Saturday, May 18, 2013

A Little Truth in Graffiti

A couple of weeks ago, I was monitoring a test.

It was my third test of the day.  I was bored.  This particular test is a state-mandated standardized test that asks teachers to "actively monitor"--meaning no grading, no planning, no computer, only watching students stare at computer screens--students to make sure the test is as secure as possible.  My job was to walk around, not read the test at all, make sure no one is looking at anyone else, etc.

By the middle of the first test I felt like going crazy.  I had random urges to jump around and wave my arms spasmodically in the air, just to change my pattern: weave this way between the computer tables; now this way.  I will admit to a certain level of hyperactivity and a pretty persistent need to keep my mind busy that often requires a pen and paper (at least) to record my thoughts.  This walking in circles thing while watching kids stare at computers, listening to mice click, scroll, click, is about as opposite my natural modus operandi as it gets.  When I first started teaching I used to carry a stone in one hand when I gave tests in my classroom so I could at least fiddle with something, but I didn't bring one to this test.

It was during one of my passes between computer tables that I noticed it.  Thin, shaky lines, obviously originally written to be hidden, but now betrayed by a simple rearrangement of cardboard dividers, spelled out one student's despair in three straight-forward words: school sucks balls.

School sucks balls.

I silently agreed with the concisely authored phrase as I did a quick turnaround just in case students might think they knew my path well enough to steal a glance at someone else's test--a test that contained different questions in a different order than their tests.  In that setting, at that moment, how could I disagree?  There was no learning, no spirit of inquiry, no empathy, nothing that makes school special, in that setting and at that moment.

There was the test.

And, before that, there was preparing for the test.

Teaching this year has been an eye-opening experience.   Before this year, I was already against standardized testing, pre-testing, interim testing, post testing, and field testing (we did all of these this year--none of that is made up).  I follow SOS: Save Our Schools, a movement against testing as a means of measuring student and teacher achievement.  I recognized the invalidity of a standardized test as a means of measuring either intelligence or learning even as a preteen who was extremely good at testing.  I have hated standardized testing for a very long time.

Yet, I had never experienced teaching a class that culminated in a standardized test.

This year was the first year I've taught Language Arts in a public school.  Previous to that, I have mostly taught Latin, an untested field, and have had the freedom to tailor my classes to my students' needs.   If they knew the current concept and were ready to go on, we did.  If they needed more reinforcement of a concept, we spent more time on it.  I created a community in my classrooms; generally my Latin classes have been joyful and celebratory, filled with fun, jokes, and a personal relationship with my students that let me experiment with methodology and let them tell me with honesty what was working for them.

I still had two Latin classes this year, but I also taught three Language Arts classes.

The difference has been astounding.  I feel like I only got to know maybe a fifth of the students very well.  We were rarely creative.  We were rarely laughing.  We were rarely having fun.  I spent most of my time in the front of the room, lecturing, or pacing through the room while kids read, worked on worksheets, filled out forms.

I should say, this is not my school's fault.  My administration is amazing and supportive--I have never seen such a cohesive and reasonable group of principals.  My course team for Language Arts has bent over backwards to help me teach as effectively as possible and has been there for me every time I had a question--and that's been often.

Instead, it's the fault of the current push to punish schools and teachers for past trespasses that rarely have to do with anyone who is now in the field.  The current cry of "accountability" has spawned a testing craze that makes a huge amount of money for textbook companies and hurts everyone else in education, especially the students.

My students never got to experience the joy of enjoying a great book, never got to celebrate characters and revelations, connections between themselves and literature.  Instead, I got to spoon-feed them as much information as I could so they could be ready for The Test.  The Test, a state-mandated standardized test, was worth 20% of their grade.  Everything I did in class ultimately revolved around The Test.  And my kids, already convinced they don't like spending eight hours a day locked in a building being told what to do, found class boring, tedious, uncomfortable, and uninspiring.  So did I.

Every day I had both subjects, Language Arts and Latin, juxtaposed against each other as a clear illustration of the difference between a standardized and unstandardized subject.  Every day I would so enjoy my Latin classes that I came to dread facing my Language Arts classes and their lack of motivation.  It wasn't the students or the subject, it was the way I had to approach both.

All my spoon-feeding and worksheet-pushing achieved its goal; nearly all of my students not only received a passing score on The Test, but received a good score, one that improved their grade average in my class.  However, I know, from their expressions every time we started a new reading, that they got no joy in my class, found no new literature to love, and generally think Language Arts is one more class that they need to "get through" to graduate.

This is no way to educate life-long learners.  As things currently stand, "school sucks balls."

I only hope that, as this current unfortunate generation of students graduates and gains control of our politics, things will change and this trend will be remembered in history as the mistake and disaster that it is.