Welcome, to those who have not met me and my writing. I am a teacher, or at least I am paid a modest sum to appear in a classroom and take actions that result in students’ graduation. My job is curious. Sometimes, I feel like I am trying to bring in that spoon with the baby food. “Open up for the airplane/figurative language/test prep.” It is amazing how difficult, and tiring, it is to convince someone to do something that is clearly in their best interest. But I like my job. Sometimes I don’t know why, but I do (like it, that is). I know that I am in the presence of hearts and minds that have not yet become the fully jaded specimens of so many adults. There is passion. Sometimes, that passion is a runaway freight train or an oil spill just catching fire. We fear it, so we seek to contain it, to mold it, to stifle it. I was never too keen on conspiracy theories, but getting to work at a Title 1 school has loosened the strictures of my disbelief.
Have you ever seen a dog race? I think I have probably seen half of one during the course of my life. If I recall correctly, there is an object (a fake rabbit?) dangled before each canine. That is the motivation to run, that and extensive training/conditioning. This method appears quite effective, and the sport (?) flourishes because of it. The dogs run like bats of hell. But, people are not dogs. Yet, we dangle rabbits, and put carrots on sticks, diligently, in the world of education. Grades, graduation and grants are all put before students to get their little mind feet running. Sometimes, this works well, and students are rocketed into the stratosphere of higher education. There they have the opportunity to drink heavily and become indoctrinated with liberal ideologies. Go college! However, there is a conundrum for us high school folks. If our (read the school, not my) goal is to graduate these kids, our MAIN goal, then all we have to do is check off the boxes. Get that GPA; get those credits; jump on that community service. Uh oh, those things can easily be manipulated to serve the MAIN goal. Colleges know this. They do not trust us. So, what do they do?
Bring in the tests. Put ’em on the desk. Bubble in the bubbles like it ain’t no thang. Standardized testing. Sends that shiver up your spine that can not help but make you shimmy. What message do you think it sends to a student when you hand them a piece of paper with a big number on it, a decent sized graph that assesses the worthiness of that number, and their name, quite small, at the top? I mean, handing them a piece of paper that says “F*$k you; you don’t mean s#!t” would be a little obvious, so this probably works better. I mean, who doesn’t like being reduced to a number and told they don’t measure up. To be fair, there will be tests in education, and in life. I am not proposing an “everybody gets a trophy for participating” type scenario. What I am saying, is that when you give a state sponsored opaque test with nebulous, inscrutable results and hold out a diploma as bait and guillotine, something is a little wrong. Well, enter the SAT and ACT! These are our saviors. If the ^&$ state test is deeply, deeply flawed, which it is, then we will go to the nationally recognized winners, Mr. SAT and his buddy Mr. ACT. Concordant scores to the rescue. One moment, my sarcasm just got out of its cage and is chewing on the scenery. OK, deep breath.
SAT.ACT. These are great tests, right? You can find books, websites, and even videos designed to help you practice. They are not hiding. They are as transparent as Kim Kardashian’s clothes. I am sure many smart people got together to gift us with these exams. So why am I belly aching? Get to the point, already. Anecdote: On Friday, I was working with my students during the last class of the day. I know, that is a problematic time slot. However, we had just completed a brief SAT practice with flawless participation accompanied by silence. That is the hallmark of learning: silence. All the bubbles were bubbled and the answers discussed. What to do? Well, the second half of our class was to be devoted to studying the “Declaration of Independence.” We try to wedge these pieces of formative literature and civic nascence in between our test prep. I told my students there were essentially two ways to view the assignment (hold that thought). The assignment was a paper with questions about the “Declaration”. Some of the questions had multiple parts, like an a,b, and c. So, I wanted to use the first question as an example. Many students had progressed beyond this question, but I was looking to establish a sort of norm for the questions. Yes, I should have done that at the very beginning of our first time examining the document. My bad. Anyway, as a class we filled in parts a, b, and c. I said, “Way number one to look at this assignment. ‘I am sitting in Mr. ?’s class and he just gave me this piece of paper. It looks kind of long and boring, but I should probably slap down some answers and get a grade. He’s kind of annoying, but I wanna pass this class. After school, we are going to party!'”. That is valid; I told them. The statement represents engagement, if reluctant, and an understanding of the rabbit dangling in front of them. I also said,”Way number two.’OK, the “Declaration” seems a little confusing, but I know it was very important to starting this country. Even more important is my ability to analyze literature and incorporate quotes accompanied by meaningful insight.’ Alright class, let us combine parts a,b, and c and generate some commentary on the document based on the answers you have given me.” The response was epic. When I looked around, at those who were paying attention, I saw a peculiar expression. Imagine what your face would like if someone earnestly asked you to recreate a David Blaine demonstration, and sincerely believed you could do it. That’s what I saw in the faces of my students. One of my most advanced guys said, “Um. That’s college, stuff.” I never knew that I could be stricken, amazed, bewildered, disappointed and excited all at the same time. That is teaching.
P.S. I could end it right there, but I want to elucidate just a tad. We are creating a societal class of responders. My students are not financially well off, many are quite poor, and the majority identify with racial minority groups. In our rush to guide them to the Holy Grail of Graduation we are losing something along the way, their voices. That is my goal as a teacher. I want to hear and develop their voices. Not their yelling voices. They can hoot and holler with the best of them (although some are shockingly quiet). I mean the voice of expression. The voice that comes from cogent thought and invites contemplation and response. You see, after my November surprise with a request for basic commentary on a text, I tried to help. I wrote one sentence that I thought might help them dive into their exploration. I told them they had already identified the building blocks, and I just wanted them to put them together in a creation of their own devising. They looked at my sentence and said I write too fancy. I changed the word “dalliances” to “shortcomings” and asked if that was better. They said they didn’t know what that word meant, either. I am not deterred. I will persist, and I believe they will discover that they can do far more than they thought they could. But there is no rabbit for free thought and real critical thinking. Having something to say about the world that reflects who you are and what you believe is not a graduation requirement. I do not pretend to be some great teacher. I am in the early throes of learning how to navigate the treacherous waters of education at the high school level. But I know that if we put bubble sheets in the place of engaging our minds, we are telling students that their highest function is to reduce the wild, terrifying world of the insanely amazing study of the English language to validation of other people’s “right” answers. When answer choice A, B, C, or D comes before wrestling with our doubts and pushing through our ignorance in order to reach a greater understanding of our language and our world, everybody loses. You, me, and the students, most of all.