Thinking, Talking, Doing

I’ve been busy with a lot of thinking, talking, and doing for the past few days … and I’ve been recovering from a case of What’s Going Around that struck, quite unexpectedly, right after Thanksgiving.  With all of that, plus the typical busy routine of early December, I haven’t had much time for writing and reflecting.  But I think I’m finding time and space for writing, reflecting, and blogging again.

When I was “on the inside,” at Former School and the School Before That, I probably would have apologized to you, loyal readers, for not posting regularly.  There was something about the mindset and culture at Former School and the School Before That that seemed to encourage apologizing when you took care of yourself.  Ms. X and Mr. Y would drag themselves to school, coughing and clearly contagious with Something Horrible, because “it’s too much work to get things ready for a Substitute, and those bad, lazy kids wouldn’t do Their Sub Work anyway.”  And Ms. X and Mr. Y’s attitudes rubbed off on their students, who would often apologize for staying home when they, too, had a case of Something Horrible … or, like Ms. X and Mr. Y themselves, would come to school with that case of Something Horrible, seeking the shiny reward of a Perfect Attendance Certificate.

A Former Power at one school even made a special award for teachers and staff members with Perfect Attendance.  That made One Ms. X angry; she wanted the certificate, but she’d been sick for a few days and had been asked to present something at a conference.  “It isn’t fair,” she whined, “and those things shouldn’t count against you.”  And yet Ms. X felt strongly that “those bad, lazy kids need to come to school or fail their classes,” and she saw no contradiction.

It’s remarkable what you can realize when you have time for thinking, talking, and doing.  I finished reading Cathy Davidson’s book Now You See It, and I realized that attention blindness is a huge factor behind the utterly different perspectives that different friends of mine have on situations.  “I’m not prejudiced at all, but,” wrote one former student on Facebook, and what followed … well, let’s just say that if that wasn’t prejudiced, I’d hate to see what was.  On the opposite side of the political spectrum, another friend was so quick to label and dismiss others that he couldn’t see substantial areas of agreement … and he couldn’t or wouldn’t see that the label itself was completely inaccurate.

And I realized that factory-schooling and factory-thinking encourage attention blindness.  “Pay attention!” screams Ms. X, “because this will be on The Test!  We’re in Chapter 8, so do the problems the Chapter 8 way!”  Professor Davidson uses the example of the gorilla-basketball experiment, in which participants are so focused on counting the number of baskets made that they don’t even notice the person in the gorilla suit who walks across the court.  And regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, of what beliefs and aspirations shape your life and your actions, it’s easy to focus on those metaphorical basketballs (the things that you’re “supposed to” be focusing on) and miss the gorillas that aren’t “supposed to” be there.

I do it.  Ms. X and Mr. Y do it.  My Facebook friends at both ends of the political spectrum do, too.  As Professor Davidson points out, it’s a natural human trait.  And cultivating attention blindness served us well in an industrial society where task efficiency was the key to advancement and prosperity.

But when you have time for talking, thinking, and acting, you realize fairly quickly that attention blindness doesn’t help.  The intermediate branch of the District Y Latin Family has been focusing on unknown vocabulary, among other things, for the past several days.  We’ve made lists of words we don’t recognize, and we’re practicing them in various ways.  It’s a challenging situation for them, more challenging than they (or I) had expected.  Their language proficiency is actually “right where it should be,” somewhere in the range between Novice Mid and Novice High, where familiar words and phrases begin to turn into main ideas and some details when the vocabulary is familiar.  But unfamiliar vocabulary frightens them … and frightens them in ways that a “typical” class of mine at Former School or even the School Before That wouldn’t have been frightened.

Why is that, I wondered.  And I needed some thinking, talking, and doing time to figure it out.  I know why the District Y beginners aren’t frightened: because they know no other approach than the Tres Columnae way, where the occasional unknown word shows up, understandable in context, because that’s the way that natural language works.  And I know why the advanced groups at District Y and District Q aren’t frightened: because when you’ve reached the Intermediate language proficiency range, you can extract meaning from familiar vocabulary even when there are a few unfamiliar words around.  But the intermediate District Y Latin Family had a “translate the passage and identify the grammar” approach when they were beginners, an approach that encouraged them to focus on the familiar basketballs at all costs.  And now, all of a sudden, there are gorillas … gorillas everywhere!

We’ll keep thinking, talking, and acting, and things will get better.  “I understood the familiar words and phrases, and it’s almost but not quite at the sentence level,” N tells me in daily emails.  And so does K, and so do the others.  I can see the progress and the goal, and I’m helping them celebrate how far we’ve come.

That’s the great thing about a joyful learning community: with a diverse group, some of us can focus on the basketballs and some can focus on the gorillas.  It’s amazing what we learn by thinking, talking, and doing together!  I wonder what else we’ll discover today!

Published in: on December 11, 2014 at 3:09 pm  Leave a Comment  

Tools and Contexts

Dr. Tony Talbert, who wrote this remarkable post that “just happened” to appear on Google+ this morning, is an education professor at Baylor University who just spent a semester at a nearby high school:

I wanted to better prepare my own university students, who are studying to become teachers, for the challenges of teaching and leading in a 21st century public school environment. I knew that the only way to do this was to update my own perspective.

His main discovery was that, in contrast with the past, his students this fall

considered digital technology not simply a tool for a specific task but instead a context for living and engaging in the world around them.

