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  Leave a Comment  

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  

Listening Closely

The intermediate and advanced branches of the District Y Latin Family are trying an experiment today.  We’ll be doing what I now call a “cultural exploration,” where each pair or group of three focuses on a different aspect or set of resources about the cultural focus of the Tres Columnae Project Lectio we’ve just started reading.  For the intermediate group, the focus is travel and transportation as the Valerius family (and their cousins the Caelii) make the long trip from Herculaneum to Mediolanum in Lectio XV.  For the advanced group, the focus is on bathing and bath complexes as Lucius and Caius prepare to visit the thermae in Lectio XXIII.  Since everyone has a different piece of the puzzle, we’ll be listening closely to each other as we make the presentations … and then, of course, we’ll be listening closely and looking closely as we explore the next few stories, seeking examples of the cultural products, practices, and perspectives we just discovered.

Listening closely can be tiring!  I’ve been listening closely to the Latin Family this week, paying attention to what they say and what they imply as we move past the mid-point of the first quarter of the year.  That’s probably why I was tired this morning!

I’m not sure I listened that closely at Former School; after all, I had been there “forever,” and I “just knew” the rhythm of the year and the questions that would arise.  And at Former School, cultural explorations were much less structured for intermediate and advanced classes.  We’d have (or make our own version of) a “Products, Practices, and Perspectives Diagram,” and we’d find credible, authoritative-seeming sources about the cultural topic, then share our diagrams with each other.  But at Former School, almost every Latin Family member had been with me “from the beginning.”  We’d learned how to find credible sources and how to make the diagrams when we were still beginners … and I suppose we had listened closely to each other then, even though I wasn’t always consciously aware of it.

Listening closely is different, possibly harder, when you’re listening at a distance.  You don’t get the non-verbal messages as clearly even if the video feed is functioning well.  It calls for a different kind of listening, a different form of concentration and focus.

The District Y Latin Family is remarkably capable, but when I listen closely, I remember that they don’t know every process yet.  And the beginning Latin Family members at District Y are significantly younger than their counterparts at Former School.  Even after we learn the process, we’ll probably still need more structure and guidance than our older counterparts at Former School did.

I’m still thinking about the Monday Evening Book Group conversation, about how I listened closely and heard the message behind the angry, discouraged messages people were sending about our book.  “Do we want to move on to another book?” I asked, and in the moment of asking, I realized I was open to moving on or to pushing through.  We decided to keep going, at least for a while, and oddly enough, it was B, who really hasn’t liked the book at all, who suggested we read at least one more section.  She’d found some good stuff in the next few pages, and she also had realized something important.  “We don’t have to follow his logic,” she said.  “We can just pick out the parts that are meaningful and talk about those.¨

That’s what the Monday Evening Book Group “normally” or “usually” does!  But B and several others are relatively new to the group.  Somehow, with different members, we needed to explore different structures, just as the different configurations and histories of the Latin Family at District Q and District Y have called for different structures there.  It’s only by listening closely, with your heart as well as your ears, that you can perceive the need for those different structures, and it’s only by listening closely that you can figure out what the new structures should be.

Of course that’s exactly what our current book is about.  I love the serendipity and the feeling of Not A Coincidence.

In just a few minutes, it will be time to try out our new, different structure.  I look forward to finding out how it works!  And I wonder what other new insights and discoveries await as we listen closely and respond in the days and weeks ahead.

Published in: on October 16, 2014 at 4:32 pm  Leave a Comment  

Leading with WHY

It was the second week in a row that N “just happened” to be out of town for Monday Evening Book Group.  That’s not really a problem; people do have other plans, and I know that N will keep up with the reading and be back (with great ideas and contributions) next week.  C was away, too, because she’s in the process of moving, and F was going to be out of town as well.  So it was a small group that gathered Monday evening … and we were out of our comfort zone because N is the only one with the key to the room where we’ve been meeting this fall as renovations are under way in our “regular” meeting place.

And we were out of our comfort zone in other ways, too.  Out of the six of us who could be there on Monday, four or five are very rational and analytical people, and we were discussing a particularly metaphorical and oblique section of our current book.  We were struggling, too, and not in a productive way.  Somebody needed to say or do something.

