There are lots of good reasons for me not to be at the Building Learning Communities conference this year, even though the topic is dear to my heart and I’ve admired Alan November’s work for a long time. I even got to hear him live last summer, an experience that inspired me but irritated, even infuriated Ms. X and Mr. Y. If I remember correctly, they were mad (or said they were) because “They” spent “all that money” to “bring that guy in for a dog and pony show” at a time when Ms. X and Mr. Y needed to “work on our classrooms.” Maybe they were actually mad because his speech moved their cheese and challenged them to focus on learning rather than teaching, on active students rather than those perfect, static rooms.
Ms. X and Mr. Y love “working on their rooms.” They spend hours, begging relevant Powers That Be to keep The Building open late, to open it on a Saturday morning, so their “rooms will be ready” before the Big Day.
And, as the very first lecture in “Design Thinking Action Lab” points out, space is a critical element of the design process, along with people and process. I feel the echoes of that team, place, and time to build the dream phrase as I watch the lecture videos and think about my responses to them. And over the years, I too spent hours thinking about the physical layout of the space, the flow of activities, students, and papers, the processes and procedures we’d use to ensure that things run smoothly. At the peak of the Previous Iteration of the Latin Family, everything was seamlessly connected, “perfectly” designed, just like Ms. X and Mr. Y’s fantasy classroom, only more so.
But there’s a problem with “perfect,” isn’t there? When things are too “perfect,” there’s no room for the people, because people can’t be perfect. Especially young people. They ask “annoying” questions (which Young Ms. X, as a beginning teacher, briefly tried to banish to tutoring sessions), they’re “too slow” or “too fast,” and they don’t quite understand your “perfect” procedures and directions. Or, worse, they follow the procedures and directions “perfectly,” but somehow they still don’t quite understand That Central Concept, or they “do bad on the test” despite the “perfect” study guide.
Setbacks aren’t fun, but they’re important. So are conflicts and disagreements and misunderstandings when you see them as opportunities, not disasters. On the way back from The Girl’s theater camp session Wednesday, we stopped to pick up lunch … and there was one miscommunication after another. Nothing serious or earth-shattering … but it was odd because we “always” stop at that Subway when we’re in the mood for a sub, and when we do, we “always” get the same thing. Or at least The Boy and The Girl do, while I have a short list of favorites. Yesterday, though, it was louder than usual, and there were lots of distractions and interruptions for the Sandwich Artists as they tried to assemble our meal. Fortunately for everyone, they asked and clarified when they got confused or distracted. In the classroom, Ms. X would have yelled and labeled, but in the restaurant, I hope she would have been grateful. If not, she might have ended up with Tuna and Jalapeno when she’d ordered the Cold Cut Combo.
The rest of the day was full of steps and connections. I discovered Hannah Nguyen’s blog and was glad to find such a thoughtful, passionate voice at the very beginning of her teaching career. Christine’s longish quote from Anne Bishop’s book Becoming an Ally got me thinking once again about power and authority and the complex roles they play in building, sustaining, sometimes destroying the communities in which they’re situated; I’m looking forward to exploring the accompanying website, which I just discovered this morning. A conversation with Brendan led to a chance to explore Rizzoma, which is apparently based on the late, lamented Google Wave but takes the idea in a fascinating, different direction … and somehow manages to look beautiful and function well even on a tiny smartphone screen. I’m working on answers to Brendan’s questions there, the ones I featured in yesterday’s post. When they’re ready, but not “perfect,” I’ll share them here. Let’s just say it’s exciting to see so many different threads come together and connect, and it’s even more exciting to discover that old, long-buried interests and passions of mine will be relevant, even central, to these exciting new projects.
The more I think about Ms. X and Mr. Y’s quixotic quests for the “perfect” classroom, the more connections I see with both reformers (of the hated “corporate” variety) and the self-styled “badass teachers” who oppose them. Both groups seem to think the perfect system is possible; they both apparently buy into the false 20th-century dream of industrial scale. Fix a few things, bolt on something shiny and new, take out something that’s no longer appealing, and “the system” will be perfect. For example, this report advocates for state or mayoral “control” of educational systems as if that’s never been tried anywhere before. And many “badasses” seem convinced that, if only “they” would “trust us” and “leave us alone” and “end all the testing,” a Golden Age of factory-model education would quickly return.
For the children!
But “the children,” as an undifferentiated group, don’t exist, and neither do “the parents” or “the teachers” or even “the Powers That Be” or “the schools” or “the districts.” There’s a dizzying diversity of individuals, instead, each with very different strengths and needs. But for us pattern-seeking humans, too much complexity is overwhelming, as Josh Kaufman points out in a section of his book that I read yesterday. We seek patterns because that’s what we do … but unless we “prime” ourselves to look for particular patterns and information, we may well see things that aren’t there and miss the things that are. Acting on those incomplete understandings, we all too often cause “slow leaks and blowouts” for those we aim to “help,” to borrow the powerful central image from Amanda’s recent post.
But if you’re building a joyful community, you want it to grow … and when things don’t grow, they have a distressing tendency to die. How can we balance that need for growth, even scale, with the reality that industrial scale is a false dream? And what lessons will we draw from the steps and setbacks along our paths today?