It was an oddly quiet faculty Thanksgiving celebration on Monday. Usually, as I think back over the years, there’s laughter and conversation, a sense of anticipation for the “real” feast in a few days, a chance to catch up with folks you see every day, but rarely get to talk with. There were still some conversations, but the emotional tone was different. “I was too busy to cook for this,” said one colleague, who’d spent the weekend with a church group preparing food baskets for needy families. Someone else was planning a mini-vacation with family for the holidays, not a “turkey and trimmings” day at home. And I saw lots of tired faces, too – lots of folks who just needed to sit quietly, eat a bit more slowly, take time to breathe at a busy time of year. It was a convivial silence, in any case … and sometimes that’s even more important than convivial laughter.
The large Latin I class had been oddly quiet, too, and more focused than sometimes on their shared work. We’ve formed large filming groups of a dozen or more to make our filmed versions of the disastrous dinner party in Tres Columnae Lectiō XI, and after our now-traditional vocabulary-review process of individual Self-Check and small-group “Reflection and Organizer” creation, we spent the day analyzing our characters, developing storyboards, and thinking about what we need to do before filming starts next Monday. The small Latin I class, with too few members for a live-action film, is making puppets – and I need to work on mine today, too, since I was also assigned a few roles. And the upper-level group? They also did some vocabulary work, then started selecting story-lines and preparing scripts for their upcoming films. B, B, and U, who had some “missing stuff” to complete, were busy doing that … perhaps not realizing that, in the process, they were also preparing themselves for a much more successful product than usual. It’s hard to create a filmed version of a story you’ve only half-read – but they were (at least trying to) read carefully and accurately. And in stark contrast with conversations we’ve had in the past, they made it clear they have ownership of both the problem and the solution.
Somehow, just when you least expect it, joyful learning community can emerge.
But it was Monday, and Mondays are “meeting days,” and there was a brief meeting scheduled for our newly-restructured faculty committees. “Oh!” said One Mr. Y, “I forgot, and I got these committees confused with the other groups, and I brought the wrong materials!” I lost count of the number of times someone asked “Which committee am I on?” or “What are we supposed to be doing?” – and, of course, those were the very same Ms. X and Mr. Y brigade who, not half an hour earlier, would have been yelling and labeling at their students for “forgetting what I told you the other day.” I was grateful, though, that everyone on my committee remembered who we were and what we needed to talk about. It’s an interesting, convivial group … and after a little while, we started questioning the questions we’d started out with.
Our stated task was to look at trends in the data from standardized test results, and Ms. C, who’s in a new role, had some questions and concerns. The initial questions were easy to answer, but they led to a deeper conversation about deeper concerns about students who test well but seem to be lacking important skills and mindsets for real, long-term learning and success. Mr. U, Mr. N, and the others had noticed the same issues, and for a while we talked about “teaching high-school and college-level test-taking skills” (whatever that means) and about students who feel arrogantly entitled to good grades even when their learning and their academic performance are deficient. Someone suggested “bursting bubbles,” and we talked about that … and then, all of a sudden, people were ready to think about changing mindsets and about developing growth mindsets and about collaborative problem-solving and reaching beyond the textbook-worksheet-test model and even, right before we left, about intrinsic motivation and rethinking how, what, and why we do.
It was an amazing gift … and we were the last group to leave even though everyone had said we had “hardly anything” to talk about this month. For a moment I was sad – because several colleagues, not brand-new teachers by any means, had clearly never even thought about these issues before, and because they didn’t even have the terminology for what they wanted to talk about. But then I was glad – because you have to start somewhere, and those colleagues are starting an important journey, and because I got to be there and, perhaps, give them some help and support as they took important steps.
No doubt attendance will be low today; it always is on the day before a holiday. And no doubt someone will be fussing and fretting about “bad parents” and “too much to cover,” while someone else searches desperately for a word-search puzzle in the shape of a turkey or a Pilgrim. But in the midst of the typical Thanksgiving Week problems, I’m seeing amazing signs of hope and progress … signs that maybe, just maybe, a joyful learning community might be emerging in the midst of all those worksheets, PowerPoints, and data points. As we work together to question the questions and deepen the answers, we’ll build something important and meaningful together … and that’s something to be thankful for at any time of the year.
I wonder what new sources of gratitude we’ll all discover today!