Seeking to Understand

Several times over the last few days, I’ve been reminded of the importance of understanding.  Last night’s #latinlangchat on Twitter, for example, was said to be “about” the teaching methodology known as Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling or TPRS  – but it quickly became apparent that we had to define not only the methodology of the TPRS approach, but also the very notion of proficiency with a language before we could all understand each other.  And then someone made a statement that confused me – until I realized that by “modern language teachers” he meant, not the profession as a whole, but the ones he knows best, the ones at his own school.

Twitter, for all its benefits, can lead to some serious misunderstandings when you’re trying to express a thought in 140 characters, less space for everyone else involved in the conversation, less space for a hashtag or two.

But it’s not just Twitter, of course.  As I look around the imperfect, yet excellent classroom space my students and I are creating together, I see a really helpful poster, provided by a Local Power, which reminds us that interpersonal communication is all about the negotiation of meaning.  It presupposes, maybe even requires, at least a few misunderstandings and miscommunications along the way, especially when you’re a novice learner.  That’s frustrating … and maybe that’s why Ms. X and Mr. Y aim for perfection instead of communication, for task compliance instead of shared understanding.

If you never try, you’ll never fail … but you’ll never improve, either.  Ms. X, if asked, would say she’s nothing like my student D, the “bad and lazy” one who “doesn’t want to do anything” in her class, who disturbs the perfection of her pretty PowerPoints and neatly-stapled worksheet packets with his “silly immaturity” and “disruptive behavior.”  And D, in turn, would say he’s nothing like Ms. X, who’s “mean” and a “bad teacher” and “no fun” and “needs to relax and chill.”

But at a minimum, they both label each other – and they do so without really seeking to understand each other’s worlds.  That’s a basic human trait, of course, but it is a similarity.

In the Google+ conversation about yesterday’s post, Don described and interpreted students of his who act like D:

I have noticed this behavior in some of my students. It took me a longish time to figure it out. “Why would you take a 0, when you could turn it in and get partial credit?”

Their egos are fragile, and they are risk-adverse. They don’t fail until you say they fail. Its safer to take a 0 “’cause I didn’t turn it in,” than it is to turn it in and have you judge them unworthy.

Like Ms. X, Don’s students have learned the factory-lesson well: it’s “better,” you see, to do nothing than to do something wrong.  A perfectly blank paper is still perfect; it’s just a different form of perfection from the one (with the 100% indicator and the shiny gold star) that the factory-system teaches you to pursue.  When you embrace that (very fixed) mindset, struggle is a sign of weakness, and weakness is a sign of vulnerability, and vulnerability is the very thing you most want to avoid.  We’ve all seen the TV shows and movies about school, after all, and we know there are “supposed to be” bullies who will shove you into a locker – or worse – if you’re weak and vulnerable.

Here was my first response to Don:

C, D, D, E, and the rest of “the thirteen” do, in fact, have very fragile egos.  They’re used to being labeled as bad and lazy by Ms. X and Mr. Y-type teachers, so their default response is to live down to that label.  Also … impulse control: D, in particular, doesn’t seem to have developed it, or if he has (and I’m guessing he has, outside of school and in areas of interest, since he’s a talented musician), then he doesn’t apply it in school-type settings.  Or maybe, as with his default tendency to live down to the bad and lazy label, D would rather live down to the impulsive label too rather than try to change things and, possibly, be found wanting.

Hmmm.  So how do we work with, not for D, in particular, to help him make some changes?

And it’s not untrue, but the more I think about it, it’s not entirely true, either.  I’ve seen that ego fragility in D, that desire to be perfectly bad (in Ms. X’s eyes) if he can’t be perfectly good.  And I’ve certainly seen impulse control issues with him – and with Ms. X, too, and with my own inner Mr. Y.

Debbie’s story got me thinking about other sides of the issue, though:

I’ll share another early childhood story that I’ve probably shared before >> I had a little guy who wouldn’t participate in group activities. I tried all the tricky coercion techniques with no change in behaviour.
Then I started group activities with the song, “This is what I can do; see if you can do it too”. When it came to his turn he would just sit there, looking a little fearful. But rather than moving on or putting pressure on him, I used the “sitting still” as his contribution and we call copied the pose.
He then, on the following day, shook his head “no” ( determined not to participate); and so I included the head shake in the song. At first he was not impressed but, the next day,  he had a slight grin. And we copied that. After that, he made deliberate movements and the fears were gone.What were the helpful factors? Keeping it safe; no judgements; no “wrong” answers; joyful community sharing his journey without teasing/laughter/judging. .. and starting small.

I don’t know how this translates into high school but there might be something in there worth contemplating.

Like Ms. X, D and his friends are fearful about both present and future. B, B, and U even trust me enough to reveal the fear sometimes.  And Mark, referring to the very book I’d brought up yesterday morning, made something else crystal clear:
When a kid takes a zero instead of trying to do an assignment this is their way of fighting back. Them taking a zero is a mirror image of a teacher threatening and then giving a zero. Partial credit has not helped them figure out who they are so far and an A  or 100 is not going to happen. A zero is the clear best choice when you are a cognitive refugee.The example +Debbie Pribele  wrote about where the young boy refused to take part in the circle singing activity shows what happens when those in charge demonstrate that the kid matters. The constant drum beat of grades matter most, says to many kids, grades are more important than them as individuals.

Our life provokes us with the evidence that it must have meaning. School for many is the opposite of evidence that life has meaning. Years of being told what to do for a significant part of a 24 hour day steals time from the process of figuring out who we are.

By the time a junior or senior year rolls around, a significant number of kids who have not already dropped out, are ready to figure out who they are and taking a zero is the fastest way to do this.

So, on this day that’s fraught with significance for us adults, but “just another day” for our students who were, at most, in kindergarten when the Towers fell, how will C, D, D, E, the others, and I work with, not for each other?  How will we work with, not for each other until D sees himself – and knows that we all see him – as more than a grade, more than a “bad and lazy” label?  How will we seek understanding and build something meaningful together?
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Published in: on September 11, 2013 at 10:30 am  Leave a Comment  

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