Interpreting Signs

All day Tuesday, it was obvious that bad weather was coming … and in fact, by the time it was all over, there were all kinds of reports of flooding and even tornadoes close by.  The sensible Powers That Be in the Local School District tend to cancel after-school activities on days like that, so Tuesday afternoon was filled with one announced update after another.  “Please be safe,” I said to the Latin Family as they were leaving, “and drive carefully on your way home.”  And everyone told me that’s exactly what they planned to do.  B, U, C, and E are sometimes a bit silly in classes, but they’re much more sensible and prudent when the stakes are real.  They’re also very good at interpreting signs … signs of bad weather, signs that someone is upset or annoyed or frustrated, signs that it’s time to “stop playing and get serious,” as U once said to C.

At lunch on Tuesday, One Ms. X was scowling at the copier, annoyed because she “has to” make multiple versions of “her” tests because of “all the cheating.”  Ms. X is convinced that “it’s worse this year than it ever was before,” and when I asked her about the causes, she was quick with a response.  “Society,” she said, “definitely.”  I wondered aloud if, perhaps, after years of being told that right answers on tests were the most important thing students could produce for their teachers and schools, they might have internalized that message … but Ms. X wasn’t interested in pursuing that conversation.  Ms. X sees some signs, too, and she’s interpreting them as best she can … but I think, if I had to choose a sign interpreter, I might just choose B, U, and their friends over Ms. X.  I think they’re better at interpreting signs than she is.

So much depends, after all, on the lenses and paradigms and expectations we bring when we notice a potential sign and decide to start interpreting it.  Ms. X, her factory-lenses firmly in place, “has to” blame “Society” or “bad, lazy kids” or “terrible parents” or some other external factor for “all the cheating.”  Why?  Because she “has to” assume that “her” tests are a valid, important measure of what her students have learned, and they “have to” work on them by themselves … because that’s what “has to” happen!  What else could possibly happen?  What other interpretation would be possible?

Other interpretations are always possible, of course … and sometimes it’s important to help people see the possibilities.  “Do you realize,” I asked two chronically talkative, distracted groups on Monday, “what the most plausible interpretation is when you just keep doing the same thing even after someone asks you to stop?”  They clearly hadn’t ever thought about that!  “The most plausible interpretation is deliberate, willful contempt.  I’m trying to have a different interpretation, but I’m not sure I can.”  Ms. X would have yelled for quiet and screamed about disrespect, and what would Y, U, D, and the others have learned?  What have they learned from Many A Ms. X and Mr. Y who did exactly that … who “solved the problem” by temporarily, uselessly removing a symptom?

“Copy these definitions from the textbook,” say Ms. X and Mr. Y, “but don’t you dare copy your friend’s paper.  Do your own work when you recall what I told you, word for word.  Don’t cheat on the test I downloaded from the Internet, whatever you do!”  And then Ms. X and Mr. Y turn around and blame “Society” for “all the cheating,” unwilling or unable to interpret the signs that might be pointing in a different direction.

If I shared this Google+ post or the MindShift article it references, or even just the NuVu Studio program itself, how would Ms. X and Mr. Y respond?  Would they dismiss it as “nonsense” or  “just know” that such a program “couldn’t work” with “kids like ours?”  “Things are different there,” One Particular Ms. X used to say when anything from elsewhere was mentioned, “and something like that wouldn’t work with our kids.  It might have worked years ago, when Things Were Different and the kids were better.”  I knew That Particular Ms. X for years, long enough to remember that she made the exact same pronouncements and complaints “years ago,” in the time that she later considered golden.  Besides, “technology” is a “big problem,” according to Many A Ms. X, because “they don’t learn how to think anymore.”

I wonder what Many A Ms. X and Mr. Y would make of this piece from The Atlantic, which Charles Carrigan shared on Google+ last night.  Here’s some proof that “they,” even the “bad, lazy ones who have to go to community college,” do in fact “learn to think” quite well.  “That wouldn’t happen here,” someone would probably insist, “because things are different and the kids are so much worse.”  Meanwhile, when Ms. X and Mr. Y are away from school, their substitute teachers almost always laud the excellence of the very same students Ms. X and Mr. Y dismiss as “so much worse.”

Reading over this post, I notice I’ve collected a lot of signs, but I haven’t done as much interpreting of them as I’d originally intended.  I’m not sure how to bring all the threads together in a satisfying conclusion!  But there’s something about right answers and cheating, something about not working here and unintended irony … something important that, with time and patience, might just yield the insight that seems to escape me this morning.  What do you think, and what new insights and discoveries are waiting for all of us today?

Published in: on April 30, 2014 at 10:40 am  Leave a Comment  

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