I don’t see Ms. G very often; her work schedule is different from mine, and she’s usually in a different part of The Building. But when I saw her yesterday and asked how things were going, she told me she’s “so ready for summer vacation!” Hang in there, Ms. G; in These Parts, the last day for students is four weeks from today, and the last Teacher Workday is three days later. In a month, your much-needed vacation will arrive.
Unfortunately for Ms. G, Ms. X, and Mr. Y, it’s not quite time to “shut down” or “coast,” as Powers That Be proclaimed in a series of emails and intercom announcements. AP testing will end this week, but then come last-quarter progress reports, Awards Day assemblies, Senior Final Exams, and of course The Tests themselves for everybody else. My goal for the Latin Family is an enjoyable, engaging time when we put everything we’ve learned to use … but it’s hard to swim against the tide of worksheet packets and Jeopardy PowerPoints, “exam jam” tutoring sessions and “Saturday remediation” with pizza and snacks as bribes or rewards for those who show up and participate. When I went to pick up a print job in the faculty workroom on Monday afternoon, Ms. X was there with two of her students; they were helping her pick up the snacks and drinks for “her” tutoring session. “Don’t you want This Sugary Snack?” Ms. X asked N and B. “What about This One? Or This One?”
A Former Power called it “the home stretch,” and Another Power called it “the short rows,” these last few weeks of the school year when the focus turns from learning (or teaching and cramming content, if you’re feeling cynical) to flat-out test preparation. “Learning,” another Former Power would pronounce, “should continue until the Very End,” but I’m not sure what That Power meant by “learning.” It probably meant something like “busy, relatively quiet students staying in The Classroom and staying out of trouble.”
K, who had been really concerned about His Grade on Friday, wanted to ignore Monday’s sequence completely, apparently unaware that his not engaging i might have a deleterious effect on that longer-term goal. Earlier in the day, T and C had been very obviously doing Something Else while we talked about the first Minor Assessment of the new reporting period … and then they were (or pretended to be) really surprised that there was an assignment they might need to be working on. “But we had to go and do That Errand,” they complained. Yes, I told them, and we had talked about the Minor Assessment before you left, when you were having that other conversation. T and C feigned helplessness and lack of technology, and they tried almost every other trick in the School Game Player’s repertoire. But eventually, after many protests, they managed to make a pretty reasonable attempt at the Minor Assessment product, especially since they’d given themselves just about twenty minutes for what could have been a two-hour task. Like K, I’m sure they wouldn’t have seen the connection between their lack of engagement in the short term, the poor results in the medium term, and That Grade in the long term, even though they’re constantly claiming they “want” or “need” or “have to have” a Particular Grade so they won’t get in trouble with Mom or Dad.
But I don’t want to blame T, C, or K … and I really don’t even want to blame Ms. X, Mr. Y, or any level of Powers That Be. There’s a systemic issue, and systemic issues defy simplistic assignments of shame or blame just as surely as they defy and resist simplistic solutions. Ms. X and Mr. Y focus on The Test because they perceive a direct connection between their presentation of information, the scores achieved by “those bad, lazy kids,” and their personal worth as teachers … and the high stakes attached to The Test, and the rewards and punishments proposed by Great Powers Indeed, only add to those perceived connections in Ms. X and Mr. Y’s minds. At the same time, though, factory-model schools were designed to sort and select, which means that some number of “bad, lazy kids” ought to be unsuccessful on The Test. Ms. X and Mr. Y know that, too, if only because they got sorted and selected into the “good, diligent student” group in their own school days. So if the “bad, lazy kids” do well, Ms. X and Mr. Y blame The Test for “being too easy” or complain that the scoring wasn’t “rigorous” enough. But if the “bad, lazy kids” don’t do well, Ms. X and Mr. Y blame the badness and laziness, or the “awful parents,” or “not enough time and too much to cover,” or tests that aren’t “aligned with the curriculum.”
And in the end, for students like K, T, and C, the received message is that there isn’t that much you can do. Yes, you have to do the work if you want the grade, but the connections between today’s work and That Number are tenuous at best in Ms. X’s class. The structure of school, the labels and language we use, all promote a fixed mindset that most of your achievement depends on some unchangeable quality, something like intelligence or work ethic or personality. In a growth-oriented, proficiency-focused place like the Latin Family on our best days, that creates a lot of cognitive dissonance … and I have a suspicion that the cognitive dissonance, in turn, explains a lot of the anger and frustration K, T, C, and so many others experience from time to time. The great thing about a joyful learning community, though, is that even in the final stretch, we can still make time and space for the dissonance, the discomfort, and the eventual resolution. I wonder what other new discoveries and insights await us today!