Seeking the Purpose

It’s odd that a school with no athletic teams has a Spirit Week every fall and every spring … but long ago, when the school was new, Somebody decided it would be a good idea.  Actually, if I remember correctly, it was a community decision involving students, teachers, and administrators … but in any case, Spirit Week quickly became a think we do here, and it appears on the calendar twice a year because it “always” has.

And Monday was “Bum Day” (I really didn’t like that name!) or “Pajama Day.”  You could wear a hoodie and sweat pants, or actual pajamas as long as they were “appropriate” and “not revealing.”  D really got into the spirit of things with a bathrobe and slippers, and he certainly wasn’t the only person thus attired.  At the faculty meeting yesterday afternoon, I saw a few bathrobes, some slippers, and lots (and lots and lots!) of flannel.  Mr. Y, whom I saw before school started as he was making copies and I was waiting for a print job, said he had brought some pajamas, but realized he didn’t want to wear them.  That led to a brief discussion of purpose … and that discussion got me thinking about purpose more broadly, and about how you establish a shared sense of purpose in a joyful learning community.

It’s not as easy as it might seem from the outside!

Mr. Y’s concern, which I tend to share, is that Spirit Week has become a purposeless thing, a thing we do because we do it or because it’s on the calendar.  You can tell, I think, by the questions people ask: “For Girls and Guys, Pearls and Ties Day (yes, that’s really the theme for today!), can we dress up as the opposite gender?  For Favorite Holiday Day (coming up later this week), if we choose Halloween, can we wear masks?”  They’re reasonable procedural questions, I guess … but if there was a shared sense of purpose, would people be asking them?  I have to assume not.  For one thing, Someone would have thought of making a handout or a mass phone call or an announcement on the school website with guidelines; for another, if everybody agreed on (or, for that matter, knew) why the themes for each day had been chosen, a lot of questions would simply disappear.

When you’re clear on the purpose, lots of other things do take care of themselves, it seems.

Out of the thirty or so of us in the large Latin I class, there are about five or six who still still don’t seem to be clear on the purpose of the large-group activities we do.  It’s not that we haven’t talked about purpose or modeled it; it’s just that, in all their school and home experiences, things usually just happen without a stated purpose.  “Be quiet, Z!” Ms. X yells, “Stop being rude and let me teach!”  But Z and the others already know what Ms. X is going to say – or, if they don’t, they’re still able to get good grades on The Test, which they’ve identified as the real purpose of Ms. X’s yelling.  The idea of modulating your conversation, of thinking about the needs of others around you – Ms. X may have yelled about it, and the parents might sometimes lecture on the subject, but Z and the others don’t have ownership of the problem, and they don’t have a sense of the purpose of managing yourself that way.  So when they want to say something to each other, they do … and twenty-five of us are working with them, with various degrees of patience, to help them gain that sense of purpose and ownership.

It’s very different from Ms. X’s yelling and labeling, and it seems to take longer … at first.  But I think it saves time and energy in the long run, both for the rest of us and for Z and the others.  It certainly makes for a more pleasant, productive atmosphere than Ms. X’s class!  And I think it’s part of the showrunner role I started exploring and pondering yesterday.

In a Google+ response, Brendan put it this way:

Yes, that’s a great metaphor and term for managing something like a joyful learning community, not to mention a storyworld with a variety of contributors, like Tres Columnae….

I’m thinking about all of this through the lens of “reality” and documentary storytelling, as well as the aspect of co-creating how events play out inintentionally-designed learning environments.Usually, the rules and roles for learning environments (schools) are set up by tradition, and/or some kind of factory-style command-and-control model.  The other extreme is totally unstructured learning, often called unschooling at the K-12 level.

I’m interested in how novel combinations can be found by adding some kind of flexible structure to open-ended learning environments.  One of the best ways to do this is probably to reference real world events, needs, and opportunities.

As the showrunner, it seems you really are in charge of both the creative and the logistical sides of the joyful learning community, especially when that community is building meaningful things together as we claim we are.  Building a sense of purpose is important – but in stark contrast with the factory model, you can’t just announce a purpose or mandate one; you have to build it together, just as you have to build the norms that govern your community, the expectations you have for each other, and countless other things that just get assumed in a factory paradigm.  Like helping Z and his friends learn to manage themselves, it seems harder and more time-consuming than Ms. X’s yelling and labeling at first.  But Ms. X will still be yelling and labeling in March, in May, and at this time five years from now.  If we do our community building and purpose building and meaning building well, we won’t be stuck in an endless, unproductive, purposeless cycle like that.

Or at least that’s the hope!  I wonder what new insights await us all today!

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Published in: on November 5, 2013 at 11:39 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] comment – the one I featured at the end of yesterday’s post – was still fresh in my mind when the classroom phone rang part way through the large Latin I […]


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