Endings and Beginnings, I

Today is Day 2 of first-semester final examinations, an odd time of endings and beginnings. The New Year is still new, new classes start next week, a four-day weekend awaits.  But for now, the focus is firmly on grades and last-minute cramming, on endings, not beginnings.

Classes with state-developed exams had a not-quite-mandatory “review session” Saturday morning.  (We used to say “remediation,” but then someone noticed that only struggling students need remediation, but “everyone” needs review.)  And of course Ms. X and Mr. Y made huge “study guides” and “packets” for students to … hastily copy from each other?  Leave half-completed on the floor?  Glance at in desperation, murmuring “I still don’t understand,” and put aside?

Why such a disconnect between what teachers do and what students value?  On Google+ , Laura suggested,

My guess is that there is a huge gulf between those who became teachers because they loved school (that is not me) and those who became teachers because they hated school (that would be me). A similar problem re: achievement: college faculty were almost certainly high-achieving students (I was a high achiever even if I did not like what I had to do), which I think makes it hard for them to relate to students who are not achievers in the same way.

Some of my school-loving colleagues – including young Ms. D – marry people who weren’t high achievers, who didn’t love school; many have children in those categories.  But even they – sometimes even I – struggle when students won’t play the factory-model game.

In factory structures, with established procedures in place, it’s easy to believe that the purpose of the procedures is … to exist, be followed, maintained.  When they change, we get frustrated, longing for the way things “always” were before, forgetting that today’s always was yesterday’s new.  “There’s always a teacher workday on January 2 here,” moaned Ms. X …but the first one was a Y2K thing.  “Exams have always worked this way,” moaned others … but 20 years ago they didn’t. “There is always a study guide” … but there wasn’t.

There’s a should buried in that always!  A different should, a different always for different people!  But we don’t take the time to notice or clarify, and that causes trouble.

Rod Baird’s book Counterfeit Kids argues forcefully against review sheets and study guides … and even announcing test dates.   Ms. X and Mr. Y would be stunned.  For them, test scores are an ill-defined but vital measure of their rigor and competence as teachers – so you “have to” review and cram, but you also “have to” have some students fail.  Too many low scores?  Students were bad and lazy.  Too high?  Not enough rigor, or possibly grade inflation.

My students are surprised when I de-emphasize grades and cramming.  They do get a one-page review guide, unlike Ms. X’s packets, and they can work on sample questions during scheduled  “EXAM review” sessions. (That’s what the “EXAM SCHEDULE” calls them.)  But the process, the learning, the work belongs to them … and while they struggle and resist at first, they come to value that deeply.  Meanwhile, I’m told, Ms. X and Mr. Y hand out packets, “go over” the answers, yell and label.  About missing their “planning” period, which they rarely use for planning.  About bad, lazy students who don’t remember lectures and PowerPoints.  About “having to do all this work” for student who don’t appreciate it.

During the Friday afternoon review session for Monday morning’s exam, it was hard for my once “difficult” class to focus, to manage impulses and volume levels.  But they tried, failed, apologized, tried again, took ownership.  Though they’d spent the whole week being managed, they’ve made real progress.

All week, if you looked, there were beginnings and continuations of good things.  My classes finished their last Major Assessment, a vast task with stories to read; a story to create, illustrate, and narrate; and a large graphic organizer about aspects of Roman culture they found compelling or interesting.  Their exams will have three sections: an Individual Written response with questions about a familiar passage and an unfamiliar one; a Collaborative Written part, with  grammatical analysis and building Latin sentences; and an Individual Oral piece with oral Latin reading and paraphrase.  I design them to promote deep, meaningful learning over cramming.  “Nine women can’t make a baby in one month,”and last-minute cramming can’t replace distributed practice.

On Google+ Sunday, we talked about deep learning … and how factory-model learning is shallow.  When time is limited and measurement is the goal, you focus on what’s easy and inexpensive to measure … and you get today’s testing regimen.

In another G+ thread, we contrasted organizations that ask why do we with those that ask how could they.  Factories are how could they places.  As Debbie put it on Friday,

We are surrounded by, bombarded by, messages that keep us trapped in the workings of our current society. Advertising is based on fear  and the need to be successful, accepted, etc. The old ways of governing our communities are struggling to maintain the power. But “the people” are realizing what is happening and want to take back control, toss aside the trappings of consumerism etc. … AND we want a better form of education. Yah!

One of the many strategies to empower this change is “intention”. What is our intention and do our choices match this goal? As we find our way through the veils of the past, we need to be constantly asking “why”. Why are we doing what we are doing? Are we doing it because we always have? Are we doing it because someone has told us that it is “best practice”? Are we doing it because we don’t know what else to do? Are we doing it because we can see how it contributes to our intention?

Why is hard for a novice …  and despite our factory experience, we’re all novices in the post-factory world.  How do we move from that ending to a real beginning?

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Published in: on January 14, 2013 at 11:20 am  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Love the comment, “We’re all novices in the post-factory world.” So true. Also I often say to students, “School is not a perfect place, it can be better. Let me know how we can make this work for you, and remember as you grow you can work to change the system so it is better–people like you can make a difference.” Thanks for keeping an important conversation going.

    • Thanks, Maureen … and thanks for that wonderful quote! Your students are truly fortunate to spend time with you as their teacher!


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