That’s not new news for me, but I’d been struggling to find words for the difference … and for some of the miscommunications and misunderstandings with colleagues and friends at Former School.  Many A Ms. X and Mr. Y would shrug and say, “I’m just not good at Technology” … and the more I heard it, the more it irked me.  But I wasn’t sure exactly why.  Part of it was the fixed mindset notion that one could just be, and stay, “not good at” something.  There are lots of things I’m “not good at,” but with most of them, I could get better if I really wanted to.  “You play the piano, don’t you?” asked someone recently.  “I do,” I told her, “and I got better after I stopped taking lessons, when I decided I wanted to play for me rather than for The Teacher.”  I knew that Many A Ms. X and Mr. Y could also “get better at Technology” if they really wanted to do so.

But that was only part of my irritation.  It wasn’t until I read Dr. Talbert’s piece that I could find words for the rest of it.  More Than One Ms. X and Mr. Y at Former School was “good at Technology,” but they used “it” in ways that didn’t resonate with me, and that didn’t seem to resonate with Latin Family members, either.  “You’re making Prezis in Mr. Y’s class, aren’t you?” I asked one time, when we were about to make a product for which Prezi would have been a good fit.  They rolled their eyes … and I suddenly realized that, in That Mr. Y’s class, “making Prezis” was an end in itself, not a means to a greater end.  “Can we make something physical?” they asked me.  “Or maybe a video?”  And of course that was fine with me because I was interested in demonstrated learning, not a particular tool.

And then I realized that whenever I used the word tool in regard to an app, a website, or a program, there was at least a bit of eye-rolling … the kind of eye-rolling that young people unconsciously do when their elders are ever-so-slightly out of touch.  The kind that my generation did when we were asked “Why do you spend all that time at The Mall but you don’t ever buy anything?”

For us, of course, The Mall wasn’t a tool, a place where you go to buy things … though, to be fair, we did buy things (especially food, movie tickets, and arcade tokens) when we were there.  It was a context, a place where we met and socialized, the physical equivalent (as danah boyd points out in It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens) of the virtual space in which teenagers meet and socialize today.  Was it a learning context?  It certainly was a place for informal learning … and I’m reminded that older generations were suspicious and fearful of that context, and that education reformers of that era produced a book (which I’ve read several times) called The Shopping Mall High School.

But then I left Former School and began my virtual work with the Latin Family at District Q, District Y, and the Gifted Homeschoolers.  After a few weeks, I realized that “Technology” was, in fact, our learning context and not just a set of learning tools.  Without our Virtual Classroom, our Google Drive documents and forms, and the Tres Columnae Project site, would our shared work even be possible?  Even when the Virtual Classroom is down or the site is loading slowly, “Technology” is more than just a tool or even a set of tools.

“The thing that I love about it,” I told my neighbor O at our Thanksgiving Day gathering, “is that I still get to do all the things I love about teaching face to face, but I don’t have to do the things I dislike.  And we can actually build deeper relationships more quickly because everybody has a personal, private way to ask questions if they need to.”  That’s a different context for teaching and learning, not just a different tool set.  But without Dr. Talbert’s terminology, I’d still be struggling to express what’s different and why.

Contexts are important, not least because they influence the kinds of tools we use and the ways we use our tools.  At Former School, where the physical context was deliberately designed for information transmission at a time when information was limited and scarce, it only makes sense that “Technology” would be seen as a tool … and not necessarily a desirable, useful tool, either.  That One Ms. X, who left a few years ago, was perfectly happy to use a SmartBoard as a screen for “her” overhead projector and handwritten transparencies … and that made sense because Ms. X was in the information transfer business, and handwritten transparencies are more reliable and easier for that.

I just realized it’s significant that there are tables in the center of the “computer lab” at District Y where the Latin Family meets.  At Former School, there were rows of computers that mimic rows of desks.  Is that why it’s been easier to build and sustain a Joyful Learning Community there?  What other contextual features have influenced us, and what other discoveries await?


Published in: on November 28, 2014 at 4:17 pm  Leave a Comment  

Thanksgiving Eve

My mother loved holidays … all kinds of holidays.  And she loved to wish people a happy holiday eve the day before the holiday.  “Happy Thanksgiving Eve!” she’d say, or “Happy Valentine’s Eve!”

I wished the Latin Family a Happy Thanksgiving Eve today, and as I did, I smiled at the memory.

It’s rainy and chilly in These Parts, but it had started to snow in the parts of New Jersey where District Y and District Q are.  I was pleasantly surprised by the attendance today; almost everyone in every class was there.  Many A Ms. X and Mr. Y at Former School (which was already closed for Thanksgiving Eve today) were firmly convinced that “those bad, lazy kids won’t bother to show up” on the day before a holiday.  So they would “find stuff for the kids to do,” and then they’d complain that “the ones that really needed to come” stayed home.  When I talked with students and parents in Those Days, I heard complaints about “meaningless busy-work” from Ms. X and Mr. Y.  “There’s no reason to send Z to school,” More Than One Mom told me, “because Those Teachers won’t be doing anything anyway.”

The expectations at District Q and District Y are very different.  Y and her family took a trip a few weeks ago, scheduling it around the “short week” before Fall Break … but Y emailed me to ask what she’d be missing.  And almost everybody was there on Thanksgiving Eve.   We presented projects: end-of-reporting-term projects in District Q, the first Minor Assessments of the new reporting term in District Y.  And we followed, but altered, an old Latin Family tradition from Former School and the School Before That.  We took a Latin phrase (“ego grātiās maximās agō,” inquit Caelia) and rearranged the letters to make as many familiar Latin words as we could.  But that always happened in pairs or small groups at Former School and the School Before That; today we worked together, and I joined in and found words, too.

It was a good, happy way to spend Thanksgiving Eve.