“You know,” I said, “there’s no law that says we have to finish every book we start.  Are we feeling like we need to stop reading this one and move on?”  That freed us to talk about why we were uncomfortable, and in the end we decided to continue for at least one more week.  “Maybe,” said B, “we should just pick out and talk about the parts that really speak to each one of us.  Maybe we shouldn’t try to follow his logic the way we’ve been doing.”

And of course B was right, and so was D, who said the same thing in a slightly different way.  We’d been thinking very hard, and maybe we needed to feel instead … which, strangely enough, was the topic of one of the “Reflective Pause” questions in the very section we were discussing.  But if I hadn’t tried leading with WHY, I’m not sure we would have gotten anywhere.

Less than a day later, I found myself leading with WHY once again.  The beginning Latin Family group at District Y is brilliant, but sometimes silly, and their silliness sometimes crosses the line from amusing to distracting.  We talked about why they have a daily score called comprehension and participation check, and we talked about why those scores would need to be reduced if we distracted others and didn’t manage ourselves.  And then, when a few of us did cause some distractions, I let them know what the consequence was.

If I hadn’t led with WHY, though, there would have been a great deal of pushback.  WHY is important for everyone, but it’s especially important when you’re changing direction or establishing a culture.

And in both of these cases, there was culture-building and community-building that needed to be done.  The Monday Evening Book Group has a well-defined culture, but everybody there on Monday was relatively new to the group, relatively quiet, or both.  It was easy for us to fall out of our normal receptive pattern and into a critical, even snide approach … and once we fell into that ugly pattern, it took leading with WHY to get us out.  The District Y beginners have all known each other for years, but they haven’t been “a class” until now … and since I’m new to them, they don’t have the kinds of culture-building patterns in place that an equivalent group at Former School would have.

In the absence of a pattern or mapleadership is especially important.  Leading with WHY is my preferred style, but it’s also what both of these groups needed.

By the end of the hour, the Book Group felt like a community again, and so did the District Y Beginning Latin Family.  But I don’t think that would have happened if I’d fussed and fretted … and I’m pretty sure it would never have happened if I’d focused too quickly on the how or the what or the who.

That’s the thing about a joyful learning community: the why attracts the who, and then you can focus on what and how.  And that’s what makes leadership roles in a joyful learning community so important … and so different from the ways you lead a hierarchical, industrial-model organization or group.  On a rainy Wednesday morning, with much to accomplish in the next few hours, I’m glad I had this insight about leading with WHY … and I wonder what other insights and discoveries await in the days and weeks to come!

Published in: on October 15, 2014 at 1:40 pm  Leave a Comment  

Creating and Discovering

It’s Columbus Day, and for the first time in years, at least part of me has the day off.  It was a regular school day in District Q, but schools in District Y are closed for the holiday.  The Dog and I celebrated with a mid-morning nap, and we’re looking forward to a peaceful, relaxing day at home.

I understand the objections to the real Columbus, but please bear with me.  He’s not really what this post is about.

I think schools closed for Columbus Day when I was a child, but my main memories are that we celebrated the holiday by talking about discoveries and explorers.  And of course we learned the names of the three ships and the half-mythical version of Christopher Columbus’ adventures, of his “discovery” of the Americas and (we were told) of the fact that the world was round, not flat.

Eventually I discovered the other sides of the story: the many other people who had “discovered the New World” before Columbus arrived, the atrocities that followed in the wake of his “discovery,” the fact that most people did know the earth was round in 1492.  But there’s something about the half-myth of Columbus, his three ships, and his half-mutinous crew that still intrigues me.

He’s a symbol, I think, of a particular kind of discovery or exploration or creation that’s still important … maybe even more important now than a few decades ago.

I thought about that as the District Q Latin Family presented their mysteries this morning.  They’ve made tremendous progress in our brief time together, and much of it has to do with the rediscovery and exploration of their creativity.  Four very different mysteries, each focusing on a slightly different set of Tres Columnae Project characters; four very different groups, each taking their mystery in a unique direction.  Two were designed to be solvable with some effort, and two were so mysterious that they stumped us all.  I’ve asked the creators for permission to publish all of them on the Tres Columnae Project site; if they agree, I’ll let you know when they’re ready to be viewed.

