“What seems most real to you: the label or the actual person?” That was one question behind the questions some friends of mine and I were talking about in a Google Hangout last night. Why is it, someone asked, that factory-model schools see the “typical” or “average” student, the one they believe they’re designed to serve, as more real or more important or more worthy than students whose learning needs are different? Why is there such an emphasis on the norm and deviations from it?
In other words, how can the labels be so airtight that they seem more real than the people?
I thought of Mark’s image of the basketball and the concrete block. Eventually, if you keep bouncing that “airtight” basketball on that hard, unyielding concrete long enough, the ball will probably spring a leak. It’s not really as airtight as it seemed at first. And in the same way, if someone with an airtight, but untrue story or world view keeps running into a significantly different reality, the reality should eventually overwhelm the airtight fantasy.ts That’s a painful process, of course … and that’s probably why, when you have (or want) a really airtight world view, you take pains to avoid situations where your views might be challenged. It’s only natural to want to avoid the pain of changing perspectives.
“Why is it,” D asked during the Hangout, “that schools think partnerships with parents mean that parents should discipline their kids for things that happened at school?” D wasn’t primarily referring to really bad things a child might do; she was thinking of schools’ tendency to ask parents to take things away from their children because “those bad, lazy kids didn’t do Our Work.” We’d been talking about a related factory-school issue, the tendency to deprive students of their strengths and interests to “give them more time” for areas of weakness. I had just told the story of One Ms. X, who firmly believed that “those bad, lazy kids” should be removed from “unimportant elective classes” if they weren’t doing well in Her Subject. After all, she said, My Subject has a Great Big Important Standardized Test.
The idea of appealing to students’ strengths and interests, of connecting those with Ms. X’s Subject? That never occurred to her, and if someone suggested it, she’d probably say that she “would need training” and, in any case, she has “not enough time and too much to cover.” When you think about that response, though, it’s pretty clear that, for Ms. X at least, the ideal “average” or “good” student is more real than the actual learners in her classroom. In so far as they differ from that ideal, they “need to” change, to conform themselves … or else!
One reason I’m so pleased to be working with, but not for District Q and District Y is that they don’t seem to fall into that trap. I’d been concerned about A, who’s been doing very well when he’s at school but has had a significant number of absences. He emailed me yesterday to explain why he hadn’t been able to do The Work … and under the circumstances, he wondered if he could possibly have an extension of time. I forwarded his email to the Relevant Powers, and in less than a day, there was a positive response. Those Powers not only know A by name, but they care about him as a person, and they were glad to make the necessary arrangements. I haven’t heard back from A, but I hope that news brightens his day.
If I were able to tell Ms. X that story, I wonder how she’d respond to it. Of course Ms. X is a composite of many teachers I’ve known and worked with, so it would be an interesting gathering! Many A Ms. X might say something about how “unrealistic” such an approach would be in “a big school” or “a big district.” Others might well think A needed to be “taught a lesson,” or that he “needed to make better choices.” (And not get sick during the school year?) One Ms. X, years ago, thought a temporarily homeless student “needed to make better choices,” by which she meant that “her work” should take priority over the job that might put a roof over his head again.
Evidently their airtight basketballs of the “average student” hadn’t yet bounced against enough concrete blocks of reality!
One thing I love about joyful learning communities is that, try as you might, you can’t keep your basketball away from the concrete blocks. Sooner or later, the ball and the block will meet … and if the ball is unrealistic or incomplete, it won’t stay airtight for very long. As the District Y Latin Family continues to explore patronage (for the beginning group), social class distinctions (for the intermediate group), and beliefs about the dead (for the advanced group), and as we build meaningful things together around what we’ve learned and the connections we’ve made, we may well find that some of our old basketballs are developing a leak or two. Z, whom I’ve never really liked that much? How can s/he and I agree about anything? X, who’s been my friend for all these years? How can we see things so differently? That’s the beauty of a diverse learning community, a beauty I want to celebrate because, at least to me, it’s more beautiful and more real than the false uniformity that factory-schools so often celebrate.
I wonder what other discoveries and celebrations await in the days to come!