Years ago, when I first ran into Stephen Covey’s description of The Law of the Farm, it was a sudden, intense flash of insight … the kind you remember, years later, with perfect clarity. A few details have faded – I’ve re-read Covey’s books many times, so I’m not sure where I was or what I was doing – but the impression remains: this would change everything.
It’s a simple idea, really, so simple that, before twelve decades of industrialization, no one would have bothered. You reap what you sow. When you pick up one end of the stick, you pick up the other. A stitch in time saves nine. Proverb after proverb, from culture after culture, contains the essential wisdom: good things take time and patience; actions have consequences. But at the end of the Industrial Age – with all its advertising messages about new and improved and you deserve it, about no money down and easy financing available – it’s an unsettling, even revolutionary message.
It certainly was for my mid-morning Latin II class on Friday. I’d realized that they needed to understand the choice-consequences connections, to grasp that being part of a community means abiding by its norms (or, in a more advanced form of community, working within the system to change the system). For the early-morning class, just the mention of Version A and Version B assignments had been enough to refocus the few) struggling groups, if not to actual collaboration (or do I mean cooperation?) then to individual, quiet, sad forms of disengagement. But the mid-morning group came from Ms. X and Mr. Y – Ms. X and Mr. Y, on a Friday, with “so much to cover” and state testing coming up soon, and with a theme-dress day and Spirit Week and an altered schedule and everything. And Progress Reports on Monday, which Ms. X and Mr. Y “forget” because they don’t look at the calendar; they’re too busy, you see, yelling and labeling at their students for “being irresponsible” and “not managing their time” and “ignoring deadlines.”
As the mid-morning group came in, I listened to my intuition, which said “This won’t go exactly as planned. But trust me, and it will go well in the end.” Out of 28 students, maybe 5 are the “problematic” ones – and they’re problematic in an interesting way. When they destroy the community, it’s not intentional or deliberate; they’ve just never grasped that real consequences flow from one’s actions. So, naturally, they “lose” their Forms Consolidation Sheets, leaving them crumpled on the floor at the end of class … because Ms. X yells and takes off points about notebook organization, but never explained why organization is important. They start conversations, loudly, in the middle of a whole-class activity – not because they mean to be rude, but because they want to talk right then. They play-fight, poke each other, do unbelievably distracting, immature things – not because they intend to send a terrible message about themselves, but because they’re unaware of the message they’re sending. Words and actions are totally separate categories for them. Besides, Ms. X uses lots of words, and everybody knows you don’t have to pay attention to her!
So, naturally, they kept talking and laughing – with an utter disregard for anything beyond themselves that’s more frightening, in some ways, than deliberate rudeness could ever be. And then came a flash of insight.
Here’s how I described it on Google+ Friday evening:
My “problem” class, as expected, tried every available tool of resistance: talking, commenting, laughing under their breath … every imaginable form of gratuitous rudeness they’ve learned over the years, the ones that make Ms. X turn bright red and start yelling.
So I told them they’d chosen Option C, the Traditional Latin Class, instead of both Option A and Option B. And then I ran a Traditional Latin Class, vintage 1960 or so, for about 20 minutes – complete with “X, stop talking; Y, stop talking; X, stop laughing; Y, turn around; A, answer the question; no, now; etc.” They were astonished – “this isn’t a regular class!” “No,” I replied, it’s not the “regular” kind you might experience at some awful school with no expectations; it’s a Traditional Latin Class. And if you don’t want Joyful Community, and aren’t willing to work productively, this is what you get.
Oh, the anguish! But then reality hit home and they started to cooperate.
It only took about 20 minutes because (1) I do have more energy than they do (nice to know) and (2) I know how to play that awful game a LOT better than they do. Once everyone had stopped making animal noises, etc. (they were clearly desperate when they reached for the third-grade techniques!), we talked about how Plan A and Plan B work, and about why Plan B is necessary when you show, with your actions, that you can’t or won’t collaborate … because, as we know, collaboration is working together, and if we won’t work together, we must work separately; we can’t use the pretense of collaboration to distract others who are actually collaborating. In the same way, if you won’t use technology as a learning tool, you don’t get to use that particular piece of technology as a distraction for yourself or others.
It would have taken longer with a more-entitled group. But underneath all the bluster and immaturity, they’re sweet kids who wanted to know where the limit was and somehow hadn’t figured that out yet.
It would have taken longer – not that much longer – if J had been there, since she and U feed each other. It might have taken longer if K hadn’t needed to go see Ms. D. But it wouldn’t have taken that much longer, and the results, in the end, would have been similar. Underneath it all, my five “offenders” are sweet, very immature, very “young inside,” crying out for guidance and direction, for the limits parents and other teachers won’t help them set. They were crying out, in other words, for a joyful learning community, one that cares enough to say “No, if you do A, B will happen. If you choose C, D will follow.” The last 50-60 minutes of the class were the most productive we’d had in months, and the “offenders” were calm, polite, and focused.
As we build alternatives to the factory-school model, we’ll be attracting many young learners like U, J, D, B, and N, who desperately need structure and guidance, but a different kind from the factory-model “do what I tell you because I said so and I’m The Boss.” They need – don’t know they need, may even resist – the Law of the Farm with its shared structure, guidance, and discipline. How do we find them, invite them, support them, challenge them, and help them become part of the communities they crave?