But why did I feel such a strong connection between Columbus the myth and the work the Latin Family has been doing?

When I first learned the myth (and made construction-paper models of the ships, if I’m not mistaken), it struck me that there were three ships, not just one.  Columbus the myth, at least as he was presented to Our Class, wasn’t the lonely, isolated heroic figure we might have expected; he was the leader of a community, and sustaining that community took a lot of his time and effort.  In pursuit of a common goal, that mythologized community accomplished things that seemed impossible, and then they returned to bring unimaginable gifts (including the potato, which was my favorite vegetable at the time) to a grateful and forever-changed world.

Columbus the myth tapped into the monomyth, the version I loved best where the hero has traveling companions.  And as the District Q Latin Family created and shared its mysteries, they formed and re-formed bands of companions that will stay together for new adventures.

E hasn’t found traveling companions yet, and I’m not sure if he wants them.  I’m also not sure when will be the right time to ask.  And one fairly large band of companions may be too large; they may need to divide into two smaller bands, but I’m not sure whether to point that out or let them figure it out for themselves.  If we’d been together from the start of our journey, I would know, but they have a long shared history that predates my time with them.  So I have discoveries to make, too … discoveries from my perspective, but things they already know, much like the “discoveries” with which Columbus the myth was credited.

I hadn’t thought about it before, but as a language teacher I’m always inviting students to discover things that others have discovered before.  After we finished the presentations today, we had just enough time to do a quick half-review, half-introduction of Latin participia, using one of the many “Match the Sentence” activities I’ve developed over the years.  “Why not just tell them?” Ms. X and Mr. Y would ask.  “There’s too much to cover and not enough time for that kind of nonsense in my class.”  And of course that’s a standard criticism of discovery learning … and of all the forms of learning that don’t dispense neat, prepackaged knowledge from expert to novice.

Why not just tell them?  Or show them?  Or “give notes” and then take The Test?

It’s an important question, and I know I’ve wrestled with it in this space before … and I probably will again, because that’s the thing about important questions.  They don’t stay settled and they don’t stay discovered just because you answer them once or a dozen times.  Some things need to be rediscovered … and I think that’s why I loved Columbus the myth (and Marco Polo the myth, too) when I was a child.  Sometimes what you discover isn’t new at all, but it’s new to you … or you see it from a new perspective, and that’s what make all the difference.

We could have just read the stories and done some exercises, I suppose … but one thing we needed to discover was our own voices as creators and users of the Latin language.  Even the quiet, quiet intermediate group at District Y was excited when they found their voices and made their Minor Assessment presentations last Friday.

Somehow creating, discovering, and rediscovering are all connected in the work of a joyful learning community.  And somehow, in the end, it doesn’t matter if what’s created and discovered is “totally original” or not.  That’s one of many lessons I’m taking from Columbus the myth and from the work we’ve been doing.  I wonder what other insights and discoveries await in the days to come!

Published in: on October 13, 2014 at 3:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

Much to Celebrate

I can’t remember the last time I took two consecutive days off from blogging!  When I woke up Wednesday morning, I was feeling sick and tired and busy; Thursday brought better health but a large number of important tasks.  And now it’s Friday afternoon, and there is much to celebrate from the last few days.

The Gifted Homeschoolers group and I had a remarkable class on Tuesday afternoon.  In my face-to-face teaching days at Former School, the stories at the end of Lectio IV about Ridiculus the mouse, Ferox and Medusa the dogs, and Sabina the weasel were often very difficult for the Latin Family to understand.  “This is hard,” they would moan.  “There are new words, and mice can’t really talk.”  To be fair, many Latin Family members understood and enjoyed the stories, but there were always a few who “just didn’t get it” … and I was never sure exactly why they struggled so much.  Had Ms. X and Mr. Y, with all those years of exactly as I tell you, starved their imaginations and stunted their interpretive skills?  Was it just that they were teenagers, “too cool” for animal stories?  I wasn’t sure, but the (much younger) Gifted Homeschoolers had no problem with this story sequence at all.   They loved it, and they could easily see the parallels to the patron-client relationship that I’d asked them to look into before we met.