The Dog and I went for a quick walk after the last shortened class, and we “just happened” to run into my neighbor, O, whom I hadn’t seen in months.  We told each other what we’ve each been up to, and she was thrilled to hear about my new arrangement … and we made plans to get together over the holiday weekend, and not to let so much time go by before the next time.

That was a good way to spend Thanksgiving Eve, too.

M, in the advanced District Y branch of the Latin Family, suggested an innovation in the tradition: “Why don’t we also make English words for things we’re thankful for?” he asked.  So we did … and that was a good way to spend Thanksgiving Eve, too.  There’s much to be grateful for, much to celebrate, as we reach this reflective time of year.  And one of the things I’m most thankful for is the joyful learning community that’s formed and strengthened itself at District Q, at District Y, and among the Gifted Homeschoolers.

Almost all of the Gifted Homeschoolers were able to be “there” for our session on Tuesday.  A few even changed their travel plans.  We transformed a few important Latin verbs together, and then we read the last few stories in Tres Columnae Lectiō IX and almost all of Lectiō X. They had previewed the stories before class, and they’d written “brief Latin stories” about which of the puerī ought to be removed from the ludus and taught at home.  “I’m not sure who it is,” I told them, “but I think we need to develop the storyline during the spring class.”

There’s a great blog post here about the spring classes for the Gifted Homeschoolers; I’m excited to think about the adventures we’ll be having and the stories we’ll be creating.  And I’m excited to think about the great work that the District Y and District Q Latin Family groups will accomplish, too.

Thanksgiving Eve is a great time to reflect, but it’s also a great time to look forward, gratefully and appreciatively, to the good things that lie ahead.  Back when I worked at Former School and the School Before That, I was usually too exhausted to do either on Thanksgiving Eve.  It’s hard to reflect or look forward when you don’t feel deep ownership of what you’re doing … and in my days at Former School and the School Before That, for all my talk of joyful learning communities and ownership of the process, I didn’t feel much ownership of my time or my work.  Various Powers That Be issued mandates and directives, and I spent my time and effort either complying or appearing to comply.  We did build a joyful learning community, and we did build meaningful things together … but it was harder, more draining, more tiring work back then than it is now.

And on Thanksgiving Eve, I’m grateful … grateful for the good that came from that hard, draining work in its time, but even more grateful for the new work, the new time, and the new forms of joyful learning community.  I wonder what other insights and discoveries await in the days and weeks to come!

Published in: on November 26, 2014 at 6:44 pm  Leave a Comment  

Look For the Helpers

I’m glad that Fred Rogers, one of the great figures from my childhood, really did say (quoting his mother) that in times of trouble and sorrow, you should “look for the helpers.”   It’s a quiet, rainy morning in These Parts, but social media streams and news reports are full of ugly misunderstandings.  “I just can’t believe that Those People would Do That” … but for different groups of friends of mine, “Those People” and “That” are utterly different.  Some of my friends see “Those People” are the outraged residents of Ferguson, MO and “That” as the riots, the “destruction of property,” and even the distrust of the police.  For other friends of mine, “Those People” would be the complacent, privileged folks who complain about the riots, “destruction of property,” and distrust of the police … and “That” would seem to be a deliberate refusal to understand, or coded language with several hundred years of oppression and violence behind it.

I hate writing about those people and that in this space.  I’d much rather write about joyful learning community and building meaningful things together.  But if you want to build community and build things together, there has to be a foundation of mutual respect … or at least a willingness to listen, to acknowledge that “Those People” have a perspective, however misguided it seems to “us,” that makes “That” appear to be reasonable, or appropriate, or the least bad option, or “the only choice under the circumstances.”

Look for the helpers, Mr. Rogers said.  But that’s hard to do from a distance, hard to do when This Group and That Group dismiss each other (and each other’s sources of information) with yelling and labeling.  I wouldn’t claim that anybody learned how to yell and label in their factory-model school experience; reducing the complex other to a simple label is one way that we humans deal with an utterly complex environment.  But I think of Many A Ms. X and Mr. Y I’ve known, for whom the label seemed more real than the real person who had been labeled.  I think of all the labels and categories that factory-model schools create, of how difficult it is to shed one label and put on another … of how difficult it is to bear multiple labels if those labels are seen as somehow contradictory.  “X can’t really be that smart,” said One Ms. X many years ago, “because he hangs out with those losers.”  And Another Ms. X, a whole string of them, wouldn’t put the “academically gifted” label on B, even though his brilliance was obvious to anyone who talked with him, because B already had two other labels for unrelated health conditions.  “How can T be gifted and need special services?” asked More Than One Ms. X and Mr. Y, even though T’s physical challenges and blazing intelligence were utterly obvious to anyone who spent any time with her.

After a decade or so in a world where one label per person is what you’re “supposed to” see and acknowledge, is it really surprising that people go into a wider, more diverse world and want to see one label per person there, too?  For years, friends of mine on both sides of the Ferguson issues heard a simple narrative:  “Just do the work, and you’ll get a Good Grade and go to College and get a Good Job.”  Some believed it or wanted to believe it; some tried and got rejected; some refused and got dealt with by Ms. X, Mr. Y, and Powers That Be.  But all were shaped, one way or another, by this powerful, simple narrative … a narrative that encourages yelling and labeling, shaming and blaming, even pain and punishment (immediate, summary punishment) for those who don’t comply with orders and directives from Powers That Be.

And yet even my friends who bought into that narrative completely, who found “success” as they define it by following those simple, linear steps, seem worried, even frantic, about their children and grandchildren.  Ms. X, who became a teacher because she “just loved school so much,” rejoices that her grandchildren aren’t attending public school.  Mr. Y, who thinks “education is the way you get ahead in this world,” celebrates Z, who’s making good money and a good life without a four-year college degree.  “Opportunities like this are rare; you should seize it,” said More Than One Power when I asked them about leaving The System to do what I do now.

