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  
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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  

Individuals … or Examples?

When you look at a group of people, do you see individuals, or do you see examples of more general types?  I’m not sure how I would have answered that question twenty, fifteen, or even ten years ago, but I know I see individuals now.  I’m pretty sure Ms. X, Mr. Y, and some Powers That Be that I know see examples instead … and I think that difference in perception powerfully influences our practices and our perspectives.

Of course Ms. X, Mr. Y, and Those Powers want to be seen as individuals themselves!  “I hate it when They talk down to Us like that,” One Ms. X said of a Former Power who, to be perfectly honest, sometimes did use a particular tone of voice when addressing “bad, lazy” teachers … a tone of voice which That Ms. X’s students would have recognized quite well because they heard it daily from her.  Like That Ms. X, the Former Power looked at groups and saw examples: the “bright, hard-working girls” over there, the “gamer guys” over here, the “troublemakers that you need to deal with and make an example out of” in this corner.  As I think of That Power’s successes and frustrations over several years, it strikes me that they’re both related to that seeing of examples rather than individuals.  The more that students, teachers, families, or anything else conformed to That Power’s general types, the more success there appeared to be; the more they diverged, the more they failed to fit one of That Power’s general types, the more frustrating it was for everybody.

That Power liked me personally, but found me puzzling because I didn’t fit any general types.  And it’s taken me quite a few years to figure that out … because even when I do see examples of general types, I always remember that the general types are less real than the individuals.  For That Power, I think they were more real.

I realize this post could easily turn into a meditation on the Allegory of the Cave, but that’s not the direction I want to go today.  It’s been a long, sometimes difficult week, but the intermediate branch of the Latin Family had an amazing breakthrough yesterday.  And I don’t think it would have been possible if I’d seen examples of “bad, lazy ones” or “loud, popular kids” or “quiet gamer guys” or other labels and categories when I was planning out the week.  “We’re feeling stuck, some of us,” I thought on Sunday afternoon, “because we always work with the same people and hear the same voices.  How can we mix things up in a safe, but challenging way?”  I’d just started reading Richard Sheridan’s book Joy Inc., and I was struck by his very brief early reference to the way that his company structures its work.  Their programmers work in pairs, but they rotate regularly.  “Let’s try that,” I said, “on a smaller scale.  Let’s form random pairs, keep them together for four or five minutes, and then rotate to new pairs.”

N, J, and the others, the ones who are often dismissed as “bad and lazy” or “loud and rude,” loved it.  “I sort-of know C,” one of them said, “because I have another class with him, but he’s really cool and interesting!”  Even K, D, and E, who would love to sit quietly and listen most of the time, were willing to rotate and read.  Something really powerful happened Wednesday morning, and I know it couldn’t have happened if I’d seen N, J, K, D, E, and the others as examples of categories.  What new discoveries and breakthroughs can we make as we get to know those individuals more deeply … and as they trust their teachers and their learning communities enough to let themselves be more deeply known?

And is it possible, within the outward structures of factory-model schools, to infuse a new paradigm of seeing individuals?  If you asked Ms. X or Mr. Y, what would they say they see?  Or would they even understand the question?  I got an invitation to a Special Thing that a Great Power Indeed wants to try out this spring … a Special Training on how to use Google Drive to “harvest evidence” of students’ performance on Particular Measures.  The Great Power and the Outside Trainer who developed the Special Training … did they take the time to find out how much prior knowledge of Google Drive their participants have?  No; they clearly saw examples of a type, made an assumption, and started there, though to their credit they did include a place for folks to self-report their prior experiences with the tool.  “Just punish those bad, lazy kids for being tardy,” was the message at That Meeting Monday afternoon, “and they’ll certainly start coming to class on time.”  Look at all the assumptions about general types and examples hidden behind that seemingly simple statement … and realize that the “bell clock” has been malfunctioning so much that “school time” and “regular time” are two or three minutes off from each other!

As a busy day begins, I’m wondering how to take this insight to the individuals I work with, rather than to the examples of a type that I don’t actually see.  And I wonder what other new insights and discoveries await in the hours and days to come!

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

Slowly Coming Together

I almost didn’t click on the link when it showed up in my Google+ stream this morning.  I know enough about the history of the common school movement to know that Horace Mann did, indeed, go to Prussia and was, indeed, inspired by what he saw in schools there.  But what might I find if I clicked the link?

