“To live life,” quiet, thoughtful B wrote on the Latin Family’s large whiteboard yesterday morning, “is to live your dreams. Think about it!” Minus the “think about it!” part, that turns out to be B’s current life motto … and what a wonderful gift it was on a long, busy Monday.
A few hours earlier, Ms. X had come into the faculty workroom, where I was assembling those Packets Of Work for the Latin Family members who were about to experience their Consequence for Misbehavior. “It’s countdown time now!” she crowed, and she was surprised when I didn’t immediately agree. Yes, I’m perfectly well aware of the number of days left in the school year, but no, I don’t think a countdown is appropriate yet. “I can’t count down until the number is five or less,” I jokingly responded, “because I don’t have enough fingers and hands for that.” She was puzzled, but she got it eventually.
I realized, to my surprise, that I don’t actually know what B’s dream is. And I don’t know the dreams of quite a few current Latin Family members! Ten or fifteen years ago, I usually had a pretty good sense of students’ dreams, and they tended to tell me about them … at least once they’d figured them out. To be fair, some (many!) had no idea yet, and many found their dreams shifting or changing. Is it that Latin Family members today have less-defined dreams, or is it that they’ve learned not to trust adults with something so fragile and important? “You can’t do that,” Many A Ms. X might sneer, “because you’re too lazy to even copy my definitions or take notes on my PowerPoints! How could you possibly do That?”
But the dreams are still there, even if they’re hidden. Langston Hughes, in one of my favorite poems, talks about the effects of a dream deferred. I wonder about Many A Ms. X and Mr. Y: what were their dreams, and have they tried to reach them, or have they deferred and deferred … with what effect on them? One colleague wondered wistfully what might have happened if she’d followed her dream … and it turns out her dream had nothing at all to do with teaching or with her Particular Subject at all. “It’s not too late!” a friend reminded her, since This Colleague will probably be retiring in a year or so. “You can still do it!” But I’m not sure This Colleague believes her friends advice, and I’m really not sure if the old dream is still the current dream.
It’s easy to forget that dreams are alive all around us! “Mr. S,” K asked me yesterday, “is Julius Caesar your favorite Shakespeare play?” I don’t know the details of K’s dream, but I know that she’d already read and seen more Shakespeare before she started high school than Many A Ms. X and Mr. Y has read or seen in a lifetime. I’m not sure about T’s specific dream, either; she’s the daughter of friends, and I “just happened” to discover that she’s read the complete corpus of Jane Austen before starting high school. So much prior knowledge, so much interest, so much passion for things … and yet, in far too many factory-model schools, the assumption is “bad, lazy kids who know nothing and don’t want to do anything.” According to Ms. X, her own students believe that the incentives are poorly designed: “We get the GPA boost for taking AP classes,” they told her, “even if we don’t do well on The Test. Shouldn’t we get the GPA boost for passing The Test?”
A dozen years ago, before Ms. X’s students started their factory-schooling, they learned things because that’s what people do … and outside of school, they continue to learn things naturally and organically, usually in communities of interest, because that’s what people do. I know almost all of them, so I know that’s true! But after a dozen years in The System, all they can think of is punishments and rewards, and rewards for being rewarded, and punishments for being punished. In a Google+ comment yesterday, Bob said his students, too, think punishment is at least as important as learning.
What happens to dreams in an environment like that?
When you’re building and sustaining a joyful learning community, there’s time and space to share dreams … but there’s not a requirement, with incentives and consequences and all the other factory-model trappings. Dreams are delicate, fragile things, and forcing is just as likely to lead to rotting and exploding as deferring is. On a “countdown” day for Ms. X and so many others, I wonder how we’ll be able to maintain the delicate balance of dreams and reality, community and personal space, celebration and challenge in our work together. And I wonder what other new insights and discoveries this new day will hold for all of us!