Letting Things Simmer

When I was a child, there were certain expressions my mother used, and one of them (which I hadn’t thought of in years) was an admonition to “simmer down” when emotions were at a boiling point.  That’s not what an angry, tearful four- or fourteen-year-old wants to hear, but it’s excellent advice.  Don’t cover it over and pretend it isn’t there; that’s a recipe for a future explosion. It makes me think of an old pressure cooker, its gasket worn out, shooting stew or sauce or jam all over the kitchen.  Don’t just let it boil, either; that’s a recipe for an ugly mess, too.  Let it simmer, she said; acknowledge the anger or sadness or fear, don’t pretend they aren’t there … and don’t let them control you.

Maureen’s post about slack and simmer is still on my mind, and so is the Google+ conversation we had about her post and mine.  Letting things simmer until the proper time, until they’re done and ready to be served, is as important in teaching and learning as in cooking.  And yet, in the classroom as in the kitchen, it’s tempting to rush the process.

The Boy and The Girl are big fans of deviled eggs, so we had some with our Easter dinner on Sunday.  We’d been invited to spend the afternoon with friends, but everyone was just too tired.  So after a long nap, we had our not-quite-Nicoise salad and our deviled eggs … and of course that meant letting things simmer until the eggs were ready, then cooling them and peeling them before the yolks could be removed and the filling prepared.  It’s tempting to rush the process, but that’s not a process you should rush!  Those eggs need to be hard-boiled, and they need to be completely cooled before you peel them.  And while the cooking process can be timed, cooling depends on a whole range of factors even if you use the “quick-cooling” and “lower-mess” method of submerging the newly-boiled eggs in cold water and peeling them there.  Just because this egg is ready to be peeled, that doesn’t necessarily mean this other one is ready.  And even though you usually need This Much mayonnaise and That Much mustard to make a dozen deviled eggs with my mother’s recipe, that doesn’t mean you should blindly add without tasting.  Every batch of eggs is slightly different … and think of the extra complications that arise with a more complex dish!

I think there’s a lesson for us teachers and learners, but it’s not one that factory-model schools or teachers want to hear.  Many years ago, I taught at a school with an excellent Home Economics program.  Ms. N and Ms. M inspired their students, some of whom couldn’t boil water at the beginning, and some of whom went on to cook professionally.  “A recipe,” one of them said, while collecting faculty recipes for a cookbook I still have, “is really only a guide.”  Mr. Z, in the auto shop class down the hall from them, would have said something similar: every car is different, and you have to listen and look and pay attention.

But somehow, over the past few decades, that kind of wisdom gave way to the notion that you can blindly “follow the recipe” and expect identical results from young learners.  By the time Mr. Z retired, there were code-readers and sensors in his shop, and he and his students used them gladly … but they didn’t think the machine-generated data could be more real than the actual car that poor Ms. X had brought in that morning because it was “making that sound again.”

But in 2014, after years of “accountability” and “data-driven instruction,” many factory-model schools and teachers do see data instead of actual cars or actual learners.  “Can a student be This Label and That Label?” asked a link-bait headline in an email newsletter … as if the labels were somehow more real than the students who could certainly exhibit the traits of both Labels.  Thankfully, when you did click through, the answer was “yes, and schools need to be aware of that.”  But the existence of the article (and the headline, for that matter) made me realize how far some schools and teachers must be from seeing individuals.

As I let these things simmer this week, I’m wondering how they’ll affect my work with the Latin Family when we return to action on Monday.  Unlike Ms. X and Mr. Y, I deliberately assigned no Great Big Packets over the break … and that’s probably why Z, Y, and X decided they needed to get together and finish their Minor Assessment product.  “Have you noticed,” I asked someone a week or so ago, “how you assign yourselves the homework and extra practice that you need when there isn’t the same assignment for everybody?”  And they had, but they hadn’t really thought about it, either.   Meanwhile, One Ms. X, still firmly ensconced in How We Always Did Stuff, assigns endless amounts of textbook problems or definition copying, while Another, attempting to be “data-driven,” gives up, overwhelmed with the “impossibility” of finding twenty or thirty different things according to her reading of The Data.  To both of them, “those kids” seem as inert and helpless as eggs lying on a counter, waiting to be boiled, or cars lined up in a service bay, waiting to be fixed.

It’s different in a joyful learning community, of course, because everybody knows that those joyful learners are active and in control of their learning process.  But that’s terrifying to Ms. X, Mr. Y, and Some Powers, because active and powerful learners won’t necessarily “sit down, shut up, copy the PowerPoint, and do the cute little activity” like they “should.”  I wonder what other insights await as we all let things simmer over the next few days, and I wonder how we’ll translate our insights into actions!

Published in: on April 24, 2014 at 1:00 pm  Comments (1)  

Taking Your Time

“Take your time,” my own elementary-school teachers used to say, “and do the job right.”  Measure twice, or a thousand times, depending on which version of the proverb you prefer, and cut once.  Haste makes waste.  I’m not sure if those proverbs are still “taught” or “covered” in the equivalent classrooms today, but I know that Ms. X, Mr. Y, and Lots of Relevant Powers “don’t have time” for taking your time.  And they’re deeply suspicious of what they perceive as wasting time or doing nothing or, worse yet, the appearance of being off task from potentially “bad and lazy” students.  Doing the job right?  That’s a nice idea, of course, but the main thing is for everybody to look busy and appear productive all the time.  That’s one reason why The Girl has been so busy over her Spring Break: the lengthy, omnipresent “packets,” all due Monday, which will allow for some “coverage” and some “review” as the Enormously Important State Tests are just a few weeks away.

