Thinking about Labels, II

Wednesday could have been a difficult, challenging day. It was PSAT Day, and 30-60% of my Latin I students were out of class taking the test.  Test days are hard for many teachers.  Schedules change, students are “in the wrong place,” some students can’t go to their lockers at certain times.  “And what about my work?” we plaintively ask.  “What about the quiz they were supposed to take for me?”

Unlike a lot of standardized tests, the PSAT allows students to see the actual questions they missed – and the correct answers to those questions.  And of course it qualifies students for the National Merit Scholarship program.  So poor Ms. X and Mr. Y had lots of opportunities to complain – and complaints often turn into labels.  It’s easier to label others’ actions and personalities (“Those insensitive administrators!  They scheduled that test today even though I always do X, Y, Z, on Wednesday!”) than to acknowledge and label our own feelings (“I’m sad and upset because this test is disturbing my comfortable routine.”)

Brendan recently pointed out how everyone, even teachers, is prone to the Fundamental Attribution Error.  Guilty as charged, myself!  And Debbie noted, in the same place, that

there is a Native story about a little child pointing to a bird and asking, “What is that?” And the adult says, “We call it a bird.”
There is also a story … from some great physicist or something … that talked to his young son about gravity (or some such topic). We don’t really know what it is or what is taking place. We call it gravity and we think it works like this….”

The “we call it” label leaves room for thinking and contemplating while at the same time gives us a frame of reference to use in communications.

Think about that for a while!

On PSAT day,  my Latin I students had just finished Lectiō VI of the Tres Columnae Project, the sequence of stories our fans call “Cnaeus and the Cow.”  Wednesday was the first of two days for preparing a Product in response.  When I sat down to design the Product, I knew I wanted us to focus on Interpretive Reading, to incorporate the Latin proverb tradition in some way, and to build some metacognition.  Eventually I came up with a preliminary plan:

  1. First, students would form groups and use Laura Gibbs’ collection of Latin proverbs to choose one that they liked, one that resonated with the stories in some way, one that contained at least some words they already knew.
  2. They’d share their proverb with me, and we’d make sure they understood both its literal and its figurative meaning(s).
  3. They’d pick a character from the stories in Lectiō VI, re-read the stories, and find specific thoughts, words, actions, and feelings of their character that related to the proverb.
  4. They’d design something wonderful – a physical or virtual product they’ll be creating today, if you’re reading this post “live,” using one of the school’s mobile laptop carts.
  5. When we present the products, and while we’re making them, we’ll have opportunities to talk about the differences between labeling behavior (“a digitis leo” relates to Cnaeus when he …”) and labeling a person (“Cnaeus is a bad, horrible boy because he …”).  I now know we’ll also talk about the difference between we call it (or I call it) and it is.

With this plan in place, we were busy, productive, and happy … and some of us, reading the proverbs, were unusually self-reflective.  We’d received detailed Progress Reports on Tuesday, so even my most extrinsically motivated students were thinking about “how can I do better in class.”  They mean “How can I get a better grade? How can I avoid pain and punishment at home?”  But I’ll take that as a starting point to help them mean  “How can I perform in ways that will lead to deeper, more authentic learning?”

(Speaking of labels, isn’t it ironic that schools encourage students to focus on grades above all else, then get upset if students ask questions about their grades?  “Those awful grade-grubbers!” we say, “They’re wasting my time!  They’re a B or C student, and they should just accept that!”)

We were even able to stay productive and pleasant when, as usual, the test took longer than the scheduled time.

I can only imagine what Ms. X said during those 15 or 20 minutes!  “Those bad, lazy children took too long??”  “Those awful administrators didn’t plan properly??”  “Those foolish test developers don’t understand how schools work??”  “Those irresponsible young teachers, the ones with first-period planning who were giving the test, should know they need to hurry those kids up??”

Ms. X loves labels, as I think I’ve mentioned once or twice.  (Of course, to be fair, I love them too.  Most people do.)  It’s so much easier to label others, after all, than to look at those labeled traits in yourself.

Commenting on yesterday’s post on G+, Debbie and Brendan made some wonderful points … points you all should go and read, because they’re too important not to share but too lengthy to quote here.  Just one little nugget from Debbie before we close:

I find it all exciting. In my own personal life I am fascinated and intrigued by peeling back the layers to analyze what I say and do, trying to find the truth that lies within and to discover the wounds that need healing, the barriers that I set upon myself, and so on and so on.

As I read your discussion I wonder why we don’t teach our youth how to look within to find excuses, barriers, and rationalizations. How empowering would this be!

Couldn’t we – shouldn’t we – use labels to help, not to permanently classify?  Shouldn’t we – couldn’t we – help our students use the labels when they “look within”?  What would schools and classrooms look like if we did that?

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Published in: on October 18, 2012 at 10:07 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] season in my face-to-face teaching world – the first of several testing seasons.  As I mentioned, Wednesday was PSAT day.  And tomorrow, if you’re reading this post “live,” […]


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