Finding the Balance, V

Earlier this week, I had a series of vivid, memorable dreams … vivid and memorable, that is, until I woke up and tried to remember them!  If you’ve read the Tres Columnae Project stories – and if you’ve read the Roman literature which inspired them – you know that dreams were important to the Romans, and to many other cultures.  Sometimes, as Callidus the snake reminds Trux the dog in this story, they’re signa et portenta from Beyond … but sometimes their origin is purely natural, in something bad you ate.  That’s really not so far, when you stop and think about it, from our current perspective on dreams: that we’re subconsciously processing our experiences, seeking patterns and meanings in them.

In any case, I’ve been thinking about dreams and visions a lot this week.  It’s the half-way point for our spring-semester courses, and that feels like a good time for both reflection and looking forward.  X, who always does manage to pull things together at the last minute, came to check on her grade Thursday morning, before the Field Day activities started.  She was happy that she’d (barely) managed an “A” for the reporting period, but then she said something profound: “I need to make sure I stay on top of things after Spring Break, because I don’t want to keep doing this.  And I know sometimes I’ll need to separate myself from my friends to stay focused.”  For X, there’s finally a sense of ownership, both of her grade and of the underlying learning it’s trying to measure.  And with that sense of ownership has come a sense of agency – she knows what she wants to do, and she knows how to get from here to there.

That, to me, is what learning communities are all about – building, or in X’s case restoring, that sense of ownership and agency.  At our best, that’s what all teachers – and all schools, factory-model or otherwise – aspire to develop in our students.  But just as X’s friends, family “stuff,” and other commitments sometimes distract her from her longer-term goals, the factory mindset and the legacy “stuff” in schools can be powerfully distracting.  And so can the tendency – common, even universal in large organizations – for different silos to develop.  As Spring Break approached, our schools received two directives from two different Powers That Be.  Don’t forget, said one department, to shut down and unplug all equipment, including computers, to save energy over the break.  But don’t forget, said another, to leave computers plugged in so that the automated update process can happen.

Coordination … and communication.  They’re connected to balance, to dreams, to visions.  Before the Field Day activities started on Thursday, I was talking with N, and he remarked that he expected things to be fun, but disorganized.  Despite a lot of planning work – by the Student Government members who planned the activities, the junior class officers who kept things moving, administrators who developed the actual schedule for the day – it seemed that most of the participants found things fun, but disorganized.  A few names had been left off of the official participant list, leading to a quick, clarifying conversation between D, L, and the Person In Charge.  Teachers were asked to supervise activities during times when they wouldn’t normally have students … but what were they to do when they’d normally be in class, but all their students were elsewhere?  The lunch schedule, arranged around classes that students would normally be attending, didn’t exactly correspond with the activity schedule in which they’d be participating.  And apparently it wasn’t clear that, to win the raffle or the opportunity to “pie” your favorite teacher (thanks for the name-brand whipped cream, y’all – it was yummy!), you’d need to bring the numbered ticket you had purchased.

Fun … but disorganized.  It’s better than boring and disorganized, or boring but well-organized, but it’s not as good as fun and well-organized.  As Barry noted this morning on Google+, in a response to Wednesday’s post,

What you want is a situation that is not periodic and sing-song, because that is so predictable, it’s instantly boring.  And you don’t want a situation that is so random, it’s white noise, like snow on a vacant TV channel (in the old days, when we had analog NTSC broadcast).

What you want is the balance between the two, which is a form of mathematical chaos that corresponds to edge-of-your-seat drama — predictable enough to follow the storyline, but unpredictable enough to have suspense an unpredctable outcome.

And Emily noted, in a comment that turned into inspiration for her own blog post,

Yesterday, in my class, as my students were supposed to be working on their projects, a discussion broke out.  Initially, it was just one group, but it quickly became an entire class discussion, while I looked on in amazement.  They were talking about the most recent all school assembly.  A speaker had come to talk about bullying and self-harm.  This quickly became a discussion about “actions, not words” and how we, as a school community, are so sheltered and “need a reality check” as one of my students put it.

My students were commenting that this “random routine” doesn’t allow for “real learning.” (Their words, not mine.)  “We need space to talk as a community.  There is no school community here,” one of my students said….

When are we going to start listening to these discussions?  When will there be time to have them?  When can we break out of this “complacent routine” and actually start learning?

In a joyful learning community, the answer to Emily’s questions is “all the time,” and the balance Barry calls for is there … most of the time.  But in factory-schools, it’s really hard to achieve that balance, to bring that dream or vision to reality.  What should we do today – each day – to come closer?

Published in: on March 29, 2013 at 1:16 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. If the daytime schedule doesn’t allow for it, one can instead organize an after school activity that is purely voluntary for those who wish to stay and engage.

    One of the advantages of after school activities is that it’s also easier for adults who are not on the faculty to make an occasional (or even regularly scheduled) visit to lead some pleasurable activity in the spirit of a voluntary participation learning community.

    The appropriate activity, of course, depends on the age, interests, and level of intellectual maturity of the students. If I were one of the adults who occasionally came around to engage with the students, I might bring my collection of puzzles — the ones I have used for over twenty years for a Puzzle Activity at the Boston Museum of Science.

    For older students, I might lead a seminar in ethical reasoning, the way I used to do on MicroMuse, the online learning community we pioneered on the Internet in the early 1990’s.

    Here, for example, is one of my all-time favorite ethical conundrums to ponder …

    It’s called “The Moral Majority Meets the Ethical Minority” and it goes like this:

    The Moral Majority makes a Rule. The Rule is: The Ethical Minority must obey the rule of the Moral Majority.

    What happens next?

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