One of my favorite elements of the Habits of Mind framework is the idea of the responsible risk. Done well, the Habits of Mind approach becomes an ongoing, paradigm-changing approach to teaching and learning … but all too often, in Schools As They Are, it gets reduced to “this year’s program” or “the flavor of the month” by cynical Ms. X and Mr. Y or by Powers That Be who are just too busy to make sure it’s not only introduced, but sustained over time. One Ms. X, who retired from the public schools and went to work at a Local Private School part-time, complained bitterly to me that her new school was “doing Habits of Mind and Thinking Maps again this year, but we all already did them when we worked in public schools!”
When you’re thoroughly invested in factory-thinking, it’s easy to confuse doing stuff with making changes. And, to be fair, when you do make changes, you do stuff … and do it differently. But any program, no matter how excellent or innovative or paradigm-changing, can be squeezed into a “flavor of the month” approach in a factory-system. In fact, if all you do is do it – and get told to do it by overworked Powers That Be – it’s a pretty reasonable prediction to assume that, in the end, the shiny new posters will turn into the old, discarded posters and the shiny new books and binders will join their now-dusty companions on an unused shelf or a long-unopened box.
We’ve been talking about reasonable predictions this week in the Latin Family as we move into the last few Lectiōnēs of each course, and the theme of responsible risks keeps coming up, too. It was an exceptionally warm day yesterday, and today is expected to be even warmer. Would it be a reasonable prediction, I asked each class, if I said it would definitely snow Thursday night? No, of course not, since the forecast low was well above freezing. But would it be a reasonable prediction – given the wild weather changes forecast for the next few days – to say that someone will probably have sinus problems on Monday? And we talked about reasonable predictions … and the Latin I classes started talking about the risk that Cnaeus’ mother Vipsania takes near the end of Lectiō XII, when she swallows her (vast) pride, goes down to Herculaneum, and asks her sister-in-law for parenting advice.
If we were still “doing” the Habits of Mind, we’d use an assignment we called the Mindful Diagram, where you analyzed a character’s thoughts, words, actions, and feelings as excellent or poor exemplars of three or more of the sixteen Habits. But “we already did” the Habits, and those no-longer-shiny posters no longer hang in classrooms or hallways … and the language of responsible risk and managing impulsivity is unfamiliar to students and teachers these days. So we won’t be making Mindful Diagrams, but we will be reading the two possible not-quite-endings for Lectiō XII today: Version A, in which Vipsania believes Caelia’s advice, and Version B, in which she doesn’t. We’ll divide our regular working groups randomly, with half of each group reading Version A and the other half Version B. And then we’ll come back together, see how the stories are different, talk about which one seems more plausible – a more reasonable prediction given what we already know about both Caelia and Vipsania. And then we’ll make reasonable predictions of what might happen next, when Vipsania returns home and tries – in some way – to be a better mother to Cnaeus. And we’ll turn those predictions into stories, and possibly even filmed versions, next week.
Meanwhile, the upper-level group will be using cultural and historical background research, as well as clues from their reading, to make reasonable predictions for story sequences they’ll be developing. Each group will be starting out with a “Quick Background Research” challenge – I think we’ll draw cards randomly, rather than have folks pick from a list, because most of the upper-level students really like having something physical to hold when there’s a task like that. We’ll be sharing out details, sources, and maybe even images (if we find good ones) relating to the Teutoburg Forest, Quinctilius Varus, the Chatti, the Hyrcanian Forest, and some other seemingly-disconnected elements that, in the end, all relate to the quest that Lucius Valerius and his chosen men will undertake in Lectiō XXXIX and beyond. As we finish the last few stories in Lectiō XXXVIII, we’ll pause to revise, refine, and possibly replace predictions we’ve made along the way … and we’ll talk about the importance of making plausible and reasonable predictions even if they turn out not to be correct in the end.
“Why do you think that?” is an important question … but all of us in the upper-level group agreed that, as a rule, when teachers asked us that question, it meant our previous answer was wrong. And that’s sad, but typical, in Schools As They Are, where there’s too much to cover and so much to do, where Ms. X doesn’t have time (she said so just the other day) to grade all those papers, and she just doesn’t understand why “those bad, lazy kids keep making the same mistakes.” I’d love to see Ms. X take a responsible risk, stop doing what she knows isn’t working, try something new – and Wise Ms. E, who’s been gently working with That Ms. X, seems to be helping her make some progress. “I wish I had Mr. Y instead of Ms. X for That Class,” someone said to me the other day, “because he actually teaches. But I have Ms. X, and I’m afraid I’m going to fail.”
Poor Ms. X! Her intentions are admirable, and her heart is full of a commendable desire for her students to “learn the material and get good grades.” But it’s hard to let go of the familiar and comfortable, to take a responsible risk and make a reasonable prediction of what might happen when you do. It’s hard in joyful learning communities, and it’s even harder if you’re still holding on to the factory-mindset. I wonder what our little community – and the bigger one that slowly seems to be forming – can do to help That Ms. X, The One Mr. Y, and others on the next steps of their teaching and learning journeys, and I wonder what else we’ll all discover today!