I’m glad I did.  I found an organization called The New American Academy that seems (or at least claims) to be slowly, but steadily transforming existing public schools in New York City, as well as building new, non-factory-model schools from scratch.  I want to know more about them, of course, but I’m glad I clicked that link today.

I’m also glad I listened to an odd feeling and used a restaurant gift card somebody had given me last night.  I hadn’t been there in years, but the food was significantly better and the service was remarkably good.  And then I saw two different former students, from two very different time periods, within five minutes at the grocery store.

Things are slowly coming together.  I’m not entirely sure how the meal, the conversations with N and M, and the article about the “Prussian-Industrial Model” of education are all connected, but I’m beginning to see some possibilities.  I think I had stopped eating at the Restaurant In Question because it felt more and more like a dining factory.  When The Girl was small, it was a favorite of hers, and we ate there a lot in those days; when we were staying with friends almost 15 years ago, on the way to another close friend’s wedding, we had a really good meal and great conversation at the location in Those Parts.  But then things started to change … and now, perhaps, they’re changing back, or something.

What about N and M?  More than a decade ago, when The School was working on the idea of student leadership for its then-still-successful Socratic Seminar program, I sent an email to the faculty asking them for their “best and worst” seminar participants.  I had a hunch that both groups would be a fruitful source of Student Seminar Assistant candidates, but I was particularly interested in the “worst” lists, the “bad, lazy, horrible” students, from the Ms. X and Mr. Y group.  And of course N was on that list!  And of course she’s gone on to a successful life, a happy family and marriage, and a career she loves … because N refused to accept the “bad, lazy, horrible” label from Ms. X and Mr. Y.  “It’s so good to see you!” she said.  “I want to sit at your feet and learn some couponing skills from you,” I told her.  M is younger, a fairly recent graduate, but she, too, refused the “bad, lazy, horrible” label and has found a job she loves.  And yet, if I told Ms. X or Mr. Y about the work M is doing, they probably wouldn’t believe me.  If I could find the previous Ms. X and Mr. Y who knew N, they certainly wouldn’t believe me.  “That awful kid?!” they’d exclaim.

As the folks at The New American Academy reminded me, “fear, isolation, and monotony” were the deliberate underpinnings of the Prussian model, and they came over more or less unchanged when the designers of the American factory-model system imported the Prussian structures.  The goal, after all, was to prepare young people to succeed in the isolated and monotonous factory-jobs of the early 20th century … and most jobs in those days, from the factory floor to the office, really were built on isolation and monotony, on obedience and hierarchy and task completion and following the directions.  “Just hold them accountable,” said That Power on Monday afternoon, “and fill out the paperwork, and we’ll punish them, and everything will be just fine again.”

I don’t really want a pony, of course, but I’m about as likely to get one by wishing for it as Ms. X, Mr. Y, and the Powers In Question are to get accountability from students by paperwork and punishment.  “What’s wrong with so many kids anyway?” asked N, who was one just a few years ago.  “They don’t seem to understand about effort and persistence.”  We didn’t have time for a long conversation; N was on her way in to the store, and I was on my way out with some perishable stuff that needed to be put away.  If I’d had more time, I would have said that the structure itself, which was only designed to encourage effort and persistence in some students some of the time, is producing its predictable results.  B, U, and the others have developed a fixed mindset: they’ll “do OK” with minimal effort, and they’ll still “do OK” even if they really exert themselves, so why do more than the minimum?  Besides, it’s spring, and Spring Break will be here soon, and then there will be the Prom and Graduation and Summer.

joyful learning community can encourage greater effort and persistence, but how much can one little learning community do to change the foundations of a vast, complex system?  Or is that the question we need to ask?  On this rainy spring day, with much to accomplish, I’m left scratching my head and wondering what new insights and discoveries await.  Wondering … and grateful for the things that slowly came together yesterday, and for the insights that arrive when the time is right.

Published in: on April 9, 2014 at 10:51 am  Leave a Comment  

Purpose and Process

“Today’s meeting,” said the email with the agenda, “should last approximately an hour.”  As I looked at the agenda items, I saw about 25 or 30 minutes … and as it turned out, the meeting itself only stretched to 45 or so.  I was able to get to the other meeting, the one about preparing for end-of-year tasks in the New Student Information System, without a frantic rush, and that was over in time to avoid a frantic rush to Book Group.  But the whole day got me thinking about purpose and process, and about how factory-schools and other large, hierarchical institutions often get those two elements confused.  It’s really easy for the process to become its own purpose!