Wednesday brought work time for Minor Assessments at District Y for the intermediate and advanced groups, and the end of Lectio III Fabula Longa for the beginners.  How would they respond to Cnaeus’ tears of frustration, I wondered?  Their counterparts at Former School often dismissed him as a “whiny little crybaby” who “deserved it” when his sisters (and even his nutrix) laughed at him.  And the District Y Latin Family could see that side of things, but they also could see Prima and Secunda’s cruelty to their little brother.  “Why are they so mean to him?” someone asked.  “Can we have more stories like this?” begged C and L.  “I would want to get emancipated, if that was possible for a Roman!” said N today, when we created a follow-up story together … a story in which Vipsania, initially angry at Prima and Secunda, turns her anger on Cnaeus and throws him out the window!

“Onto some spikes!” begged C and L, but we decided that was too much.  And was it a dream, or did it really happen?  We aren’t sure yet, but I have my suspicions based on some stories they haven’t yet read.

“What’s wrong with this family?” they asked … and of course I can’t tell them yet, but there is a dark, hidden secret in the Caelius family, as longtime Tres Columnae Project participants have discovered.

Speaking of secrets, the District Q Latin Family has been exploring secrets and creating great mystery stories this week; I saw the almost-final versions on Thursday morning and was overwhelmed with both the quality and the creativity of what they have already accomplished.  Thursday afternoon brought some amazing work from the advanced group at District Y, and this afternoon concluded with great Minor Assessment presentations from both the beginning and the intermediate group at District Y.

Some of them are almost good enough to publish already!  I’ll let you know when they are … assuming that the Latin Family (and their families) agree.

And no one at District Y had any difficulty with our “Derivative Quest Challenge,” in which we used the Online Etymology Dictionary to find as many derivatives as possible for Latin words we’d been working with recently.  At Former School, for reasons still unclear to me, that was alwaysconceptual difficult for many students.  Somehow or other, they’d missed the critical idea of root words at some point along the way … perhaps because Ms. X and Mr. Y spent their time yelling about how “you should already know this,” or maybe because it “wasn’t tested very much” the year they were “supposed to” learn it?  I’m not sure, but I do know that I was worried about One Group in One Class at District Y, several of whom had told me early on that they have reading difficulties in English.

No need to worry, though.  They clearly understood the concept, and they all found lots of derivatives in the time window I provided them.

So there was much to celebrate by the end of the day.  I “just happened” to make a connection with Someone Not That Far Away who is working on a passion- and interest-based “non-school” model, too.  And I got some other potential good news that’s too tentative and too distant to talk about yet.

Much has changed since I woke up Wednesday morning feeling too sick and tired and busy to write anything!  Looking back, I think my sense of tired and busy came in part because I was too focused on “I” … because I had half-forgotten that in a joyful learning community, nobody “has to be” at Absolute Best all the time.  If I am sick, or tired, or busy, you will probably step in and do what needs to be done; if you are busy, sick, or tired, I will take my turn, or they will.  Poor A had been sick for a week, but when he got back, he was able to pick up more or less where he’d left off; his group members welcomed him, supported him, and worked with him just as the Latin Family does at its best.

There was so much to celebrate, but that might just have been the most important thing of all.

As we continue to build and expand and deepen our joyful learning community, and as we build meaningful things together and share them with the world, we’ll have much to celebrate … and I wonder what else we’ll discover and build together next!

Published in: on October 10, 2014 at 7:35 pm  Leave a Comment  

Understanding Things Together

The Monday Evening Book Group had reached a particularly complex and important part of our current book, the part where Mark Nepo explores (among other things) the images of responding to a sage as a sieve,strainer, a funnel, or a sponge.  Those images weren’t the hard part for us; it was what comes right after them, when he deals at length with our responses to the unspeakable and, eventually, with the importance of a community in which you can understand things together.

