On A Continuum

“We’ll do better tomorrow,” the intermediate class had said after their not-so-successful day on Tuesday … and they did.  I deliberately structured Wednesday’s activities to be similar to those from Tuesday, beginning with a “Pairs Make the Sentence” activity focused on Latin noun forms, then continuing with some preparation and production time for the Minor Assessment task.  They did better … and I did better, too.  The weather was cold, rainy, and unpleasant, and “it was obvious” to the Relevant Powers that “everybody should know” we’d be doing what had originally been scheduled for the previous Wednesday, and everyone knew that Progress Reports would be handed out in the afternoon.  And yet, while Tuesday felt like thirty-some isolated individuals crashing into each other in a common space, Wednesday felt like a joyful learning community beginning to establish itself.

“Can you help me with this, Mr. S?” asked N, and when I walked her through the process, it suddenly clicked.  “Is this how it works?” asked U, who had struggled and struggled in his previous Latin Family experience.  “What should I do about this?” asked D and K, whose previous Latin experience was in Another Place, and who were afraid at first that we might be seeking perfection the way their Former Teacher would.  Our time together was shortened a bit, but it was peaceful and productive … and when I looked at J’s product, and E’s, and the one S, K, C, and C had made, I was overwhelmed with the quality and the effort … and the joyful learning, too.  I could tell similar stories of the beginning class, though they quickly formed a joyful learning community and haven’t strayed from that, or of the advanced group, whose “World’s Largest Timeline” of Roman history exceeded my (rather high) hopes.

What made the difference, I wondered?  Was I mad or sad or something on Tuesday?  Was I distracted and therefore unable to help the intermediate group, in particular, manage their own distractions?  Were Ms. X and Mr. Y in better moods Wednesday morning, less prone to the yelling and labeling that probably contributed to Tuesday morning’s mood?

I’m not sure.

When you work with people, and especially when you work with lots and lots of teenagers, the days tend to fall on a continuum.  Some are wonderful, some are terrible, some are “just there” in the middle somewhere.  The power of a joyful learning community, of course, is that even on those in-between days, and even on the terrible ones, the community itself supports and sustains its members. “I think I forgot to say why this first Minor Assessment is so important and so different,” I told the intermediate group on Wednesday.  “We remember the big picture of the Tres Columnae storyline, but some of the smaller details will be important later.”  With this Minor Assessment, each group focused on one set of stories, one piece of the puzzle, to bring out those small details and share them with every other group … and it’s a deliberately different task from the work we did in Latin I, and the format is deliberately ill-defined.  Maybe it was hard to focus on a task like that when Ms. X and Mr. Y, frantic for “enough grades” on the Progress Report, were frantically giving, grading, and “keying in” tests and quizzes.  And maybe it was hard because the small communities of three or four couldn’t clearly see how their work would be important to the larger community of thirty-some.

But somehow, despite the bad day on Tuesday, the community held together.  We’ll see what connections and common themes we discover as we share our products today.

I’m still thinking about the post by Kevin Simler that inspired both my post here on Tuesday and my decisions on Wednesday.  Changing your perspective is important, and so is challenging your basic assumptions.  If I looked at N and the others through a lens of “bad and lazy” or “so smart but so lazy” or “trying to cause trouble,” yelling and labeling would be the natural response … and so, even though that was a tempting lens to use, I put it aside and tried another.  How about “never quite learned how to ask for help, because school stuff was always ridiculously easy?”  With that lens in place, I could see how frustrating and painful it is for N, B, B, and T when “school stuff” (even “school stuff” like the Latin noun system) suddenly isn’t ridiculously easy, how tempting it would be to do anything but that.  Then, from a foundation of compassion, I could help N, B, B, and T find the blend of structure and freedom that they needed for the work of the day … and it wasn’t the blend I would have expected, or the blend I would have proposed to them, if I hadn’t challenged my assumptions and changed my perspective.

I think Brendan put it well in his Google+ comment:

Actions are definitely important… though so are words, when it comes to a word-intensive activity like education.

Temporary setbacks certainly can lead to moments of learning, as can imperfect conditions, but too often, things end up staying the same….

I think that time back in the factory — even within a non-factory within — after a long break might be part of the issue with the intermediate students.  The brain starts to become accustomed to freedom, and then the chains come back on.

But that’s where something’s really missing in both cases: freedom is easy, as is total constraint, but figuring out what to do when there’s wiggle room, and uncertain outcomes, is another story.

Freedom and constraint are on a continuum, too, just like days of work or the mechanical or organic paradigms Simler discusses.  In a learning community, at its best, you have the time and space to find a right place on the continuum; in a factory, the right place is specified for you by Powers That Be.  I wonder what new insights and discoveries we’ll all make as we find our current right places today!

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Published in: on February 6, 2014 at 11:38 am  Leave a Comment  

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