“Back to Basics Reminders” have been a recurring agenda item, as the Relevant Powers try to maintain some semblance of Business As Usual in the midst of rapid structural change.  “Be sure,” said a Relevant Power, “to hold students accountable” for things like arriving in class on time and wearing appropriate clothing.  “If you just write them up and send the form in, I guarantee you they’ll get punished.  But we aren’t getting those forms from everybody!”

If you’ve ever worked in a factory-model school, you’ve certainly heard that promise … and you’ve certainly seen the overt or covert eye-rolling from Ms. X and Mr. Y, who know perfectly well that it won’t happen.  Sometimes Ms. X and Mr. Y actually know this from personal experience; sometimes their knowledge is so certain that they feel no need to test it.  “They just need to be honest,” One Ms. X had said a few days ago, “and tell Us which rules will be enforced and which ones won’t.  That’s all I want.  Is it too much to ask?”  Meanwhile, no one pauses to ask what it means to be accountable for showing up on time or wearing what you should … and nobody ever stops to wonder who should have ownership of the timeliness or the proper dress.

“Just fill out the form,” Powers plead and promise, “and everything will magically happen.  Just punish the bad, lazy ones, and everything will get better.”  Ms. X and Mr. Y “don’t have time,” and the Powers In Question “don’t have time” to deal with Ms. X or Mr. Y individually.  So the process rolls on, nothing changes, and the new “Back to Basics Reminders” (or whatever the new phrase will be) and the next new program or mission statement will be “guaranteed to solve the problems” again next month or next year.

I feel for Ms. X, Mr. Y, and Those Powers!  They’re all caught in a process that has no greater purpose, a process that’s become its own purpose.  “Hold those students accountable,” they declare, somehow not noticing that the very next agenda item refers to “following mandates” and “completing paperwork” that Ms. X and Mr. Y themselves don’t follow and don’t complete.  “It’s really strange how many honor code violations there have been this year,” someone noted in reference to students who found the online key for the worksheet or test that Ms. X and Mr. Y downloaded and printed out.  “I’m sure we can fix that by writing them up and by moving around the room while we teach.”

The meeting concluded with a mission statement exercise, since the Local School District has decided it needs a new one.  “At our next meeting in a Particular Configuration,” the agenda said, “we will discuss how to incorporate that new statement into our school mission statement.”

“But we just did that!” fussed One Ms. X, referring to a similar exercise several years ago.  “And I can’t find the document in Google Drive!”  Another Ms. X had printed out the agenda but not the other document, and someone else wasn’t sure if “what you type” in Google Docs “really stays there” when the document is closed.

“The thing about it,” Someone Important said at the later meeting, “is that This Shiny New Software will really change the way we do business.  It will change the way we treat Those Teachers, because it assumes they are competent and professional.”

I’d love to believe that.  I’d love to believe that the New Curriculum Document will magically “raise the level” of instruction and learning, that the New and Improved Tests will change the focus from broadcast teaching to personal learning.  It would be nice if the New Mission Statement made everyone reconsider the organization’s purpose, and it would be great if “writing them up and sending in the paperwork” magically created timely, properly-dressed students who “did their own work” and “got great scores.”

May I have a pony as well?

The underlying problem with factory-style thinking, of course, is that neither people nor learning itself can be reduced to identical inputs and outputs, no matter how hard you work to standardize the process.  It would be so much easier if you could subject everybody to a perfect process … but you can’t, and even if you could, you still wouldn’t get the perfect outcome that Ms. X, Mr. Y, and the Relevant Powers are seeking.  If you hold fast to the process, you probably won’t achieve your purpose … but if you’re really clear about your purpose, you have to be flexible about the process.

But that kind of flexibility is scary.  In fact, if you really believe in the factory-paradigm, that kind of flexibility is terrifying.  Letting go of standardized process and standardized outcomes is hard enough in a joyful learning community, but at least there you have the support of your fellow learners, and you don’t have to be perfect from the beginning.  Is there a way to help Ms. X and Mr. Y let go of their factory-model isolation and perfectionism, or will they have to get there by themselves?

