Reading the Signs

When I was a small child, I was careful not to step on cracks in the sidewalk.  Why?  Because my Aunt Helen had taught me the old rhyme, “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back” … and even though I didn’t quite believe that there could be a causal link between the two, I didn’t want to find out the hard way.

I was a cautious child, except when I wasn’t.  I liked being the second or third person to try something new.  Not the first, because I wanted to make sure it was reasonably safe, but not the last, because even then I think I understood some things about the last person, or the last few people, the ones  stubbornly clinging to the way Things Always Were or the way they’re Supposed To Be even when it’s clear that “always” and “supposed to” are never coming back.  I didn’t want to be That Guy … and yet I didn’t want to be That Other Guy who jumps in “too fast.”  Maybe That Other Guy won’t step on a crack … but he might just fall over a precipice or into a chasm, and he might end up breaking his own literal or metaphorical back.

In the diffusion of innovations model, I was an early adopter, but I wasn’t an innovator.  No bleeding-edge, alpha-release, “probably won’t work” stuff for me … but I was more than glad to get the beta version, the one that usually sort-of worked, and put it through its paces.

On the whole, that mix of caution and courage has served me pretty well over the years.  Sometimes I’d swing too far in one direction or the other, hanging back when my intuition told me it was time to leap or leaping when my intuition said to wait.  But when I find the right balance, things tend to go well.

I’ve felt out of balance for the past few years … especially when I was in that factory-model classroom.  Let’s be fair: I worked really hard to make it a non-factory-model classroom, a joyful learning community in a classroom.  But every 95 minutes or so, a factory-model bell rings.  And five minutes after that, another bell rings.  And when those bells ring, or when Powers That Be make Important Announcements, it’s clear that the factory ways are dominant.

Do they “work?”  I guess that depends on who you ask and what your measures of success are.  Historical test score data would say that the school “works” really well, with nearly all students in “tested areas” demonstrating “proficiency.”  Ms. X and Mr. Y, though they complain about “bad, lazy students” and “spoiled, entitled parents” and “those administrators” from time to time, would characterize it as a good school, maybe even really good.  Why? Because the scores are good and, in general, the students comply with Ms. X and Mr. Y’s demands.  They may not be deeply engaged, and they may get talkative or “inappropriately use” their Electronic Devices from time to time.  But much of the time, many of them do much of the work Ms. X and Mr. Y assign.  They copy the notes from the PowerPoint, do the “cute little activities” more or less as instructed, fill out the worksheet packets, ask questions about the textbook exercises.  There are predictable times in the year when Ms. X and Mr. Y complain about “laziness” and “those kids who just sit there and do nothing.”  But in the end, even “those kids” often do just enough to pass Ms. X’s class, or if they don’t, they “accept responsibility” and so do their parents.  Accepts responsibility has long been  one of the pre-written comments available for Ms. X and Mr. Y on report cards, along with Needs to pay attention and Outstanding performanceCreates disturbance in class and Needs to study more consistentlyA pleasure to have in class and Showing improvement.

So … if things are so good, why have I been so miserable?  And why were so many of my students so miserable?  And why did D stop coming to school a month before the end of her senior year?  Why couldn’t she “tough it out” for a few more weeks after “toughing it out” for almost 13 years?  Why, in the good or very good schools my own “school-proof” children attend, do they too contend with an atmosphere of boredom and misery?  When I talk to teenagers I know in non-school settings, why do I hear a similar message?  Why is everyone so glad to get out and so sorry to have to go back?

Low-level, chronic misery and pain are usually a sign that something’s wrong.  And that something might be pretty serious.  In a relationship or a workplace, you might just be caught in the kind of toxic system I wrote about in yesterday’s post, or if it’s physical pain you might have a chronic, debilitating disease that hasn’t been diagnosed yet.  Either way, ignoring the pain won’t make it get better.  Stepping on the cracks might not break someone’s back, but avoiding the cracks won’t cure any injuries.  Neither will playing it safe or waiting it out, waiting for things to get better or slogging on heroically.

I had trouble sleeping last night, as I sometimes do when there’s a lot on my mind.  When I woke up very early, I half-watched, half-listened to part of Sir Ken Robinson’s most recent famous speech, the one about “How To Change Education From the Ground Up.”  It’s always good to know you’re not alone, not crazy, not falling off a precipice or down a chasm!  And then I read a bunch of insightful Google+ comments from Brendan about yesterday’s post.  But I found myself disagreeing sharply with one part of one comment:

But factory-school structures quickly label vast numbers of students, teachers, administrators, even neighborhoods and cities as “failing.”

It’s worth stepping back from that idea for a moment to remember that some people frame it differently.  Strictly speaking, “factory-school structures” don’t label teachers, administrators, schools, or neighborhoods as failing — that’s all the work of corporate reformers.  Factory-school structures, back in the day, only applied the concept of failure to students, except in extreme cases.

No, that’s just not true … at least not in the schools I know well and in similar ones I’ve read about.  It might, just possibly, have been true in nice, safe, well-funded suburban schools and districts where “all” kids are “prepared” and “well-parented.”  To be fair, I haven’t heard the phrase about “making chicken salad out of chicken” (well, you know what) applied to students, but in a book I read not long ago, that had been a common sentiment among the teachers in a “bad” and “low” school before the high-stakes testing era.  Colleagues of mine fifteen or twenty years ago made all sorts of predictions and advance judgments about students based on their address, last school attended, demographics, and appearance.  I’m afraid that sick systems have been a lot more common, for a lot longer, than we’d like to believe.

What do you think, builders and sustainers of joyful learning communities?  Where are you on your journey, and are you willing to step on a few cracks as you move forward?  And how will you – and I – encourage others to join us today?

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Published in: on July 31, 2013 at 2:00 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] mindsets keep us firmly focused on survival.  Earlier this summer, when I read that article about sick systems, I hadn’t been physically sick in a while.  But now, as I’m trying to recover from […]

  2. […]  But money can’t be more important than health or life, and neither can the calls of a sick system to “do it for the children” or “just smile and close your door,” to […]


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