On the Very First Day for Teachers, in the midst of what would normally be a routine meeting, someone discovered … a computer virus. On a shared network drive that “everybody” is supposed to use, one filled with important forms and reference material. A call went out to the Relevant Powers, and they’ve been battling the virus ever since.
But it keeps stubbornly returning. Yesterday, in the middle of everything, there came an announcement to “log out of everything” (well, not everything, but everything involving potential access to that network drive). I didn’t see Ms. X or Mr. Y after that, but I can imagine the anger, the frustration, the dark words about how They don’t understand Us at all. Ms. X and Mr. Y, like many of my students – and a side of me that I can’t forget to acknowledge – seek the security of the same-old same-old. It’s hard when routines and procedures change, even harder when they change without much warning. “What do I do about attendance in the New Student Information System?” moaned Mr. Y at lunch. “What code do I put in?” The same one, I reassured him, as always. “But I didn’t see it!” Did you scroll down the list? It’s alphabetical, so U for Unexcused comes after E for Excused. “Oh! I get it!” he said.
Really, Mr. Y? I wondered. But years and years of schooling have taught him not to be curious about such things, not to scroll down the list and explore.
For my upper-level class, busy with final preparations for their first Minor Assessment, “logging out of everything” really didn’t matter. There was still guest-network WiFi access if they needed to look things up, and most were making physical rather than virtual products anyway. Our shared work went on much as it had before.
That upper-level class is an interesting mix. Just over half are seriously committed to a growth mindset; they embrace challenges, love trying new things, and don’t worry about factory-style “perfection.” The others are equally committed to a fixed mindset. If something looks hard, their first impulse is to avoid it, because hard might mean that you’d do badly, and that might make you look bad. The fixed-mindset-embracing group are generally older than their growth-mindset-embracing classmates, and they’re more likely to embrace simplistic labels like good kid or bad and lazy, sweet and smart or not too good at school. And they’ve been that way consistently, since I first met them as Latin I students last fall. What’s different? Last year the fixed-mindset world views and the tendency to give up immediately made me angry; today I see an intriguing and important challenge, a puzzle I need to help them solve.
And that’s made an enormous difference for them and for me.
Earlier in the day, the Latin I classes worked with two things that had caused previous counterparts to struggle: (1) the idea of English derivatives from Latin root words and (2) the process of using our Analytic Hand Signals to distinguish the noun and verb forms we’ve discovered so far. Last year, that was the day when things really started to fall apart for the fixed-mindset-embracing learners who are now in the upper-level class. Part of it was them: the fixed-mindset belief that things should be instantaneously obvious or impossibly difficult doesn’t play well with a joyful, playful approach to making connections. “This isn’t English class,” it whines, “so why are we doing English stuff? Besides, we did Greek and Latin root words with Ms. X in seventh grade, and it was hard and boring and scary then.” And the hand signals? Their goal is to help learners feel the language, to use muscle-memory, along with visual and kinesthetic channels, to help you recognize and analyze patterns. But that was terrifying for young people who expected – even craved – a personal label of too hard and too boring, followed quickly by the yelling and labeling that teachers “always” provide for them. So they resisted, the only way they knew how, hoping that eventually they’d get that teacher anger fix.
It’s important that they don’t get it anymore. Three upper-level groups “did nothing” and “didn’t know what to do,” but they won’t be getting an anger fix. They’ll be getting an alternate version of the assignment, a self-contained, individual one. And then we’ll start talking, just a bit, about growth mindsets, and about how a joyful learning community promotes real growth, real learning, real mastery of things. But living it is much more important than talking about it.
That’s not a conversation the Latin I classes seem to need. They embraced, with relish and delight, the very things that had caused previous counterparts to sit stolidly and wait for the yelling to start. Are they different? Or am I different? Or are all of us different? With the signals, in particular, I could see some fear and concern. “Don’t worry,” I reminded them. “Do you think, by the end of September, if we practice every day, you might be able to make the verb signal by yourselves?” Yes, they thought … and by the end of the day, many of us could make three different noun signals as well as the verb one already.
But I was tired at the end of the day – so tired that I was actually glad not to be able to do “computer work” during my preparation time. I did some reading and reflecting instead, then headed to a local coffee shop for the “computer work.” And of course K, who graduated a few years ago, was working, and we had a chance to catch up. “Are the new kids driving you crazy?” she asked. “They drive me crazy when they come in here!” Another K, who graduated last year, had stopped by the school earlier to visit and had asked me a similar question.
No – not exactly crazy, K and K. But they, like you, are pushing me out of my comfort zone, just as I’m pushing them, just as I pushed both of you “back in the day.”
So many circles are involved in this work that we do, and they overlap in complex ways. When you’re building and sustaining joyful community, that’s important to remember. A small change will ripple, producing big results, but you can’t easily predict what all the results will be. What you can do is be aware, be mindful, observe the results in yourself and those who are close.
I wonder what results we’ll see today!