That wouldn’t have happened ten or fifteen years ago.  But it’s happening now, and it’s breaking down the simple labels that so many of us relied on for so long.   And when the simple labels are gone, you have to look at the deep complexity and deep humanity of “Those People” … at least for a minute or two.  And when you do, you might even start to understand why they did “That.”

And that’s why, in the midst of despair and violence and profound misunderstandings, I see hope … and I’m looking for the helpers who will share and spread that hope.  I’m not sure the Latin Family will be talking about these issues directly today or tomorrow; we have a lot of other things to do, and the issues may be too close, too personal, and too raw to address directly.  But in the days and weeks to come, as we use the Tres Columnae Project characters and stories as prisms or mirrors into our own stories, I’m hoping we can be among the helpers in some way that we haven’t begun to imagine.  That’s the power of a joyful learning community that builds meaningful things together … and I wonder what other insights and discoveries await us in the days and weeks to come.

Published in: on November 25, 2014 at 2:24 pm  Leave a Comment  

Joy and Gratitude

This week brings the end of the marking period at District Q, and today was the official exam day for the Latin Family.  Our mostly self-directed Honors Projects are due later today, and we’ll be looking at them … and celebrating our many accomplishments so far … during our shortened class period on Wednesday.  It’s a time of year when gratitude and joy are the themes, and I’m feeling both grateful and joyful as I look at what the Latin Family, both at District Q and at District Y, has accomplished so far.

We’ve come a long way together in a fairly short time.  And we’ve overcome some barriers in the process.

At District Y, the old paradigm was that “nobody really knows how Latin was pronounced, so there’s no need to try to pronounce or speak it.”  We didn’t directly challenge the old paradigm; we just started saying salvē and salvēte, valē and valēte, and a few other phrases in the intermediate and advanced groups, and of course we started reading things out loud in every class and asking and answering Latin questions with the beginners.  In a short time, everyone’s pronunciation has become about as good as you’d expect it to be in each group, and our Interpretive Reading proficiency has followed suit.  We’re all getting more comfortable with creating things, too; all three groups will be embarking on their first Minor Assessment project of the new marking period this week, and no one seems to be stressed or scared about the process this time.  “Oh!” said W and J and B in the advanced group, whose product is more open-ended now, “Can we make a video with costumes and everything?”  And of course they can … and we’ll see how it goes, and we’ll see what we learn about the process as well as the products from this new adventure.

There were fewer barriers to overcome at District Q, where there’s always been a focus on language proficiency and using the language.  But it’s still been exciting to watch how a greater sense of ownership has developed there.  “Pick a topic,” I said, “for those Honors Projects, and find good sources, and make a thing, and find a primary source or two if you can.”  And the only questions were about finding the primary sources.   It had been a while since any Latin Family branch used a process that self-directed and complex, and I wasn’t sure what the outcome would be.  But the products I’ve seen so far are outstanding, and I’m really looking forward to the presentations on Wednesday.  I’m hoping some Latin Family members will allow their products to be published on the ever-growing Tres Columnae Project site, and I’m hoping some of us will build on this first Honors Project by creating stories with our chosen cultural elements in the weeks to come.

I’m thinking about joy and gratitude this week … and some of my joy and gratitude comes when I compare this week with its equivalent in prior years.  If folks are following the Normal Old Pattern at Former School, there’s probably a “special” Holiday Lunch for the faculty today or tomorrow, and there was probably mumbling and grumbling as Ms. X, Mr. Y, and the others decided what they’d sign up to bring.  There might even be mumbling and grumbling about the “special” altered schedule, which gives Ms. X and Mr. Y more time to “enjoy and celebrate” during lunch by extending the time they’ll be spending with One Particular Class and shortening the time they have with the others.  A friend who teaches at Another School in These Parts was grateful for the short week, but mumbling and grumbling about how her students would “certainly” behave and act.

Do the negative expectations contribute to the bad behaviors?  I thought about asking, but decided not to.  Both the expectations and the behaviors are symptoms of systemic and structural factors that I couldn’t see from the inside Back In The Day.  I can’t very well expect folks on the inside to see them now.

But I do wonder why those systemic, structural factors don’t seem to be as prevalent at District Y and District Q.  Maybe they are, but I just don’t see them because I’m not physically present.  Maybe they aren’t because the structures and systems of District Y and District Q are so different.  In any case, when I think about this week and compare it with all those weeks, I’m definitely feeling joy and gratitude.

Most of all, I’d say, I’m grateful for the joyful learning communities we’ve formed and the meaningful things we’ve already built together.  I’m grateful that N and the others were sad when it looked like technical glitches would keep us from meeting on Thursday … and I’m grateful that we were able to meet after all.  I’m grateful that early fears have given way to hope and joy, and I’m grateful that early concerns about grades have dissipated as we’ve all grown familiar with our processes, routines, and expectations.  When you’re building a joyful learning community inside a larger structure, it’s important to express your joy and gratitude regularly, especially if the joyful learning community is new and fragile or if it’s quite diverse.  But it’s hard to overdo sincere expressions of joy and gratitude, and every community benefits from hearing (and saying) them regularly.

I wonder what other causes of joy and gratitude, and what other insights and discoveries, await in the days and weeks to come!


Published in: on November 24, 2014 at 4:05 pm  Leave a Comment  

Frantic or Relaxed?

