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!