It’s All Connected, III

Tuesday was a gray, chilly, rainy day in my face-to-face teaching world – a good day for cocoa and conversation with a friend, but  a bad day for hard plastic desks or one-size-fits-all teaching.  There was a “dress code sweep,” too, when students not conforming to the school’s uniform dress code were (theoretically) sent to a central location to be processed and punished.  Actually there were three “sweeps,” one in mid-morning, one around lunchtime, one in the afternoon.  B looked at me in shock and surprise when I noted his prominent black undershirt.  “But it matches my hair!” he said.  “Please don’t make me go down there; I’ll get in trouble.”

“Yes,” I said, “it matches your hair, and it’s not a bad look for you.  But according to the dress code, what color should it be?”

And why, I wondered, are you acting like a small, spoiled child?

If you’ve ever worked in – or attended – a school with a dress code, you’ll recognize both the whining and wheedling by students and the yelling and labeling by teachers.  They’re two sides of the same coin – the factory-model coin of batch-processing, of confusing means with ends.  As a core value, or the expression of core values, distinctive, uniform dress can be joyful and freeing.  An elite military unit or religious order will certainly have uniform inspections … but if the organization is healthy, deliberate violations are rare.  The  distinctive dress sends a message: “I’m part this group, and this is who we are.”

Deliberate violations – and perceived needs for more rigorous or frequent inspections – are signs of trouble.  The shared, distinctive dress is no longer an expression of a core value, but an end in itself.  “Why is there a rule about X, Y, or Z?” students whine  … and the very question reveals a breakdown of communication and community.  No dress code sweep can fix that.  But by treating young people like small, spoiled children, “sweeps” do reinforce the very attitudes and behaviors they claim to prevent.

Earlier in the day, before the dress-code sweeps began, N, T, and N were furious.  N had spilled a drink on the floor, and they (and J) were cleaning it up – as loudly and disruptively as possible.  All day there had been a frantic, negative energy in their part of the classroom, and the rest of the class was angry and frustrated.  I don’t think I yelled – though N, T, and N would have disagreed with me – but I certainly told them how frustrated, disappointed, and appalled I was.  Why, I wondered, were they, too, acting like small, spoiled children?

“Why are you picking on us?” N responded – like a small, spoiled child.  “X, Y, and Z were talking, too, and the spill was an accident.”  N loves to argue, and  her arguments – plus her intelligence and label as one of the good kids – sometimes get her out of trouble with Ms. X and Mr. Y.  When arguments didn’t work, she and her friends tried whining and wheedling.  “Why do you keep walking over here, Mr. S?” T asked me.  “Mainly,” I said, “because you told me a week ago that you were feeling ignored.  And now, when I do walk over to you, you say you feel picked on.”

“Do you want us to separate?”  they whined.  “We’ll separate if you tell us to.”

“No,” I said, “I want you to stay right there and fix the problem.”  After all, they knew – quite well – what the problem was and how to solve it.  They were just stunned to be treated like responsible young adults, not small spoiled children.  But by the end of the day, community was restored, they were re-energized and re-engaged, and I was delighted to be able (at their request) give them public, positive recognition.

All day long, though, I saw examples of knowing what to do but choosing not to do it – from colleagues, from students,  from myself.  Why do we know what to do but choose not to do it?  Why do we behave like small, spoiled children?   C and F’s classmate, in another class, who’d written the rude comments on a peer-editing response; U and O, who kept loudly talking and apologizing; the other N and U, who made constant snarky comments. Ms. X, who “forgets” how to do things she doesn’t like.  Me, tempted to yell and label about bad and lazy behavior.

How are all these examples connected?

I think they flow from a breakdown of community – a feeling of fragmentation that’s common in our post-industrial, post-20th-century society.  Brendan, Debbie, and Ira address it well in comments on this Google+ thread.  By encouraging fragmentation and infantilization, factory-model schools probably compound the problem.

When there’s a uniform culture with uniform expectations, a uniform community is easy.  You can’t have a uniform community with dizzying diversity, but you can have something deeper.  In Debbie’s image, uniform community is a small group huddled on a log, all looking at the same part of the Fire of Truth.  A diverse community – a joyful  one – forms a circle, invites others in, sees the whole Fire from all sides.

After centuries of wars between uniform communities, millennia of conflict, genocide, and fear of the other, is it time to abandon forced uniformity and embrace real diversity?  If so, what are the implications for teaching and learning?

How can we build diverse community in the midst of a standardizing factory?  How do we embrace my truth, N’s truth, Ms. X’s truth, everyone’s truth without settling for comfortable lies?  How do we move from whining and wheedling, yelling and labeling, to listening and accepting?  From spoiled childishness to authentic maturity?

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Published in: on November 28, 2012 at 11:08 am  Comments (5)  

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] the unpleasant Tuesday I described in yesterday’s post, I wasn’t sure if Wednesday would be better … or worse.  Initial signs were promising: […]

  2. […] was a lunar eclipse.  But is that why “they” were “wild” on Monday and Tuesday?  Or did the current Ms. X and Mr. Y, subscribing to a lunar theory, greet their students with […]

  3. […] B – the B with the dress-code incident – was absent on Thursday.  He’ll probably get an additional ISS day for the black T-shirt, […]

  4. […] Monday and Tuesday, when so many students were disengaged and upset, those actions and attitudes were also symptoms. […]

  5. […] would it matter if students found out?  But we’ve talked about that before, both here and on Google+ […]


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