I still don’t know the details of the Big Trip, but I gathered from Facebook comments by old friends who still work at Former School that it wasn’t a very pleasant experience for them.  That was sad, but not surprising.  If the Old Patterns held true, as Old Patterns tend to do, nobody was really prepared for the Special Experience, but everybody assumed that “those kids ought to know” how to behave and what to do in unfamiliar surroundings.  And then, if somebody didn’t, there was probably some yelling and labeling, and maybe even some shaming and blaming.  “I was too tired to deal with it,” one friend commented … and I remember that feeling well.  It was a frantic feeling, and it usually came when Ms. X, Mr. Y, and the rest of us “just wanted to relax.”  After all, the Thanksgiving Holidays are rapidly approaching, and Winter Break isn’t that far behind.

The mysterious technical glitches continued yesterday morning, but unlike poor Ms. X and Mr. Y, I wasn’t frantic about them.  When it was clear that the error messages would continue, and that I wouldn’t be joining at least one of my District Y classes, I called the Relevant People at District Y to let them know.  (“Strangely enough,” I said, “I can’t access any parts of the district website, either, including district email.  Could you forward this email to this branch of the Latin Family and this other email to the others?”)  Then it was time to call the Virtual Classroom company, who had been dealing with such reports (unsurprisingly!) all day.  And then it was time to call my ISP … and, unsurprisingly, to discover that they’d been having issues with their DNS servers all day.  A few minutes on hold, a helpful technician, and an alternate DNS server later, and we were back on line just in time for the very end of one class and the beginning of the next.

And except for a few minutes when The Dog decided to bark at Something Threatening (like a squirrel) on the lawn, I was relaxed  for the whole time.  Even when The Dog was barking, I really wasn’t frantic; I was just annoyed because I needed to hear the phone.

What is it about factory-model schools, or at least about Former School and the School Before That, that encourages frantic reactions?  And why do people seem to be so much less frantic at District Y and District Q than they were at Former School and the School Before That?  There’s something profoundly different in the institutional cultures, something that I can’t attribute to obvious things like geographic or regional differences.

What makes one institution frantic when another stays relatively relaxed?

I “just happened” to be running an errand yesterday afternoon, and I “just happened” to run into three old friends I hadn’t seen in years.  “How are you doing?” they asked, “and how are The Kids?  And are you still teaching?”  We had a lot of catching up to do!  The third friend, whose oldest children I “just happened” to teach Back In The Day, had noticed a cultural change in the Way Schools Are Around Here … and a similar cultural change in health and medical fields where she works.  She doesn’t like the change … and she’s intrigued that her younger child, who’s just transfered from the Local Community College to a School Farther Away, has noticed a huge difference in culture and expectations between where he was and where he is.  “And it isn’t fair to Those Kids,” we agreed, “because we all know they’re just as smart and capable as anybody else.  But they’re not getting the same opportunities or challenges, and they aren’t as well prepared as they think they are.”

Mark’s Google+ comment yesterday brought up a factor I hadn’t consciously considered:

Distance and perspective helped me stay calm and find sensible solutions … but distance and perspective are so rare in factory-model schools!

And the evidence for what a change in environment does for all involved.

… But that’s better than nothing, isn’t it?  Fixed Mindset ⤦

… We have a back-up plan in place, and it’s worked beautifully when we needed it.  Growth Mindset ⤤

Fixed-mindset approaches to life tend to make you frantic, while a growth mindset helps you stay relaxed.  And the institutional culture at both District Q and District Y is a lot more growth-oriented than the culture of Former School.  Mrs. K’s younger son didn’t use mindset terms, but he noticed something similar in the contrast between his experiences at the Local Community College and his Current School.  They expect so much more, he’d told his mom, and (unsurprisingly) he had risen to, even relished, the challenge.

But what makes one institution embrace a fixed mindset while another, less than 100 miles away, in a city of similar size and demographics, embraces (or seems to embrace) growth?  And more to the point, how do you transplant or infuse a growth mindset into a fixed-mindset culture?

That’s not a burning question for me at the moment; I’m happy with the growth-oriented culture of District Q and District Y, and when it’s time for the Next Right Step, that will involve building a growth-oriented culture in a new joyful learning community.  But it’s still an important question … “important but not urgent,” as Stephen Covey said, the kind of question that you need to make time for before it becomes urgent as well.  I could ask my new friends (or the Latin Family or their parents) at District Y and District Q, but I’m not sure they could tell me.  Maybe District Y and District Q have “always” embraced a growth mindset.

One key to a growth mindset, though, is joyful learning community: building them, sustaining them, strengthening them, and helping them address the hard questions that inevitably arise.  I wonder what other insights and discoveries await in the relaxed, not frantic days to come.

Published in: on November 21, 2014 at 3:32 pm  Leave a Comment  

Distance and Perspective

I was reminded this morning that it’s a special day at Former School.  If I were still “there,” I wouldn’t have been there … because this is the day of one of the Special Class Field Trips that the Current Powers instituted a few years ago.  A quarter of the school is visiting a Particular Museum and the campus of a Nearby University today, and no doubt they have a Special Worksheet to complete as they did last year.

The original idea wasn’t a bad one.  It seems that the Relevant Powers, in talking with a few students, had discovered that quite a number of them had never been on a school-sponsored trip anywhere … and quite a number of students at this “college preparatory” school had never been to a college campus.  No doubt the solution seemed obvious: take every student on a trip every year, and visit some Local University Campuses with the freshmen, the sophomores, and the juniors.  By the time you account for travel, lunch, and the inevitable delays, there might be an hour or so on the campus, an hour or so at the Special Attraction of the year.  But that’s better than nothing, isn’t it?

