It’s beginning to be the time of year when seniors, having suddenly discovered that they need a recommendation as part of their application to This College or That One, start approaching their teachers with a particular look and tone. “Latin Family” members know that I’ll agree; they also know that I’ll ask them when the recommendation is due and then set a somewhat earlier probable deadline for myself – “Just in case,” I tell them, “something happens, there will still be plenty of time.” So C, who approached me last week, will probably have hers this afternoon, but T, who hasn’t yet told me which colleges she’s applying to, will have to wait a few days for hers.
Having written many recommendations over the years – and having read quite a few, too – I know what makes one stand out from the pile, at least for me. Details are important. Z, like hundreds of other students, could be described as diligent, intelligent, and hard-working, but what’s special about Z is that Z started a new school club, or that she’s the primary caregiver for her younger siblings when both parents are deployed. A is talented and participates in a wide range of school activities, but the same could be said for thousands of others like him. What makes him unique and interesting? Why should This College move his application to the top of the (virtual) stack? Because A’s accomplishments occurred in a particular context, and he overcame particular hurdles to get there – and because I know A, Z, and the others well enough to include that context when I write about them.
Ms. X “hates” writing recommendations, and “things come up” and she “needs a few more days.” And then, when she delivers them to her students, they’re pretty much the same as all the other recommendations. Not because of any personal factors, but because Ms. X lives in a factory-world with a factory-mindset, Ms. X defaults to safe, generic, boilerplate “recommendation language.” What makes this student unique? asks the form. “Intelligent, hard-working, and involved in many student organizations, including a leadership role in one.”
I thought about attention to detail quite a lot during the Long Meeting yesterday. As a “curriculum focus area” presenter, I had a free hour while the participants were engaged in a whole-group session … but since my “focus area” room opened directly onto the area where the whole-group session was occurring, I could hear what was going on and even see the PowerPoint if I wanted to. There was a new Major Power in charge, and unlike Previous Powers, she wanted feedback from the group about what, if anything, they’d been able to do with the New Technology Tool that was presented to them in July. Most, of course, hadn’t used it, because their schools were still fearful of students using technology; others were “too busy” with “all the other new stuff.” What struck me, though, as I half-listened to the conversation, was that the participants seemed surprised, even aggrieved, to be asked about their use or non-use of the New Tool. To them, it had clearly been one of the (many, many) things that They show Us from time to time, another case of “just close my door and let me teach,” of “this too shall pass” and “wait this one out.” The Major Power surprised them by having half-expected that … and by having a back-up plan and explaining things, by exhibiting genuine interest and concern. “The reason we included this part,” she told them, “is because of the feedback you gave us at the last session. You said you wanted more technology tools, and you also said you wanted feedback and follow-up.”
You could hear as well as feel the astonishment. It seems Things Are Changing … but what will my local Ms. X and Mr. Y think of that when we have our equivalent session in October? Will it be “They need to leave Us alone and let us teach?” Or “Wow! Do you think They finally understand?”
I’m really curious.
The “curriculum focus session” itself went well, though the group was small. I had some one-on-one time with an enthusiastic young French teacher who told me he’d been struggling for a while, but then had an Amazing Insight that changed everything. “What was the insight?” I asked. “Well, I changed my strategies,” he said. He’d stopped explaining and drilling grammar and started using interesting content … and, of course, the students had picked up the important grammar points and the vocabulary because they were interested and excited. We looked at the New Official Form that Various Powers will (theoretically) use when they (theoretically) do “walk-throughs” at schools during the year, and we saw examples of some really interesting formative-assessment techniques. I was sad that Ms. Q couldn’t be there – she’d emailed to say she was coming down with What’s Been Going Around – but glad I had that one-on-one time with Young Mr. E. Attention to detail – it’s easier when the group is smaller.
When I had a moment to look at my Edmodo feed, I found a digital photo from the small Latin I class. They’d created yet another amazing product – not just the minimum-required story from the day, but a 3-dimensional representation of it – and wanted to make sure that I saw it. Attention to detail is easy and natural for them, easier still because their class is small. But the larger Latin I class, with its very different set of personalities, probably made some amazing things, too … and I’m looking forward to the films and interviews that the upper-level class should have finished.
Attention to detail – it’s important when you’re learning a language, and it’s vital when you’re building a joyful learning community together. It should be vital even in a factory; Stuff works better when it’s properly assembled, after all. As we work with, not for each other, building meaningful things together, what details will be especially important? And what will we build today?