Right … for Now, I

I sat down to draft this post late on Super Bowl Sunday afternoon.  Some years, I really look forward to the game; some years, the commercials; some years, I’m just not interested.  Some years call for a party with friends; some years, a busy restaurant; some years, like this one, a quiet evening at home.  We’d planned to watch a bit of the game and a few commercials (the CBS Sports live stream was so much better than 20th-century-style TV coverage!).  Then, around halftime, I would participate in my “traditional” Sunday evening Twitter chat.  I took the power outage as a sign it was time for bed.

Much though I love watching football, my virtual #cistudy community felt more important than the game.  In other years, the game – or a face-to-face community of friends gathered around it – would take precedence.

Different years, different wants, different needs, different “right things.”  So obvious, but so hard for 20th-century teachers and schools to apply.

After all, the great 20th-century dream was standardization.  “Any color you like,” Henry Ford said, “as long as it’s black.”  Develop the “perfect” marketing plan, business schools said; implement it “perfectly” (with Super Bowl ads if possible); and profits will inevitably ensue.  Customers – and students – with their idiosyncratic desires, changing tastes, different wants and needs, were an inconvenience at best, an annoying distraction at worst.

The logical extreme, I suppose, is the scripted, “teacher-proof” curriculum … which, ironically, tends to fail at its stated goal of increasing student achievement and test scores, only to be replaced by new (!) and improved (!!) versions from other vendors.  A few years ago, I had the opportunity to watch a truly gifted teacher train others to use such a curriculum.  In her hands, the script turned to magic … but in her hands, any materials would have been engaging and fascinating.  In Ms. X’s hands, the script would likely seem just as deadly-dull and confusing as (according to my students) Ms. X’s own lessons.

But the dream of standardization is powerful, and it dies hard.

I bought into that dream whole-heartedly as a new teacher.  I was on a quest for the “perfect” lesson, the “perfect” activity sequence, the “model” lesson plan to replicate – perfectly – from year to year.  I collected plans (and hard copies of materials to accompany each lesson) in large three-ring binders, intending to add and edit each year.  I hoped to develop, over time, the “perfect” lesson – or at least the “perfect” structure into which I might slot different activities  – and I was frustrated when, each year, things changed and I “had to” make new notebooks.  Two decades later, I still have several years’ worth of them.  Some live on a rarely-touched bookshelf, others in a half-forgotten box.  Untouched and unopened for years … but something has kept me from recycling the papers, reusing the binders, letting go of all that purposeful effort and careful organization.

Even after I moved to word-processed plans, I “had to” maintain similar notebooks … and I did, faithfully, storing them in other boxes and shelves.  For factory-model schools, the lesson plan can take on the same mystical power as the business plan for a company.  Obviously planning is important, even vital, both for businesses and for schools.  But the purpose of planning is to be prepared when the unplanned opportunity (or unforeseen threat) appears, not to follow the plan blindly “just because” you wrote it down.

But all too often, in schools and businesses, the plan became more important, more real, than what happened in the classroom, the shop, the factory.  “I had a great idea,” said Ms. X, “after I turned in my lesson plan.  So I can’t do it now, or I’ll get in trouble with the Powers That Be.  Maybe I’ll remember about it next semester or next year.”

But she usually didn’t.  Ms. X keeps her plans so she can change the date and turn them in again, possibly making some minor revisions.  I can understand that temptation, have fallen into it at times myself.

But on the whole, when I do look back at old plans, I’m looking for something specific.  How does our pace this year compare with prior years?  What was the activity that worked so well with this concept, with that similar-minded group of students, in that long-vanished year?  Unlike Ms. X, who still seeks the “perfect” plan, I’ve learned to embrace the creative tension between planning and community-building.  Unlike Other Ms. X, who “writes” plans months in advance, then gets mad when she can’t follow them exactly, I’ve learned that plans have to yield to reality.

When I started working on the Tres Columnae Project, I hoped to develop … not ‘teacher-proof” materials, but things that would help teachers and students (and me!) attain magical engagement even on less-than-inspired days  Has it worked?  I’m not sure.  I do know that on Friday, when my AP students started reading their first selection from the Aeneid, they exclaimed happily over how much easier it was than they’d feared, how comfortable they felt with Vergil, how familiar the vocabulary and structures seemed … and they had a similar response to their first selection from Caesar when they started the week before.  But I can also compare my original plan for the week with the revised versions that developed … and I’m sure that Ms. X’s Powers That Be would wonder about my (20th-century-style) effectiveness as a lesson planner.  Too flexible?  Too willing to adapt??  Not afraid to???

On Google+ the other day, Brendan shared this article, which cites Richard Elmore‘s very public dissatisfaction with 20th-century school structures.  What once was whispered in secret is being declared openly!  But what does it really mean?  Are things really changing … or will the dead hand of the system “cram” disruptive forces into existing structures?  And what will I do today – each day – to help my students move from factory-mode complacency to active, joyful learning community?

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Published in: on February 4, 2013 at 11:33 am  Comments (2)  

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  1. […] I sat down to draft this post late on Super Bowl Sunday afternoon. Some years, I really look forward to the game; some years, the commercials; some years, I'm just not interested. Some years call…  […]

  2. […] The real fate of the dinosaurs is more complex, of course, than the one presented in that half-remembered exhibit.  But even the simplified picture contains a powerful, important lesson for all of us who still seek to manage change, to slow things down, to keep on doing what we’ve always done.  Maureen put it concisely in a Google+ response to yesterday’s post: […]


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