Speaking for Others, III

B, a quiet senior, was upset on Tuesday morning. It seems Ms. X requires a particular-sized three-ring binder for her students, and she’d given them an assignment that – as far as B could tell – was too large to fit.  When he asked, she told him she’d “have to give him a zero” if the assignment wasn’t in the binder, where it was supposed to be.

I don’t know where to begin!

Of course I only know one side of the story.  Perhaps B misunderstood how Ms. X wanted the assignment done, or maybe there’s some special way to get the product into the binder.  I haven’t seen the binder or the assignment, either.  And maybe Ms. X was having a bad day, or B was the fifth, fifteenth, or fiftieth person to ask That Question.  And sometimes teachers pull out the threat of The Zero as a way to “motivate” students to “do better.”

But I still wonder how the presence in the notebook correlates with the quality of the assignment.  I asked my friend Ms. M about that at lunch, and she was puzzled too.  Then I wondered if Ms. X knows how That Zero will affect B’s grade, and what exactly she wants “her” grades to measure and represent.

Numbers … and data.  Sometimes we teachers focus on individual numbers so closely that we miss the bigger picture, the greater purpose – like what those numbers are supposed to represent, and whether the assignments that generate numbers actually measure what we think they do.  That’s a core theme of Paul Bambrick-Santoyo’s book, but not one we’ve really started discussing yet.  At Monday’s meeting there was a long PowerPoint summarizing the first two chapters, with a bit of discussion about our district’s previous attempts at common interim assessments.  But nobody seemed interested in – or ready for – that next-level discussion about our own grading and assessment practices.

Meanwhile, Tuesday was a different kind of data day.  X, Y, B, and O had agreed to try a discrete “manage focus and volume” signal, so we tried that out on Tuesday during a whole-group reading activity.  There were some technological glitches that led to more whole-class work than I’d originally planned.  But in thirty minutes, I noticed, I used the signal ten times – 8 or 9  just for X and Y, who were so wrapped up in each other that they could barely remember the world outside.  When we moved into a longish small-group task, I shared the numerical data with them … and they were surprised, as people often are when, all of a sudden, the unquantified gets quantified.  We’ll be working on a plan to reduce the number of signals and the need for them … and now that everyone knows the extent of the problem, that will be a whole lot easier.  I mentioned the idea to U and J (B was absent, as he often is on Tuesdays), and we’ll see if it helps them too.  U was convinced that he “only” interrupted everyone else “about five times,” though I had counted nine or possibly ten.

Looking at both numerical and non-numerical data, I’d noticed that the Latin IV groups get distracted if a task takes more than 15 or 20 minutes to complete.  So, as we work our way through Book V of Caesar’s Gallic Wars, I shared that observation with them and asked them to try out a new structure.   There are 6 naturally-formed pairs and one group of three, so each group was assigned to specialize in a 10-to-15-line section, reading it aloud in Latin and then finding two or three main ideas to share with the whole group.  Meanwhile, the AP group attempted – and generally succeeded with – a Very Rapid Reading of the same material.  We all felt better about our productivity than we had in a long time, too, and we’ll see if that good feeling continues as we repeat the structure today.

Numbers and data can help!  But the right people have to focus on the right numbers.

Picking up on the gardening theme from Monday and Tuesday’s posts, Debbie noted on Google+

I read your blog today, getting a little snippet of the lives of some of the students, and my heart is aching. Our young struggling with this or that, trying to find a way to fit, to sink their roots firmly into the earth, to flourish and prepare to blossom (gardening reference again) … and, yet, so many of them do this without the support of the gardener. We go about our daily gardening activities, doing what we are supposed to do but we forget to look at the individual plants, the individual students, to see what each needs, what we can do specifically to tend to THAT plant and its needs.
I feel so sad that so many young stories are un-heard, un-respected, un-supported… and then I listen to your story and I hear you listening, respecting, supporting and I smile. I am grateful, I am thankful. I am thankful that you and so many other teachers like you are out there taking the time to think about the individual student and the why behind behaviours, including test scores.
Thank-you to all the teachers and mentors out there tending to the next generation.

And in her post for Tuesday, Emily talks about the importance of shared stories, personal attention, and regard for each individual, too.  As I looked around the tables of teachers at Monday afternoon’s meeting, though, I wasn’t sure how willing – or even how able – we are to shift our focus from the whole garden to each plant.  We’re tired, busy, overwhelmed; there’s “not enough time” and “too much to do;” it all sounds hard, scary, different, uncomfortable.  In the end, the joyful learning community is worth the work, just like a flourishing garden.  But what it take to help Ms. X and Mr. Y change their focus from process to plants?

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Published in: on March 20, 2013 at 10:36 am  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Consider the definition of two alternative cultural models:

    1. Control-Oriented, Rule-Oriented, Punishment-Oriented, Bureaucratic and Authoritarian Police Culture

    2. Observation-Oriented, Function-Oriented, Education-Oriented, Scientific and Authoritative Academic Culture

    Now let me pose a very hard problem about those two cultural models.

    Please tell me which one is benign and which one is wicked.

    Think it over. Be sure you’re right. Then go ahead.

    Support your determination with evidence, analysis, and reasoning.

    • Barry, this is such a great question; it deserves a longer answer than I can give here. My flippant answer is choice 3, all of the above and none of the above … depending on how you define “benign” and “wicked” and on how the models actually play out. More later.

  2. […] a comment on yesterday’s post, Barry […]

  3. See if you can define “benign” and “wicked” from the point of view of how they modulate the group dynamics along the Empathy-Antipathy Axis.

    Which of the two cultures tends to drift toward the Antipathy end of that axis? And which of the cultures tends to drift toward the Empathy end of that axis?

    Which end of that axis would you prefer to drift toward? Why?

    Given your answer to the last question, can you devise an even better cultural model for your express goal with respect to navigating the Antipathy-Empathy Axis?


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