Finding the Level

Several months ago, on a particularly difficult and frustrating day, I asked a Local Power for some advice.  “I know how to operate a 20th-century classroom,” I said, “but I’m struggling with how to operate a 21st-century one.”  It was good to talk things out, to have a listening and understanding ear … and eventually the Power In Question gave me some great advice: “It’s still a classroom.”

By that, I think the Power In Question meant that things haven’t changed that much in factory-model schools.  “Kids are still kids,” we teachers like to say, “and classrooms are still classrooms.”  What’s tried and true, old and familiar, time-tested, “should” still work, Ms. X and Mr. Y think, because nothing important has actually changed.  And if you really believe that, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: nothing important changes because, after all, “school is still school” and “kids are still kids.”  And “teachers are still teachers” and “textbooks are still textbooks,” and the list could go on and on.

That’s the thing about big, complex, interdependent systems.  They resist and absorb change because that’s what they’re designed to do.  Try to change too much at once, and chaos will result.  But if you never change anything, the results are even worse.  When you’re working inside a big, complex, existing system, the key is to find the level, to seek the “sweet spot” where change begins slowly, then builds momentum of its own until the new thing  becomes the expected thing.  It’s hard, of course.  But too much change is even harder in a system like that, and no change at all is impossible.

And that’s what I was struggling with last fall … and that’s why the advice from That Power was so helpful.  It’s also why I’ve been gaining so much from my slow progress through John Hunter’s book World Peace and Other Fourth-Grade Achievements.  Finding the level of sustainable change, and then finding the level when conditions call for a new level: it’s challenging, exhausting work, but it brings its own set of joys and rewards.

N, B, U, and the others were concerned on Thursday morning.  “Am I missing some assignments?” they asked.  It’s hard not to laugh when you hear a question like that, but part of the level of change they needed was a calm, matter-of-fact tour through the assignments to date.  “Oh!” they said, “we need to do the Minor Assessment, don’t we?”  And they got to work with more energy and focus than they’d displayed in a very long time.

B, C, U, E, and J had been struggling, too, but for them the needed level of change was different.  They needed a slightly more readable set of texts, the stories in Tres Columnae Lectiō XLI rather than the “authentic” Latin they’d been struggling with.  And they needed a more structured process: the “Ideas and Details Organizer” for this story and that one, not a multiple-day set of readings with a culminating activity to integrate them all.  I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen them as energetic and focused as they were on Thursday!  We found the sweet spot, with just enough structure and just enough independence … and I hope the momentum we started building on Thursday will sustain us through today and into the week to come.

As I was leaving for the day, I ran into three colleagues who were having a conversation about “too much hand-holding” for students and the damage this has done.  By “too much hand-holding,” though, they meant “minimum grade” policies and “minimum percentages for homework,” which upset them because, they said, “kids are getting coddled too much.”  An ugly response would have been easy, and a direct challenge to their paradigms wouldn’t have worked at all.  “I’ve noticed,” I said, “not so much here, but when I talk with folks who do what I do with the New Student Information System, that in a lot of schools, the grades don’t have very much to do with how much students know.  Have you noticed that?”  And they had, and that steered the conversation in a much more productive direction.

“It’s still the classroom,” but change is possible.  Ms. X will still fret about “getting observed” (One Ms. X was actually wringing her hands about that in the hallway on Thursday), but the New Observation Tool, in the hands of our Local Powers, seems to be helping even Ms. X and Mr. Y plan more thoughtfully and more creatively.  “Kids are still kids,” and “teachers are still teachers,” but their paradigms can change if you don’t overwhelm them with too much at once. And even in a joyful learning community, it’s important to find the level of change and continuity.  Too much, too soon, too little, too late: all are problematic.  What’s great about a joyful learning community, though, is that finding the level is everybody’s job.  That’s a lot less exhausting and frustrating than “vision casting” and “climate building” are for formal, positional leaders in factory-structures!

I wonder what new discoveries, what new levels and insights we’ll find together today.

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Published in: on February 21, 2014 at 11:43 am  Leave a Comment  

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