Speaking for Others, I

“Beware the Ides of March!”  Many Latin teacher friends of mine stage elaborate re-enactments of Julius Caesar’s death on the Ides; others celebrate with food and festivities.  But I never have.  If my students were deeply, passionately interested in doing so, we would … but they never have been.  I’m glad to suggest, to be a resource, to persuade, but I’ve grown wary – and weary –  of trying to compel.  Besides, this year,  band students were away at a competition.  So our daily agenda on Friday, which always includes the Roman date, just said “ĪDVS MARTIAS (CAVETE),” and we briefly talked about how it had not been a good day to be Julius Caesar.

The Latin II classes were working to finish their second Minor Assessment, a story that fills in a “gap” for Tres Columnae Lectio XX, while the Latin IV and AP students were working on their “Perspectives of the Trojan War” product.  I wanted the day to belong to them, not me … and for the most part, it did, though I did start a few conversations about staying on task and not disturbing others and why aren’t you having this conversation with yourself?

It was a beautiful day, and the Bradford pear tree outside our classroom window was in bloom … and that meant the whole campus smelled like dead fish, or worse.

There’s a Bradford pear in the front yard of the Current House, too.  When my children were small, it was their favorite climbing tree – except when it was in bloom.  Today, as we’re working on selling the house to a friend who wants to buy it, those Bradford pears have taken on a symbolic significance.

Bradford pears aren’t native to my part of the world, you see.  They were brought in and planted, en masse, in subdivisions because they grow quickly and look pretty … if you disregard That Smell. Oh, and they’re highly susceptible to storm damage, they don’t live very long, and they don’t produce edible fruit.  Maybe that makes them the perfectly adequate Industrial Age tree – prettily interchangeable, easily replaced, not too long-lasting, and no “troublesome” fruit.   The Current House was spec-built in the early 1990’s; nobody asked for its particular set of features, but it’s been perfectly adequate for a succession of owners.  Nobody asked for the Bradford pears, either, but somebody assumed they’d be perfectly adequate for their settings.

And nobody asks students in 20th-century classrooms, either.  We just assume we know “what they need,” and we work hard to “deliver” that to them.  Teachers find perfectly adequate materials, administrators observe perfectly adequate lessons, students take perfectly adequate notes and perform … well, not so adequately, it seems, on those perfectly adequate standardized tests.  In the absence of perfectly adequate scores, Powers That Be behave like The Leadership of any 20th-century organization, casting about for that one thing that, once changed, will make everything perfectly adequate – a new curriculum, more “rigorous” standards, “tougher” requirements for students or teachers.

But is that like expecting jelly – or sweet-smelling flowers – from Bradford pears?  There’s nothing “wrong” with a Bradford pear on its own terms, but it’s not designed to smell good or bear fruit.  And factory-model schools were designed to sort and select students, with a few perfectly adequate and a lot in other categories.

Different species of ornamental pears, it seems, can interbreed … and their wild offspring are prolific, irregular, even thorny.  Is there a lesson in that?  When released from factory-model confines, young people are often wild, prolific, irregular, even thorny – and that’s why we school people fear “giving them too much freedom,” isn’t it?  I fight that fear myself whenever “my” students (who made them mine?) pursue their own agendas in place of the carefully-structured activities I’ve built for them.  I wonder about “too much freedom” and “enough structure,” about trusting the process – and the students.  About saying something when someone gets irregular or thorny … what to say, how, when, what tone to use.  In my quest to build a joyful learning community with shared ownership, a place where we build meaningful things together, how should I respond to those who don’t want to participate?  Or with those who unintentionally sabotage things because they’ve never learned how to be part of a community?  (Deliberate sabotage is different, I think.)

If you’re a teacher, you often find yourself speaking for others.  Sometimes I speak for “the Romans” or the Classicists who love and study them.  Sometimes I speak in the voice of authority.  And sometimes I speak – or think I speak – for the community, representing them to someone harming them or, perhaps, to an external authority.  And it’s easy, and natural … but isn’t it presumptuous?  When I speak for the community, am I depriving “my” students of their own voice?  Am I, with every good intention, doing what Ms. X does, with every good intention, when she reads That Textbook out loud and hands out That Worksheet?

Am I digging up a wild, beautiful forest, planting Bradford pears, and complaining about the smell?

As Gerol noted on Google+ Friday,

One of the reasons I’m profoundly hopeful about #oer is precisely that it starts with the premise that ownership is intrinsically shared, rather than concentrated in the hands of some-and-not-others. There’s much rhetoric about teachers being learners, and vice versa: if we’re serious about blurring the role-distinctions, why would we continue to privilege those in the ‘teacher’ role as being privy to the data? (I would extrapolate the argument to admins, also. 🙂

What will I need to do to help my students build real ownership – and a real voice – in a structure that assumes it can and should speak for them?  How will we build a joyful learning community, with real ownership and real voices and real choices, in the midst of a teaching factory with very different aims?

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Published in: on March 18, 2013 at 10:20 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] one.  It probably helped that, with the doors and windows closed, we really couldn’t smell that Bradford pear at […]


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