by Patricia Haefeli
It’s a peculiar time to be a public school teacher. I have just spent the better part of the last ten months “teaching to the test” as they say (all the while encouraging us not to say it) because I had no other sane choice.
In April, I paced fretfully as my ELA classes sat for the LAL section of the Big, Bad NJ ASK state test. My colleagues and I feel enormous pressure to ensure that our (read: our student’s) scores make AYP so that the DOE lifts the “Focus School” designation, which will force a hasty retreat by the ever-present RAC team.
Then, just as we all heaved a sigh of relief at having that behind us, we were reminded that our students still had to take a combination of four MCU tests; one covering the final unit, and the other three representing a “post-test” administered to see if we (teachers) met our SGO’s this year. Tiered with a variety of growth percentages associated with the myriad ability levels in a single classroom (thank you, NCLB), the final Excel spreadsheet analysis requires a level of mathematical wizardry that make my English teacher’s eyes twitch with anxiety. The final numbers will inform our SGPs, which are linked to our educator codes, which become part of our final evaluations, which tie directly to our continued enjoyment of gainful employment.
After all of that, the only thing left to do was to compile a binder of “artifacts” that prove that I carried out the PGP (which used to be a PIP, then a PDP– stay with me here) I developed last year, and then create a new PGP for next year. My new one includes methods of teaching three-part objectives that will prepare my students for the upcoming PARCC all the while pretending to not be “teaching to the test.” Natch.
When, you ask, did I have the time to plan and implement meaningful, engaging classroom experiences while slogging through this artifact uncovering, evidence building, number crunching spectacular exercise in what corporate employees refer to as good ole C.Y.A.? (Cover Your Ass.) Ha! As the kids (remember them? See paragraph #2) say: LOL.
The real irony is that the more gnashing of teeth that goes on with regard to these test scores, the more irrelevant the actual children who generate them seem to become. I have found myself more than once this year holding my breath as I ran my index finger down two rows of numbers, exhaling only when I got to the bottom and confirmed that the second column was equal to, or higher than, the first.
I used to look at the names too.
It used to matter to me a whole lot more who was doing well and who was struggling and why. I picked up on things like changes in handwriting or a sudden drop in grades. The comments I wrote on their essays in purple ink addressed the content of their essays as often as the construction. Only a few years ago I would not have considered trying to provide students with a prepared set of examples to use in almost any explanatory quote essay, or a single generic metaphor to use to get points for including figurative language. I would not have advised entire classes to kill two birds with one stone in terms of point gathering by beginning any picture prompt essay on that state test with the English teacher’s one-two punch, the hook-dialogue combo, “’Wow!’ Said Tom.”
When I coach them to do these things, I call it a “tool chest.” In my mind, it’s more like the frenzied clamoring for the daggers and spears placed in the cornucopia at the start of The Hunger Games.
It’s not just that it’s a numbers game now instead of a word game. It’s that it’s a game, period. Survival is the goal and it’s quantifiable. The key players, however, are nameless and faceless to the people who are making decisions about them and for them.
Meanwhile, here’s a succinct little example I like to give people about just one of the many failings of NCLB: I teach writing. If a student in my class has been I&RS’d and winds up with an IEP that recommends a modification that says “Whenever possible, allow this student to speak his responses instead of writing them,” then by law, that is what I have to do. If I don’t, his parents have grounds for a lawsuit. Against me, his writing teacher. When April comes along, and that same student has to take the state test, that IEP simply won’t fly. He may be given additional time, but he will have to write the essays. Here again, the state plays by different rules and we are left scratching our heads going, “Uhm, WTF?”
Another curious morsel: The “Model Curriculum,” conceived and designed by the DOE, now drives everything that math and English/Language Arts teachers do, as well as when we do it. For ELA, however, the MC recommends that we teach the persuasive essay in the first few months of the school year. Then in April, just prior to that Big Bad test, they recommend that we teach the narrative. This is particularly baffling when you consider the age group.
Have you MET the average 13 yr. old? Here’s a fun idea: Send one upstairs to get something, and then hold your breath. When they come back a half-hour later (if at all) empty handed and completely mystified about why they went up in the first place, you’ll be lucky to get CPR.
Middle School Teachers
Did I mention that the persuasive essay is also the “big ticket” item on that test? Forty-five minutes long and worth more than twice as many points as the narrative essay. Upon reflection, the sequencing of the Model Curriculum KMYW (Kinda Makes You Wonder).