To be fair, The Girl has also developed some review work of her own.  With AP Exams coming up quite soon, she set up a schedule to review the content of One Particular Course from last fall, and she’s been sticking to it as faithfully as possible throughout her busy and event-filled spring.  The Boy has been working on a Lengthy Packet or two himself.  But both of them have also found time to relax, to hang out physically or virtually with friends, to do other things they enjoy.  They have the “good student” label, and the “parents who obviously care” one too, but they don’t let those labels define them.  Somehow they’ve both managed to be in but not of the factory-school experience, to learn important things while also successfully playing the Game of School.

I wonder what Ms. X and Mr. Y would think of that!  Many A Ms. X and Mr. Y brought home “all that stuff to grade” but will bring it back, ungraded and unexamined, on Monday, when they’ll also make a frantic rush to “run a bunch of stuff off” on the copier because they were “too tired” and “didn’t have time” to plan ahead before they left for Spring Break.  And yet Ms. X and Mr. Y, confronted with students who didn’t do the Packet or did it at the last possible minute, will respond, as Ms. X and Mr. Y tend to do, with yelling and labeling or threats and zeroes.

There’s something about factory-model thinking that encourages all of that, everything from the packets to the suspicion to the piles of papers and the frantic rush to the copier.  And of course Ms. X and Mr. Y “have to” get upset on Monday because there’s a Big Field Trip that will involve a quarter of the school.  It was originally scheduled earlier in the month, but then it “had to” be rescheduled, and apparently the day after Spring Break was the best (or maybe the only) possible day.  For the students involved, it will be a pleasant way to ease back into the school routine; for the teacher-chaperones, who were frantically “running stuff off” and “finding stuff for classes to do” at the end of the week, I hope it will be, if not pleasant, at least less unpleasant than they fear.  I’m not sure what will happen with the scheduled meeting on Monday afternoon; it had disappeared from the Official Calendar the last time I looked, but it certainly could reappear if it needed to.

Maureen’s post today, about “Slack and Simmer,” is a powerful reminder of how important it is to take your time … to take the time you need, not necessarily the time Ms. X or Mr. Y just knows you need.  Like her student, you might need more time, different time, or just a different allocation of time.  But can Ms. X and Mr. Y find room in their factory-schedule for such things?  Being off-task terrifies them; there’s a terrible suspicion that learning won’t happen if those “bad, lazy ones” aren’t “actively engaged” in exactly what Ms. X and Mr. Y had planned for the day.  And under that suspicion lies fear: fear of bad test scores and making me look bad, of a permanent record and losing everything.

It’s an unexpressed, unexamined fear, a nameless and faceless form of anxiety and dread.  But those very qualities give the fear an extra measure of power and control.  If only Ms. X and Mr. Y would take their time to express, examine, and name the fear, they might even see how ridiculous it is.  But apparently there isn’t time to take your time in Ms. X and Mr. Y’s universe … so they measure once, if at all, then cut and recut, teach and reteach, “remediate” the “bad, lazy ones” without checking to see what specific strengths or weaknesses those “bad, lazy ones” actually have.

You can still be fearful in a joyful learning community, but such a community won’t let you stew in unexamined, unexpressed fear.  Sooner or later, probably sooner, somebody will notice and start asking questions … and eventually, even if you resist at first, you’ll probably share your story and start feeling better.  During this Spring Break week, when I really do have time to take my time and ponder such things, I’m wondering how (and whether) to encourage Ms. X, Mr. Y, and the others to examine and express those fears.  And I wonder what other new insights, discoveries, and actions are waiting to unfold.

Published in: on April 23, 2014 at 12:55 pm  Comments (2)  

Watching Your Words

A colleague used the word rigor the other day to refer to the difference between a video and a PowerPoint presentation.  According to my colleague, the presentation would be “more rigorous,” or maybe a “more appropriate level of rigor,” for high-school students than the video would be.  What I think he was saying (which is a good, thoughtful point) is that a video can easily turn into a fairly low-level summary, while the presentation could involve more analysis and synthesis of a Particular Concept.  But there’s something about the word rigor, like the word motivation which was on my mind yesterday, that still bothers me.  A quick search (rigor site:joyfullatinlearning.wordpress.com) reveals that the word rigor inspired a post last June, another last August, and lots of others, including one of the earliest posts I published here back in December 2009.  Language is important, and not just to us language teachers; John Kellden’s recent Google+ post makes clear the close connections between language and perspectives, connections that can bind us to old ways of thinking (and blind us to alternatives) if we don’t take the time to examine and reflect on our words and the thought patterns they represent.

“Who has time for that?” Ms. X and Mr. Y would surely ask.  “There’s so much to do and so much to cover, and those bad, lazy kids will make me look bad with their terrible test scores!”  That’s a distillation, of course, and not a direct quote, but every one of those words and phrases is just loaded with perspectives and assumptions.  I agree with one of them: time is a finite resource.  But I find the others increasingly questionable.  Ms. X and Mr. Y prioritize doing because doing is observable, especially when what gets done is a worksheet that can be graded or a tangible product (perhaps a colorful poster or graphic organizer) that can be hung on the wall as an example of student work.  And of course there’s nothing wrong with doing, and there are lots of things to do in everybody’s life … but when Ms. X and Mr. Y talk about doing, they’re usually contrasting it with just sitting there or playing with those cell phones or, from Ms. X and Mr. Y’s perspective, doing nothing … which is to say, not doing exactly the thing Ms. X and Mr. Y have planned, at exactly the speed and tempo Ms. X and Mr. Y expect. Hidden in that innocuous little phrase is the whole factory-education mindset!

