The weather was bad. It was Wednesday … a sticky, humid Wednesday with the threat of worse weather to come. And N, T, U, C, and B were doing business as usual, which is to say they were sort of working on the assignment some of the time, while loudly carrying on another conversation most of the time. That loud conversation continued as the Latin Family started to move to a whole-group reading activity, and all of a sudden I had an insight.
We finished that story, and we moved to pairs and small groups to read the next few and make a Products-Practices-Perspectives Diagram. And there were some other issues of probably unintentional, but seemingly deliberate rudeness that we all needed to talk about. But then, as everybody else started reading, but N, T, and the others continued their loud, unrelated conversation, I went over to talk with, not just to them about the problem.
Oh, the justifications and the excuses! N, T, and the others are veteran excuse makers, and they tried everything you can imagine. “Such-and-So isn’t doing their work, either! And Such-and-So is distracting us, and you never say anything to them,” and everything you would have tried if you were in that situation. But I sat with them (or knelt, very deliberately at the same level with them) until finally B asked about his grade and then, all of a sudden, T accidentally led them to the breakthrough.
I’m sure she didn’t mean to; I’m sure she was trying a well-worn trick that would get Ms. X or Mr. Y angry and upset or confused and speechless. “Is our behavior affecting our grades?” she asked. I’m sure she was thinking of Ms. X’s “class participation” grade, the kind where you start out with 100% and lose points for t talking out of turn, not bringing your textbook, dropping your pencil while Ms. X is talking. “No,” I said, “not really. But when you don’t do the assignment, that obviously is affecting your grade … and when you just do part of it, that affects it, too. And when you don’t practice and don’t develop your proficiency to the point where it should be, that has the biggest effect because you do poorly on the Major Assessment responses.”
And then, all of a sudden, N, T, and U had an insight they’d never had before. “I mean,” said T, “if we’re loud, we should get a bad comment or something, but it shouldn’t affect our grade!” That’s true, I told her; it’s not the loudness, but the lack of focus that’s affecting That Number. And then I told them about a question I’d had from some visitors recently: “Are they always that loud and rude?” N, T, and U were astounded. “But we’re less loud when people come in,” they protested. That’s when the unexpected breakthrough really happened.
It seems that N, T, U, and their friends have “always” been in situations where Ms. X or Mr. Y yelled and labeled about loud and rude, but without explaining why, listening to the “loud, rude ones,” or even asking them to think of others or consider the impression they were making. “Nobody said anything to us!” they said, and then they wanted to know who had made the comment. More than one person, I told them … and I would no more tell them specifically who without that person’s permission than I’d share with Ms. X or Mr. Y a specific comment N, T, or U had made about them.
It wasn’t a “perfect” day after that, of course, but it was definitely better. “Do you mean,” C asked, “that if we don’t get it done in class, but finish it later, we should show it to you then?” Yes, I said, that might be a good idea. And at the end of the day, we talked about the four Formative Work assignments from the day and what their scores would be. “This One, of course, obviously gets full credit because you did do it. This one … no credit yet because you didn’t do it at all. This gets part-credit because you did do some of it, but not all, and so does This.” And for the first time, it seems, N, T, U, and C saw the connection between Those Numbers and their actions!
I’m not a big fan of Those Numbers, but in an environment where they “have to” happen, you might as well use them to help people see natural consequences of things. “My mom expects an A,” said T, but T hadn’t ever grasped that what she does might contribute to That Letter in such complex ways. “Should I move and sit somewhere else?” asked N, and the first time she asked, it sounded like her old familiar ploy. But by the end of the conversation, even N seemed to be seeing some connections and consequences she’d never seen before.
We’ll see what happens today. Will the momentum continue, or will N, T, and the others regress temporarily … or both?
I woke up this morning to a Google+ share of Mark Johnstone’s post about “Big and Little Questions” related to Technology Enhanced Learning. Like me, he tries to “stay out of the way” and let the learning happen; it’s funny to see that phrase in print from someone else, because I just said those exact words to one of the advanced groups. And it seems his colleagues, like mine, are “talking endlessly about control issues” whenever they meet, and all he can do is “sit quietly in staff meetings” and wonder why they just keep missing the point.
Building joyful learning communities is hard, and sustaining them is even harder. But business as usual is a lot more painful even in the short run! N, T, and U were sad, at one point, because they felt like they were being excluded from the Latin Family somehow, but from everyone else’s perspective, they were doing an excellent job of removing themselves. I wonder what insights, discoveries, and amazing breakthroughs we’ll all have today as our journey of learning continues!