Knowing all of this, I personally defy the MC and go back to the persuasive in April. Wildcard rebel that I am, I also explain to kids the point system that will be used to score their (read: my) essays. I provide a frame of reference for them that I think might help. I tell them to think of it like a video game or a sporting event, or if necessary, The Hunger Games. One is reminded of the great coaches of the past, the Knute Rockne’s, the John Wooden’s, (or maybe just John Belucshi’s Bluto speech in Animal House?) as I wrap up my final motivational pep talk with…“We’re after points, guys. We need lots to win! Now let’s go out there and kick some NJ Ask!!!!”
There is no doubt in my mind that teaching kids to write clear, effective arguments is an important life skill that will serve them well no matter what they decide to do with their lives. Still, the minute we get a break from all of this testing and formulaic writing, I dive into what I consider the fun, creative stuff for the few remaining weeks we have. This often includes poetry and the personal narrative.
One of the activities I’ve done for a few years now is the “Chicken Soup Story.” First, we read a bunch of them. Using the Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul or Pre-Teen Soul books, I photocopy what I think are stories that cover a variety of topics that will interest both the boys and the girls. We read them out loud and talk about them. I keep about a half dozen copies of those books on the shelf in my room and encourage students to borrow them and read as many as they can. We discuss how sometimes, the events described in them are small, but the impact on a life is big. We wonder aloud about why sometimes those who seem to “have it all” are unhappy, while those with real challenges appear to find joy in their lives. We talk about the value of things like honesty and trustworthiness, determination and forgiveness. We define what it means to have good character, and how much there is to learn not just from our experiences, but how we respond to them. This is, quite obviously, The Good Stuff.
Along the way they enthusiastically identify the themes of each selection, and admire the word choice and vivid imagery provided by the authors. We note how well snippets of dialogue move the story along, and how after the main character’s epiphany (what plot diagrams call the climax) there is some type of resolution, even if it is only a greater understanding of some aspect of life.
By the time that I tell them that they too, have had enough experiences in life to create an original Chicken Soup Story; that they can reflect upon and write about what they’ve learned from these experiences, there is an energy in the room that I haven’t seen all year. They are genuinely excited. They want to tell their stories.
And tell them they do. It is the end of May by then, and as I read their stories I finally “meet” my students. I discover that David had a two year-old sister who died last June and he worries all the time about his mom’s sadness. Marco’s dad was a gang member and is now in prison. He wonders if his dad remembers him, because he hasn’t seen him in years. Angie wants so desperately to be popular, that she goes along with the nasty, bullying tactics of her friends, and then goes home and into her small apartment feeling so guilty that she methodically cuts herself with a razor. Rosa’s uncle molested her for years, but he was a drug addict then, and he’s clean now so it’s “all good.” Delilah wants to be an artist, and those doodles she’s constantly drawing in her notebook? They help her organize her thoughts before she writes in a way no graphic organizer would. Carlos is living at the YMCA in one room with his mom and younger sister. That’s why he didn’t come to detention that time, because he doesn’t take the regular school bus home, there’s a special one that comes for him every day. He wrote about how he was glad he had this opportunity to tell me this in “private.” Luis, a serious, considerate boy, is the oldest of three children, and the only one who is not severely autistic. It’s sometimes hard to focus in school because his parents need his help with his siblings, and he feels protective of them as well. Krystal’s parents went through an ugly divorce last summer, and she had to go to court and choose which parent she wanted to live with. No one seems to be paying attention at all in Destiny’s house, because she stays up until 2:00 or 3:00 every night texting, Instagram-ing and Facebook-ing. As a result, she is often so tired during the school day that she gets in trouble for falling asleep. Raphael cooks dinner every night and takes care of his two younger siblings because his dad works nights and his mom is working two jobs.
But why would we want to know anything about that? That’s just messy, that is. You can’t calculate it, and there’s no section on the bubble sheet for that #2 pencil to code in the right letters or numbers for exhaustion or depression or anxiety or pain and then write a well-organized five-paragraph essay either supporting or refuting the value of same sex schools using details, facts, and examples to support your opinion until you see the words
STOP! Do not go on until you are told to do so.
I understand the need for all the numbers. Truly, I do. The concept of data-driven instruction looks really good on paper too. I get it. It’s a logical approach that seems to make sense just as I’m sure NCLB seemed back in 2002. I just think that some really important stuff is getting lost in the process. The connection I have to my students as people, for one. All the components of a student’s life that can’t be quantified for another, and the sense that this new world has a kind of survival of the fittest sensibility for teachers that leaves us with no option but to squelch every instinct we have about the real, true indicators of instructional effectiveness in favor of making our quota. In an effort to keep the educational conveyer belt humming, we’re becoming factories, funneling nice, neat black numbers into little white squares on a grid. Numbers that often have little or no real connection to the people they represent.
Numbers that, when all is said and done, are really being used to evaluate teachers, not to help students.