No wonder my students (at least those who get the “bad, lazy ones” label from Ms. X and Mr. Y!) often struggle with figuring out what they need to do to make a particular product!  Their whole school experience has focused on doing (or, to be fair, appearing to do while avoiding doing) All That Stuff that Ms. X and Mr. Y said to do. “I just don’t understand,” a colleague said to me at that Special Celebration last Friday, “why kids today have such problems with self-direction and multiple-step directions!  Something has really changed over the last ten years.”  And she’s right about the fact of change, I think, but I’m not sure we’d agree on the specifics of what has changed.  Ten years ago, people could still believe, if they tried hard enough, in the good old 20th-century dream of “go to college, get a nice safe job with benefits, live happily ever after,” and they could still see, if they squinted just right, a connection between Ms. X’s boring worksheet today, that college acceptance next year, and that Nice Safe Job a few years down the road.  With those days long gone for everybody but Ms. X and Mr. Y, how do you “motivate kids” to see such a connection … a connection that actually isn’t there anymore?

Do you say, as one teacher does, that the “real purpose” of school is to develop resilience in the face of adversity and persistence in the face of obstacles?  Do you follow Amy’s wise advice to “be engaged in the thing they DO want to learn” and help to build connections from there?  Do you throw up your hands and mutter angrily about “those digital natives” even when research increasingly shows that “those digital natives” don’t know very much about the tech they seem so proficient with?

N, J, C, and T usually make physical posters at the end of a set of readings for their work on the Advanced Placement syllabus, but last week they decided to stretch themselves and collaboratively make a Prezi instead.  “We needed more details,” they said in their self-evaluation … and that was true.  It’s also true that they don’t know very much about creating a product online together, and that’s probably because they haven’t had much practice.  “Nobody cares,” Someone Important said at a meeting not that long ago, “about what you can do together on an assignment or an assessment.”  That Someone was trying to discourage cheating, but those carelessly chosen words seemed to dismiss every form of collaboration and cooperation … things that lots of companies and thought leaders do care about very much.  Things you have to be able to do to “get a nice safe job” in today’s economy, but things that factory-schools aren’t designed to deliver.  And there’s “not enough time” to think about those deliverables, either, because there’s “so much to cover,” and “all those interruptions” (from the “bad, lazy kids” and the “unbelievable parents” and “people who just don’t understand” in the community) don’t help matters at all.  If only, Ms. X and Mr. Y seem to believe, everyone would just sit down, shut up, do the worksheet, and copy the notes from the PowerPoint!  If only that would happen, everything would be OK again.  The test scores would go back up, making them “look good” once again, and schools and teachers would “be revered” again, just like in the Good Old Days.

I wonder what Ms. X and Mr. Y would say if they felt they did have “enough time” to sit and unpack their words.  I wonder if they’d agree with this analysis … and I wonder what their reaction would be.  I also wonder how, and whether, you can build a joyful learning community and make meaningful things together with folks who just don’t see the point of it.  And I wonder what new insights and discoveries await us all today.


Published in: on April 22, 2014 at 1:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

Spring Break Begins

It’s a long tradition in These Parts that Spring Break for teachers and students comes the week after Easter.  It’s the first real, scheduled break in a very long time, what with all the snow, ice, and unexpected closures of school.  Despite the loss of time (school was closed for eight days, five of which were made up), I noticed that every group is either where they normally would be or slightly ahead of a normal pace for this point in April.  But I can also feel a deep weariness, a sense of going through the motions (or in some cases, refusing to go through those motions anymore) as I interact with students and colleagues.

Someone Or Other had decided, at the last minute, that “the good kids” who “actually came to school like they’re supposed to” on Friday, the last makeup day, should get a “special treat” or a “special reward” for that.  Meanwhile, Ms. X and Mr. Y had pleaded for an altered schedule that would give them “some extra time” with One Particular Class.  Naturally, and inevitably, the Special Celebration happened during that Extra Time, and it seems Ms. X and Mr. Y were astonished and dismayed by the loss of those thirty minutes.  Meanwhile, I’m not sure how many “good kids” actually enjoyed the last-minute “special treat,” which involved some music, some basketballs, some soccer balls, and the school gym.  “Can we play soccer outside?” one group asked, only to be told no, because there were no provisions for anybody to supervise them.  And what about students with religious obligations on Good Friday, I wonder, or those whose families had planned trips well in advance, when Friday was still scheduled to be a holiday?  Do they qualify as less “good,” less deserving of a “special treat,” than those who were able to come?

The whole idea of “motivating” anybody with “special treats” of any kind is less and less appealing to me … and it never was very appealing, though I bought into it, reluctantly, when I was a young teacher and a Particular Power mandated a particular system.  Even then, it was clear that short-term gains would come at the cost of long-term problems.  And the more desperately Ms. X, Mr. Y, and Powers At All Levels try to use the extrinsic motivation tools, the fewer and shorter the gains appear to be.  Could it be that working for rewards, especially those that don’t seem meaningful, actually makes you more “bad and lazy” than you would be otherwise?

It turns out that One Ms. X is leaving for Another School.  “It was too good of an opportunity,” she said, “because I can teach My Favorite Subject and I don’t have to teach Those Other Things.”  The numbers are growing, but I don’t want to sound like the Local Powers are to blame for that.  Structural issues with factory-model education are partly to blame, and so are particular factors in These Parts.

“We have to motivate Those Kids,” somebody said to me recently, “until they develop some intrinsic motivation.”  And that sounds really logical on the surface … but when you take a moment and consider the amount of intrinsic motivation to learn displayed by any healthy two- or three-year-old, then compare any well-schooled teenager, it’s clear that something dire happened along the way.  “It’s just because they’re teenagers,” Ms. X and Mr. Y would like to believe.  But I don’t think so.  I see plenty of evidence, both in my own children and in the “bad, lazy students” when they’re pursuing areas of real interest to them, that the intrinsic motivation to learn is still there, just buried and inaccessible to Ms. X and Mr. Y.  Sometimes the Latin Family gets access to some of it, some of the time, but it’s a real struggle because the factory-school trappings, from “student desks” to intercom announcements to The Bell that rules everyone’s time, are so closely associated with extrinsic motivators and external forms of control.

