Rising to the Challenge

We started each class on Tuesday with a “Major Assessment Checklist,” a short little form where everyone, individually, could list what he or she had accomplished in the film-creation process we’d been working on and what still remained to be done.  That brought energy and focus to a lot of students – especially in the large Latin I class and the upper-level group – who had been … well, it’s hard to describe how they’d been.  Waiting might be the best word for it!  Waiting passively for someone to establish a pace and rhythm for them to follow.  Waiting because, at some point along the way, they’ve learned that’s what you’re “supposed to do” in school, or at least in Ms. X’s class.  Waiting because one of the not-so-hidden but central lessons of factory-schooling, as it was originally designed a century ago, was to teach people to wait until told.

Ms. X and Mr. Y like to fuss and fret about how “passive” their students are, about how they “need to” be more actively engaged in their classes.  But if Ms. X and Mr. Y follow the lecture-notes-worksheet-test-yell cycle (yelling is important, because some test scores will be bad), all the fussing and fretting in the world won’t do anything to increase their students’ engagement or activity.

What will?  Being part of an authentic community can help … but you have to engage in the community, and that’s a big, risky step after years of waiting until told.  An exciting, energizing challenge helps a lot – and apparently the (seemingly impossible) task of creating a excellent, but imperfect filmed version of a whole story sequence in less than a week’s time was that challenge for a lot of us.  Being known and valued – that’s important, too, and that’s where the teacher’s role is especially important.  Meg put it this way in a Google+ comment:

I believe in joyful learning, big time.  But all the learning that happens that I observe in class seems to happen through relationships that are, primarily, one on one.  Most of the ones in advanced classes?  Me getting “to” the student who is in what I call “a black hole.”  My “Black Hole Theory of Learning.”

How does it work?

I can see (the “community” could not care less) that someone is out of step, usually resentful, angry, bored, acting out, or in some other way, just not with the program of learning anything, joyfully or miserably.

How I teach (and thank goodness I do not have to share this with anyone in any kind of boxed “Learning Outcome” way), is I educate that person.  In public.  With the whole class observing, sometimes yelling, sometimes in shock (not at me, but some students really are in a black hole).

As I “lead out” ( educare ) the genius that happens to reside in that person (genius resides in EVERY person), and he or she starts to see that I am listening (and so are the amazed class); as I write what this person says on the board and come back to it (often); as he or she sees that they have something to say that matters, the OTHER students start to see that too.

And they give the guy (or gal) a break.  And we can then go forward in a more joyful manner.

Relationship first.

The teaching will follow.

A community MIGHT follow, but that’s asking a lot in a country with a 50% divorce rate.  ;’)

And as I read her comment, I realized we were probably saying the same thing, but from slightly different perspectives.  It takes a lot of time and energy to build a community, and when your time with students is as brief as it is in a single college course, a fully-formed community may be too much to ask for.  I have the luxury of sustained time with my students: 95 minutes or so per day, 5 days a week, over an 18-week period per class.  We do a lot, and we learn a lot, but we also have time and space to get to know and value each other if we structure things well.  As I put it in response to Meg,

When I talk about building joyful learning communities, what I’m really talking about is a web of relationships.  In the beginning, with a new class, I’m at the center of that web.  If I only saw my students for a semester, that’s probably how things would stay.  But they come back, semester after semester and year after year, and in the course of that time, we do build out a web of joyful learning relationships that’s not entirely centered on me.

But without someone to establish those conditions and the initial relationships, none of that would happen.  And without the time for sustained relationship-building and learning together, none of that would happen, either.

And it turned out that we were saying the same thing, with different perspectives developed from years in very different teaching contexts.  And then Brendan pushed us further and deeper:

But, is some kind of overall community-like, or at least network-like, style of interaction and learning possible… especially in a way that might happen a lot, rather than in isolated cases?  Or is deep learning doomed to be something that happens in particular one-on-one relationships, a fraction of the time, and among a fraction of the population (however “the population” is defined.)

This gets into big questions about humanity’s potential, but it’s at the core of this tension between “educate everyone” and the “real learning happens outside of large groups” perspective.

From a School Survival perspective, any education-related “community” involving “peers” is likely to be hostile, full of bullies and meanness.  Too many people experience that, especially at the junior high to high school level of “education” — along with “prison-like conditions” imposed from the top down, by over-arching authorities, who seem to have no concept of “educare….”

What are the patterns, rhythms, pacing, and who and what defines them?  Biological determinism?  The factory-imposed routines?  People’s individual sense of who they are, and their decisions at the intersection of that and the interpersonal situations they find themselves in, or find their way to?

Deep questions, and much to ponder on a day when we’ll be finishing up those films and Individual Responses and laying some groundwork for our last few weeks together.  Deep, challenging questions – a challenge that we need to rise to!  As builders and sustainers of joyful learning communities or networks of learning relationships or whatever we want to call these things we build, one of our most important jobs is to stay open to those challenges and ready, even eager, to bring them to our networks and communities.

I wonder what new challenges we’ll all discover today!

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Published in: on December 4, 2013 at 11:23 am  Leave a Comment  

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