When It Counts

As I was finishing lunch on Wednesday, One Ms. X arrived, clutching her Official Printout of scores from the Big State Test.  She was thrilled!  Everybody – even Z, who “never does anything” in class – had done quite well, it seems.  Another Ms. X had a similar report, and so did Mr. Y.

Over the years, especially at the Current School, I’ve seen the pattern repeat itself.  Ms. X and Mr. Y are frantic in November and December (and again, with their second-semester classes, in April and May) because their students are so “bad and lazy,” and there’s “so much to cover,” and the litany goes on.  Then, when it counts, those same students do very well or quite well on the Big Test Itself.  If you talk to the students in question, and if you’ve built enough trust with them to get a real answer rather than the expected one, they’ll tell you why.  They know perfectly well how the Big State Tests work; after all, they’ve been taking them – and practice tests and benchmark tests modeled after them to some degree – since third grade.  And they know what they need to do to get that very good or quite good or even excellent score.  Why do more than what’s necessary?

Within the mindset of factory-model schools, it’s hard to argue with that.  Why should you do more than necessary?  And why should you stress and fret – that’s Ms. X and Mr. Y’s job, after all – when you know perfectly well you’ll do just fine when it counts?

Building language proficiency is different from building the kinds of declarative and procedural knowledge that get measured on the Big State Test, of course.  My students often discover big differences in the amount of effort that’s necessary – and the timing of that effort – and the process of discovery can be painful.  It took B and D three whole classes of increasing pain and lower scores to find the amount and timing that would work for them.  And even then, it also required a particular approach from me: I had to step back, to avoid anything that looked or sounded like Ms. X and Mr. Y’s stressing and fretting, and then I had to wait until they noticed, and until that started to bother them, and until they decided to do something about it.  But when we did our Oral Responses this week, both B and D had moved up from the Novice Mid proficiency where they’d been stubbornly stuck since the middle of Latin I.  And they both read more – and read more independently – preparing for their Major Assessment product last week than they had for the previous month.

If you’re building a joyful learning community on the inside, inside an existing structure with very different goals and mindsets, it’s important to realize that you can’t completely break the notion of only working when it counts.  If you’re building a learning community on the outside, free of the factory-mindset structures, when it counts isn’t an issue … because it always counts, but it never counts for everything.  The challenge for me over the past few years, the struggle you can probably see if you go back and read old posts, has been similar, in a lot of ways, to the challenge Ms. X and Mr. Y face.  Similar, but different, because Ms. X and Mr. Y don’t seem to realize there is a challenge or a pattern.  Every semester, like clockwork, their students “slack off” and they start stressing and fretting; every semester, like clockwork, those same students do just fine or really well when it counts.  But Ms. X and Mr. Y never seem to notice!  My challenge was first to notice, then to figure out what to do – and what not to do – when the pattern begins.  And that’s taken a while, because what to do is very different from the stressing and fretting model we all learned in school … and even from the offloading of stressing and fretting from teacher to student that worked pretty well for me in a transitional period.

What seems to work now is … not stressing.  Not fretting.  Trusting the process, and trusting the learners, and stepping back, and waiting.  Letting go, as Grant Wiggins puts it in this recent blog post, and knowing when it’s time for “taking away the scaffolds.”  Playing the whole game, as he puts it, even in practices and scrimmages – and that reminds me of some very early posts of mine, like this one and this one, inspired by David Perkins’ book Making Learning Whole.

In this week of ending and starting, this week when some things count a lot and other things don’t count at all, I’ve been thinking a lot about the power and necessity of learning community even on the inside of factory-model schools.  If you don’t have a sense of community, if there’s just Ms. X at her desk and 25 or 35 individuals at theirs, the days are long and the potential for disaster is huge.  But if you’ve somehow built and sustained a community, no matter how fragile or frail, amazing things can happen at the most unexpected times.

I wonder what amazing things await us all today!

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Published in: on January 16, 2014 at 11:37 am  Leave a Comment  

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