The Family has plans for a peaceful day today, but there are a few household tasks that really need to be accomplished, the kinds of things that build up when everybody is busy with “school stuff” and “work stuff.”  As we work on those, I’ll be thinking about these issues of motivation and about how to strengthen and improve joyful learning communities that grow up inside factory-paradigm settings.  I wonder what other new insights and discoveries await in the peaceful days to come, and I wonder how they’ll translate into action and change when we all “hit the ground running” a week from today.

Published in: on April 21, 2014 at 11:43 am  Comments (1)  

Structured for Freedom

The Google+ Conversation Community is a deep ocean of powerful thoughts, but it’s an ocean I often “don’t have time” to swim in.  So I was glad to have a few moments this morning, and then I was even happier to find John Kellden’s share of a site called Liberating Structures.  Engagement, inclusion, finding the balance between command/control and chaos … it seems Keith and Henri have been working for decades on how an organization can be structured to promote freedom and joy and learning and growth.  I’m really looking forward to exploring the site in depth.

And I’m glad John shared it when he did, because this has been a long, tiring week.  If it hadn’t been for the snow, today would have been the first day of Spring Break … but the snow happened, and Good Friday turned into an “early release” makeup day.  It hasn’t been an unsuccessful week for the Latin Family at all.  Most of us have made significant progress on our Minor Assessment products, and some of us (like C, D, K, and the rest of their group) who usually wait until told have taken ownership and initiative and produced a high-quality product already.

The goal was to finish the “puppet-based video” products by yesterday so we could watch and respond to them today … and for the most part, that’s exactly what happened.  There are one or two groups in the beginning class who needed some more time, and one or two in the intermediate class … but most of us were done, or mostly done, by the end of the day on Thursday.  I’m thinking it’s because the task was structured for freedom: the format of the product was specified, but everyone had a choice of storylines and characters, and they could either summarize an existing Tres Columnae Project story from Lectiō XI (for the beginners) or Lectiōnēs XXIV and XXV (for the intermediates) or, if they preferred, create a new story or an alternate ending.

“Oh!” said T, who prefers to work by herself, “so I can write about the thoughts, words, and feelings of a character in this story and what happens next?”  Yes, T, that would work well … and T, who usually waits for the alternative, individual-response version of Minor Assessments, successfully modified the task all by herself.  So did D, perhaps the quietest person I’ve ever worked with.

Meanwhile, there were phone calls and intercom announcements and emails about “keeping the kids motivated” and “keeping them learning” and “using time well” with all the excitement of the weeks from Spring Break till the end of the year.  And there was a “full house,” as Ms. Q likes to say, in In-School Suspension, mostly for thing like chronic tardiness or dress code violations.  There was a “full house” for after-school detention, too … and when I look at the lists and the faces, I can see that the pain-punishment cycles aren’t achieving their stated purpose at all.  The list is usually about the same each time, which won’t surprise anyone who’s ever worked in a factory-model school.  If the stated purpose of stopping the bad behaviors actually happened, wouldn’t the list be different?  And wouldn’t there be fewer students, not more, as the year went on?

But there are stated purposes, and then there are unstated purposes.  And the unstated, unexamined ones are powerful.  I doubt that Ms. Q has any interest in permanently labeling anyone as “bad and lazy;” in fact, having known Ms. Q for All These Years, I know very well that permanent labels are the opposite of everything she believes in.  And yet when E and J and U and B and the others are (at least from their perspective) “always” getting assigned to spend a day with Ms. Q, what other conclusions besides permanent labels can they draw?  Our thoughtful Local Powers aren’t interested in permanent labels, either, but when they make those assignments, that’s the unintended and unexamined consequence.

And on another level, Those Same Powers send an unintended and unexamined message all the time, just as I do … just as we all do every time we interact wwith anybody.  We intend our words and actions to convey one message, but our tone and body language can communicate something quite different … especially when there’s a pattern of behavior that we fall into.  And we all fall into patterns all the time, and all too often we don’t even notice the patterns.  I haven’t looked, but I have a feeling that the “weekly reminders” for this week in 2014 are awfully similar to the ones from the equivalent week in 2013.  “Just write the bad, lazy ones up and send in the paperwork.  Turn in This Document by This Time because that’s when it’s due.  Remember to keep them motivated and keep them on task.  Oh, by the way, the following Special Things have been scheduled to make staying on task rather difficult.”

I’m not sure how poor Ms. X and Mr. Y have fared this week!  I haven’t seen much of them; they’ve certainly been “too busy” and had “too much to cover,” even more so than usual.  I haven’t heard that much about Lengthy Packets from Latin Family members, though L was bemoaning a particularly long one from One Ms. X yesterday afternoon.  Perhaps they’ve waited till today to hand out the Lengthy Packets … and perhaps they’ll be surprised if some of their “bad, lazy kids” aren’t in school to receive Those Packets.

“I’ve learned,” I said to someone in the upper-level class on Thursday, “that I need to trust the process and get out of the way sometimes.”  But Ms. X and Mr. Y haven’t learned that, or maybe they don’t know how.  Building and sustaining a joyful learning community … that combination of structure and freedom is hard work, but it’s so much easier than managing and motivating, than doing the same-old same-old while expecting different results.  And that’s a hopeful thought for today!

