It was around this time last year that my friend and colleague Ms. H and I began to build our temporary community over shared food and conversation at lunch. At the time, it felt like a small, but profoundly important thing. Our Ms. X and Mr. Y colleagues brought individual frozen, commercially prepared meals (“Look! Low sodium!”), heated them up in the shared microwave, and ate their factory-style lunches with factory-mindset complaints about bad and lazy students and Those Administrators. Meanwhile, at another table, Ms. H and I tried to share different kinds of food and conversations.
There’s a very different spirit at lunch this fall. Ms. H and I are still there, though we don’t share food as frequently as we did. But the Ms. X set are gone, with the younger set dispersed to new adventures, new stages of life, and the older set apparently still sulking over “fingerprints on the new tables.” Mr. N commented on the differences yesterday; he’d just come from an excellent, hands-on, outdoor class where his math students were applying their knowledge of angles and trigonometric functions by measuring real-world things. “I was worried,” he said, because he was sure previous years’ classes would never have been able to handle the freedom and the responsibility. But the different spirit is present among students as well as teachers and Powers That Be.
The morning classes had finished the Major Assessment Individual Response process, and we’d done a written Self-Assessment and Reflection in which we rated our comfort levels with the various big-picture skills and understandings we’ve been developing. “Mr. S,” said B, “do you mind if we rate some things as 1’s or 2’s? Because there are some things I need to rate as a 1.” No, I don’t mind at all, I told her; in fact, I’m really glad you know yourself well enough to know what you need to work on. And when we did B’s Individual Response, we were able to celebrate how well she’s doing in some areas and to see that, in fact, she’d rated herself quite accurately. “I really wouldn’t be too worried,” I told her, “about the noun and verb forms part just yet. We’ll keep working on them, and in a month or so, if you trust the process, you’ll be just fine.” Variations on that conversation kept happening, and so did celebrations of the imperfect but excellent progress we’ve been making. By the end of the day, the “group of seven” – who sometimes get distracted and off-focus during whole-group activities – were the ones reminding others to pay attention.
We tried something new-but-old in the upper-level class, a game that the Latin Family used to enjoy back when we were transitioning away from textbooks. In those days, it was called a “Race for the Answer,” but we’ve renamed it, Latīnē, as “Responsa Celerrima,” and we’ve refined it to make it more equitable and more enjoyable. In the new version, there’s some preparation time in which pairs or groups work together to read and understand a story, and then, when the game starts, a written question is revealed. You have some time (30 seconds to a minute depending on the question) to agree on an answer, referring to the story as needed, and one group member writes the responsum on our mini-whiteboards. I circulate around the room and declare each response vērum or falsum; scorekeepers in each group record the results; and the cycle repeats itself. Even O and C, who usually prefer to observe such activities, were actively involved in both reading and writing this time. We’ll be building up to the next version today, in which the groups themselves create questions for other groups – and we may even bring out the small mixed group version of “muscās captāte.” If we do, I’ll tell you more about it on Monday.
Thursday evening, for the first time in a few years, I had both time and energy to attend the fall Variety Show at school. Ms. Z, the theater arts teacher, schedules it fairly early, and it’s designed not only to showcase talent but also to encourage participation by students for whom, as she told me Thursday afternoon, it might be a huge victory just to stand on the stage and attempt to perform. It was a beautiful evening – some excellent monologues, some great dancing, lots of singing. Was it perfect? Hardly; there were technical glitches and program changes and, of course, those few students winning huge victories. But it was excellent, and the overall quality of performances was a lot higher than it had been a few years ago. And everyone was glad to see me, and I met some parents and siblings and friends of Latin Family members and reconnected with others. A joyful end to a long, but joyful day.
And when you’re building and sustaining joyful learning community, you can expect long, but joyful days. No matter what you do, the days will probably be long – but for poor Ms. X, Mr. Y, and others trapped in that 20th-century mindset of for, not with, the days are long and tedious, filled with grading papers (a lot more tiring than assessing students’ progress and checking for understanding, even if the process looks the same to an outside observer) and writing lesson plans like They told us to (much more exhausting than striving to build an atmosphere and conditions for optimal learning, even though, again, the process looks pretty similar). With, not for – it makes a huge difference, and I’m grateful for even the painful experiences that led me to that deeper understanding.
I wonder what new insights and understandings await us today!