Endings and Beginnings, IV

It’s the last day of first-semester classes … but first-semester exams ended yesterday.  We’ll have short morning classes today, a longish “advisory” period (for “locker cleanout” as the schedule says), and after lunch, “students follow second-semester schedule,” spending 20 minutes in each class to “receive syllabus and supply lists.”  It’s a tradition in my face-to-face teaching world, a thing that shows up on the schedule because we’ve “always” done it.  And if the tradition holds, Ms. X and Mr. Y will be furious by lunch time, equally angry at the “bad, lazy” students who didn’t come to school and the “rude, disrespectful” ones who did.

“Can you believe,” one Ms. X once asked me, “that a student asked me about his grade?  I told him to wait for his report card like everybody else.”  The idea of detailed feedback is as foreign to Ms. X, it seems, as the notion of meaningful and timely feedback.  What about accurate feedback?  Faced with a new policy on final-grade calculation, perhaps 30 percent of my colleagues have called or emailed me, their “technology mentor,” for assistance or clarification.  Do the others feel proficient … or are they waiting till the last possible minute?  Have they noticed the new policy, or do they plan to ignore it?

Someone always “forgets” about changes, whether new policies or odd schedules like today’s … but that someone (Ms. X? Mr. Y?) tends to scream at students who “forget” things.  “You should know better,” they thunder, “because we always do it this way. And it was on the announcements!  Where have you been, you bad, lazy child?  How will you even survive in the Real World of college?”

It’s odd when you remember a time before always, when you know a Real World that’s so different from the one you keep getting threatened with. Poor little T, U, or V, recipient of Ms. X’s thundering rage, remembers a dozen or more teachers who “always” did things in totally different was.  And I remember when today’s ending-and-beginning  schedule started.   There’s normally a long weekend, at least for students, between the two semesters.  Wouldn’t it make sense, a former principal asked, if students and families knew what special supplies they’d need before that long weekend?  It’s annoying and frustrating to get a list on Monday (or Tuesday) and need everything on Tuesday (or Wednesday).  Why not avoid that unpleasantness?

It seemed like a good idea … and in the beginning, when everyone understood the reasons and the alternatives, it was.  But understandings fade more rapidly than procedures and requirements.

So a tradition started – and like all traditions, it took on a life of its own.  Most of my colleagues don’t have special supply requests anymore … and even if they do, they don’t ask their students to have everything by Day 1 or Day 2 of class.  Many students and families, in turn, are less committed to coming to school because it’s open than their counterparts a decade ago.  The lure of an extra-long weekend easily outweighs the value of a “visit” (which is what the schedule used to say) to second-semester classes.

So poor Ms. X and Mr. Y will be handing out syllabi this afternoon – and “going over” them, because that’s an easy way to spend 20 minutes.  Then they’ll fuss about the “bad, lazy kids” and “irresponsible parents” who “made” them repeat the process Monday.  For some students, their first impression of new teachers will be awkward, disorganized, rushed.  “Do we have assigned seats?” they’ll ask.  “Yes, but not yet, because I’m busy,” replies Ms. X.  “Sit down, shut up, put your phone away, ssshhh, stop talking, stop texting, be quiet, settle down, listen, don’t be rude, shut up.  This is class X, and I’m Ms. X, and this is your – stop talking, young man! – syllabus, and you need to be quiet and read it.”

Poor Ms. X!  And her poor students!  If that scenario plays out (and, sadly, it will in more than one classroom), they’ll be trapped once again on the endless factory line of pain-punishment and coverage and disengagement.  If there’s not snow or ice tonight, Ms. X will show up for Friday’s “teacher workday” and spend the day complaining about her bad, lazy, disrespectful new students.  They, in turn, will go home and complain about bad, mean, disorganized Ms. X.  On the next district-mandated parent or student survey, when we incentivize participation with a free-dress day or a homework pass, they’ll complain (by name!) about Ms. X, her teaching style, her treatment of students.  And we’ll “code” the complaints, ignore them, and move on to the agenda item about increasing parent involvement.

But would a “regular” day today help?  What  if the “testing window” remained open and we gave the last-possible exam today?  What if there was a real celebration of the end of the reporting period, an authentic, meaningful showcase of students’ accomplishments?

On Google+ yesterday, Brendan brought up another inherent flaw in schools’ always:

The whole basis of grades, with some kind of curved distribution, flies in the face of the ideal of getting everyone to the same minimum level over time that the standards craze is based on.

Is it a contest, or is it a matter of each learner doing their best, and sorting themselves not into “win or lose,” but into the areas they get that most out of, and so are most likely to “find their place in the economies of the 21st century” with?

But it’s easier to hold onto always – even when always isn’t working – than to face those hard questions.  It’s easier to complain and gripe than to work for change, to fold your arms and murmur than to stand up and ask the hard questions.  At least it’s easier in a factory, where doing as you’re told is paramount.  Is it easier – or harder still – to confront tough questions in a joyful community?

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Published in: on January 17, 2013 at 11:19 am  Leave a Comment  

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