Published in: on April 18, 2014 at 10:46 am  Leave a Comment  

Ownership and Anxiety

Someone Or Other had what seemed like a really good idea a few months ago.  “Wouldn’t it be nice,” they suggested, “if Everybody put something about Their College in the hallway near Their Doorway?  That way, Those Kids will be motivated to go to college!”  Ms. X and Mr. Y smiled, nodded, and ignored the way they usually do, so the idea turned into a Directive about college logos and college colors … and I was the bearer of bad news, since my alma mater, like many, is possessive of its logo.  “I had no idea!” said One Power.  “I mean, those logos are usually out there on the Internet and everything!”

“We’ve been having a real problem,” That Same Power said recently, “with kids and Honor Code violations.  And most of it is online plagiarism.”   I had to laugh at the dramatic irony there.  I also wondered how putting up something about Ms. X’s alma mater would “motivate those kids” to go to college … and how putting it up in late April would help.  Yet Another Power has instituted a monthly gift-card giveaway; seniors get one entry per college acceptance letter they’ve turned in to That Power, who has to compile an Official Report of such things for Greater Powers Yet.  Apparently there’s a lot of anxiety about sending kids to college (or maybe making them go), and the Posted Things and the gift cards are designed to ease the worry.

And then there’s B, who’s apparently failing almost every class because, as One Ms. X says, he won’t do the work.  And that’s true: B won’t do the work, but nobody much stops to ask him why he won’t do it.  I’ve talked to B and his family enough to know that anxiety is a huge factor; if it can’t be perfect (which of course it never is), B would rather not do it at all.  So Ms. X and Mr. Y storm and threaten, and sometimes B’s mom used to do it for him, and B’s mom is battling some understandable anxiety of her own about her son’s fate and future.  Meanwhile, Ms. X and Mr. Y are anxious about “my failure rate” and “my test scores,” and poor B is caught up in a toxic whirlpool of fear.

Somehow anxiety and ownership are closely bound up in all these stories, and in the way that N and her friends first avoid tasks, then wait to be fussed at, then end up doing well (or well enough) under time pressure.  Linda Albert, in an important book that Ms. X and Mr. Y “don’t have time” to read because “the kids are bad and there’s too much to cover anyway,” makes the point that people choose behaviors, for conscious or unconscious reasons that seem valid from their own internal perspectives.  If you’re not that person, you can influence those behaviors, but nobody can actually make anybody else do anything.  Build relationships, Albert suggests, and figure out why That Annoying Behavior seemed like a good choice to That Person.

But Ms. X and Mr. Y “don’t have time” for things like that.  They “didn’t have time” to implement the similar approach in the book we all read last fall … and if I remember right, One Ms. X “didn’t have time” to read the book, either, because “it was boring and I had a lot of grading to do anyway.”  So Relevant Powers send “friendly reminders” about “keeping kids focused” at difficult times, and Ms. X and Mr. Y fret and worry about “my test scores,” and everyone is just sure that there’s something to do that will make it all instantly better.  “Write the bad ones up and send in the paperwork,” Power After Power pleads in School After School.  “Let’s put up A Thing about the colleges we attended!  And how about a drawing for a gift card?”

Let me be fair: there’s nothing wrong with putting up A Thing, and I like a gift card as much as anybody.  But gift cards, Posted Things, book studies, revised policies, and Official Directives won’t solve core problems that flow from anxiety and ownership issues.  B occasionally, reluctantly, does his work “for me” because despite all his anxiety and suspicion, we’ve begun to build a relationship of mutual respect and understanding.  Students of mine don’t usually want to go far enough away to attend my alma mater, but they do ask me for advice about colleges because they trust me to listen first, advise later.  And C and O, whose “Latin Family” time is officially over, came to me yesterday afternoon for advice about a conflict with a friend … because their “Latin Family” time had apparently shown them that I might be able to help.  “Remember,” I told them, “I give terrible advice … but what, specifically, is the problem?”  And after a few moments, even though I don’t think I actually gave any advice, they were feeling less anxious, more as though they had ownership of their own roles in the situation.

Anxiety and ownership.  If you don’t have a sense of ownership, there’s a particular kind of anxiety that you’ll feel.  It’s the kind that sends Ms. X, Mr. Y, and the rest of us running for that quick-fix solution.  “What if those bad, lazy kids won’t go to college?  What if they won’t do their work?” Fear of the unknown and uncontrollable sends us scurrying for the Same Old Same Old, in hope against all odds and experience that it will yield different results this time.

If you do have a sense of ownership, do you still feel anxiety?  Fear, worry, and concern are part of the human condition, but they take different forms when you do have control over the circumstances.  As we work to build and sustain joyful learning communities, that’s important to remember.  I wonder what other insights and discoveries await on this busy, eventful day!

Published in: on April 17, 2014 at 10:46 am  Leave a Comment  

Dragonflies and Dandelions

Someone recently recommended a book to me, a book (he said) called The Dandelion Effect.  Now, to be fair, there’s a lot of interesting information to be found about the effects of dandelions when you do a Google search, especially if you look for “dandelion social entrepreneurship.”  But the book, as it turns out, is called The Dragonfly Effect.  I’ve looked at the free Kindle preview but haven’t had time to do more.

Maybe a joyful learning community will create a book (or a transmedia experience) called The Dandelion Effect someday!  But in the meantime, I’ve been thinking about dragonflies and dandelions, both of which I’m quite fond of.  What do they both symbolize, and what messages do they have for builders and sustainers of joyful learning communities in transitional times?

