Rites of Passage, III

After our struggles on Monday, I had a feeling Tuesday would be more pleasant in the mid-morning class.  And I was right.  D, of all people, came in and asked if everyone else in his group was “ready to do some work.”  There was some brief confusion about what work to do, and not everyone was totally productive.  But the community feeling, absent for a few moments on Monday, had returned, and so had a sense of ownership and responsibility.  “I think,” said D, T, and K when I asked them, “that I’d better do an Individual Response Minor Assessment this time.”

Almost everyone in the mid-morning class agreed; there were two productive groups, both almost finished with their stories and products despite the WiFi difficulties and the rather comical workaround for them. “All you have to do,” said an email, was a step that wouldn’t work.  What did work was to plug each school-owned laptop into an Ethernet cable, log in to the network that way,  then unplug and choose a wireless connection.  When I put up the directions for that, B, U, and M looked at me with incredulity.  “That’s a lot of work!” they said.  “Really?” I thought.  It takes a couple of minutes, if that.  But B, U, and M display what I’ve taken to calling the “digital native mindset” – the idea that pervasive technology should “just work” out of the box, without fiddling, adjustment, or effort.  So should life, they think; so should learning; so should everything.

As David Bernstein points out in this remarkable blog post,

True learning, especially in an age when you can look up everything on a smart phone in a matter of seconds, does not primarily involve absorbing the subject matter, it involves developing a thought process that allows you to analyze all this readily available information. Schools are largely stuck on the subject matter.

Confronted with things that do require effort and adjustment, B, U, M, and many others sit staring, frozen with astonishment and surprise.  Nothing in their experience prepared them for that!  Parents do everything for them (“It’s my fault,” said One Mom Recently, “because I can’t physically make Z get out of bed and come to school!”) or leave them to fend for themselves, completely on their own.  Ms. X yells, labels, barks orders about copying the notes and doing the problems this way, then responds furiously when her students don’t (magically) display initiative (her way!) on her  timeline.  Powers That Be hand down punishments and Stern Warnings, but never explain why.  Unsurprisingly, B, U, and others are stuck in an oddly infantilized adolescence …. one that’s connected, in complex ways, with the new phase of emerging adulthood we’ve been talking about this week.

In the afternoon class, C, T, T, and I were talking about rites of passage again – so much so that I had to ask them how they would have done on the opening activity after we all lost track of time.  “My generation,” said thoughtful C, “is really narcissistic.”  That’s true, I said, but all adolescents have been narcissistic ever since adolescence, as a phase of life, was invented 120 years or so ago.  My current students’ narcissism is qualitatively, quantitatively different from that of ten or fifteen years ago.  Back in 2003, if someone had started talking, loudly, about personal stuff in the midst of a whole-class activity, the “Latin Family” would have been surprised and puzzled.  I can see faces, now in their late 20’s and early 30’s but frozen in time for me at 16 or 17, looking at the offender with a mixture of surprise, contempt, disgust, and concern.  “What’s wrong with this person?” they’d be wondering.  “Doesn’t s/he understand what you do and don’t do?”

No, ghosts of Latin Family Past, I don’t think s/he does. When you were around, your parents and teachers took time to talk about why we do and don’t do Certain Things; Ms. X and Mr. Y today just scream in frustration, then “go ahead and do it for them” because there’s too much to cover.  Emily, who would have been your friend and classmate, ghosts, put it this way on Google+:

Alright, I am just thinking about this infantilization!

It is a standardized testing week at my school, as well as an AP week.  Standardized testing squared.

The instructions, the expectations, the directives that are given to the students AND the proctors (teachers) surrounding both sets of Standardized tests are nothing but expressing outright the belief that everyone in that room, be they a student or a teacher, is an infant.

As long as we have the factory model, we are stuck with this infantilization of both students and teachers.  I think about how, in ancient Rome, Greece, and Egypt, young men, the ages of my Seniors, would be giving their first political speeches.  The students CAN think, and work, and be trustworthy and adult-like, if they are only given the opportunity and the guidance to help them form into young adults and not old toddlers.

So, how do we break this?  How do we send the RIGHT messages, like the ancient cultures did?  Especially in this culture where WE, the teachers, are treated like babies as well, how do we break out of that pattern and find the trustworthy adult in all of us and our own students?

And her wonderful blog post from Tuesday grew out of the conversation that resulted.  Picking up on the testing theme, George noted that he

 did a stint of test proctoring for teacher candidates a few years ago. In one sense, it was easy money because of the infantilization—no thinking required or desired from anyone. The most interesting times were when “corporate” would send an observer out to check on the proctors. We didn’t do anything differently except exaggerate our movements (or non-movements) for the observer to show how we were adhering to the canned instructions.

It is possible in some cases, in some school environments, not to do this. But any mass testing situation (e.g. finals week in higher ed) lends itself to one-size-fits-all, and woe betide anyone who takes a different route.

And Debbie, with the profound Wisdom of her many years working with young children, added:

emerging adulthood — just another way to keep them immature? I can see that it is definitely happening. Knowing what is happening gives us the opportunity to take a closer look and see how things mesh with our intentions.
If we want our youth to be more mature then we need to start thinking about them that way and expecting them to behave that way.

Going to the world of early childhood education and I think of the toddler classes where the young children are expected to develop self-help skills because just imagine caring for a dozen toddlers as if they were still infants. And because the expectation is higher the children soon live up to it and dress themselves etc. Yes, some children are struggle and that’s ok but the expectation and guidance is still there.

As for rights of passage, I’ve often thought of this. I remember when my kids graduated from elementary school — that last year held much higher esteem and expectations. It was indeed a right of passage and the graduation marked achievement and the beginning of new learning. It was the step from being at the top of the ladder to starting on the bottom rung again as they were the young ones at the next school and isn’t that a valuable lesson?

As a joyful community – beyond the classroom – how can we enhance the idea of rights of passage? What do we, as adults, need to do to recognize the maturity levels, to see children/youth in a new light as they move from one level to another?

Perhaps the rights of passage are as much for the adults as they are for the children/youth – reminding us that they aren’t babies any more.

I think of my own great-great-grandparents, married at 18 and 16, traveling hundreds of miles to a new homestead because the “dry” climate of Kansas “would be better for his health” than the “wet” climate where they’d grown up.  I think of my great-grandmother a few years later, a young widow with several children running a homestead by herself.  Yes, it was a different world; yes, many things have changed; but no, nothing innate or unchangeable is keeping B and the others helpless and irresponsible.  How will we invite them – and their parents, and Ms. X and Mr. Y, and those self-protective Powers That Be –  to reclaim their birth-gifts of responsibility and joyful community?

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Published in: on May 15, 2013 at 10:09 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] In her blog yesterday, Emily talked about the fantasy of “preparing for college” without helping young people develop self-management and persistence.  And on Google+, Debbie reflected on the helpless hopelessness I’d mentioned Wednesday: […]


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