Something Old, Something New, I

Years ago, back when textbooks and worksheets still sort of worked for most or many of my students, we all looked forward to the end-of-year culminating activity.  At one time, it was the last thing we did before final exams, which were the last thing of all; later, when the testing window had moved back by a week or so to allow for remediation and retesting for students who hadn’t quite demonstrated mastery on the Required State Exams, it became the thing we did after exams … the last thing of all.

What was it?  Sort of a cross between a live-action role play and an improv scenario, built on the last set of stories we’d read in each class.  Everyone got a large or small part; there was time to re-read and learn more about your character; and the outcomes varied widely from year to year.

Why was it so popular?  Probably because it was engaging, and because it was so different from the crossword puzzles (“you will enjoy them, you bad, lazy child, or I’ll send you to the office!”) and videos Ms. X and Mr. Y were using to “fill the time” and “keep the kids busy” and “make the day go a little more smoothly.”

When we started experimenting with Tres Columnae, I put the old culminating activity aside for a while.  We tried making huge, scripted films of the story sequence of our choice, and we tried huge character diagrams that showed everything a character had thought, said, felt, done, and experienced from the Very Beginning until Where We Left Off.  Those things weren’t bad, and we’ve continued to use them … but not at the end of the school year.

It’s a strange time, and it calls for something different – something much more like those old culminating activities than what we’ve been doing for the past couple of years.

All last week, there were reminders from Powers about how “important” it is to make sure that students are “in class and on task” during these last few days.  “Whatever you do,” someone said, “please don’t tell Those Kids when grades have to be finalized.  That would be a disaster!”   My colleagues are firmly convinced that the only thing standing between them and chaos or worse is the threat of a bad grade, the promise of a good one.  I had a few brief conversations about grading with the “science ladies” last week, and I think we agreed that there’s not much clarity about what That Number really represents.  Mastery of the essential knowledge and skills?  Certainly.  Compliance with Ms. X’s rules and timelines?  No doubt.  A weapon to keep “bad, lazy kids” in line, working or pretending to work?  Apparently so.

That’s a big set of roles for one little number to play!

While Ms. X and Mr. Y are fretting that Somebody might let slip the Date When Grades Will Be Finalized, my students and I will be trying a new version of the culminating activity.  It’s an experiment for all of us – especially for the Latin II classes, who have come so far and grown so much, from warring factions (or something close to that) to joyful communities.  I had “always” known what I wanted the upper-level group to do: Tres Columnae Lectio XXVII breaks off, on purpose, right before a truly exciting sequence of stories in which young Lucius Valerius is sent on a mysterious mission far into northern Germany.  We’ll be exploring that mission – and Lucius’ growing interest in the pretty daughter of a local ruler he encounters – in our Culminating Activity, which “just happens” to incorporate all the themes of leadership and ethnicity and conflict and Roman virtues that we’ve been exploring in our reading of the Advanced Placement selections from Caesar and Vergil.

But I wasn’t sure what the Latin II classes should do.  I had a general idea, which led to a character-analysis activity at the end of the week: pairs drew names of “random” characters, looked back at stories in which those characters appeared, and then decided whether their “random” character was a protagonist, a villain, or a supporting character of some type.  But how would we pull those threads together with our last set of stories, the ones in Lectio XXVII that revolve around the weddings of Valeria and Lollia?

Then, in a flash, I realized something: each group, of whatever size it chooses, can create and play out its own scenario.  There are certain parameters – we’ll be talking about them today, and I’ll share them here tomorrow – but those two classes are ready, or almost ready, for such a level of ownership.  And if they aren’t, I’ll be there to direct and guide and suggest … and I already know which groups will probably need the extra direction.

Over the weekend, on this Google+ thread and this one, there were lively discussions of an interesting Getting Smart piece about cursive and coding as symbols of the old and new approaches to teaching and learning.  I’m not as sanguine as the author about the ease of such a  transition, having watched so many innovative, thought-oriented curricular approaches be “crammed,” as Clayton Christensen says, into the existing purposes of factory-style schools.  “I don’t have time for this nonsense!” Ms. X might well whine, “because there’s too much to cover and the kids are bad and lazy.  Besides, I’m not a computer person anyway, and technology and I don’t get along.”  But, anticipating such a reaction (and thus contributing to it), Powers and textbook publishers will “helpfully” provide Teachers’ Guides and Resource Kits, canned “coding problems” and the like, which Ms. X can easily grade as right (“the book way”) and wrong (the way you did it, Johnny or Jenny).

If you’ve worked in a factory school, or even just attended one, you recognize the issue, don’t you?

there is something significant about cursive and coding as symbols of different mindsets.  There’s one right way to write an upper-case cursive Z, and most people simply can’t, or won’t, do it “right.”  But coding – and making and creating – is a very different thing.  Does it run?  Does it achieve the desired results?  That’s the most important thing.  Now can we make it simpler, more elegant, cleaner?

This will be a slightly messy week, especially for those Latin II classes, as we experiment with designing and building culminating activities together.  For the first time in a while, I don’t have a clear vision of the end product … except that we’ll be filming something on Thursday and watching it, I think, on Friday.  Giving up control is hard – that’s why Ms. X longs for the Teacher’s Guide and Mr. Y clutches his Answer Key.  But in this very different world we’re building, you have to let go of those crutches and step out, even if tentatively.  How will we invite more and more people to take those steps?

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Published in: on June 3, 2013 at 10:16 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] the Culminating Activity I described yesterday – specifically designed to be a joyful, low-stress, creativity-enhancing end to the school year […]


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