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Wednesday, September 9, 2015

SOMETHING is being learned, WHETHER WE WANT IT OR NOT, ALL the time.

   While reading the Smith article for this week, I found it eerie, how deeply it resonated with me, and more specifically, how tangibly it brought me right back to a situation I was involved in a few years ago.
     Smith speaks concretely about what students are learning, and how it can be very contrasting to what is the intended lesson, and while I was at the middle school, there was a conscious push to revise the manner in which we dealt with discipline and student behavioral expectations.  In theory, the changes made sense, when a student was misbehaving or acting out, the classroom teacher would call for support, and a behavior specialist would remove the student for redirection and re-engagement.  The student would then be returned to class, when the specialist deemed they were "ready to learn."  The intended message of this style of intervention, was that by supporting our students more, and listening to them, rather than punishing them or dictating to them, we would better serve the needs of the individual, and, in-turn, the whole.  In practice, this turned out to be a disaster. There were not enough supports (staff and training) to execute this system as thoroughly as it needed to be, and students quickly LEARNED, that there were no consequences for their behavior.  The change started slowly, but as a snowball turns into an avalanche, it progressed quickly from there.  Initially students started to roam the halls, talk back to faculty, and disrupt class somewhat more frequently, but as the message got out that there were no actual consequences for their behavior, the escalation began, and before the end of the year, students - middle school kids - were lighting fires in the bathroom, jumping out second story windows, threatening teachers with violence, and destroying school property in shocking degrees.

   The school maintained a 0% out of school suspension rate that year, and our in-school suspension room was shut down due to lack of staffing.  These students (about 10% of the 7-8th grade, and 5% of the 6th grade) were in-class, in front of the teachers they had threatened, every day.  We learned many things as a school community that year, some students learned they could do whatever they wanted, and could disrupt teaching constantly with impunity, students who wanted to achieve learned that their needs would be pushed off to accommodate a few troublemakers, borderline students learned it was easier to follow their peers who were disruptive and not get picked on, than to listen to their teachers and be subject to relentless bullying.  Teachers learned not to call for support, because it was unlikely to come, better to just try and ignore as much as you can, then quietly give up...a little each day.  We learned to shut our doors and keep our heads down and our mouths shut rather than make waves and risk being labeled "inefficient."  These lessons were effortless, and have never been forgotten.  Many teachers left that year and since, and while things have never been quite that difficult in the following years, the students and faculty bear scars to this day from the "lessons" we learned that year.
     On a more uplifting note, I have been thinking about all the things I know how to do, in relationship to our class discussion last week.  I have also been thinking about what my children can do, and what my students can do, and the universal thread through all of those things, is the excitement and growth that accompanies all of the learning involved.  I learned to read, because my parents read to me, my children read because I read to them, not once in a while, but as a norm.  I went to a varsity soccer game this week, and I watched as our boy's team showed a deft ability to keep spacing, and exhibit tremendous "touch " with the ball, and it was obvious that this was not something coach had taught them in practice, but something that was their norm.
     I memorized my times tables in fourth grade, and I can recite my Hail Mary in French because we chanted those things every day, but I resist math at every turn, and can't speak or understand French at all.  That type of learning was isolated and stagnant, and I struggle now to watch my daughter (who is in 7th grade) carry a 5 pound math text to and from school every day, and grind through 40 or 50 homework problems every night.  Is this "broccoli", and she should partake of it because it is good for her, or is this type of "official learning" stifling her creativity and desire to learn?  I found it interesting that Smith used the word "archetypal" to describe the official process of learning, because it immediately connected with a presentation from Sir Ken Robinson which deems our system of education as "outdated and detrimental."
     I aspire to guide the students I teach to a process of authentic learning, and have intentional elements of prioritizing the second classroom in my practice, but I worry about the space between the material, when much of the learning takes place, and desperately want to ensure that the lessons that last from my time with them are valuable and worthwhile.

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