We’ll see what happens over the next few days.  I wonder what new insights and discoveries await!

Published in: on April 8, 2014 at 10:44 am  Comments (1)  

Through Ups and Downs

Friday was definitely an up and down day.  Spirit Week at school is a thing we do because … we do it, and we “always” have, once in the fall and once in the spring.  “It promotes school spirit,” Ms. X and Mr. Y and Various Powers That Be like to say, “but those bad, lazy kids don’t actually follow the dress themes for each day, and nobody punishes them for it!”  Ms. X and Mr. Y are great believers in “school spirit” in the abstract, though they also complain bitterly about things like the spirit competitions and the relevant announcements that “get the kids all stirred up” and “waste so much time when I have so much to cover.”

The relatively few students who participate in the intramural volleyball and basketball games enjoy their brief moment of athletic glory, and so do the ad hoc cheerleaders.  As a “choice program,” the school doesn’t have “regular” sports teams because student-athletes compete on the teams of their neighborhood schools.  And if you do participate in the dress themes for each day, it can be a fun, though sometimes silly bonding experience.

But if you asked a “bad, lazy kid” who “didn’t actually follow the dress theme” on Out of This World Wednesday or Kings, Queens, and Peasants Thursday, what would he or she say about the whole thing?  I didn’t want to ask on the days themselves, but I’m wondering what will happen if there’s an opportunity sometime this week or next.  K, S, and C, for example, did dress up at least one day, but they’re quiet people who like to read and love creating high-quality stories about the Tres Columnae Project characters’ adventures.  And what about D, N, K, and E, who would much rather play Minecraft all day?

Factory-model schools, like all institutions full of people, are going to have ups and downs because that’s what happens when people come together.  But the factory-model approach, with its attempts to standardize everythingbrings a lot of additional ups and downs on itself.  “Be quiet, you bad, loud, lazy kids!” Ms. X screams … and not five minutes later, she’s yelling at her now-quiet class about how they “need to” participate more actively.  “Copy these notes exactly the way I wrote them,” warns Mr. Y … and then he’s upset because “those bad, lazy kids don’t have any creativity skills.  It must be Facebook and Twitter and those video games they play!”

In These Parts, Spring Break always “just happens” to be during Easter Week.  Normally Good Friday would be a holiday as well, but it’s become the last of so many weather makeup days.  So there are ten school days (“nine and a half,” Ms. X would correct me proudly, “because Good Friday is an early release day”) until that much-needed time of rest and recovery.  Participants in the online professional development course tell me that their elementary and middle schools have already started the review and reteaching process for the upcoming Big State Tests, which is probably why Ms. X and Mr. Y are upset about their “bad, lazy student shutting down and not doing any work.”  If that was the rhythm for eight or nine years, it’s hard to make a sudden change, to encounter new stuff at the time when you’re “supposed to” be mindlessly working back through the old stuff you understood perfectly well the first time … or, if you didn’t understand it the first time, to try desperately to figure out just enough to do OK on the Big State Test, which is what Many A Ms. X and Mr. Y spent hours drilling into you Back Then.

Ups … and downs.  Even if there’s a Big, Important Measure of the work of a Joyful Learning Community, as there is for my upper-level students who are reading the AP Latin syllabus, it’s somehow less scary when you’re working as a community rather than as a bunch of individuals or some data points within a class.  As an individual or a data point, your voice is rarely heard and your needs and desires don’t matter; what matters is “Ms. X’s scores” or “Mr. Y’s lesson plan” or The Pacing Guide.  But even if there is a desired pace, as there is for those two groups in the advanced class, somehow building a community makes the pace both more achievable and less of an issue.  Of course we’ll read everything on time, because we have a shared goal of success … but we also have many other shared goals, like enjoying the journey and really deepening our understanding of the language, the culture, and the literature.

We’ll be trying out some new learning and reading structures this week, things that will help everybody (especially in the beginning and intermediate groups) with focus and execution at what can be a scattered, difficult, up and down time of the year.  But we’ll also be drawing on the resources of community that we’ve been building all along.  At the start of a full, busy week, that seems oddly hopeful … more up than down at a time of year when the downs can seem massive.

I wonder what other ups, downs, and insights will appear in the days and weeks ahead!

Published in: on April 7, 2014 at 10:41 am  Leave a Comment  
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