Seeing the Connections

Friday was Progress Report day … and on our fast-paced schedule, this is the second reporting period of the year, a time when two unfortunate tendencies of factory-model schools come together.  Things start to get a bit harder or more challenging just when students are feeling secure in the knowledge that they did pretty well or did OK during the first reporting period.  That sense of security – plus the endless worksheet packets and constant PowerPoint slides in Ms. X’s class –  encourages everyone to ease up just a bit.  And then just a bit can turn into quite a lot, and before you know it, doing pretty well is a distant memory, replaced by struggling a lot and listening to Ms. X yell and label … or worse.  I had a feeling, as I listened to some mumbling and grumbling from colleagues as the week went by, that yelling and labeling might be around the corner for a few of them.  But by Friday afternoon, I hadn’t heard any – and, even better, I hadn’t fallen into it myself.

But I do understand the temptation.  A, B, X, or Y just sits there, doing nothing … or at least that’s how it appears.  As a teacher, you start to feel ignored and unappreciated … and it’s a short step from there to the yelling and labeling.  But I had thought L was tuning out – and I discovered Thursday evening that I was totally wrong.  He’s been telling his mom all about what he’s learning, and she wanted to make sure to tell me that “yours is his favorite class.”

Yelling and labeling tend to flow from prejudging, and prejudging is as hard to avoid for students as it is for their teachers.  Seeing false connections is just as problematic as not seeing actual ones.

Somehow, after all those years in school, many students still don’t see the connections between That Grade and what they do – or don’t do – in class each day.  In part, I suppose, it’s because of Arbitrary Old Ms. X and taking off points and extra credit for bringing a box of tissues and so forth.  And in part it’s because Ms. X and Mr. Y get behind on grading and don’t give the papers back right away … and when there were piles of papers in my teaching world, I was just as guilty as they are.  The lure of How We’ve Always Done It is strong even when it obscures the connections we all need to see.

Ms. X, Mr. Y, and I aren’t always good models of seeing connections … and it’s hard to do what you never see being done.  I think of Ms. X, all convinced it was a “punishment meeting” despite anything anyone told her, or That Other Ms. X, a few years ago, who just knew that all of her students could easily get to the public library after school, would have no trouble printing things out at home.  Both of them saw connections – but the connections weren’t actually there!  And seeing false connections is just as problematic as not seeing real ones, isn’t it?

“Oh dear!” a few Latin I students said, glancing at their reports with real concern.  “How did that happen?”  And I was glad to take the time to show them.  “Remember that one day, when you were so distracted?  And then that led to this, and this led to the problem.  Do you see what you need to do to improve?”  And, as a rule, they did; as a group, they’re better at seeing connections than their counterparts for the last several years.  They also seem less prone to seeing false connections.

Having received “general” reports earlier in the morning, some members of the upper-level class were really upset.  “This can’t be right!” they said … and in one case, where a group had finished their Minor Assessment project the day after grades had to be finalized for the report, they were correct.  That was an easy fix: a moment or two with the updated scores and a calculator, and all was well.  In other cases, though, this was right … and we talked about digging holes and digging ourselves out, about real choices and real consequences.  I’m sure it would have been “easier” to face a yelling and labeling Ms. X or Mr. Y, but short-term “easier” is rarely better.  “The seven” and “the four” quickly moved from fussing and fretting to fixing the problems, and the day ended up a lot more pleasant and productive than it might have been … or than it would have been, even a year ago, when I was still battling the factory-mindset side of myself.  I would have seen false connections – and pointed them out loudly – or not seen real ones and missed real opportunities for real connections.

Instead, after that brief conversation about digging holes, I got quiet and got out of the way – and before too long, E had come to me to ask what, specifically, she ought to do about the unfinished assignments, and she’d proposed a Much Better Thing than I ever would have suggested.  And U had filled me in on the latest in her dad’s long, slow struggle with a horrible illness, and B had apologized for letting the excitement of her crush on That Guy (who, as it turns out, doesn’t actually like her) affect her performance for the past few weeks.  B and U had the time and space to see connections for themselves – and the time and space to develop solutions to the problems – and it seems to be making all the difference for them.  It’s certainly making a difference in the mood and tone of our time together – so different, so much more positive, so much more of a joyful community even at our less effective than we ever were at our most effective last year.

And when you’re building and sustainingjoyful learning community, mood and tone are important, and seeing connections is important, and a long-term perspective is vital.  The better and deeper the community grows, the more important these things are – but the good news is that the community itself grows increasingly able to sustain and nurture itself.  I wonder what new insights and discoveries we’ll encounter today and in the days to come!

Published in: on October 14, 2013 at 10:20 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] guilty about that at the time, guilty for avoiding them and guilty for not confronting them.  One time, when Young Ms. X “just knew” that all of her students could “easily” get […]

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