Ms. X was fretting, or complaining, or maybe just stating facts as she stood at the copier. It seems the “bad, lazy ones” in her AP class (!) were “totally apathetic” about their upcoming exam, and they had no interest in another last-minute worksheet packet. More than one, she went on, had “actually admitted they were only taking the class for the GPA boost” … and in These Parts, it’s a substantial one. Ms. X was pretty sure that problem could (and should) be solved by reverting to an Old Policy, under which, she claimed, students had to achieve a Certain Minimum Score on AP exams in order to get that GPA boost.
I’ve worked in These Parts for well over twenty years, and I don’t remember such a policy. Given the calendar of when graduations happen (June) and when AP scores arrive (July), I don’t think it would have be possible or practical. But Ms. X is sure that it existed, and she’s sure that the natural results of such a policy would be students “taking the test more seriously” … and doing those last-minute worksheet packets without complaint.
Mr. Y wasn’t upset, exactly, but he was shaking his head in disbelief. It seems several of his students, who have “done absolutely nothing” and “fought me every step of the way,” are suddenly concerned and complaining about the low grades they’re currently receiving. Others, he says, have “just given up,” convinced that they’ll fail the course and the Great Big State Test no matter what. Mr. Y is trying to help both groups see the natural results of putting forth effort … and contrast them with the natural results of putting forth no effort … but it’s a hard fight. We talked briefly about Carol Dweck’s work; he’d heard of the book and had been planning to read it at some point.
Meanwhile, there were announcements and emails and Important Reminders and Directives of one sort and another, all aimed at keeping the “bad, lazy ones” (though those words weren’t used) “where they’re supposed to be.” The Relevant Powers, it seems, are Really Busy, and they “don’t have time” to deal with bad behavior or to chase down Ms. X’s students who “wander.” I told N, T, U, and B that with the heat and the series of unfortunate incidents (most of which I deliberately have chosen not to know details about), tempers might be high and patience might be lower than usual. They were puzzled … but then they started making connections with our continuing conversations about received and perceived messages. “What’s the only possible message an Authority Figure could receive from something like that?” I asked. And, of course, it’s a simple one: the “bad, lazy ones” are asking for close supervision and restrictions, and they’re asking for that for everybody. Because everyone’s “too busy,” and there’s “not enough time” and “too much to cover” and the Great Big State Tests are just a few weeks away.
Of course, the unfortunate incidents and the wandering are natural results, too, and so is the apathetic response from Ms. X’s “bad, lazy” AP students to that last-minute worksheet packet. They’re natural results of an approach that enshrines data and test scores as ends in themselves rather than tools for teachers or learners. “There are so many kids now,” Mr. Y observed, “who think they’re entitled to good grades because they always got good grades in the past.” And that sense of entitlement is a natural result, too … a natural result of structures designed to sort and label young people. If the label represents something fixed and unchanging, as labels are generally assumed to do, then it only makes sense to assume that the “good student” label and the prior good grades confirmation should lead to continued good grades today and tomorrow, regardless of what I do or don’t do “for Ms. X.” I think it was T who said, a week or so ago, that she didn’t understand how “being loud and talking” could affect her grade; she had trouble seeing the connection between the loud talking and the half-completed assignments even when I pointed it out to her directly. And she’s still struggling to see how lack of practice (partly related to the loud talking and the half-completed assignments) contributed to her lack of growth in language proficiency … and I’m not entirely sure she’s noticed that the target proficiency level is higher now than it used to be.
Language proficiency, like proficiency with a musical instrument or a sport, is much more about growth and effort than it is about inborn talent. I thought about that at a band concert I attended at The Girl’s school last night. She’s sung in choirs and played keyboard and stringed instruments not-quite-forever, but friends finally convinced her she ought to try marching band, too. So there she was, mallets in hand, for one piece … and you could see and feel the joy as she played. I knew the director had been trying to recruit her for a while; when we talked, he cheerfully admitted it, saying he knew she needed a new challenge.
How can I help T and the others find joy in growth and effort? The joy is actually the natural result of the effort … but in a school-world built around immediate, effortless success, growth and effort are a hard sell. In a school-world that focuses relentlessly on The Individual, but treats individuals as interchangeable parts, it’s hard to value diversity and community. In these last few weeks of school, I’m thinking about community and growth, effort and joy, making time and conversations, proficiency and understanding, but it feels like swimming against a vast tide of cram sessions and test scores. I wonder what progress we’ll all make against that tide, and I wonder what new insights and discoveries await.