It’s a good time for the Latin I classes to think about connections between the Latin words they’ve been learning and the countless English words they know that are derived “directly or indirectly” (as we Latin teachers like to say) from Latin. We’ll start our day today with a new activity called “Find the Root” where pairs work together to link some obvious and not-so-obvious derivatives with words we’ve recently mastered – words that were important in the stories in Lectiō V of the Tres Columnae Project. The upper-level students are thinking about connections, too; we’ve been looking at the stories in Lectiōnēs XXX, XXXI, and now XXXII to see how cultural products, practices, and perspectives we’ve discovered are at work in our characters’ attitudes and actions.
Connections are hard for many of my students in a school setting, though most are natural connectors and they all see patterns and relationships quite easily in non-school stuff. But for a lot of them, school has always meant disconnection. Ms. X says one thing in That One Class; Mr. Y says something different in That Other Class; Ms. Z yells and labels about what “I know your teacher taught you last year,” but then she grits her teeth and “reteaches” … and then, next year, Ms. W will do the same. “Greek and Latin roots and prefixes” show up in The Curriculum for English Language Arts in several grade levels, and so do Parts of Speech and Figurative Language and many other things that may well be “taught” (if a PowerPoint, a worksheet or two, a multiple-choice test, and some yelling and labeling about “you need to study harder” count as teaching), but frequently aren’t learned or retained in any meaningful way. (And when you think about the sorting and selecting function that’s deeply designed into factory-model schools, I suppose it all makes sense. A System designed (as factory-schooling surely was in its early days) to sort out good little workers from bad, lazy ones will naturally encourage Ms. X’s perspectives – and the products and practices we school people employ every day. But that’s a topic for another day.)
When something isn’t instantaneously gratifying, people react and respond in different ways – and as I’ve watched some struggles over the past several days, I’ve been thinking about reactions and responses. By this point in the year, my Latin I students have discovered the Latin roots of both of those words – words that, in a factory-system, might be classified as synonyms or almost synonyms, words that Ms. X would put together on a weekly vocabulary list, as one Ms. X I knew years ago did, because they’re “words that start with re-.” (That Ms. X famously handed out a weekly list with “literary terms that start with the letter A” … and when I asked her whether she had used any of the words in class with her students, she looked at me blankly, not understanding the question. The purpose of vocabulary, in That Ms. X’s class, was to feed the weekly vocabulary test, and the purpose of that test was to accumulate points in the Test category of Ms. X’s gradebook.) But reaction and response are – both in etymology and in practicality – very different things. To react (from Latin agere) is to do something back or in return, but to respond (from spondēre) is to offer or promise something back or in return.
In other words, reaction is about isolation, and response is about community. It only takes one person to do things, but to offer or promise takes at least two. Is that why factory-schools, for all our fine words, tend to encourage reaction over response?
I thought about that on Monday, as I watched the large Latin I class react to the struggles they’ve had with creating their Minor Assessment products. Three groups out of seven had finished or almost finished; at least two had accomplished very little; one or two had decided it was all “too hard” or “too confusing” without even making an attempt. In other words, they’d reacted – and Ms. X, had she been there, would have reacted, too, with yelling and labeling or threats and promises or a pain-punishment cycle or two. I choose to respond instead, but that’s hard to do … and it’s really not what T, Y, G, and the others were expecting.
It’s not what B and U were expecting, either, a few hours later. “Look!” said B proudly, “I actually did the assignment!” That’s nice, I told her, but what about the story you should have started reading by now, or the diagram about the character’s products, practices, and perspectives? “Which character?” she asked. “How about Lucius?” That would be fine, I said, if Lucius were in the story … but he isn’t. B wanted a reaction, I’m sure – and it was very tempting to yell or label or at least get angry. Instead I walked away for a bit, then returned to apologize if I’d been short-tempered at all.
Poor B! Craving a reaction, she got a response … and eventually, grudgingly, she and U did read at least part of the story, find a character, and attempt to produce the diagram.
When you’re building a joyful learning community, there will be frustrating, difficult days … and when they happen, I think you have to be mindful of reactions and responses. Everything about factory-thinking and factory-living encourages reactions … but to sustain a community, responses are better. I hope you’ll find the distinctions as clear and helpful as I’m finding them – and I wonder what new opportunities await us all today!