It’s midterm exam season at school, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post. And while many of my colleagues, like most of our students, have been focused on the process – on writing, grading, taking, or studying for Ms. X’s 100, 150, or 200 multiple-choice questions – I’ve had a bit of time to think about the purpose of it all. It’s obviously a busy time for me, too, and the Latin Family has been working hard on both the individual and collaborative response portions of their Major Assessments. But there are no piles of scan sheets, no thick stacks of papers to read.
And the more I think about it, the more I realize the foolishness of thick stacks of papers in the world of 2013. Yes, writing is important – but writing for a real audience is much more important than writing for a grade. Reading is important, too – but you can measure reading proficiency a lot more effectively (and less painfully for both teacher and student) – with things other than multiple-choice tests or the kinds of “analytical” essays schools love, the kinds that are really focused on comprehension and task compliance rather than deep understanding or interpretation.
So from Tuesday through Friday of this week, my students will be working on the huge task of demonstrating understanding – and interpretation, and creativity too – with their Major Assessment Collaborative Response products. We’ve formed working groups, with some changes from the ones we’d been using, and each group has chosen an important character from stories they’ve read since the beginning of the school year. In the Latin I classes, they’ve chosen a Latin motto that their character represents well or badly by his or her thoughts, words, actions, and feelings; the upper-level group has chosen both a motto and a proverb, and they’re looking at driving and restraining forces and cultural stereotypes and biases that affect their character, too. They also have the option (which most groups seem to be taking) of looking back at stories about their character from the Tres Columnae Project Lectiōnēs (I – XXVI) that we read in their prior courses. Oddly, Valeria’s husband Vipsanius has been very popular with the upper-level group. We’ve seen several stories about him recently, and since he’s about their age and seems to be a friendly, pleasant guy, perhaps he’s more accessible to them than the older characters … and yet more safely distant than Lucius, Valeria, Caius, Cnaeus, or Caeliola, whom we watched grow up before our eyes. Maybe they, like all the characters who survive the eruption of Vesuvius, are looking for a fresh start, for new experiences, for new places and new friends – and I suppose that’s to be expected since they’re all rapidly approaching the transition from dependent adolescent to less-dependent young adult.
As I watched everyone work on Tuesday, and as we started on the Individual Response process in the large class, I kept thinking about measuring success. “Are you going to reassign seats?” quiet, thoughtful C asked me at one point. “Some people are loud and don’t do all their work.” And of course, if I were Ms. X or Mr. Y, I would solve the problem – the immediate, presenting problem of loud, off-task, bad, lazy students – by “making a new seating chart” and springing it, unannounced, on the “bad, lazy class.” I’ve certainly done that, too, over the years … but while it may solve the problem in the short term, it really doesn’t do anything about the underlying issue. Your loud neighbors down the street – can you reseat them? Probably not, unless you have a lot of money and want to spend it buying up real estate around your home! And even if you could reseat or remove them, they’d just go and be loud somewhere else … and that’s partly because, in their formative years, people “solved the problem” of their loudness by moving, or yelling, or pain-punishment cycles. And they never learned that the loudness was a problem … because it was only a problem for Ms. X, Mr. Y, and Powers That Be.
But when you build a joyful community, all of a sudden loud, off-task people discover that the loudness and the lack of focus really are a problem … for themselves and for people they care about. And then, if T and B discover they need not to sit together, one or the other will probably move. And if K and H realize That Thing They Like To Do is causing problems for themselves and their friends, they’ll stop doing it. And unlike the “bad, lazy ones” that Ms. X, Mr. Y, and My Former Self used to move, they’ll take ownership of the problems and find good solutions – and the problems will stay solved, because the right people are doing the solving.
I think there’s an important lesson for all teachers and all learners in that idea of right people doing the solving. Quick solutions – the kind that factory-model schools embrace, not because they actually work but because there’s so much to cover and so little time and all the other factory-model excuses – never really work because they’re imposed. Real solutions to any real problem have to grow, and they take time, and sometimes they’re messy and unsatisfying for a while. Measuring success is complicated in a community, since the timeline isn’t (and can’t be) set and the process isn’t always linear. But as I’ve been listening to individual responses – and observing the progress of collaborative ones – I’ve been reminded, over and over, that real growth does happen in a learning community. Even when it’s slow, unsatisfying, and unpredictable. Even when it seems like nothing is happening at all. Even when the processes – and the growers themselves – seem irritating and annoying to you, the teacher. Even when you have to take off your own factory-model lenses, adjust your own factory-model paradigms, and dive into strange, unfamiliar waters of learning yourself.
I wonder what new discoveries await us all today!