Thinking about Labels, I

Before I got sick on Sunday afternoon, I had started thinking about labels.  Labeling and categorizing things, experts say, is fundamental to human cognition – perhaps even the trait that makes us unique.  Yet we constantly seek to use this old tool in new ways.

Labels, categories, old, and new.   That’s what I kept thinking about before I got sick and as I recovered.

I suppose that makes sense. I teach an old language and culture to contemporary young people … and I keep noticing how an old structure, the factory-model school, no longer meets the needs of a new, changing world.  So I often feel that clash between old and new. But over the weekend, I kept focusing on old and new ways of  labeling and classifying.

That was new.  And old.  And intriguing.

My Latin III students have been moving into new Tres Columnae Project material, Lectiōnēs that no prior class has used. They’re getting comfortable with our new routines. But they sometimes wish they could slip back into old habits – even though those habits never served them well. We had excellent draft Products on Friday – something new.  But some still long for old, comfortable, mindless routines. “If only we could just fill out the worksheet and chat with our friends!” they keep thinking. “Ms. X or Mr. Y let us fill out the worksheet and chat!”

Lots of labeling and classifying!

Meanwhile, my Latin I students have started a new unit about schools and learning in the Roman world. For them, everything was new – but after several weeks, they’re finding a rhythm and routine. A few have fallen into the old ineffective pattern they learned from factory-model classes: “work hard at the start, slack off in the middle, finish strong, do well on the test.”  They “know better,” but it’s hard to let go of that old, familiar, comfortable approach – especially if things feel strange, new, and hard.

Wow! Those are some powerful labels!

On Saturday I talked with an old friend, a colleague (and parent of a former student) who’s just moved to a new, very different school. The new school is really trying to change  the factory model, she says.  It’s exciting and delightful, but it’s also really hard, and she sometimes longs for the comfort, familiarity, and safety of old ways, too.

More labels!

You’ve heard about Sunday, of course, and about Monday.  Getting sick is nothing new, but I had a new, more accepting perspective about my enforced day of rest.  And it turns out my students did a wonderful job with their new favorite substitute teacher.

More categorizing, more labels.

When I returned to school Tuesday morning, I was feeling new … but old and tired, too.  New because I really felt revitalized, and because I knew my students had done well.  Old, though, because I was still tired, still recovering … and not as young as I was “when I was.”  So I walked into the faculty workroom, ready to print  handouts for my students – new ones, actually, that I’d managed to write when I started feeling better.

And there was Ms. X, bless her heart, with the newest version of her oldest complaint!  “Those bad, lazy students,” she was saying, “are worse now than they’ve ever been.  All they want to do is sit and play with those cell phones and use Wolfram Alpha to look up how to do the problems I assign.  What is wrong with them? Why won’t they listen?”  Or words to that effect.

Ms. X has been labeling students that way for as long as I’ve known her.  Every year, it seems, is “the worst ever.”

Ms. X loves being the only Source of Knowledge in her classroom world, and she loves her One Right Approach, her One Perfect Explanation. Students who deviate from that, who want to do things a new way, must be labeled “bad and lazy.”  The alternative is, at least for her, unthinkable.

And if you use her definitions and labels, she’s right.  Her “bad and lazy” students will get “worse” every year.  Things will never get “better.”

Had I mentioned that many of my “problem” class members – a large plurality – begin their day with Ms. X??  Perhaps the “problem” flows from those powerful labels!

Old and new.  Categories and labels.  Self-imposed labels like the ones I mentioned yesterday; other-imposed ones like Ms. X’s “bad and lazy.”  Powerful tools, for good and for ill.

How can we harness that power for new, more positive ends than the factory-model ones?  Can we label the work, not the student?

What would a school look like, feel like, be like, if its people were truly seen as individuals, not representatives of labels and categories?

Published in: on October 17, 2012 at 10:01 am  Leave a Comment  

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