After the unpleasant Tuesday I described in yesterday’s post, I wasn’t sure if Wednesday would be better … or worse. Initial signs were promising: the weather was more stable, I had slept well, I saw the moon, huge and orange as a result of the “scheduled” lunar eclipse, and I managed to avoid speaking to Ms. X in the faculty workroom Wednesday morning – all positive signs. But the schedule was altered – advisory groups were meeting, and many of my colleagues expected bitter whining and complaints from students adversely affected by a new school-district policy. Sometimes different daily rhythms throw off the delicate balance. And if anyone is upset about something outside the classroom (like D, who’d gotten in trouble before his Latin class on Monday), it’s hard for that not to affect what happens in the classroom.
But Wednesday was a wonderful day! We were productive and peaceful, and there was a real feeling of positive energy in the room most of the day. As I sat down to reflect on Tuesday afternoon, I wondered how I had contributed to the resistance and negative energy I’d been feeling. By attempting to control the pace in my classes – because students had been struggling with self-paced activities – had I swung the pendulum too far in the other direction? Had we fallen into something like a pain-punishment cycle – or a self-fulfilling expectation cycle? I wasn’t sure, but I wanted to find out. So I designed a much more self-directed, self-paced set of classes for Wednesday … and made sure to explain why to each class.
Instead of a single-correct-response, application or analysis-level starting activity, the Latin I students formed small groups and created sentences (“intriguing or silly,” the instructions read) from a word bank. We’ve been reading the stories in Lectiō X of the Tres Columnae Project, which feature idiomatic uses of the verbs trādere and reddere. So all the sentence possibilities involved people starting, dramatically, to do things (lacrimīs sē trādit) or things causing people to feel or be a certain way (dominum īrātissimum reddit). After making four or five sentences, each group chose their best or most intriguing sentence and illustrated it with “the best possible stick figures.” We used the document camera to display the illustrations, then attempted to guess each other’s sentences.
Then, instead of a whole-class, controlled-pace reading activity, small groups worked at their own pace to read two stories about our animal characters (this one about Fortunata the cow and this one about one of the weasels). “Listen to the audio clips,” I said, “if that helps you, but definitely practice saying and understanding the stories.” I reminded them that, as Novice Mid to Novice High readers of Latin, they shouldn’t expect to “know” every word. Main idea, I stressed, plus many familiar words and phrases. Based on the words and phrases they did understand, each group created at least one Latin question (and its answer) for the sixteen virtual “pages” of stories. After 25 minutes or so, we played a game we call Quaestiōnēs Mittite, where the written questions circulate from one group to another, each group choosing two questions to answer – or to edit and rewrite if the original question seemed unclear or ungrammatical.
Results? Instead of forced, difficult engagement, we had genuine, sustained engagement … especially in the reading and question-writing activities. We’ll do something similar today, at the beginning of each class, before we spend most of the day creating our own original stories.
Later in the day, I followed a link a friend had sent me to Cindy Gaddis’s blog about “open-ended, individualized learning.” Cindy lays out four essential traits that distinguish real, authentic learning from the “closed-ended, standardized learning” that factory-model schools are built to deliver. As I read, I realized how I’d contributed to the negative energy I described the other day. In my attempts to control the pace, to help my students focus, to ease some of their difficulties, I had ironically reproduced some of the factory-model conditions they – and I – dislike.
Inspired by what Cindy says about homeschooling her own seven children, I started this Google+ thread, where Debbie immediately noted that Cindy’s approach is “preschool expanded” and Rachel wished her own son could experience such a learning environment. I’d been reading more of Sal Khan’s new book, too, the part where he talks about small amounts of self-paced learning, large amounts of passion- and interest-based project work, teachers as facilitating guides, and multi-age groups where the older learners can take real responsibility for the younger ones. (It’s amazing, isn’t it, how these ideas are everywhere all of a sudden?) And over on Google+, the rich conversation about rules and policiies and identity continued … and continued to inspire and challenge me.
What made the difference, I wonder? What led me to see the problem and take these steps instead of the “more of the same, but faster” factory approach I’d started to fall into?
Was it the G+ conversations? Or something else I’d heard or read?
Was it that I was more relaxed and better-rested? Did that help me set a more positive emotional tone?
Was it the assignments themselves? I set out to make them more challenging and complex, but less lengthy and difficult. Maybe that led to a better balance.
Was it N, N, and N? They’re often the most negative, angry people in the Latin I classes, and they all happened to be absent. Was it as simple as that?
It’s hard – so hard, but so necessary – to build and sustain joyful learning community in the midst of a rapid, frantic teaching factory. It’s easy – so easy, but so destructive – to fall into the factory habits. The phrase “in but not of” comes to mind, and it speaks to me profoundly – but how do we maintain that balance?