Rest for the Weary? I

Presidents’ Day is a holiday – for students –  in my face-to-face teaching world.  It snowed over the weekend – with maybe half an inch of accumulation – and at one point the snow was falling so fast that a friend of mine, born here in North Carolina, called it as a “blizzard” in a Facebook post.  I would have said “heavy flurry,” but it was still exciting.  Some weekend plans got postponed due to the threat of slick roads, so we spent a peaceful Saturday (and a mostly peaceful Sunday afternoon) baking, cooking, eating, napping, watching a movie or two.  A much-needed, unexpected break!

For my students, today is another such break … or at least a small change from their typical routine.  Some will be sleeping, some working, some “gaming 24/7” as one mentioned on Friday. Some will be catching up with school work, or trying to make their way through those lengthy “packets”  that Ms, X triumphantly handed them on Friday.  Meanwhile, Ms. X and Mr. Y will be “sitting through” content-area staff-developments session all morning, then “getting through” the school-level sessions planned for the afternoon.  On Tuesday, most likely, they’ll complain about the “bad work” and “poor attitude” their students displayed.

At lunch on Friday, One Ms. X was bitterly complaining to Another Ms. X about how “bad and lazy” her students had been with a recent project.  “They had all kinds of choices,” she complained, about the format of the project … but many still didn’t complete it.  I wondered if, perhaps, the content of the project was the issue; that’s usually the problem when my students don’t get engaged with projects.  But I was tired, and Ms. X was busy complaining to more sympathetic ears.  No need to fan the flames!

But I kept thinking about her comment as I made hearty, winter-friendly dishes Friday and Saturday, and as I enjoyed those unexpectedly free hours on Saturday.  I thought about B, U, and M, who don’t see the connection between half-doing assignments and not grasping the underlying concepts.  It turns out that all three had done poorly in a previous language course … and  they blame their teacher, who “failed them,” they claim, even though they “did all the work.”  For B, U, and M, “did” apparently means “wrote something down half-heartedly on the paper and turned it in as quickly as possible.”   Did that work for them in some previous class, where a Ms. X was only interested in compliance and test scores?  Did it never really work, but their native intelligence (which is considerable) carried them until now?  Have they developed a particularly pernicious fixed-mindset mentality, where they should “do OK” or even “do pretty good” regardless of their actual performance?  They’ve begun to trust me enough that, in another  week or so, I may be able to ask them.

Half-hearted compliance …. that phrase has been haunting me.  You can’t build joyful community around it, but you can build a somewhat adequate factory, especially if you’re a monopoly or near-monopoly.  I was half-surprised to receive an email over the weekend –  not by when it came (since the sender notoriously, proudly, works herself almost to death to be good at her job) but by the wording of one request.  Ms. W had asked us content-area presenters to write “I can” statements for our sessions … not to model the strategy for the teachers who were attending, but “just in case” any administrators happened to visit the sessions.

What bothered me?  Not the perfectly reasonable request to model, for our audience of teachers, behaviors they’ll use with their students, but the implication that you’d only do so if threatened by a visit from Someone Important. It’s a pervasive mindset, too.  A few days ago,  a teacher-friend commented, happily, on her students’ unexpectedly good behavior in her absence.  “I think,” she said, “that they’re finally starting to understand that their behavior reflects on …. ME!”

I was so hopeful when she started – hopeful she’d say “on themselves” or “our class” or “our learning community” or even “our school.”  But no.  She’s hoping that her students are extrinsically motivated at the lowest, most dishonorable level – by fear of what she’ll do to them, or by some venal hope of pleasing The Boss.  When I remind my students that the true test of character is what you do when no one else is watching, how can they even hear what I’m saying?  They leave me, leave our little Joyful Community, and go off to a world where Ms. X wants them to regress by two or three stages on the moral development scale.

It’s easy to blame Ms. X and Mr. Y, but the problem runs deeper.  The factory-model school is designed to replicate the mid-twentieth-century world of near-monopolies – the world of three TV channels, three automakers, a few big food manufacturers, a handful of publishers.  In a near-monopoly world, you didn’t have to do things well.  When you’re the only game in town – or when several players are all playing the same low-quality game – it’s easy enough, natural enough, to settle for mediocrity while intoning loftily about “public service.”

But that near-monopoly world is near-dead.  The Big Three got a big surprise, and so did Ma Bell. Big Publishing is terrified, and when was the last time you bought a CD?   Near-monopoly is great while it lasts – and “Monopoly” is a family-favorite game – but disruptions arise when they’re least expected.  Then, suddenly,  the safe, secure mediocrity of Ms. X and Mr. Y’s world is blown away by forces they never saw coming.  What will I – we – do to help them, to help B, U, M, and the others they’ve made in their image, as their skill sets are no longer required?  How will we build joyful learning communities strong, big, and diverse enough to welcome factory-world survivors?

Published in: on February 18, 2013 at 11:26 am  Leave a Comment  

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