The Most Important Thing, II

For a while now, I’ve called them “20th-century days” – those days when it’s hard to focus on any  important thing.  When there’s a constant struggle, a battle, for students’ minds, hearts, and attention.  When joyful learning community is in short supply.

Days like Tuesday.

There were many reasons – or excuses – for Tuesday to be a 20th-century day.  The weather was changing again, from hot to chilly.  It started to rain – a cold, drizzly rain.  It was too hot and too cold, all at once.  There had been a three-day weekend … and Spirit Week.  There was the first of many field trips.  Thanksgiving holidays are coming.

Ms. X and Mr. Y have noticed how much is left to cover.  They’re counting the days and fretting.  “Why don’t those bad, lazy students understand they need to settle down and work?”

What’s the most important thing on such a day?

Not pain and punishment; no one was deliberately bad. But there was an undercurrent of thoughtlessness and rudeness.  Whispering, wanting to roam around, distracting others, laughing too loudly.  Easy, gratifying things to do – tolerated, if not accepted, by previous teachers and schools.

Like old Ms. X who was really busy.  “We have so much to cover, and the bad, lazy ones need extra help.  So put your head down, read a book, talk quietly, and don’t you dare bother me!” she said … or implied.  “We have to do something about test scores for the bad, lazy ones, but yours will be just fine.”

Or old Mr. Y, so close to retirement.  “Keep it down, keep it quiet, don’t bother the ones that want to learn,” he said … or implied.  “Your test scores are OK, so do what you want.”

Are test scores the most important thing?

That wasn’t the vision when that bipartisan coalition passed the No Child Left Behind Act.  The vision was to use scores as a tool for improvement.  To hold up a mirror to “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”  To make teachers with high expectations students’ allies, not adversaries.

But factory-model schools – all organizations – excel at what Clayton Christensen calls “cramming.”  Take the new, innovative, paradigm-shifting thing, and make it fit the old thing.  Take a potentially disruptive innovation, and make it sustaining.

Schools always used testing to sort and select.  How do you cram higher standards for all into a sorting and selecting paradigm?

You just take the measure or process, and make it into the purpose.

You sort, based on pretests and other data, just like always.  But you select the “bubble kids,” who were almost there.  Pay attention to them – desperate, cramming, production-line attention – and change some “high Level 2 kids” into “low Level 3 kids.”

(Yes, those are genuine labels.)

Go ahead and ignore the “Level 1 kids,” who might never  reach the standard.  Ignore the “Level 4 kids” and the “High 3s” too; they’ll be just fine.

That’s the sad pattern many of my students expect.  What’s the most important thing to change their expectation?

Since my “problem” students have been “Level 4 kids” and “high 3s,” they expect to be ignored.  When they aren’t, they’re puzzled – intrigued, but puzzled.  “What do you mean?” they ask teachers (many of my colleagues) who expect everyone to learn and grow.  “Are you serious?”  they wonder.  They love the idea of  Joyful Learning Community.  But it’s hard to become one, remain one, imagine one, after years of being ignored and isolated.

It’s easier, safer, to whisper and tune out. Play a game, watch a video, text a friend on that “Internet capable device.”  After all, the school said you could use them … and it said not to bother Ms. X and Mr. Y.

A Twitter friend shared Allen Mendler’s Edutopia blog post about “Defusing Power Struggles:”

Many power struggles start over issues of consequences, fairness, embarrassment and being told what to do. The typical power struggle occurs when the teacher makes a request and a student refuses to comply. Not wanting to look weak and ineffectual, the teacher responds to the non-compliance in a more adamant tone demanding compliance. Not wanting to look bad and back down in front of other kids, the student mutters something nasty. The race is on for the last word….

And another friend shared Cherra -Lynne Olthof’s post about social, academic, and intellectual forms of engagement, where she says

It comes down to this:

  • Low skills, low challenge = apathetic learners
  • High skills, low challenge = bored learners
  • Low skill, high challenge = apprehensive learners
  • High skills, high challenge = interested and successful learners

On 20th-century days, my students arrive expecting boredom, apathy, or apprehension … and Mendler-style power struggles.  What caused the 20th-century day?  Or does that really matter?

What’s the most important thing to turn 20th-century days around?

On Tuesday, it was stopping … but not with Mendler’s “adamant tone demanding compliance.”  Just stopping consistently, every time there was a thoughtless, rude whisper.  Stopping, looking, waiting, noticing.  Honestly expressing sadness, disappointmentconcern.  “I’m not sure,” I said, “whether I’m astonished or terrified or appalled by what I’ve been seeing and hearing.”  And slowly, gradually, community was reborn.

Rebuilding community, I think, is the most important thing.  And pronouns are powerful tools.  It matters – a lot – when we say I or youwe or they, on a 20th-century day.

Down the hall, no doubt, Ms. X and Mr. Y were yelling and labeling.  Or  ignoring and plowing ahead, or giving up. Handing out the worksheet.  Assigning the book work.  Fulfilling their students’ expectations … and their own.

How do you build a joyful learning community in the heart of a clattering, rushing assembly line?  How do you build one in the midst of a 20th-century day? And how can we leave 20th-century days behind for good?

Published in: on November 14, 2012 at 10:51 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] on Google+ to yesterday’s post, Maureen used a striking image for the teacher’s work.  ”I like to think of […]

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