N and her friends had been begging to change their seats for a few days; they wanted to stay together, but they had a feeling that, by sitting close to the front of the classroom, they were “getting in trouble” sometimes due to proximity rather than troublesomeness. So Thursday was the day when N, T, U, B, and C moved to a new location, in a back corner of the Latin Family’s classroom, with a storage shelf and a window nearby. If I were Ms. X or Mr. Y, I would have expected linear growth from them, and I’d be fussing and fretting this morning. “Those bad lazy kids!” Ms. X might have screamed. “I let them move, and they were just as bad! And then they had the gall to say they’d move back if I wanted them to!”
It wasn’t a great day, and I speak to them several times about conversational volume and focusing on the task. N even tried her “why are you yelling?” routine and the feigned innocence that surely makes parents, Ms. X, and Powers That Be both furious and puzzled. But N and her friends will be staying in their new, requested location, and they’ll be fixing the problems themselves. “It wasn’t better today,” I told them, “but it wasn’t worse.” I think that puzzled them as much as the notion of fixing the problems themselves.
N has moved around a lot in her life, and so have several of her friends. They’ve experienced a lot of schools … but factory-model schools have some things in common. One is this notion of seeking, even expecting, linear growth. If the test scores were good this year, they “should be” better next year; in fact, years ago, with a very different testing system and “school improvement planning” system in place, schools in These Parts were expected to set “proficiency growth targets” for each “tested area,” and the targets “had to” be at least 0.1% greater than the previous year’s numbers. If you work in a “good school” with “good scores,” that’s simple enough for a while … and then, all of a sudden, 82.3% has turned into 87.7% and Ms. X starts to worry about the “bad, lazy ones” and the students with That Particular Label. But for N and her friends, who got the scores with minimal effort, it usually meant they got ignored for a while, especially in the spring, when Ms. X and Mr. Y turned their frantic attention to the “bubble kids” who, with enough hand-holding and yelling, might just become “low level 3 kids” instead of “high level 2 kids” and make those target numbers happen. So N and the others are used to benign neglect.
They’re also used to getting the scores without much effort, and it shows. Persistence is a problem for them, even when they’re interested in the material they’re working with. Consideration of others? What’s that? Ms. X yells and labels if you get too loud, but Ms. X is too busy with those bubble kids over there … or at least she seemed to be when N and the others established their pattern. Expectations? Those are measured by test scores, and N and her friends always got the scores, because the tests were easy and stupid.
And then, all of a sudden, N, T, U, B, and C joined the Latin Family. And for 95 minutes a day, they’re expected to be and do something completely different. We’re asking them to manage themselves, and to build meaningful things together, and to solve the problems they created, and to sustain focus and attention even when there isn’t linear growth. No wonder they’re frustrated! No wonder they “act out,” sometimes loudly! The old, comfortable world of benign neglect and occasional praise has mysteriously vanished for those 95 daily minutes, and all around them Other People are getting the positive attention and high scores that, as far as N is concerned, are her natural right. “Why are you yelling?” she asks, and “Why are you scolding?” But what she means, I think, is “Why don’t my old tricks work anymore? Why won’t you yell or scold, or something, so I can externalize this pain and discomfort and blame Mean Old Mr. S, instead of me?”
It’s hard to build a joyful learning community at the best of times, harder still when you’re trying to build it in a potentially hostile environment. Harder yet, of course, when some potential members are actively resisting because they’re afraid. But when I went to check in with Ms. B and Ms. D around lunch time about Something Else Entirely, I was already seeing the desperate need rather than the problem behaviors.
It’s an interesting bit of dramatic irony that the intermediate branch of the Latin Family, N’s class, is currently reading the stories in Tres Columnae Lectio XX, where Valerius’ servant Casina experiences a trauma and, remarkably, her master and family rally around her to seek treatment and support her. N probably feels like Casina a lot of the time: taken for granted at home, expected to perform at school, inexplicably burdened by mandates from various authority figures. And now, like Casina, she’s starting to feel as though everything is falling apart, as though nothing makes sense anymore. Can we, the Latin Family, rally around her as the Valerii rally around their servant, as they support and encourage her even when she says she doesn’t want that? Can we get rid of the labels and the expectations of linear growth, meet each other where we are, and work together to fix problems ourselves? That’s the test we’ll be grappling with over the next few days, a complex test with multiple right answers and distressingly few multiple-choice options.
I wonder what other new discoveries and insights await us all today!