Finding the Path, I

If you’re reading this post “live,” it’s a peaceful, rainy Easter Monday morning in my face-to-face world.  Even though our Spring Break began on Friday, today feels like the first real day of vacation.  On a “normal” day, we’d be almost finished with the first class of the day by now … but instead I sit on the sofa, looking out at the rainy morning, as the cat and the dog amuse themselves and as the rest of the family continues to sleep.  Later in the day, it will be sunny and warm, and we have a few vacation-day things planned.  But at the moment, the quiet stillness of the house – punctuated only by a few birds singing outside, and by the occasional movement of an animal inside from one resting place to another – is exactly what I need.

Sometimes, when you’re on a journey, the path is obvious … and sometimes it isn’t.  And sometimes, on a long journey, you need to take time to rest.

Have you read Emily’s blog post from today?  Her image of learning community as dinner party is powerful … especially for me today, as I think back on two parties we attended yesterday.  First came the buffet-style reception after yesterday’s church service, and then the traditional Easter evening gathering of friends, a sit-down party, which I hadn’t been able to attend for a few years.  To be fair, we did serve ourselves , but everybody took a bit of everything.  Then we sat together around the table, enjoying each other’s company and conversation.  It’s a completely different feeling from the one you get in a large hall, with folks standing or sitting in small friendship clusters, eating only the things that struck your fancy.  The conversations are different, and the rhythm of the gathering is different, too.  When you finish your food at a reception, you typically leave; when you’re at a real dinner, you linger and talk.  How can we build learning communities where lingering is the norm, where all voices are honored, where there’s no mad rush to the Next Thing?  Communities where the path is as important as the destination??

This post – along with the fuller version here – does a great job of distinguishing between typical schools and learning communities, and this one addresses one of the foundational paradigms of non-learning-community schools: their focus on correcting deficits rather than honoring strengths.  Somehow … but I don’t know quite how … these threads are connected with the image of learning community as joyful dinner party.  Can you help me see more of the connections?

Responding on Google+ to the deficit-thinking post, Laura said,

This really gets at the question of what is the GOAL of education – are we doing it for the students… or is it something the students are doing for “us,” for the system, for some external set of requirements and goals that (I guess?) serve the needs of society…?
I try to straddle the in-between – the students are motivated to tell their own stories, create their own websites… and along the way I try to deal with writing deficits.
But it’s very crazy-making because they are two kinds of education that are not especially compatible.

I thought about her comment as I talked with the one high-school-aged person at our Sunday evening gathering, who’s so frustrated by the focus on test scores and minimal competency at the highly-rated school she attends.  We talked about sorting and labeling, and she said she feels the effects all the time.  In her school-world, as testing days approach, the “level two kids” get desperate, poorly-planned, scattershot “remediation” that doesn’t actually address either their strengths or their weaknesses.  Ms. X just “goes over it again,” desperately hoping that the “bad, lazy ones” will “get it this time.”  Meanwhile, B and her “level three” and “level four” friends are told to sit quietly and wait, or given coloring sheets and other mindless “busy work” to fill their days.  What about the “level one kids,” so far behind that they’d probably still be “level one” even if Ms. X paid attention to them?  B is an “honors” student, so she has “advanced” classes where such students rarely appear.  She couldn’t really speak to their experience.

The great promise of the No Child Left Behind Act was in its title … in the idea that, for the first time ever, no child would be left behind because, with universal testing and consequences for failure, inequities would be exposed and teachers, schools, and districts would … remedy those deficits.  It didn’t work out as planned.  The great promise of the Race to the Top initiative, in turn, was that as states and districts raced, they’d bring all of their students along … again, reducing or eliminating those deficits.  But top-down initiatives in large organizations … all too often, they run into walls of “it’s always been this way” and “this is what we actually do.”  Deficit thinking is at the heart of “what we actually do,” of course, and it’s easy to focus on that to the exclusion of the Scary New Changes.  At least in B’s experience, spray and pray methodology is alive and well, even after more than a decade of  (supposedly) contrary messages … and even with some young, recently trained teachers who, presumably, would have been unaffected by Bad Old Ways from Bad Old Days.

To return to our food metaphor, factory-model schools are the stereotypical school cafeteria: no choices, inedible food, poorly prepared, glopped on the tray, eaten in haste (and perhaps even in mandated silence) as angry monitors roam around looking for trouble.  A buffet-style reception is definitely better than that … but not as good as that intimate gathering of friends sharing food, sharing stories, sharing life together.  What will we need to do today, each day, to move from one type of meal to another?  And is it even possible to make the industrial cafeteria more like the buffet or the gathering?

Published in: on April 1, 2013 at 1:42 pm  Comments (1)  

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