02 December 2013


I often think of teaching like a play.  The first act is exciting and sets the stage and goes from approximately August through October.  The second act runs from October through February and is where all the bulk of the conflict and drudgery happens.  By March, the weather is changing and with it comes a new invigoration in my students.  By that point they've usually figured out that I'm not crazy and that I'm not a complete moron and that even if they think I am that I hold their future at least partially in my hand (especially if they want a letter of recommendation from me.)

Following the play logic, the big finish should be something particularly memorable and awesome, but thanks to the Department of Education, instead the last month of school is spent with kids pushing buttons in front of computers, mindlessly answering questions to prove that they, that I, that their school and their state is doing something resembling learning.

This year they've changed the test.  One of the parents my students work with is very concerned.  Said parent attends loads of meetings about the Common Core and state tests and everything and sends all of that information to me.  "We need to do this!" parent says.


Sorry, parent.  I intend to spend as much time preparing my students for this brand new shiny exciting state test of awesome in the exact same way I did last year.  And the year before.  And the year before.  We'll spend approximately five minutes before the test explaining that yes, this test is a farce.  It is a waste of time.  I will not give them extra credit for doing well.  I will not put their score on their grade.  I will not bribe them in any way because I do not believe that I could sleep at night if I turned my students over to them.  The test makers.  I won't do it.  I will tell them that in spite of all of this, I expect them to pass.  I expect them to do their best to answer every question well.  I will tell them to do this because they are good, honorable people even though society tells them otherwise.  That everyone around them will believe that I'm crazy and that they are crazy for believing that a group of teenagers would do something well just because they are asked.  And then I'll turn them over to the computers and something magical happens:

They all pass.

Every single one of them.

This is not to say that every one of my students is genius.  "You teach honors students," people will say - excusing their accomplishments.  "No.  I teach students and I expect them to be honorable" I reply.  My students are excellent writers and really crappy writers.  They are students who read ahead and come prepared, and students who can go through an entire unit without a book and not even tell me even though I have extra copies ready.  There are students in my class ready to take over the world and students who still need their parents to make sure they tie their shoes and go potty before leaving the house (metaphorically, I hope.  But you never know.)

All of this proves two things to me:

1. Teenagers will rise to the level that they are asked to reach.  Most of the time, teenagers want to be treated like they are humans who matter.  They don't want to be told that real life is waiting.  Real life is there.  They are old enough to understand when things aren't right at home.  They see their friends struggle.  They experience and start to understand the weight of death or frightening illnesses.  They take their lives seriously.  They do not, contrary to popular opinion, consist entirely of punks who want nothing more from life than to defy authority and waste their lives.  They're not perfect, but neither am I.  Sometimes I'm a punk too.

2. These tests that we're shoving at them?  They're a load of (insert favorite four letter swear here.)  My students who turn in maybe two assignments a semester after a ton of hand holding pass the tests.  My students who turn in everything and are maybe smarter than me pass the tests.  Maybe this changes this year with the new test, who knows.  Maybe this is the year I don't get 100% passing.  It's possible.  But whether that happens or not, expecting every student to reach the exact same level of achievement in every area is not only impossible but also just flat out wrong.  We are wasting precious opportunities to cultivate the genius in every student when we tell them that they can be good but only that good, or when we tell them that - at the expense of a place where they are actually, truly good, they must abandon growing and excelling in that area in favor of matching where their peers are supposed to be.  In theory I don't hate the Common Core.  The desire to teach students how to think, to give them critical thinking skills - I completely agree with that.  But you will never ever get a kid excited about education when teachers aren't allowed or encouraged to think outside the box and when we are so married to the standards that we can't see the writing on the wall: you will never ever be able to get a good teacher or a good class when a teacher's opinion is no longer needed or respected, and their enthusiasm and love of their subject is a waste of time.

Let me give you an example:

My school has an incredible science teacher.  She's spunky and fun and the students love her.  She has fostered a love of science and experimentation in her classes that is truly impressive.  Her students bring her ideas for experiments and they make them happen.  She is, essentially, the closest to the high school version of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer loving Miss Frizzle I've ever met.  She started a Demonstration Team this year.  Their goal is to spread their love of science to other schools in the area.  They got awesome white lab coats and contacted schools all over the area offering a completely free demonstration of tricks and experiments as an assembly for elementary school classes.  Schools should be jumping all over this opportunity.  What gets kids more excited about learning chemistry than watching a group of kids turn pennies into gold?  Or learning biology by blowing up watermelons?  Only no one will take them.  Unless what they're presenting aligns exactly with the Common Core, then it's a waste of time.  It's no longer enough, even in elementary school, to do something that is both fun and educational.  They have to go through the core and point out exactly what they do that links and if it doesn't link they can't do it.  This means they can't present to more than one age group at a time.  It means that until they go through the Core, they're stalled in their tracks.  What a joke.

This year my students and I are studying the founding of America.  That in mind, I am giving them an assignment in a few weeks to assemble the Student's Bill of Rights.  I will also be writing my Teacher Bill of Rights.  It probably won't make any difference.  It probably won't go anywhere.  Heaven knows this blog isn't exactly viral, and I'm ok with that because it frees me to write when I like and what I like without an inbox full of nasty comments.  I get that enough from parents who are mad when I give their kid a bad grade.  But in the next few weeks when these go up and I'm done revising them - if you like it, spread it.  Because there can never be enough voice against what the modern education system is being morphed in to.

1 comment:

Erica said...

Love this post, Joni. I'm not very familiar with all that Common Core entails, but I did teach at a private school that had some interesting "required" testing. I firmly believe that true education comes from inspiring students to care about what they're learning. When teachers love their topic, it completely changes the approach, and I believe students respond well in those situations. You'll always have the high and low achievers, but I've found that most all of them will care just a bit more.