Days Off and Days On

Today is the holiday that commemorates the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  It’s a day off for students and teachers alike, and tomorrow is a day off for students as their teachers attend professional-development sessions and prepare for the new semester, which starts on Wednesday.  My World Language teacher colleagues and I will be attending a “technology session” for an hour or so – I chose the one on “Pinterest and Podcasts” – and then we’ll go to the “curriculum-focused sessions,” the ones I tend to lead for my fellow Latin teachers.  There’s a full, but not overwhelming agenda for those, and I remembered to bring the manila envelopes full of materials with me.  (No, I don’t know why our Relevant Power sends those out to the presenters in advance, where they can so easily be lost or forgotten, rather than bringing them with her to the Actual Site.)

Meanwhile, both The Boy and The Girl are exhausted, possibly coming down with What’s Going Around, after a busy but generally enjoyable weekend.  Our day off will be even quieter than we’d expected, and tomorrow – another day off for them, of course – may be equally quiet as they continue to rest and recover.

But if you aren’t sick, and if you visit the official website for today’s holiday, you’ll find an appeal to make this a day on for service, not just a day off to relax and go shopping.  I like the idea a lot.  Dr. King’s vision of the beloved community is obviously a strong influence on my community-building work, and it’s exciting to think of various groups, large and small, working together to make things better on a local, regional, or larger scale.  And yet, at the same time, I worry about the forms that a day of service can take if you aren’t careful and thoughtful.  There are forms of service that build up communities, that bring people together around a common goal and help them work with each other.  But there are other forms that break down communities, that increase divisions, that encourage people to work for, not with others whom they see as inferior or “poor and unfortunate.”

Those destructive forms are a lot easier and quicker, too.

Ms. X told me about one form of service she’d experienced at a Former School Somewhere Else.  It seems there were common exams, with a common rubric, but the Relevant Powers wanted teachers to “be nice” to their students and “remember these are our kids” – code, it seems, for lowering expectations and applying a lower standard than what the rubric actually called for.  “No one will ever know,” was the not-so-hidden message, and “those poor, unfortunate kids will get a self-esteem boost from their good grades.”

Ms. X was understandably horrified.  So was I.  And, had they known, the students and families in question would have been, too.  There’s a terrible arrogance you can develop as a well-meaning outsider, as someone who comes in to a community to “help” and “serve.”  If you aren’t careful, you can see yourself – and your fellow well-meaning outsiders – as superior to the “poor, unfortunate souls” you’re coming to “help” and “serve.”

Have you ever spent any time in a “charity hospital?”  Or in any other institution that sees itself as “serving” people who are helpless, hopeless, or shiftless?

The kind of service, the kind of community-building that would honor Dr. King on his day, is totally different.  You don’t come in from outside, from a position of superiority; you join in and work side by side toward a common goal.  You don’t lower the standard, and you don’t make excuses, but you also don’t ignore the realities that people face.  Instead, you listen … and speak.  You set goals together, and you work together to meet them.

That’s a beloved community – and when you transfer it to an educational setting, that’s a joyful learning community.  It’s harder in the short run than the well-meaning outsider approach, but it’s both easier and more sustainable in the long run.

With, not for.  As I’ve been working on the Coursera Roman Architecture MOOC and the New School Creation MOOC from High Tech High, I’ve noticed that both courses are about building a with, not for type of community.  We’re sharing resources, stories, and expertise with each other, and we’re building something meaningful and important together – something that’s very different from what we would have built in isolation.

That’s a good feeling on this day off that’s also a day on … a good feeling any day!  I wonder what other new discoveries await as the new semester begins.

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Published in: on January 20, 2014 at 1:48 pm  Leave a Comment  

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