Service and Thankfulness

If you’re reading this post “live” on Monday, and if you’re in the United States, it’s “Veterans’ Day Observed,” a day when we thank those who served.  It’s a holiday in my face-to-face teaching world, too … a day that’s especially meaningful in our military-focused community.  Many of my students, having grown up in military families, plan and expect to follow in their parents’, grandparents’, and siblings’ footsteps.  When I think of them – and of what awaits them in this war-torn world – I’m happy, sad, proud, choked up, all at the same time.

For many of my students over the years, military service has provided an opportunity to be part of something greater than themselves – to find the purpose, meaning, and community they never found in school.  I salute them literally and metaphorically.

And as I think about them, I think about current students, younger ones who haven’t yet made fateful decisions.  And I think about service and thankfulness in a slightly different way.  For many of my current students, the very ideas of community and service and thankfulness seem very foreign … at least in the context of school.  And this is a school that talks a good game about the importance of community … that requires community service of its students … that encourages them (or thinks it tries to encourage them) to be conscious of each other’s needs and the needs of the greater community.

“If you bring in a toy for the toy drive,” we say, “you’ll get some community service credit.  And you wouldn’t want an Unsatisfactory on your transcript, would you?”

“If you contribute food to the food drive,” Ms. X decided, “you should get something in return.  So we’ll give you a homework pass if you bring in a certain number of cans.”

We try to build a sense of community and service, but the factory paradigm of extrinsic motivators makes it harder than it could be.  “I found a way to make the desks quieter when they’re moved,” said my patient colleague directly below me, “but some kids would have to bring things in.  Could you give them a homework pass or some extra credit or something?”

“Or something,” I thought … something like a request, then possibly an optional, non-academic, friendly competition between classes.

Factory-model schools are bad at requests, and we’re not very good at friendly competitions.  We’re unfortunately good at providing things people may not want, then blaming them for a lack of enthusiasm.

On Friday, when so many people were dressed like a pirate, when there was something special planned for the afternoon, it was easy for the excitement to spill over into thoughtlessness, for the celebration to turn into rudeness.  On such days, I said to each class, it’s important to be especially considerate, especially focused, especially kind to each othert.  Challenging days, challenging situations, reveal who we really are.

That’s not a message my students often hear.  Down the hall, Ms. X and Mr. Y surely were yelling and labeling: “Those bad, lazy students!  They should be grateful for this Spirit Week nonsense!  You can’t even do fun things with them anymore, they’re so bad.”

Twenty years ago: different school, different Ms. X, different Mr. Y, different students,  same complaint. “Bad, lazy students” that “you can’t even do fun things with” because “they don’t appreciate it.”  Bring on the pain and punishment tools, and keep using them till … the students have fun??

As Brendan pointed out over the weekend, factory-model schools have a problem:

Schools often make many efforts to facilitate a school culture of enthusiasm and engagement, just as countries try to facilitate a “national culture” of patriotism and dedication.  Yet, factory model schools (or classrooms) depend on their dystopian side to keep students in line.  It’s easier to run a true factory model school, like those old black-and-white photos of factory model kids — than a modern school full of individual spirit and engagement.

I’m reminded of a trope that has a lot of wisdom in it: “Dystopia Is Hard” — http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/DystopiaIsHard

“This trope is often used to deconstruct the concept of Dystopia. The villains have won the day, and now it looks like humanity is doomed. But then the villains learn a harsh lesson: running an actual country or company or what have you based purely on some flavor of evil is hard. Forget making all the trains run on time, just ensuring all the Black Shirts get a check on payday so they don’t rebel is a titanic effort. Plus you’re now opposed by those who you are trying to oppress at all turns. Your fellow ruling villains may turn on you or grow lazy and incompetent.”

How do you operate a school, or a class, or a family, where you oppress students (shaming, blaming, defaming), while also keeping them “on side” and believing in school and family, while also teaching them to live with more awareness?

How can we build a real sense of community, not just in individual classes and classrooms, but in institutions designed for a very different purpose?  How can we build awareness among factory-model-loving colleagues as well as among students?    And how can we help our student strive for greater purpose, reach out to each other – and beyond institutional walls – in meaningful service, find their voice and use it?  How can you develop a mindset of community, service, and thankfulness in an institution whose very design sends an opposite message?

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Published in: on November 12, 2012 at 12:24 pm  Leave a Comment  

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