Something Old, Something New, III

Poor Ms. X!  When I saw her briefly Tuesday morning, she looked pale and unwell; when I saw her leaving at the end of the day, she was completely exhausted.  “I haven’t been feeling well,” she told me, “but I haven’t really been sick.  I’m just tired, and the different schedules are tiring me out.”

Perhaps her comment on Monday was directly caused not by the deep factory paradigm it unconsciously revealed, but by her exhaustion and minor illness.  It’s hard to deal with interruptions when you aren’t feeling well … and the Other Boy’s appearance in class, combined with Ms. X’s distrust of scary “new technology” like texting, definitely constituted an interruption.

But regardless of the immediate cause, Ms. X’s statement had a profound effect on my thoughts.  And the underlying attitude – the notion that a Power ought to solve your problems for you – profoundly shapes our students’ views of the world, their school, and even themselves.

Tuesday was the Last Day of Exams, with the afternoon class moved to early morning and lengthened to a three-hour block.  We needed that time, even though most of us had finished two of the three parts of the exam. We got the Collaborative Product, a lengthy passage to read and create a timeline or Character Diagram about, over a week ago, and we all did Individual Oral Responses last Friday.  When everyone had finished the Written Response, we started working in earnest on the Culminating Activity I described yesterday.  B and B were excited to read some Tres Columnae Project stories so new that they’re not yet published on the site.  “I feel like I’m watching a bootleg video or something,” B said, and we all laughed together.

Then came lunch and some “planning” time (I did make some plans, but many exhausted colleagues were too exhausted to do anything but stare at piles of paper and complain about “too much to do”), and the exhausted, depleted afternoon class.  That was where I really felt the “Powers must solve things for us” mindset.  The schedule called for yearbooks to be distributed then, and that happened … but in a break from previous tradition, the only students allowed to attend the yearbook distribution and signing gathering were those who had purchased books.  There had been an unpleasant conflict at the gathering last year, one involving two students who hadn’t purchased yearbooks, and Powers That Be understandably wanted to avoid conflict.

And when you’re the one who has to solve problems for others, and you’re good at that, sometimes you solve them proactively.  You solve them by preventing them, or at least trying to.

“But that’s not fair!” moaned E, who had been involved in the conflict.  “That other girl doesn’t even go here anymore!  Why are They still punishing Us for that stupid thing?”

It’s hard for E to see that actions have lasting consequences everywhere, though she’s finally grasped that idea in the context of the Latin Family.  It’s hard to believe something that happens for 95 minutes a day when, all other times, at home and at school, you hear a totally different message – one of dependence and shouted orders, yelling and labeling, pain and punishment, packets and “just do it, don’t ask why” – from the Powers in your life.  Tuesday evening I came home to a recorded phone message from a different Power, another attempt to solve or prevent problems proactively.   With graduations impending, the Power had sent out this message to every parent – with copies to faculty and staff members – to remind them that, by school district policy, if they made noise during the calling of graduates’ names, they’d be escorted out of the auditorium.

Like the other Power, this one meant well …  meant to forestall trouble by being proactive.  But E felt angry and disrespected, not safe and protected.  And I wonder how that phone message sounded to parents who would never consider screaming at their child’s graduation.  How did it make them feel?  And what about those who had always planned to make a spectacle?  Were they deterred or inspired?

There’s such a thing, perhaps, as being too proactive.  Did Ms. X fall into that trap when she told That Boy to go to Our Principal first?  Did the Powers, when their attempts to prevent problems ended up creating a whole new set?  Do I when I’m tempted to do part of the work for exhausted, frustrated students?

Reflecting on these issues, Rachel noted on Google+,

As much as this sort of thing can scare teachers, it scares kids too.  They already know what it takes to get that number that they want in most classes.

The more creative I’ve asked kids to be, the more often I’ve had kids beg me for the simplicity of a worksheet with right and wrong answers.  However, at the end, they all end up feeling accomplished, or, the few who don’t, recognize and accept the consequences–which currently are a low grade (how cool would it be if the consequence was, say, having to do it over again, the right way? so being lazy ended up creating more work instead of a punitive grade).

And Brendan pondered,

Exactly — the factory model teaches powerlessness, and to run to an authority to resolve any problems.  And in the big picture, that leads to people handing over power, but then becoming too dependent for even the Powers to handle.

I think one effective way to change things is to help communicate a different way of thinking about choices and strategies than a lot of people are used to….

I think the questions from Friday’s post are useful to ask in the context of Ms. X’s comment.  Is it thoughtlessness that the factory brews, or is a particular kind of thinking?  Framing the question in those terms helps put Ms. X comment in perspective, but it also helps to unravel the dysfunctional consequences of running to authorities whenever there’s a problem.  Why can’t conflict resolution, perspective taking, brainstorming creative solutions, and communication skills in general be a core part of the purpose of education? ….

Ultimately, the question of how one interprets caring links right back to the discussion of the factory model.  Within the factory, people very equate often “being cared about” with some kind of problems, if not punishments.  In this view, the authorities start caring when there’s a problem, and it’s their job to solve it, using their limited repertoire of moves….

I’ve heard those plaintive cries too, Rachel and Brandon: “Please just give me a worksheet and tell me what to put on it!”  Or, as the Other B said when she got her copy of Pars Tertia of the Latin IV exam, “Oh, do you mean we just need to memorize this?”  No, B, you need to read the Latin passage and create a product about it and make the Thematic Diagram as directed on page 4 … there’s nothing to memorize here!

In a rapidly-changing world, it’s tempting to hold on to the comfort of the factory, even though we know the factory wasn’t actually comfortable and it’s not producing what we want.  Risk-takers have long since set out on their journeys; experimenters (am I one?) are tweaking results; and before too long those cautious Others will be taking tentative steps, too.  How will we risk-takers and experimenters welcome them, encourage them, and bring them into joyful community?

Published in: on June 5, 2013 at 10:37 am  Leave a Comment  

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