With distance comes perspective … and with distance and perspective the whole endeavor seems comical to me.  Poor Ms. X and Mr. Y, frantic about “not enough time and too much to cover,” miss a day of time and coverage with “their” students to accompany “somebody else’s” students on the Big Trips.  There’s “not enough time and too much to cover” for any advance preparation for the trips, so students (at least when I was there) don’t know what to expect or what to look for.  Ms. X and Mr. Y, whose college experiences came in a totally different era, and who probably didn’t attend the Particular Schools?  Can they provide any reasonable guidance to students they don’t know well, who may or may not be interested in the Particular School of the day?

Distance and perspective are closely related to Mark Nepo’s image of dilation and constriction that inspired my post yesterday.  They’re the waiting side of waiting and acting … the waiting that, to expand on Nepo’s image of Moses and Hamlet, took Moses forty years in Midian and took Hamlet most, but not all, of the play.  Without waiting and reflecting, at least for a bit, you might rashly kill a metaphorical Egyptian guard and have to flee, metaphorically, for your life as young Moses did … and you might find that the very people you intended to help reject you in fear, just like young Moses’ experience.

“It was OK,” one of my students told me after the equivalent trip last year, “but it was kind of stupid.  But lunch was pretty good.”  I’m not sure that’s what the Relevant Powers would have wanted to hear.

Distance and perspective can help with little “emergencies,” too.  There was an odd log-in issue with the Virtual Classroom this morning; I still don’t know why that unusual error message kept appearing, then disappeared just as the District Y Latin Family’s class was starting.  The other time we had log-in issues, I was frantic and furious; I did have the presence of mind to call the schools and let them know, and I did send emails to the students to let them know what to do, but I spent a bit of time storming and raging.  With distance and perspective, I see that there was fear behind the anger: the old factory-model fear of “What if They get upset or even say something?”

But there isn’t a They, and the folks I partner with for this process aren’t the type to get upset or say something the way Ms. X and Mr. Y fear.  Everyone understands technological glitches, especially when they affect all the users of a system.  And we have a back-up plan in place, and it’s worked beautifully when we needed it … and we didn’t even need it today.  We were especially productive, and I wonder if the averted problem actually contributed to the feeling of productivity.

Distance and perspective helped me stay calm and find sensible solutions … but distance and perspective are so rare in factory-model schools!  “Pay attention!” snaps Ms. X.  “Teach bell-to-bell,” command Powers That Be.  “Instructional Time is limited, and The Test with all its implications is closer than you think!”

But nobody can “pay attention” all the time.  We’re naturally wired for a balance of dilation and constriction, work and rest, taking things in and processing them.  Debbie made a great point in her Google+ comment:

have you ever played a game of peek-a-boo with an infant, or some other “in your face” interaction?
The babe will smile, goo, maybe laugh, and then at some point will look away… and in a moment or two, they will return “centre” to continue the game.
There is research that has shown a correlation between ADHAd and interactions with an infant where the parent would follow the child’s eyes to keep the baby engaged in the activity.
The research shows that the “looking away” (“constricting”) is a form of self-regulation. The “dilation” of the game becomes overwhelming and the baby instinctively (?) knows to take a break … unfortunately, some adults are no longer aware of this need and persist in maintaining the high alert activity.
Factory-model schools, for all their talk of self-discipline, aren’t big believers in self-regulation.  In many of them, regulation is someone else’s job: teachers regulate their students, Powers That Be regulate teachers, and Greater Powers Yet regulate the Local Powers.  As we build the joyful learning community of the District Q and District Y Latin Families, I’m still amazed that, in both places, there’s an assumption that students and teachers generally will self-regulate.  That makes community-building a lot easier and a lot more rewarding!  I wonder what other rewarding insights await in the days to come!
Published in: on November 20, 2014 at 3:53 pm  Comments (1)  

Acting and Waiting

Near the part of Seven Thousand Ways to Listen where Mark Nepo develops the powerful image of Moses and Hamlet that inspired my blog post yesterday, he also talks about dilation and constriction … not just as essential biological processes, but as metaphors for essential, complementary elements of life.  Sometimes you open yourself up to new experiences, new wisdom, new forms of joyful community … but sometimes you need to close yourself down for a bit, to process what you’ve taken in, to expel what you can’t use and make room for the next right thing.

That’s a lot easier to do when you’re not in the midst of the hustle and bustle of factory-model structures.  Neither dilation nor constrictionopening up nor closing downacting nor waiting is really welcome there.

Ms. X and Mr. Y used to complain, and most likely still do, about students they disparagingly described as “wide open.”  That usually meant something like “won’t sit down, be quiet, copy My Notes, and do my Cute Little Activity I downloaded from the Internet.”  But they were equally frustrated, if not more so, when their students would “just shut down.”  With the Thanksgiving holidays rapidly approaching, poor Ms. X and Mr. Y may well be moaning about how “those bad, lazy kids have shut down already” … even as Ms. X and Mr. Y themselves desperately search the Internet, as they tend to do at this time of year, for turkey-themed crossword puzzles and word searches “to make the time pass more smoothly.”

Since I stopped fully participating in that world, I’ve found that acting and waiting, opening up and closing down, dilating and constricting have all somehow become easier.  I can enjoy the rhythm of the busy-busy days like yesterday, when I met with the District Q Latin Family in the morning, two of three District Y groups in the afternoon, and the Gifted Homeschoolers after that … and I can still have time and energy to do essential errands in the evening.  But I can also enjoy the rhythm of less-busy days like today, when I just meet with two District Y groups in the afternoon.

