be or slightly ahead as well.  We’re going faster in some ways, slower in others … and finding a good pace and rhythm has been an unexpectedly joyful part of my journey with them this fall.

It hasn’t always been easy, of course.  The intermediate and advanced groups at District Y are eager and diligent, but the vocabulary they learned as beginners doesn’t always neatly overlap with the vocabulary from the early Tres Columnae Project Lectiones.  We’ve been doing most of our reading together, as a “large” group, and I’ve learned to ask “Are there words we need to check?” They tell me, and I send definitions, and we figure things out together.  But when I look at what they can do with the vocabulary they have, they’re right where they “should” be in terms of proficiency.  And when I ask them to rate their comfort level with reading, or with finding particular verb forms, or (one current focus) with finding evidence of a particular cultural product or practice in a text, I can see steady growth … and so can they.

That’s worth celebrating … and it’s happening both fast and slow the way it “always” does.

We even have time for a new thing: a “Mid-Quarter Proficiency Check” that’s a smaller version of the Major Assessment Individual Response they’ll be doing at the end of each marking period.  On Tuesday, when every class at both schools meets, we’ll be working on a somewhat independent task, and I’ll visit each small group and ask each person to read (a different paragraph) aloud, to tell me what they understood in the paragraph they read, and to find some noun and verb forms in their paragraph.  I “always” wanted to do a mid-quarter proficiency check at Former School, but there usually “wasn’t enough time” for anything but a quick self-assessment or, at best, a written response that I collected, scanned quickly, and “filed for later.”  But with our very different combination of fast and slow, there is time, and I’m looking forward to celebrating the progress we’ve made since September.

And the Latin Family is probably glad there’s not a Great Big Test they have to take.  It’s that time of year when Great Big Tests tend to appear.

For my own children, the marking period ends soon, and this is a week of Great Big Tests.  The Boy and I were talking about Great Big Tests yesterday afternoon.  His point: so much time is spent on taking them and preparing for them that there’s not much time for the actual learning they’re supposed to measure.  I agree with him, of course … and I was surprised, but yet not surprised, that he’d noticed the connection.  He feels a lot of sympathy for students in the less advanced classes, who spend even more time on test prep and even less time on learning.

Nobody at District Q or District Y has said a word to me about Test Scores … and in some ways that’s not surprising because there isn’t a Great Big State Test for world languages in That Particular State.  But District Q and District Y don’t seem to be as terrified of Those Test Scores as folks at Former School and Former District were.  Some of that lack of fear is demographic, I’m sure, but a lot of it seems to be cultural in ways that I can’t yet express.  There’s an undercurrent of Fear of Them at Former School and Former District, where They are a nameless, faceless set of authority figures.  That doesn’t seem to be the case at District Q or District Y;  They may be out there, but They have names and titles.

Is that why it’s faster and slower, but also more comfortable and more relaxed, for the Latin Family (and, by extension, for the other students and their teachers and administrators) at District Q and District Y?  Is it because there’s less fear?  And is that because They have names?  I don’t know, but as we move forward fast and slow, I’ll be curious to see how our joyful learning community grows differently in this very different environment.  And I wonder what other insights and discoveries await in the days and weeks to come!

Published in: on October 20, 2014 at 3:22 pm  Leave a Comment  

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