What constitutes success in teaching and learning? I kept asking that question during this oddly successful week – when many things went as planned, but many plans changed. Some expected learning occurred; some didn’t; some unexpected things happened.
That makes it sound like a typical week.
But in other ways it was very atypical. Most weeks aren’t Spirit Week, and most don’t feature so many interruptions.
- The student survey I mentioned yesterday.
- Report cards Wednesday, with a changed afternoon schedule.
- Boys and Girls, Ties and Pearls Day Thursday, distracting but so much better than the stoplight … and I rejoiced to see some girls in ties.
- Pirate Pride Day today, honoring the school’s mascot: you can dress like a pirate or wear school colors
- And of course a pep rally this afternoon and a homecoming dance tonight.
(No athletic teams to rally around, but you can’t have Spirit Week without a Pep Rally! Nothing for alumni to come home to, and they aren’t invited to either event, but….)
“You know,” my old friend L said, “Homecoming Week should lead up to something memorable, something that brings the whole school together.” And she’s right – but that’s harder than what we’ve always done. So we follow those comfortable old patterns – including the complaining and yelling and labeling about the same old results.
As you know, I’ve been trying to move away from all of that. Change is rewarding, but it’s also hard.
Poor little B, so focused, quiet, o full of tension, asked to go to the school counselor … “just to make an appointment.” Yes, I said, but I hope Ms. H can see you right away. And she did. And B came back almost smiling. But once I would have said “No, Ms. H is probably busy, so stop by there on your way to your next class.”
N and N, who “love to say the Pledge of Allegiance,” decided to “help” a group with the motto project. And they did, eventually – after I’d mentioned, three or four times, that I’d heard more loud socializing than helping or working from their part of the room. “But we were working!” they argued. “I’m sure you were,” I replied. “I never said you weren’t. I just mentioned what I had heard and seen.” N and N were speechless … and then they did make progress on the task. But once I would have said “You’re not working!” And the labeling would have caused arguments and frustration.
I talked to M and U, the quiet girls who wait till the last minute, then put together a perfectly adequate response, and asked if they’d noticed their pattern. They laughed … and about 10 minutes later, they asked exactly what they needed to do. M and U have a rhythm, a routine that satisfies them but surely drives Ms. X and Mr. Y to yell and label. I’d love to see them more engaged, but labeling and yelling won’t work for that.
“I’m concerned,” I said later, when E and O had D take their picture in Pearls and Ties regalia. “I saw that you were finished with the assignment, but you might have distracted people near you. And how would someone respond if you acted like that in a public place?” So they apologized, showed me their work, had a peaceful, productive day. But it’s temptingly easy to yell and label: “Sit down right now! Stop distracting people! Stop being bad and lazy!”
On my way to return the mobile laptop lab, I stood by Ms. C’s door, waiting for the elevator. “Hush!” she was shouting, “Hush! Hush! Stop talking right now! Put your phones away, stop texting, stop talking, stop it, hush! We have a lot to cover today!” Then the elevator arrived, and I heard no more.
Ms. C and her students are trapped on the assembly line, and they don’t know how to stop the pattern. But she said “we!” Not so long ago, it would have been “I.” She’s still yelling, but she wasn’t labeling.
Progress is slow and painful, but possible. It’s hard to leave that assembly line … and what do you do then? There are still common goals to reach. How, we wonder, can you reach common goals without a standardized approach?
(Well, I think I know … and I think you know. But factory-model schools don’t know.)
Debbie, who constantly deals with such questions in her work with early-childhood educators, put it this way:
Cookie cutter teaching/learning has some merit but a whole lot of red flags. Again, looking at this from an early childhood perspective, there are skill levels that we know the children will go through. (Solitary play, to parallel play, to co-operative play, for example). There are pretty clear lines of “what comes next” which helps us prepare activities to nudge children to their individual next levels.
We use the “cookie cutter” expectations, planning and strategies to teach skill development. “But” we also look at each child individually and fit the cookie cutter into their abilities, interests and moods….
The cookie cutter goals – literacy, for example, is met not through cookie cutter activities but through a variety of experiences, finding what works best for each child and when to introduce it….
If our goal is to teach students how to think, how to process information, how to mesh information with what they already know and to use the information in their own lives then the skills required to do this is the “cookie cutter” goals. The “how we get there” should be flexible, based on the individual stories of each student.
Can we bring flexible pathways into factory schools? Can we build diverse communities not just in deserted corners, but on the production line itself? How can we stop yelling and labeling and redefine success?