19 March 2012

No Secret

It's no secret that math wasn't ever my best or favorite subject.

Well, if you didn't know, then it isn't any more.

My students all know this. How many times have I tried to quickly do even the most ridiculous problem at the front of the room (figuring out, for example, how many groups I need to divide students into fours) and done a horrible job of it. It's a bit of a running joke. I'm ok with it. Teacher quirks and failings are endearing if you make fun of them and recognize them and occasionally exaggerate them.

But here's the thing: even though math isn't my best subject, I still keep a good budget. I can still accurately measure fabric or furniture. I can make cookies that don't include way too much salt. I have the skills I need to do what is required of me. It works out. I learned and internalized what I needed to.

Here's another not secret: Standardized testing is a waste of money and time that doesn't accurately measure the success or failure of teachers and schools. What's more, standardized testing has actually negatively changed the way students learn and are prepared for the "real world".

Everyone knows this. Teachers know it. Students know it. Even, as far as I can tell, most politicians know it. Businessmen know it. We talk about it. We talk about not "teaching to the test" and how important it is to prepare the youth in our country for being creative in the fast moving Apple and Google world to which we belong, but will turn around in the same school year or month or week or hour and say: ". . .but they still have to pass the test."

The test. The big, scary, government mandated test that determines my future employment and the status of my school and absolutely nothing for my students. My students who, after so many years of hours spent each spring staring at a computer pushing buttons, have started to grow accustomed to the idea that becoming educated is not an active, engaging process, but a process of binge and purge. Information is shoved at you, and you vomit it back up, hoping the important chunks are present when you need them most.

Excuse the imagery. It grosses me out too, if it makes you feel any better.

What I don't understand is that it is no secret whatsoever that standardization and excellence do not exist in the same place. All standardized tests tell us is how many students who were failing last year are now passing, at least on that particular day. They don't tell us how many of those students are going to Harvard. They don't tell us how many of those students are genius in one area or another and are going to be hired by Pixar in the next couple of years.

There's no shame whatsoever in teaching students who struggle. That's what schools are made for. But, as a good friend of mine reminded me recently, every student struggles to get to the next level. Every student needs help and a mentor, not just the ones who are more obviously behind.

Thus, the problem of modern education. There are so many different kinds of students in my classroom that no matter how hard I try I won't be able to reach them all. Personality quirks get in the way. Teaching styles get in the way. Hours of the day or problems at home or how much a student had for lunch get in the way. There are hundreds of excuses and problems and I don't have the answers to all of them but I do know that one solution is simple: do away with standardized testing.

Want more proof? Read here.

13 March 2012


You no longer need a good book, which he really likes, to keep him from his prayers or his work or his sleep; a column of advertisements in yesterday's paper will do. You can make him waste his time not only in conversation he enjoys with people whom he likes, but in conversations with those he cares nothing about on subjects that bore him. You can make him do nothing at all for long periods. You can keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room. . . so that at least he may say, as one of my own patients said on his arrival down here, 'I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.'

C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

My first year of teaching I tried out for a play. I was expecting ensemble. I got lead. It was a dream part so I couldn't turn it down, but I wasn't entirely sure how I was going to survive the month and a half left of school and stay on top of rehearsals. It seemed like way too much. All year I'd been tired and worn out and never quite finished with grading. I wasn't sure how it was going to work out.

It was the most productive quarter I've ever had as a teacher.

Assignments were graded and entered on time. Lessons were planned and finished by no later than 4:00. I was able to go to rehearsal every night and give myself over as fully as I could to the show, and enjoy doing so without guilt.

I've thought a lot about that quarter recently. Thought about how often we get distracted from the long term goal by the immediate semi-gratification. I remember one student, for example, who was particularly talented in dance, but, due to a supreme amount of laziness and bad grades, was not allowed to share these talents in the after school dance team. The student let the immediate pleasures of sleeping in class or socializing in the halls interfere with the real love and joy associated with dance.

And then there's the documentary I saw recently about the people who spend hours upon hours on Facebook with their hundreds of "friends".

I think about all the time I spend in "nothing". The time I spend not doing anything bad, or anything good - just drifting through articles in the paper I'm not hugely interested in or watching reruns of television shows or looking through my email for messages to delete. How much of my time is that actually taking? I think some "nothing" time is good for you, but when does it cease to help and start to harm? Do I need a busy schedule to keep me on task or am I good enough to fill my time with good things when left to my own devices?

I'll be honest: that last sentence from Screwtape scares me. What a horrible thing to discover about yourself. To learn that your life has been filled with nothing that gave you real joy. Horrible.