If you’ve ever worked in a school, you probably know that testing schedules can bear little resemblance to what actually happens on test-filled days. Ms. X or Mr. Y will forget to check for students who need to report to Room XYZ or Room 123 for testing, and students – even students who signed up for the testing themselves, as all of our PSAT participants did – will forget that they did so. “D,” I said, “remember, you’re on the PSAT list.” No, he said, “I took it last week.” No, that was a different test; this is the one you signed up for because … “Oh! Right! Which room do I go to again?”
For some reason, Someone Or Other had decided to post a master list of PSAT participants this year, but they hadn’t posted the list of who went to which room. That caused more confusion – and that’s probably why Ms. X and Mr. Y were so tired and angry when I saw them at lunch time.
But when community and connections are more important than today’s coverage, it’s a lot easier to relax and enjoy the unexpected blessings and discoveries that an out-of-the-ordinary day can bring. The big Latin I class was smaller than usual, since many of us were involved in testing and a few were sick with What’s Going Around. D’s stronger performance continued; L turned in a Minor Assessment product that, at first glance, was truly excellent; and B, who’d been sick in the morning, stopped by in the afternoon to pick things up and make sure she knew what to do. And in the smaller class, we worked on the script for our Minor Assessment video – I say our because I get to be the pater īrātus whose paedagōgus tells him what his fīlius said – and didn’t say – to the lūdī magister. Once it’s done, if they all agree, I’ll see about including it in a post.
But the stunning discovery came in the upper-level class, also smaller than usual because (mirabile dictu!) testing had run longer than expected. The Very Intelligent Juniors and Sophomores weren’t in class at the beginning, so I was able to devote all of my attention to the Slightly Less Strong Juniors and the Very Tired Seniors. We’ve been working with the six Latin infinitives, with how they’re used in ōrātiō oblīqua and how the play of tense or aspect and voice affects meaning, for a few weeks now, and it was time to focus on how the infinitive forms are made. “Could you help us?” asked B and U, who were struggling as they sometimes do. And when I went to help them, when I watched the details of their struggle, it was suddenly clear.
Astonishing, stunning, hard to believe, but clear. B and U don’t know how to follow an example. And it’s quite possible that they can’t follow examples, can’t see patterns, can’t apply a general rule in a particular situation. Or at least in some particular situations!
The Forms Consolidation Sheet I’ve written for infinitives is full of examples, like most such handouts, and D – who sometimes finds complex charts difficult to interpret – had just thanked me for how clear and helpful this Consolidation Sheet seemed to her. But B and U were staring at it – not in the avoidant way that students sometimes use when they could, but would rather not, but with an expression of almost total puzzlement and confusion. “Could you show us what to do?” they asked … and I did, but it didn’t really help. I looked at the paper, the examples, and the puzzled faces, and all of a sudden every struggle B and U have had since Day 1 of Latin I made sense.
Unfortunately, I have no idea how to help them – no idea at all. In 22 years, with well over a thousand students in the Latin Family, I have never met anyone who couldn’t follow an example before. And it’s not just examples of grammatical forms, either. We do a lot of structured activities with names in the Latin Family: there’s Whole-Class Reading, and Paired Reading First, and Vocabulary Self-Checks, and Vocabulary Reflections, and the various celebrations, and Analytic Hand Signals, and the list could go on. The name is a shortcut to a set of expectations and procedures – usually proposed by me but developed and fleshed out by the learning community.
But for B and U, the names must just be empty, confusing phrases … like so many other things that happen to them in the strange, arbitrary world of School As They Experience It. If you can’t follow an example, can’t recognize and apply a pattern, then every patterned, structured activity seems like a mystery. No wonder B and U quickly lose interest and focus in longer activities! No wonder multiple-step directions (First read the passage and underline the words and phrases you know well, then complete the chart) so often end up half-done or barely begun!
But how did B and U make it through twelve prior years of school, through all those standardized tests and a bevy of Ms. X and Mr. Y eager to yell and label about bad and lazy, without anyone recognizing this problem? And how pervasive is it, anyway? They can both read – it’s not their favorite thing, but they can – and they can write and calculate pretty well, too, though math isn’t their favorite subject by a long shot. A few dozen teachers have worked with them … but no one noticed, no one put things together?? I haven’t asked them yet, but I have a suspicion that B and U, when younger, heard a lot of concerned Ms. X voices talking about “such a bright little girl” and “so many careless mistakes,” about “paying more attention” and “checking your work.”
But no one – and I should include a year of myself in that group – ever saw the pattern in those “careless mistakes.” Ms. X, of course, would have had “too much to do” and “too much to cover” and “those really bad, lazy, disrespectful ones sitting over there” …but what about me? And what about teachers who weren’t Ms. X or Mr. Y, who saw the evidence over the years but saw no pattern?
Do factory-schools discourage pattern-seeking and pattern-applying, despite all our fine words about college and career readiness? Did Ms. X and Mr. Y help B and U get that way and stay that way despite all the yelling and labeling about understanding and applying, the posted objectives on the board and the pacing guides, the tests and the quizzes and the lesson plans?
And more to the point, what can we do as a joyful learning community to work with, not for B and U? To give them ownership of the problem and tools to begin to solve it? I sent a private Google+ post to a few teachers I know well, and I’m hoping for insights from them. If you’ve faced such a problem, in yourself or in someone you’ve worked with, I’d love to know what approaches you tried, too.
And now I wonder what other stunning discoveries await now that the eyes of our joyful learning community are opening from their factory-dream and starting to focus on these kinds of details.