At Former School and the School Before That, even though there were actually a few more “clock hours” with students, the feeling of “not enough time and too much to cover” was always there.  Could we take a few moments to process things, to constrict ourselves before we re-opened to new experiences?  At times the Latin Family did, but it felt subversive and counter-cultural.  What if Some Powers That Be came in?  Would They understand and appreciate the need to slow down and let things settle?  Or would They “say something,” as One Ms. X feared, or possibly “get upset?”

So there we were, neither open nor closed, neither acting nor waiting, most of the time.  No wonder I frequently felt so tired and ineffective!  For a time, I was neither well nor sick, too; I’ve been amazed at how much better I’ve felt this fall than I “normally” would, and I attribute that to a different, healthier pattern of work and rest.  When I left Former School, I had accumulated a ridiculous number of sick leave days … partly because of the ways that schools in These Parts handle such things, but partly because, in the culture of Former School, it was “easier to go ahead and come to work sick than to make Those Sub Plans.”  And besides, as Ms. X and Mr. Y firmly believed, “those bad, lazy kids won’t do Their Work if I’m not there, and then we’ll Get Behind, and there’s too much to cover and not enough time anyway.”

I don’t get that feeling from my (admittedly limited) interactions with teachers and administrators at District Q and District Y, and I certainly don’t get that feeling from the Latin Family.  They seem to have a healthier rhythm of work and rest, and both schools seem to focus more on individuals and less on what The Average Student “should” or “shouldn’t” be doing.

Maybe it’s just that I’m partly in, but not of both contexts, but I don’t think so.  The frantic feeling (that I could never quite name or describe) that filled so many people’s days at Former School and the School Before That seems to be absent.  “We hope you can join us,” said an email from Someone Important, “at the informal gathering this Friday.”  I won’t be driving several hours to that gathering, of course, but I’m still amazed by the difference in tone between that email and the equivalent ones at Former School, where the “holiday gathering” before Winter Break was a required meeting … though you could leave after the food and before the gift swap if you wanted to.

Several friends of mine “just happened” to share this piece by Blake Boles over the past few days, and I recently read the book in which he explains the idea more fully.  The essence of a joyful learning community, I realize, is that it’s a voluntary association.  Yes, my students at District Q and District Y “have to” go to school, but they chose to join (and remain in) the Latin Family.  Their counterparts at Former School often felt more constrained: they “had to” take a larger number of language courses, and sometimes they “had to” take Latin because “They told me I had to.”  It’s odd that Former School, officially designated as a “school of choice,” felt less free and more constrained; I’m still not sure why that was or what the implications are.  But as we move forward, strengthening our joyful learning community and building meaningful things together, I’ll hold on to the importance of acting and waiting … and of allowing time and space for both.  I wonder what other insights and discoveries await in the days to come!

Published in: on November 19, 2014 at 3:28 pm  Comments (1)  

Moses and Hamlet

Towards the end of Seven Thousand Ways to Listen, Mark Nepo calls on the archetypal images of Moses, who responds to his calling and becomes a great leader of his people, and Hamlet, who is paralyzed by indecision.  All of us, Nepo says, have a Moses side and a Hamlet side.

The Monday Evening Book Group was small last night, but we all agreed that was a powerful image, and one we want to think and talk about more at our next meeting.

We were small because an old friend had recently died; the funeral was Monday morning, but there was a gathering for family and friends on Monday afternoon, and almost all of us were involved with planning, bringing food, setting up, cleaning up, or visiting with the family.  Our old friend was both a literal and a metaphorical builder, long-time owner of a local building-supply company, restorer of old buildings, planner of new, “absolutely a pillar,” as someone said on Sunday, of every community in which he participated.  I’m sure he had a Hamlet side, as everybody does, but when I think of him, I think of the Moses who changed so many people’s lives for the better.

What do you say to family members at the end of a life well lived?  “It’s hard, and we’re here for you, and we’re celebrating his life just as he’d want us to celebrate it.”  That was the message I think we all sent, the message I’m pretty sure they all received.

And then four of us were able to slip away to our regularly scheduled Book Group meeting, and a few more joined us later.  I’m glad we were able to talk about Moses and Hamlet last night, glad that we’d changed our reading schedule just a bit.  If we hadn’t, we might not have reached that section on a day when it was especially fitting.

N, who wasn’t able to be there, had proposed the idea of reading a bit more and finishing a week earlier.  “We can take most of December off,” she suggested, “as we usually do, if we read about ten more pages each of the next two weeks.”  Maybe N was listening to her inner Moses rather than the cautious Hamlet who clings to the page limit we “always” or “usually” use.

As I think back over the past few years, I can see my own struggles between Moses and Hamlet.  Both sides are important; after all, even Moses had his cautious Hamlet-side, the side that claimed to be “slow in speech” and asked for a spokesperson to come with him, and even Hamlet found some courage when he needed it most.  Sometimes the bold leader is needed; sometimes the season is right for the cautious thinker.  And sometimes you need to step back and allow the struggle between your Moses and Hamlet.

Oddly enough, the District Y and District Q Latin Family branches are all reading Tres Columnae Project stories related to that struggle this week.  The beginners at District Y are reading the stories in Lectiō V, where Lollius has to overcome his inner Hamlet, swallow his pride, and seek help from his friend and patron Valerius.  The intermediate group at District Y is finishing the Lectiō XVI sequence with this story and this one where Cnaeus Caelius is torn between his deep desire to read more Roman history and his surface fear of looking foolish to Lucius and Caius.  The advanced group at District Y just finished this story from Lectiō XXV, where Caelius and Vipsania, yielding to their inner Hamlets and fearful of potential conflict, are separated by their common grief over the loss of their older son.  And the District Q Latin Family is in the middle of Lectiō XXX, where Valerius must decide whether to stay or go as Mount Vesuvius threatens to erupt and destroy his home.

