On Saturday afternoon, I made an unpleasant discovery: a huge, unfixable rip in a favorite pair of pants. “I wonder if That Store still has them in my size?” I thought … and then I discovered the Big Sale at That Store, and the printable coupon, too. We’re far enough south that the big winter storm didn’t bring us any snow or ice, but there was a cold, hard rain, and the last thing I wanted to do was to go out in it. “I’ve already done one set of errands today,” I whined to myself, “and it’s cold, and it will be crowded, and all I want to do is stay home.” But in the end, I went back out, bought the pants, and maybe even provided some comfort to a fellow shopper who’d made a much more unpleasant discovery. Her order of a Special Toy had been wrongly delivered, and the company was out of stock, and what should have been a celebration of “all done with holiday shopping” was about to turn into a mid-December visit to a Big Toy Store.
“You can celebrate with a large, adult-type beverage when you get home,” I told her … and she laughed and agreed.
Avoiding the panic is difficult when you have to shop in December. There’s something about the holiday rush – which used to be crazy but enjoyable, at least in my memories of childhood and young adulthood. But it’s turned hard, ugly, and panicky, with stores opening on Thanksgiving Day and people trampling each other in the rush for that “perfect” gift or “perfect” bargain that, all too soon, will be forgotten and discarded by the very people you hoped to impress or please. And yet, every year, people participate in the panic and the rituals associated with it. It’s hard to avoid when “everybody” is doing it.
Avoiding the panic is hard in factory-model schools and classes, too. On our Current Calendar, students will come back from Winter Break, have one week of classes, take final exams for their first-semester courses, and start their new second-semester courses in mid-January. When you stop and think about it – if you stop and think about it – that two-week break is very much in line with the recommendations of a lot of current research about learning and the brain. But teachers in factory-schools “have no time” to stop and think about things like learning research! They – we – are “too busy,” and there’s “too much to cover,” and somehow, despite everything, Ms. X and Mr. Y “got behind” again this year and are trying to “cover” four or five major concepts in nine or ten frantic days. What could be – and maybe should be – a time of reflection and celebration turns into a mad scramble, not so different from the mad scramble at that Big Toy Store or the long lines at That Store where, in fact, I did find the replacement pair of pants.
When you’re building a joyful learning community, it’s easier to resist the mad scramble notion, and it’s easier, too, when you teach an “untested” subject area like mine. In the end, of course, many of my students will go on to the important test of using their learning – like E, a Latin Family member fifteen or more years ago, who still pursues his passion for ancient history as a favored avocation, or T, who’s still fascinated by ancient philosophy a decade after she discovered it. Or the others who contact me by various means to make sure the phrasing of the planned tattoo is correct and then celebrate how much Latin they remember. Or C, who said she and her friends “did a lot of growing up” in their time in the Latin Family, and who’s taking that with her on the next phase of her journey.
Life lessons – the deep, lasting kind – are a lot easier when you can avoid the panic. And they’re easier when you build relationships and a learning community, too. A cynical observer might even wonder if factory-style schools are deliberately designed to encourage panic, since panicky workers and consumers are more likely to buy All The Stuff.
But I don’t think it’s quite that simple. Yes, factory-schools can be panicky places, and yes, early 21st-century consumer culture in wealthy nations is panicky. But it’s never a good idea to infer causation from correlation. Besides, while the cause of the panic is intriguing to ponder – and while pondering the causes can help mitigate the effects – in the moment, in that long line at The Store, that tearful conversation with overwhelmed Ms. X at the copier, or that even more tearful conversation with poor, overwhelmed A, B, or C, what’s most important is a practical next step. The lady at The Store was understandably upset at The Merchant who had sent the package to the wrong address, but she wasn’t dwelling on that. I was understandably upset about the big, unfixable rips (two of them!) in Those Pants, but I wasn’t dwelling on them, either. The best way to avoid the panic in the short term is to find and take the practical next step; then, when the panic has receded a bit, you can think about ways to avoid it in the future.
After all these years “in the trenches,” I know that the last week before Winter Break is the way it is in factory-schools. It’s not a good time to try to force a bunch of new learning into reluctant, holiday-craving brains. So we front-load things in the Latin Family, and all the essential concepts for all the courses have already been introduced and practiced. We’ll be making Minor Assessment products this week, reading some stories together, looking back and celebrating our progress, looking forward to the next level. We may even have time to explore the Roman approach to winter holidays and harvest celebrations.
I wish you all a panic-free week – as much as possible – and I wonder what new discoveries and adventures await us all today.