When I think of my childhood, I often think of my dad’s war against the dandelions that, from his perspective, “infested” the lawn of the house where I grew up.  I’m not sure why he was so opposed to dandelions at the time; there were lots of other “weed-like flowers” that didn’t bother him, and dandelions have the virtue (at least from my perspective) of lovely yellow flowers that turn into lovely white seed pods … lots of fun for a child to play with on a warm summer day.  But to my dad, they were weeds, and he refused to allow their presence on his front lawn.  And he didn’t fight his battle with herbicides or other tools of 20th-century warfare; this was hand-to-hand combat, one dandelion at a time, digging them up and casting them aside.  After a few years, I think he realized it was a futile fight, especially since the cast-aside dandelions did what dandelions do, spreading their seeds ever further across that green-but-yellow lawn.  By the time I was a teenager, dandelions bloomed undisturbed in my father’s lawn.

As I remembered and smiled, I realized that much of the factory-school approach to students and families, especially the ones who get the “bad and lazy” or “problematic” label, resembles my father’s war against those dandelions.  “Just write them up, and send in the paperwork,” That One Power said a while ago, “and I promise they’ll be dealt with.”  And, in fact, there’s a long list of frequently tardy students scheduled to be “dealt with” tomorrow … by removing them from the classes they clearly don’t want to go to, putting them in a Special Place of Punishment together, and creating extra work for their teachers who will have to “make sure they have plenty of work to do.”  They may be joined by a few students with chronic dress code issues; I’ve seen the list, but I’m not sure which offenses led to this particular attempt at pain and punishment.  “I like the Special Place of Punishment,” X said to me a few years ago.  “It’s quiet, and Ms. Q is nice but strict, and you can get your work done and do some reading.”

I think of those piles of dandelions, their seeds slowly sifting down onto what my dad firmly believed would soon be a “perfect,” dandelion-free lawn.  And I think of dragonflies, the only insect (according to the book’s introduction) that can easily move itself in any given direction thanks to its unique wing structure.  Faced with a factory-model onslaught, the equivalent of the herbicides or insecticides my family wouldn’t use, both dragonflies and dandelions adapt and grow stronger.  Faced with a single-combat approach like the one my dad employed, they turn their adversaries’ efforts against them.

Or at least dandelions do.  I don’t know anybody who wages war against dragonflies … except my cat when she gets the opportunity.

N and her friends have been “working on their video” for last week’s Minor Assessment … and, to be fair, they have done some work on the video.  They’ve also managed to get behind in the reading they need to do for the next Minor Assessment, the one due by the end of this week.  Today is the final preparation day for everybody on every level, with production and final assembly on Thursday; Friday is a snow makeup day, so those of us who are at school will be watching the videos and looking at the physical products.  Will the struggling and avoiding groups be able to pull things together, or will they have an unpleasant time catching up over Spring Break?

And who is the dandelion here, and who is the dragonfly, and who (or what) is the chemicals or the little trowel my father used as his primary weapon?  So much depends on your perspective.  I’m sure N and the others see mean teachers and too much work as the dandelions springing up in their happy lawns of hanging out with friends, while Ms. X and Mr. Y see N and her friends as dandelions (or worse!) invading the beautiful green lawn of “the good kids” and “my curriculum,”  As we work to build and sustain joyful learning communities in challenging times like this chilly Spring morning, how will we go about bridging those perspectives, bringing those dandelions and gardeners into some kind of dialogue?  I wonder what new discoveries and insights await!

Published in: on April 16, 2014 at 10:48 am  Leave a Comment  

Beautifully Prepared

It seems that Eric Hoffer is the author of a favorite quote of mine, the one about how “In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”  And apparently he also said that “People who bite the hand that feeds them usually lick the boot that kicks them.”  Words of wisdom, but hard words to live by for those of us who think the factory-system is the only way, or the best way, or the only thing we know.  Poor Ms. X and Mr. Y are beautifully prepared for a vanishing world, and despite their best efforts at hand-biting and boot-licking, things aren’t getting any better for them.

There was a Special Short Called Faculty Meeting on Monday; it had actually been announced on the previous week’s agenda, but evidently Ms. X and Mr. Y were so unaware of it that it had to be announced again Monday afternoon.  They’ve been beautifully prepared for that, of course, because in their world view the Powers That Be “always” make random announcements, and random events “always” appear without much notice.  “I wonder why They are buttering Us up with pizza!” Ms. X asked smugly … and I had no idea what she was talking about.  “Look over there!” she said triumphantly, “there’s pizza being delivered!”  Boot-licking and hand-biting in less than twenty words!

A Former Power, in very different budgetary times, often did provide pizza or other refreshments for such meetings, but That Power and Those Times are long gone.  And That Power’s motivations were simple and transparent, despite Ms. X’s fears and suspicions: “It’s been a long day, I’m hungry, and you probably are, too.” In These Times, my immediate assumption was “supplemental insurance sales presentation,” and that’s what it was … but I can’t stop thinking about Ms. X’s comment.  In one short sentence, and quite likely without realizing it, she summed up the collapse of factory-model structures, the vanishing world for which she’s been so beautifully prepared.

They and Us.  That’s how the world is according to Ms. X.  In her world, They, the Powers That Be, “have to” motivate Us, the folks who do the real work, with bribes and threats, pain-punishment cycles, boxes of pizza lined up before an unpleasant meeting.  And of course Ms. X runs her classroom the same way, except that she gets to be the Powers That Be on a smaller scale, and then she “has to motivate those kids” with threats and bribes, pain-punishment cycles, certificates and ribbons, grades and homework passes, and all the other shiny trinkets of extrinsic motivation.  But even Ms. X knows it doesn’t really work.  Even for her, it’s all about buttering up, about tricking or persuading Us into going along with Something Bad.

