Telling Stories Together, II

As I reminded the mid-morning class about the choices they’d made on Friday, when they overwhelmingly told me they “wanted” a “worksheet-type” Minor Assessment, their faces fell. “Is it on Edmodo?” several asked. No, I said; the directions for all three  versions are there, but Version C – with a new story to read – only comes in hard-copy. Sad, sad faces revealed that many had planned a “quick and easy,” but deceitful “reading” with their “friend” Google Translate.

How stupid did they think I was? Well, maybe not stupid, but thoughtless, heedless of the power – and the limitations – of technology, perhaps like many of their other teachers who just want it done and don’t care how.

On the #21stedchat Twitter chat Sunday, we talked about two pedagogical models unknown to many of us: TPCK (or TPACK) and SAMR. I keep thinking about SAMR, because it’s about the ways technology changes learning tasks.  Ms. X and Mr. Y (and the Mr. Y inside  me) fear change as much as they (we) fear truly engaged students!  Technology is great … if only it stopped at S for Substitution! When it changes the learning task – when you don’t just do the worksheet online  or get pretty charts and graphs of  online multiple-choice results – we can get nervous and uncertain.

So do our students! Outside of Latin class, when have they experienced anything beyond Substitution? When have their teachers taken time to talk about the why – or the how – of using tech tools for learning?  Or about the why and how of learning in general?

Twenty years ago, when I still used textbooks and pencil-paper tests, my students knew that every test would be followed, usually the next day, by a Test Correction process. As pairs or groups, they’d work question by question, figuring out (for each item they missed) what was being measured and what the best answer was.  The summative measure for the previous unit became a pre-assessment for the next, and students gave themselves – and each other – formative feedback in the process.

For years it was a “Latin Family” favorite. I’ve preserved bits of it, too.  For example, in the rubric for Monday’s Minor Assessment, every category not only describes students’ performance (“I was able to distinguish main idea and some details when the vocabulary was familiar, but I struggled with unfamiliar vocabulary”) but gives suggestions for future work (“I probably need to pay specific attention to recent vocabulary”).  We’ll take some time Wednesday, when everyone is finished, to explore the “I probably need to” statements. For those who’ve over-learned the factory-school lesson of fixed intelligence, I hope it’s a revelation.

By the time I stopped using the pencil-paper tests and corrections, far too many of my students had clearly mastered that lesson. Only those labeled as “good little students” knew how to approach the task. For the others, it was an unfathomable mystery. If almost everybody has been “bad and lazy” on a particular test, Ms. X “lets” them make corrections – after school, of course, so most students can’t come – but she’s only interested in right answers, and she won’t entertain questions or collaboration. Even “her” correction reinforce the factory-belief that tests measure something fixed and unchanging, that their purpose is to label you, once again, as “such a good little student” or “that awful, bad, lazy child.”

No wonder my students both crave and  fear “worksheet-type” tests! No wonder they just want to get good scores! For those with the “good” label, it’s confirmation that all is still as it should be. For the “bad and lazy” ones, you might as well get it over with, confirming what you already know too well.

Ironically, standardized tests, test preparation, “growth tests,” “benchmarks,” and all the high-stakes apparatus were intended, their designers say, to root out that sorting and selecting from schools. By charting progress, by seeing growth over time, both students and teachers would come to believe (what we say we believe) that “all children can learn.” But like any single-shot solution injected into a complex system, it all got absorbed – “crammed,” in Clayton Christensen’s terms – to serve the system’s existing, unstated purposes.

That’s what systems do best: perpetuate themselves.

In a limited-share Google+ post, Debbie described a wonderful day of joyful learning community she spent with her almost-two-year-old grandson. She had a half-formed plan, but he had other ideas … leading to lots of laughter, lots of learning, lots of happy time together. Reflecting on the day, she said,

And then… and then….
There were a few more side-track events and as I sat there waiting and watching I thought about the classroom and how frustrating this could be for a teacher. +Justin Schwamm talks about the Ms. X and her “bad and lazy students” and I imagined the frustration that “she” would have at trying to keep the student focused on the task at hand. I thought about the learning opportunities we would have missed if I had kept my grandson’s mind focused on the current game.

And I thought about how his brain was working – how he needed breaks from the activity, how he was connecting experiences and knowledge together to enhance his understanding, how he brought a wonderful “joyous community” moment into the game by purposely making a “wrong answer”, and how long we actually played the game, strengthening the sorting and labelling neural paths.

And then I thought again about Ms. X and how much of the frustration comes from her time frame, her need to complete this activity now so she can move on to the next concept. I thought about her expectation that learners need to stay focused on task until it is completed as “it is the only way to ensure success”. “My agenda”, “my time frame”, “my teaching style”, “my needs”. …. disregarding the meandering path of learning, with all of its tangents.

If you’re building a joyful learning community – a big, ongoing one like the “Latin Family” at its best, or a small one with grandmother and  grandson – there’s time and space for that “meandering path of learning,” where the tangents are actually the most important thing. But if you’re building a teaching factory, there’s no time for such nonsense. Is it possible to build learning communities strong and vibrant enough to overwhelm the factory mindset? To burst the confining factory walls in a blaze of the Fire of Truth? If so, sign me up now … but if not, what’s the next right step for community builders?

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Published in: on April 30, 2013 at 10:11 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] our struggles on Monday, Tuesday was much better for the mid-morning class.  We started, as we often do, with a Match The […]


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