Important Conversations

At the end of each reporting period – roughly every 22 or 23 school days – my students do the process that we’ve come to call the Major Assessment.  There’s a collaborative task – usually a series of readings from which pairs or groups generate an interpretive thing, a new ending (to demonstrate their proficiency with the presentational mode of communication), and some kind of cultural analysis that looks in depth at the products, practices, and perspectives of Roman culture that we’ve been addressing and compares these, in some way or other, to “ours.”  And there’s an individual task, where I meet with each student individually to hear them pronounce the language, check for understanding, and check for grammatical awareness in various ways.

It’s a time when we can have important conversations about learning and growth, about what’s gone well and what might need to be improved.  And the process provides a lot of helpful information for everyone – much more helpful, it seems to me, than Ms. X’s Really Hard Exam.

Or at least Ms. X – I’m thinking of several Ms. X colleagues over the years – claims it’s a Really Hard Exam.  One Ms. X, now long retired, favored multiple-choice tests with 150 or even 200 questions – the largest number for which a machine-scored answer sheet was readily available.  She would distribute a Study Guide (with all 150 or 200 questions, of course, verbatim as they’d appear on the Really Hard Exam) and “go over it” with her classes for a day or so, then give the Really Hard Exam and – predictably – complain bitterly over lunch about her bad, lazy students who “didn’t even bother to memorize” those 150 or 200 responses.  “It should have been easy for them!” she said once – not twenty-four hours after she’d told her students it would be Really Hard.

There was an important conversation about complexity and difficulty that someone could have had with That Ms. X.  But apparently no one ever did … or if they tried, she smiled politely and kept on doing what she’d always done.

In the large Latin I class, there are now about seven students with whom I need to have an important conversation, too – a different one from what Ms. X never got, though it may possibly be related.  For the last few days, as we worked on our collaborative responses, they kept avoiding both the stories (the last three Fabulae Longae in Tres Columnae Lectio IV) and the tasks – a Character Diagram, a 2-3 sentence ending, and a diagram comparing Roman products, practices, and perspectives on families and housing with something relevant in our world.  “Remember,” I said on Friday, when I introduced the task, “there’s no need to understand every single word.  As a novice reader, you’ll understand familiar words and phrases, and you may be at the point of understanding ideas even if there are a few new words.  So focus on what you do understand, and I’ll be glad to help if you run into things you don’t understand.”  I can say these things, but T, B, Y, and the others – though they like and trust me – may not yet quite believe that’s how language learning works.  They’ve had to unlearn a lot of implicit messages: things like Ms. X’s “Really Hard Exam,” or the way Some Other Ms. X “takes off points” for things she never told you about, or the way A Given Mr. Y yelled and labeled when they were “bad and lazy” or “off task” or “doing nothing.”

Our important conversation will happen this morning, when we do our Individual Responses.  Of course, we also need to do something about that incomplete Collaborative Response – but we won’t be able or willing to finish it until we’ve seen the direct connection between our efforts and results, until we’ve talked about what, if anything, we need to change to get the results we want.  Ms. X – and the Mr. Y who was very much alive in my heart at this time a year ago – would just yell and label, or scold and fret, or angrily record a zero or something.  And then the pain-punishment cycle would start, with threats of “I’ll call your parents” and “My momma’s gonna come up here,” with various Local Powers invoked by both sides.

If you’ve spent time in schools, you’ve probably heard and participated in those conversations.

But when you build a learning community, and when it aspires to be joyful, a different kind of conversation is possible.  “Mr. S,” said U and B after lunch on Wednesday in the upper-level class, “could you help us?  When we get distracted and don’t do our work, could you come and remind us?”  That wouldn’t have happened a year ago, when they were still defensive and protective … but somehow, through everything, we’ve built enough trust and safety that they could ask for what they needed.  And of course I was glad to say yes.  D, D, C, C, and O finished their Collaborative Response on time, and when I heard their Individual Responses – with so much evidence of improvement – we were able to celebrate the good and refocus on changes they might want to make.  That definitely wouldn’t have happened a year ago, when they were all defensive and protective, too.  But Ms. H, who sees D right before he comes to me, told him – and me – what a wonderful job he’d done in her class, too.

Joyful community … it grows at its own pace, and sometimes when you try to force the growth, you end up delaying it instead.  But sometimes, as a builder and sustainer of community, you do have to intervene.  It’s a complex, delicate dance … but in the end, the rewards are remarkable, aren’t they?

I wonder what new discoveries we’ll make today!

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Published in: on September 26, 2013 at 10:41 am  Leave a Comment  

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