I’m glad I don’t live in Ms. X’s world anymore.  Sometimes I spend a few hours surrounded by it, but I don’t live in it anymore.  And for Ms. X’s students and mine, that world is as obsolete and ridiculous as the breakthrough technology of my younger days seems to the young people in this video that so many people have shared with me recently.  “That’s just too complicated!” one of them says at one point … and if Ms. X stopped and listened to her own students, and if they trusted her enough to be honest with her, that’s probably what they’d say about the vast, complex structures of motivation and deceit and evaluation that Ms. X, Mr. Y, and the rest of us work so hard to maintain and expand.

“How could anybody actually use that?  How could that possibly work?  What do you mean, you have to have headphones?”

Ms. X and Mr. Y are good teachers, at least in their own minds … good teachers as that was defined for them by their own teachers, by comments from Powers That Be over the years, by lots of things checked off on the Official Form that’s used to determine such things.  And Every Ms. X and Every Mr. Y Everywhere is convinced that Their School is a good school … good as that, in turn, was defined for them by their own school experience, by comments from the “good parents who really care,” by the successes of “the good kids who do what they’re supposed to do.”

“I hate it,” said a colleague of mine, unexpectedly, during a brief lunchtime conversation.  “I hate what we do to kids, and I’ve hated it for all the years I’ve been a teacher.”  We’d been talking about the factory-approach, which I rarely do at school, and all of a sudden that happened.  “I’m glad this is my last year,” said another colleague recently, “because it’s time for me to move on and do other things.  And I’m looking forward to it.”  Poor Ms. X and Mr. Y see no alternative to Business As Usual.  A few of them will decide to leave “this horrible school” and go find “a better one,” but they’ll be replaced, most likely, by folks fleeing “that horrible school” for “a better one” themselves.  One Ms. X is quite sure that “switching schools all the time” will “make me look bad” to Powers That Be, just like it did in 1952 or 1972.   And Many A Ms. X and Mr. Y just knows that “things will get better before too long” when the budgetary picture improves, when They can buy new textbooks and “teacher materials” for Us again.

If you’re working in (and on) a joyful learning community, you won’t be as beautifully prepared as Ms. X and Mr. Y are … but you will be able to recognize and deal with structural change before it’s too late.  That’s a hopeful thought on a rainy, stormy, busy morning … and I wonder what other discoveries we’ll make in the hours and days to come!

Published in: on April 15, 2014 at 10:42 am  Leave a Comment  

Happiness, Success, and Joy

The #gtchat community on Twitter had one of its occasional Sunday afternoon chats yesterday, and the topic was “What does success look like to you?”  We took a deep, refreshing dive into distinctions between intrinsic and extrinsic measures of success; we talked about whether eminence in one’s field is a prerequisite to be considered successful; and we kept coming back to the connections between success and happiness.  Sometimes I’m busy with One Thing and Another on Sunday afternoons, but I’d finished One Thing and needed a break before Another when the time rolled around.

As we talked, I kept thinking about my friend Ms. X, the one who was expecting Potentially Bad News from her doctor last week.  Yes, the doctor said, you need to go ahead and retire … or you could keep working and possibly do serious damage to your health.  I wasn’t sure how she’d be feeling, but when I saw her on Friday, she was … actually, happy isn’t a bad word.  Apprehensive?  Of course.  Concerned about her family and her finances?  A bit.  Anxious about how difficult it might be for the Relevant Powers to find a replacement?  Naturally.  But she was happy and at peace in a way I’ve rarely seen her.  I think some of it had to do with the fact that she’ll be leaving after a successful year as she defined success.

A Former Power used to wax poetic about how wonderful it is that “you get a fresh start every year” in factory-model education.  The flip side of that, of course, is that just when things are really starting to click for a particular teacher and class, it’s time to wind things up and get ready for a new, different year and a new, different group.  That was fine with the Former Power, but the more I think about it, the more I see the waste of time, resources, and energy … and the more I see how often the “fresh start” isn’t all that fresh.  It’s much more like closing the factory down to retool … which, of course, is exactly what it’s modeled after.

By contrast, the folks at Menlo Innovations have found a non-factory way to get a fresh start every week without all that winding down and winding back up; their programmers work in pairs, and the pairs are reshuffled every week within each project team.  I’ve finished my first reading of Richard Sheridan’s book about his company’s approach, and I’m trying to imagine how you could do something similar within the confines of a larger structure (like a factory-model school) with very different priorities.  It’s easy to see how you could make a joyful working community inside a free-standing joyful learning community; with joy (and we both define joy in quite similar ways) at the center, everything else is a matter of logistics.  And the Menlo approach seems to keep joy at the center of everything from communication to project management, from allocation of time and resources to hiring and professional development.  It seems they’ve found a sweet spot where success, happiness, and joy meet regularly.

I don’t need the kind of custom software development they do at the moment, but who knows what the future will hold!  And I did need the reaffirmation that success and joy can and should go together.

The various branches of the Latin Family will be working on complex, multifaceted projects this week.  The beginning and intermediate groups will be creating puppet-based video products around the stories in Tres Columnae Lectiō XI (for the beginners) and Lectiō XXV (for the intermediate group), and in the process they’ll also be filling in some gaps in the story-lines with stories that just might become “core” readings in the future if they’re good enough.  Meanwhile, the advanced groups have been thinking about heroism and the clash between duty and personal desire as they all read Hyginus’ version of the Hercules story along with Lectiōnēs XXXII – XXIV for the Latin III group, XLV – XLVI for the Latin IV’s, and the requisite selections from Aeneid IV and VI and De Bello Gallico VI for the AP-syllabus group.  They’ll be designing, as well as creating, their own products to show the common themes in their readings, and I’m excited to see what the future holds for them when they really get started on Tuesday or Wednesday.

