A Stark Choice, II

Before the news of the tragedy in Boston, I’d been planning a different blog post, one focusing on the mundane, now suddenly precious details of Monday in the “Latin Family.”  It was a mixed bag of a day, like many Mondays  – especially Mondays in spring.  It’s Spring Spirit Week this week, as we prepare for the school’s entire athletic season, one basketball game and one volleyball match against a similar small “classical” school across town.  Different dress, different routine, a field trip, and a Monday – how, my students surely wondered, could anyone possibly expect meaningful work today?  Once we were mostly focused, I reminded them that, in any meaningful real-world setting, the day of the week isn’t really a barrier.  “I hope none of you join the military, find yourselves in a firefight on a Monday, and shout out to the enemy that you we need to postpone because of the day.  Or, for that matter, I hope I never go to a doctor on a Friday and get told the operation will have to wait … because it’s Friday.”  That got everyone’s attention, and things went well after that … though quite a few Latin II students will be doing an individual “Version B” response to the first Minor Assessment, since they’ve accomplished nothing with the collaborative, creative version.  And of course I was concerned about poor Ms. H, whose class I watched for part of the time because she’d fallen at home and apparently broken her hand.  There was distressing news, too, about kindly Mr. T, who substitute-taught with us for years and died suddenly over the weekend.  And of course there was typical teenage drama … and the good news of a meeting canceled with nothing on the agenda.

By mid-afternoon, I’d taken a load of books to a local used bookstore and was sitting peacefully in a comfortable chair, waiting for the books to be processed.  And then, as I scanned across the Google+ stream, came news of the explosions and  casualties.  Then came a “we’re OK” text from friends in Boston, then thoughts and prayers for those affected.

And, in just a few moments, everything changed.

Yes, it’s still important for my students to learn that lesson about the law of the farm, to see first-hand the effects of refusing to engage in our shared work.  Yes, we’ll still do the “Plan B” Minor Assessments today, and we’ll start seeing verba temporis praeterītī inperfectī as we read the first stories in Tres Columnae Lectiō XXIII.  The Latin IV and AP groups will still present their Vocabulary Curation products and their first Minor Assessment stories,retelling the story of Dido and Aeneas with a frame story for a Tres Columnae Project Lectiō of their choice.  On the outside, our routine will go mostly as planned.

But on the inside, much will change.

Tragedies, even when they don’t directly affect you, tend to sharpen your focus, to reminding you – at least briefly – of what you truly value.  All too soon, that feeling of standing together tends to dissolve … but  the dissolving is important, too.

When I woke up early Monday morning – or ate Sunday night – and the Google+ stream led me to Esko Kilpi’s blog post about three different paradigms for relationships in an organization, which Kilpi calls administrative, industrial, and social. In Kilpi’s terms, an administrative culture is one where each organizational function is its own “black box.”  They’re  coordinated by some distant, high-level Power, but workers see themselves as fundamentally disconnected.  In what Kilpi calls an industrial culture, there are one-way connections: there’s a linear process where later steps depend on earlier ones.  And in Kilpi’s social culture, every member of the organization, every “node of the network,” connects to everyone else as needed.  The factory-school culture attempts to combine the best (or the worst?) of administrative and industrial cultures, of course.

But when tragedies strike, when Bad Stuff Happens, that factory-veneer scratches off.  We return, quite easily, to the social paradigm, the network that sustains us in our griefs and supports us in our joys.  And I suppose that gives me an odd hope on a sad, quiet morning.

As Brendan noted Friday,

There are so many threads to pull together, and so many paths to go down to try to find them.  The factory model enforces disengagement and tends to make and real connection very difficult.  I think a lot about how all these insights can be pulled together into a format that enables more people to grasp the recurring themes, and how they might be relevant to their lives….

The factory model has a lot in common with the traditional economic model of people as abstract “rational actors” who behave in predictable and homogenous ways.  Ariely and others in the field of “behavioral economics” take a more psychological approach that takes into account how people behave in the real world.  Factory model schools assume that most students are these abstract “rational actors” who will comply with their structure, but when you look at the real people, there’s a lot that doesn’t work, just like when it comes to traditional economic theory.

The key is to look at people as individuals, with differences, with the capacity to not only learn, but develop, but who don’t behave in totally sensible ways much of the time.  When the system is corrupt or dysfunctional, it’s easy for people to feel like there’s nothing they can do, and if there’s no straightforward way to communicate about the problems and how they might be addressed, the feeling of a chaotic, broken environment tends to spread to life itself, making the factory seem like the only possible way things could be done.

Jerry Michalski, near the end of his TEDx talk I shared yesterday, sees promise in schools not founded on “the new OCD of obedience, compliance, and dependence.”  I do, too … but it’s hard to get from here to there when everything about here is built on that foundation.  It’s even harder when students – well-trained to be passive and dependent – passively-aggressively resist the scary alternative of joyful community.  The factory way would be to double down on the processing, the yelling, the labeling, the pain-punishment cycle … and the factory way is tempting.  How can we work toward joyful community in good times and bad? Can we build it when even potential participants are scared to trust?

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Published in: on April 16, 2013 at 9:53 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] of that “feeling” on their current grades.  They’d been physically present when we talked about soldiers and doctors working even when they don’t feel like it … but, knowing B, […]


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