One thing I love about teaching face-to-face is that sometimes, if the conditions are aligned, an amazing conversation will start. Someone asks a great question, someone else responds, and connections and comparisons and unexpected insights start flying. I remember one time, fifteen or more years ago, when it “just happened” that I started such a conversation. It probably wasn’t the first time, and it certainly wasn’t the last, but it was especially powerful because the connections were so personal as well as so wide-ranging.
We were reading Book I of the Aeneid, and we’d just finished one of the scenes where Vergil’s god-characters interact in particularly human (and manipulative) ways. “Does it seem to you,” I asked, “that Vergil’s gods are like members of a dysfunctional human family?” Now, as it turned out, every single member of that particular class had first-hand, personal experience with at least one dysfunctional human family. I don’t think I said anything else for an hour! I just sat back, watched, listened, and learned at least as much as anybody else in the room.
Looking back, I realize that was one of the first times that the Latin Family moved from slogan to reality. If I remember right, we all promised each other that we wouldn’t be the dysfunctional kind of family to each other … and we kept that promise. Fifteen years later, I still have clear memories of what happened, how it happened, where it happened, and who was there.
When a friend of mine “just happened” to share this New York Times article today, I remembered that day … and I remembered other days, other conversations I’ve experienced as both student and teacher, when a whole group was suddenly “hungry for big ideas.” I even half-remember a time when I could schedule time each week for such conversations; they didn’t always happen, and they didn’t always go into such depth, but it wasn’t uncommon for a real sense of family to emerge from those scheduled conversations. And in those days, the Latin Family really did help many of its members “prepare for higher education” … not just prepare “to Go To College,” but prepare to succeed and thrive and identify their dreams and pursue them.
But those days are gone. A participant in the summer Online Professional Development “just happened” to put into words something I’d noticed. She teaches at a school where seminar dialogue theoretically is a core practice, but she said she’d “heard nothing about it” in the three or four years she’d worked there, and she really didn’t know what was involved. I’m sure the quest for rigor and test scores and standardization, the quest that “just happened” to go into high gear right around then, led Various Powers That Be to “de-emphasize” programs that teach and reinforce argumentation, close reading, collaboration, and deep thinking. After all, how could those things possibly relate to Higher Scores? That’s what worksheet packets are for, especially the Shiny New Ones on offer from That Vendor at That Particular Conference.
Of course, if you want lifelong learning and meaningful success, a joyful learning community is much more likely to produce those results than even the shiniest New Worksheet Packets. But what does a joyful learning community look like, how do you create one, and where are they most likely to happen? Schools, as Richard Elmore points out, default to a hierarchical individual model of learning, organization, leadership, and management … and joyful learning communities, by their very essence, are non-hierarchical, distributed in structure. It’s hard for two such different structures to co-exist, especially when the hierarchical individual structure, under pressure from all sides to get better results, imposes ever more hierarchy and standardization in the name of scalability and results.
So, in addition to those online joyful communities we’ll be building this fall with the Gifted Homeschoolers Forum classes and another online opportunity that “just happened” to appear, I’m thinking of ways to build joyful learning communities outside of the time and place that factory-model schools reserve for themselves.
That’s the what I want to explore this week … but how, where, and when? And who will be part of that different form of joyful community?
I’ve been thinking (and even blogging) about how for a while. Picture something like your favorite Local Coffee Shop … except it’s in a small town where Local Coffee Shops are in short supply. It “just happens” to be open in the afternoon and early evening, at times when there aren’t many safe, supervised spaces and places for young people in Those Parts to be in. There are refreshments, and comfortable places to sit and do Ms. X’s mindless homework if you need to … but there are also some interesting books that “just happen” to be lying around, and some other interesting things to do, and if you’d like, you can join in a conversation. Or make something interesting. Or help somebody with something. Or get help. Or form a group, large or small, to take on a problem that you “just happened” to identify together … maybe a community garden in the outside space that “just happens” to be outside the door? Or a program that “just happens” to bring people together in unexpected, unpredictable ways?
The thing about how, of course, is that the specifics will emerge from the community itself, from the young people who “just happen” to start spending an afternoon or an early evening in this space. But where? And when? I think I see some answers … clearer and clearer each day. The next step (which I was really anxious about this morning) is to find the rest of the team … and then the place and time will be obvious, won’t they?
I wonder who will join the team, and I wonder what other new discoveries we’ll make as we build this new thing together!