“I’m so far behind where I need to be,” Another Ms. X said of her AP group on Friday.  “There’s Specific Stuff they have to do, and I have to teach them so much before they can do it.”  Ms. X’s syllabus is very different from mine, and her Particular Content Area is very different from a language course.  But I can’t help feeling that if Ms. X did a little bit less teaching them so much, she’d feel less rushed and less frantic.  Somehow the Latin Family’s AP-syllabus group is a day ahead of the schedule I showed them a few weeks ago, the schedule that we all thought was “crazy” for its ambitious pace at the time.  If their current pace continues, they’ll be finished with the first reading of everything on the syllabus well before Spring Break starts Friday afternoon, and we’ve done a lot of additional reading and taken the time we needed to make high-quality Major and Minor Assessment products along the way, too.

And that brings us back to success and happiness and joy.  Happiness, I’d say, is a great by-product but a terrible goal to focus on … but success and joy are pretty closely intertwined.  As a busy week begins, and as so many competing priorities pull us all in different directions, I hope we’ll hold on to the joy and experience the success.  I wonder what other new discoveries and insights await!

Published in: on April 14, 2014 at 10:47 am  Leave a Comment  

Perspectives and Options

I knew Ms. X hadn’t been feeling well, and I knew she’d had a Serious Health Scare a few years ago as well as some lingering issues with Another Thing.  So I was surprised to see her working busily on “grades and stuff” Wednesday afternoon; Ms. X often waits till the last possible minute for things like that, and the last possible minute would have been sometime on Thursday.  It turns out Ms. X had a Scary Appointment on Thursday; since she wouldn’t be at school, Wednesday afternoon actually was the last possible minute.  And we had a chance to talk about perspectives and options.

“I love teaching,” Ms. X said, “and it’s been an important part of my work life, but it isn’t my whole life.  If I have to stop, I can do This Thing and This Other Thing, and I’ll have more time for my family and for This Big Project.”  Ms. X may not be feeling physically well, but emotionally and spiritually, she’s in an excellent place.  I told her about my old friend Ms. Q, a former colleague I hear about occasionally, who’s convinced she would just die if she stopped “coming to school,” as she puts it.  “That School has been her whole life,” a mutual friend said a few months ago … and the mutual friend was concerned about the inevitable day when Ms. Q’s health is too bad for “coming to school” anymore.  Another friend, facing an unexpected and mysterious potential crisis, sees only one option and is fearful that even that won’t be available.  And yet another friend, now happily retired, told me she was embarrassed to be praised for a long series of outstanding accomplishments.

But what do these incidents have in common?  In each case, the person has been struggling with perspectives, options, or both.  It seems Ms. X had reached a good resolution even before she got the Official Word … even though I don’t yet know what that Official Word was, and neither did Ms. X when I saw her Wednesday afternoon.  Friends, especially those who are enjoying retirement and finding new sources of joy in a new season of life, worry about Ms. Q because her perspective seems so narrow and limited.  “I just know I’d die if I stopped coming to school,” she tells them whenever she sees them, as they encourage her to think of all the other things she might do with her time.  “There’s only one option, and what can I do if it goes away?”

There’s something about factory-model thinking that encourages a narrowing of perspectives, a refusal to see options beyond the same-old same-old.  “I can’t take That Particular Class,” Z said to a friend, because it requires teacher approval and Z just knows That One Ms. X won’t sign off.  “Those bad, lazy kids won’t copy notes from my PowerPoint,” Ms. X and Mr. Y will be moaning pretty soon, “but there’s nothing else to do.  There’s too much to cover and not enough time, and it’s the only possible way.”

But when you stop and think about it, there’s always something else to do.  “There may not be any good options,” I told a friend last year, “but there are obviously some bad ones.  What are they?”  It took a while, but over the course of several days, we explored and generated a lot of bad options, and eventually some better ones appeared.

“These kids are really wonderful,” said Ms. E, who was substituting for Ms. X on Thursday.  Yes, the very same kids that Many A Ms. X and Mr. Y dismiss as “bad, lazy, and horrible” or “won’t do anything.”  Everything about Ms. E said “retired teacher who still loves working with young people” … and that’s why Ms. E’s perspective was so different.  “They’re horrible, just horrible,” Ms. Z had said of a very similar group late last year … but everything about Ms. Z said “retired teacher who really needed to retire when she did, if not before.”  I have a feeling Ms. Z saw substitute-teaching as the only option even though she hated it; Ms. E clearly enjoys it and probably sees it as one option among many, one to embrace for a season.

“I’m going to keep working,” says my neighbor O, “as long as I enjoy it … or until I finish paying for the convertible I’ve always wanted.”  O is a retired-and-unretired teacher who moved back to These Parts after many years in Other Places, and when she moved back, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do at first.  But then her current job appeared, and she loves it (and the convertible, too) … and despite some real tragedies over the past few years, O has a healthy, joyful perspective and always seems to find good options even in the darkest times.  And so does D … D, my former student from Way Back When, who “just happened” to be at the Local Coffee Shop yesterday and “just happened” to notice me.  We had a great conversation about perspectives and options at what’s turning into a very transitional time for D and her family … and I have a strong feeling that good things will come from that conversation.

When your perspective is narrow and your options seem few, it really helps to have a joyful community around you.  When you’re trying to enlarge your perspective, and when the options seem overwhelming, joyful community is also helpful and important.  On this busy day, when so many friends have so many needs and concerns, I hope we’ll all take a moment and think about the big or small things we can do with, not for each other.

And if you have three minutes, you might enjoy this video that someone “just happened” to share with me.  I thought it was an excellent, if imperfect way to end the week.

Published in: on April 11, 2014 at 10:38 am  Leave a Comment  

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