Moses and Hamlet.  Sometimes your inner Moses wins the struggle and you set out boldly; sometimes your inner Hamlet carries the day and you wait, hoping for a more auspicious occasion.  Without your Hamlet’s intervention, your Moses might just lead you out into the desert without food, water, a guide, or a clear destination; without your Moses, your Hamlet might very well refuse to move even when it’s clearly time for the play, the sword through the tapestry, or the duel.  Finding the balance is important … but there’s not one right balance, either.  The balance you need is as fluid, as situational, as the particular struggle and as life itself.

On a cold, clear November day, I’m glad to have the image of Moses and Hamlet in my mind and on my heart, and I’m glad that a joyful learning community has room for both Moses and Hamlet.  It’s much easier, much better, much less lonely and painful to struggle with your Moses and Hamlet in a community than in isolation.  I wonder what balance between Moses and Hamlet we’ll find, and I wonder how that balance will change (and what new insights the struggles will bring) in the days and weeks to come.

Published in: on November 18, 2014 at 4:21 pm  Comments (1)  

Hearing the Larger Orchestra

I owe the title (and the inspiration) of this post to Lynn’s comment on John’s Google+ share of a post of mine from a few weeks ago:

I’ve seen many paths of many people in medicine , in emotions and energetically, noticing that when people have reached their limit it is because their ‘field’  has actually become bigger.
Every time.
But they don’t know yet how to access or handle it. meet it and engage as we do with another person.
But this expansion is our own field.
As with many life truths, what the intellect/ego is telling us is diametrically  the opposite of the truth.
What I tell people in my practice is that they have a bigger orchestra (they, as the conductor) but cannot see or guide or even hear the extra instruments yet, and so feel lost and frustrated.

The implication is vast  re: “What possible courses of action are there?”  and  “What’s the right step for me to take?”
Because to a large degree it is already done…. the field got bigger on it’s own…you feel it …..that’s the reason for the discomfort.
It also explains for me a life-long bafflement with teachers who say things like “There is nothing to do.”

Our work is in discovery and negotiation of the field.
It is already ours and already expanded.

That discovery brings relief of pressure and realization that the old glossary and construct no longer applies.
Linear evaluation assessment and criticism and the accompanying terror carry less weight. Humility descends.
Because you now know the field  is already ours and already expanded.

My immediate response, as soon as I read it, was

Thank you for this beautiful comment!  I’m glad that my post resonated with you.

I love the images of the larger field and the bigger orchestra.  As I think about the last two or three years I spent “on the inside” in a conventional teaching role in a fairly traditional school, trying and failing to change the Same Old Same Old from within, I realize that my pain was related to the larger field and bigger orchestra.  As soon as I stepped out into my current role, where (as you so beautifully put it) the old glossary and construct no longer applies, the pain began to subside … and before too long, I actually started to believe that and to live accordingly.

I’m still pondering those images of larger field and bigger orchestra.  Once you’ve experienced either of those, it’s really hard to go back to the small, familiar Same Old Same Old.

The Girl has had that experience this fall.  After her summer in the Governors’ School Orchestra, the high-school orchestra began to seem small and confining.  Learning a new instrument and joining the marching band helped, but she’s also filling in, at least temporarily, with a small local orchestra that desperately needed a violist.  “I want to play that Mozart symphony,” she said … and even though it’s been a busy week, and she hasn’t been feeling her best, she’s looking forward to the upcoming concert.

Once you’ve heard (or played in) the bigger orchestra, it’s hard to go back to the little one.

I think of my own journey over the past several years, and I realize the larger field and bigger orchestra are powerful images for my journey, too.  When I started working on what’s now the Tres Columnae Project idea, I really didn’t see a larger field; I just knew that I was unhappy with the Same Old Same Old, and my students were bitterly (and increasingly) unhappy with The Textbook.  Could we build an alternative together?  And could we make it better than Just Another Textbook?

The larger field was there already, of course, and the bigger orchestra was tuning itself.  But I couldn’t see or hear just yet … and in retrospect, I’m grateful.  If I’d seen the whole journey, I might have held back, feeling afraid or unworthy to begin.  But as it was, I “just” started creating some characters and a story or two.  Before I knew it, the Same Old Same Old walls had started to collapse and the larger field came into view.

“Tell me this is impossible and I’m crazy,” I wrote in an email to a trusted friend or two.  “No, you aren’t crazy,” they said, “and you know you have to do this.”  I guess I could hear a few bigger orchestra instruments tuning by then, but I certainly didn’t know how to direct them.  Then came that odd, inescapable realization: “you need to look at big old houses in smaller towns.”  I’m still looking, all these years later, but if I hadn’t started, I never would have seen the little girl and her mother on that summer afternoon … and I never would have realized that joyful learning communities could make such a difference for so many people.  And I probably wouldn’t be writing these words.  As I look at the clock, I realize I’d probably be sitting at that faculty lunch table with Ms. X and Mr. Y, biting my tongue to avoid Saying Something Ugly as they moaned about “those bad, lazy kids” and “those horrible parents” and “can you believe what They are making Us do now?”

Instead, I find myself in the midst of that larger field, with the bigger orchestra rehearsing a half-familiar, half-unknown tune.  And in a few minutes, I’ll be working with a joyful learning community of young Latin learners hundreds of miles from me physically, but closely connected by the bonds of the meaningful things we are building together.  I wonder what other surprises and insights await on the road ahead!


Published in: on November 14, 2014 at 4:04 pm  Leave a Comment