Beginning Again, II

By any objective measures, Tuesday was a good and pleasant day for me and my students.  Yes, I was sick, and  my energy level was low. There were a few minor interruptions – a phone call in the middle of one class, a miscommunication easily corrected, a “got to have it sometime” fire drill.  There were some perfectly reasonable requests, a few forms due, and a couple of minor off-task incidents in classes.  Nothing major.

A good day, by 20th-century standards.

Each class began with a small-group brainstorming activity where groups used little Post-It notes to record “important things” (deliberately open-ended) that they remembered from their prior Latin study.  I walked, observed, listened, and came up with some broad categories – Significant Words, Cultural and Historical Facts, and Lingering Questions for the Latin II classes.  Then we created posters, with those titles, on which the groups organized their Post-It notes – posters we’ll return to at the end of each unit, adding new “important stuff” we’ve learned.  Then came a small-group reading activity (where the off-task incident occurred; the Super Bowl was just so exciting for several students in the mid-morning class). Then there was a whole-class check of the reading activity; then an alternating whole-class-to-small-group diagnostic check of using Latin nouns to construct a sentence; then some focused practice, in the Latin II classes, on problematic forms.  “Latin Family” members from two decades ago would recognize the structure; it’s a lesson pattern that I’ve used, quite successfully, for many years with new intermediate and advanced classes.

But by the end of the day, I was exhausted and furious.  Too tired to sleep, too angry to think clearly, too frustrated for words to describe.  Some of it stemmed from the cold and cough I’ve been battling; when you’re physically drained, “little things” turn into “big things.”  Some of it was structural; as I’ve grown tired of the default assumptions of factory-model schooling, things that once wouldn’t have bothered me now do  … a lot.

Take that Super Bowl conversation.  B, C, and their friends weren’t being deliberately rude or purposefully off-task; they were just excited about the Super Bowl, and they wanted to talk about it … and they’re less excited about reading Latin, they’re not that bad at reading, and they thought they’d get to the assignment eventually. It seemed like a perfect opportunity.  And in a non-factory environment, it would be: you could take a few minutes, have the conversation, even relate the Super Bowl to something you’re working on.  But in factory-model environments, where time on task is king, those “off-task” behaviors and conversations are, at least to good and diligent teachers and students, a Big Problem.  Was I clinging to that good and diligent teacher label?  Did I aim to defend the joyful learning community against disruptions?  Was I upset because they “should have” known better, “should have” managed themselves without intervention?

It started to feel like a personal attack, an attack on our joyful community.  And I started to fall into a 20th-century spiral, and they started to fall in with me.  And then, suddenly, I realized something that changed everything.  “There’s a difference,” I said, “between a bunch of happy people and a joyful learning community.  And the problem is, when you only focus on yourself and the things you want right now, you end up hurting and destroying the community.”

Somehow that changed the tone, began to heal and restore  – but is it true?  Is it a truth that B, C, and their friends can hear and process?  Ms. X, with her lengthy list of Do’s and Don’t’s, would just yell and labelpunish and move on … and that would be easier, in the short run, than helping four or five students learn to manage impulses.  Easier … in the factory-world, where someone else will manage you, tell you what to do, specify outcomes and processes for you.  Easier … except that fantasy-world never really existed, and certainly doesn’t resemble the world B, C, and their friends inhabit.

Easier isn’t always better.  But did I choose better – or did I yell and label with a different set of labels?

Somehow, by the end of the day, B, C, and their friends seemed to re-discover some self-management skills, and we seemed more like a joyful community than a collection of happy individuals.  But was it true – or just an appearance?  Were we playing the factory-game with a joyful community veneer?

Hours later, when I drove home, I was still tired, frustrated, furious – more upset than I “should” be by the day’s “small”  annoyances and inconveniences.  They felt like symptoms of a deeper contagion, the thoughtless way we keep doing what we’ve always done.

On Google+, Debbie asked a profound question about that:

Why is it that the adults get a time period designated for preparing/completing tasks and the students do not? Why is it that those who know how to organize their time get time to do that and those who we say can’t get organized do not?

And she added,

I think you are so right about the factory-model and the lack of thinking involved. We really don’t want the workers to think or to have to think, right? We want the checklists and the routines to take care of themselves so that workers don’t disrupt the flow with ideas and questions and all the “t’s” are crossed etc.

We become like automated machines, chugging along, completing the tasks. And then I think of that joyful community – the living, breathing entity – the thinking, the challenges, the two-steps-forward-and-one-step-back progress, the laughter and tears, the engagement and interactions between members of the community. Doesn’t that just make you smile??!!!!

It does make me smile … and cry at the same time.  I smile for the joyful community, and I cry for how far away it seems, for the half-intended barriers that factory thinking builds against community.  What will it take to tear those barriers down?

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Published in: on January 23, 2013 at 10:50 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] you’d been there to watch, you wouldn’t have noticed many external differences between Tuesday and Wednesday.  Two chilly days at the beginning of a new semester; me with a cold; similar […]


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