But it took all of us to see the connection with community.  All of us had to work together so we could understand together.  And in that moment of insight, and in the hard work that led up to it, I realize I was part of a joyful learning community at its best.  “Oh!” said B, “he’s talking about finding your tribe.”  And B told us about her tribe, friends for decades … and then F told us about hers, and I talked about mine, and E talked about hers, and D talked about his, and in the process we gained a deeper understanding that we never could have reached by ourselves.

Somehow or other, we’re building something like that in the daily work of the Latin Family at District Q and District Y, too.  And letting go of always, embracing some risk and the possibility of failure, has been an important part of that journey.

“I wonder,” I asked myself, “if we can create a story together yet” as the intermediate group in District Y.  “And I wonder what will happen if we use Blackboard Collaborate’s web tour feature to display the Google Document as we work on it.”  Yes, we were ready (or almost ready) to make the story together; no, a web tour didn’t work very well.  It slowed things to a crawl … but we carried on together in the Google Document, and in the end we had the beginnings of an interesting new story about Ferox and Medusa.

I apologized for the technological issues but applauded their persistence and their willingness to experiment.  That’s important when you’re building a joyful learning community and taking it to a deeper level.

At the beginning of Book Group on Monday, we weren’t feeling very persistent or very willing to experiment.  Several of us had travel plans this week, and that meant another member (who can’t drive for a few months) wasn’t able to be with us, either.  The reading had been difficult, and all of us had struggled in the same general section.  The temptation to give up, or at least to save it for next week, was strong.

But then we started … and then we started talking about the part we had understood, especially those four images of responding to the words of a sage.  I realized, with some surprise, that each of those images had governed not just my responses to the wisdom of others, but also my own work as a teacher, at different times over the past twenty-two years.  In the beginning, like most new teachers, I wanted to be a sieve.  I wanted to remove the “coarse or difficult” parts of the learning to make things smooth and palatable for my students, to create a “perfect” learning environment for them.  That didn’t last long; my early students weren’t as naive or sheltered as I’d expected, and the work of a sieve is exhausting.  I went on to my strainer phase, where I attempted to channel most things to my students, just keeping back the dregs that wouldn’t nourish them … and that was a long, happy period, but I’d mark its end with that memorable day when E and his friends told me textbooks were “flat and dead.”

Textbooks, after all, are about straining the learning at best, sieving it (if that’s a word) at worst.  But how could I serve as a funnel of learning, I wondered?

I found out with my early experiments with the Tres Columnae Project.  No more strained learning; we would try to explore the fullness of the Latin language, the full experience 0f Romans of different genders, ages, and social classes of Romans in different parts of their Empire.  We’d use “real” sources of information, and we wouldn’t confine ourselves to the order in which textbooks always presented grammatical or cultural concepts.  It worked … but as Nepo points out, the work of the funnel is exhausting.  You take in more than you can distribute, and if you aren’t careful, you wear yourself out.

Is that why I was so tired and frustrated for the past year or two?  Had I reached the limits of my capacity as funnel?

To be a sponge, Nepo says, is to be “porous and cleansing,” to give and receive gently, naturally, and easily.  Perhaps that’s what leadership of a joyful learning community looks and feels like!  Perhaps that’s how you build meaningful things together and understand things together: by letting go of the need to control the flow, by being equally willing to receive as to give.

I want to explore that metaphor of the sponge more fully.  It speaks to me, but in an unfamiliar accent … or maybe in forms so old, so familiar, that I’ve half-forgotten how to understand.  “Besides,” F said last night, “I don’t think you’re ever just one of those four things.  I think you’re always a combination, and one predominates, but it changes and cycles over time.”

That’s some profound wisdom I need to explore more fully, too.

As we work on our Minor Assessment products this week, the Latin Family and I will need to take on different roles at different times.  Sometimes we’ll need a sieve; sometimes a strainer; sometimes a funnel; sometimes a sieve; sometimes some other tool or some combination.  I wonder what other new insights and discoveries await us in our shared work!


Published in: on October 7, 2014 at 3:05 pm  Comments (1)  

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