Thinking about Labels, III

L and O (not their real initials) are students in my Latin III class.  L’s a senior; O’s a junior.  L’s a “nice kid but …” (I don’t think he has Ms. X as a teacher, or he’d surely be bad and lazy like everybody else) and O’s “Academically and Intellectually Gifted.”  L, a tall, quiet guy, plays basketball and endures academic classes.  O, a tall, quiet girl,  excels academically.  I’m fond of them both, but until Thursday I never knew about their shared calling, their common sense of mission.  They both know that national service, military service, is what they were born to do – and I never knew.

How, why, could I not know that?  Did the different labels schools have given them prevent me?  Or was just that, until today, they hadn’t had the opportunity, the desire, the safety and comfort to share their dreams with me?

Five minutes in my Latin III class Thursday have me thinking about the relationships between labels and dreams.

I realize I haven’t said much about my III’s this week.  (With my face-to-face school’s semester block schedule, the Latin II, IV, and AP classes run from January through June.)   They’ve been reading the Tres Columnae Project stories in Lectiōnēs XXX and XXXI about the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, and this week we added in Pliny’s letters about the eruption.  Pliny is a big stretch for Intermediate language learners.  So as I designed the week, I aimed to be crystal-clear about what we should accomplish (“main idea and some details in a text with unfamiliar vocabulary”), and to build in adequate support, sufficient “scaffolding” to make the task attainable.

It wasn’t a perfect success – so many variables, and I was sick on Monday – but this is how the plan worked out:

  1. On Monday, when I was home coughing endlessly, they read about Pliny, and they read some online translations of the two letters.
  2. On Wednesday and Thursday, once they finished the Tres Columnae stories, they used NoDictionaries.com for Pliny’s Latin texts.
  3. I reminded them of our purpose: not 100% comprehension.  We would skim and scan, looking for specific thoughts, words, and actions of one of the main characters: young Pliny himself, his māter, or his avunculus.  This was harder than I had expected – I needed to sharpen the focus, to provide an organizer that said “Look here, in these parts, if you’re looking for young Pliny himself.  Look over there, in those other parts, for his māter, and there for the avunculus.”  My Latin III students aren’t as proficient with skimming and scanning in first-language reading tasks as I expected, and it’s hard to transfer of skills from language to language anyway.
  4. Starting Thursday, continuing today, we’re comparing those thoughts, words, and actions with those of a Tres Columnae Project character – probably the one about whom they’d written in their last big project, whose fate is unclear at the end of Lectiō XXXI.
  5. Next week, we’ll see if we want to mirror any of those thoughts, words, and actions in the thoughts, words, and actions of the “eruption survivor” (or victim) when we revise our stories.

How did the task contribute to my insight?  As L and O were working, they started labeling Pliny the Elder as an example of military leadership – and that’s when they both shared their dreams.  O wants to go to college first, to spend her career as an officer; L knows he isn’t ready for college, so he wants to shape his dream, have his education paid for later, take time to find his specific path.  And suddenly, in a blinding flash of insight, I understood L’s struggles with Latin in the past … and I saw ways to involve him, deeply and passionately, in upcoming stories where our (young male) characters embark on Roman lives of service and leadership.

Dreams are important – and labels, the school kind, can crush them or make them invisible.  “You bad, lazy child!  How dare you think you can do that?” crushes dreams.  But so does “Oh, you can do so much better than that!  You should be a (fill-in-the-blank), not a (what-you-really-want).”

Watch Seth Godin’s recent TEDx talk at the Brooklyn Free School if you haven’t seen it yet!

And listen to this NPR piece.  Did I hear it back in 2008? I don’t remember, but I’m glad it re-aired last Saturday.  My heart aches for Emanuel and his father – for the two-edged blessing of not knowing, and for the two-edged blessing of knowing.  In childhood, labeling Emanuel “correctly” would have denied him countless academic opportunities … and as an adult, he knows and appreciates that.  But he also appreciates the social and personal benefits he’s received since he got the label in his late 20s.  The label that would have limited, even destroyed him in childhood became a helpful tool in adulthood.

(No, I’m not going to tell you more.  You need to go listen to the story!)

How can we recast schools’ labels to make them a helpful tool, not a binding chain, for students, teachers, and families? How can we use labels to build dreams, not crush them?

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Published in: on October 19, 2012 at 10:16 am  Comments (2)  

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  1. Labeling! It’s so pervasive in my school — I guess in most schools, but the English do seem to have made it into a fine art! Everyone is “setted” (streamed) into “first set English” second, third, sometimes fourth; same for math, and languages after the beginning level (if there are sufficient numbers). Everyone is measured and has targets set and is “Oxbridge material” or not, has predicted grades on their A levels, etc. etc. I am now teaching “bottom set maths” as well as everyone in Latin. The girls in bottom set, or at least some of them, define themselves by how soon they will be able to get out of it, which tests will “count” towards that goal, how they are getting on compared to other sets. It’s just very difficult to convey to them, “Hey, you’re learning math, you’re having a good time, you’re getting on ….enjoy it!” They are enjoying the benefits of a very small class and lots of individual attention. But the very set-up, the very name of the class (officially “Set 3 Maths”), everything leads them to think this label is very important, much more important than whether they are learning any math or not. And of course the longed-for outcome will be that they are “moved up” to a much larger and slightly faster-moving class, while my class gradually dwindles away.

    Equally annoying is the fact that I am only allowed to teach second-year Latin to “first set English”. They are the clever ones, you know, the ones clever enough to learn that famous non-language, Latin. Sigh.

    I try to persuade myself sometimes that after all, categorizing has its uses. Isn’t it good to teach students at the appropriate level for their abilities? The other thing I teach is change-ringing. We take learners of all kinds and they progress at all different rates, but we are all “in the band” together. Are schools just too big for that? We do label our ringers, come to think of it, as “beginners,” “learners,” and just plain “ringers.” The beginners get special extra rope time to acquire the skills to get them to the next level. But we all ring together each week. And yes, they want to earn the title of “learner,” so why does it feel so different from math sets? Maybe it’s just that everyone knows it’s a natural progression and everyone knows that different people progress at different speeds. We don’t have to keep up with our year! (And then of course people are there because they actually want to learn how to do it!)

    Again, how to introduce change without sounding like a self-righteous know-it-all? And the change — to all learning together in a fluid setting? — would be such a big one.

    Ann M

  2. […] Talk about the power of labels! […]


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