I was momentarily stunned last week when a student voiced the desire for me to teach only what was necessary to pass the end-of-year (standardized? common assessment?) test. Because of Obama’s recent discovery that children are being over-tested, I am choosing to concentrate for a moment on this student’s request. What does it mean?
1. Students have been brainwashed to think of learning as acquisition of facts or skills to serve as an arsenal against the day of judgment, arrows in their quiver for the last days of the year. The purpose of learning is to pass a test the teacher has neither designed nor seen. In the rare instance where I know the specific content of an end-of-year exam, I am ethically bound not to teach to that specific prompt and its text.
2. Students have not changed since I was in college. I still recall my British History professor, Dr. Arthur Mejia, at San Francisco State, responding mid-lecture to a student’s question, “Will this be on the test?” with a well-considered look of dismay. “It’s all ONE HISTORY.” How I hope I too can shape a response with the same power. “It’s all one literature”? “It’s all one story.”?
3. Education has reverted to the Gradgrind School of Charles Dickens’s Hard Times. I am Sissy Jupe (see photo) and my students are the schoolmasters driving imagination out of the classroom. Evidently the rewards have been great enough for responding with the rote answer that a horse is a quadruped (denotative meaning) that they have bypassed any love for bread, circuses, and horses as beautiful creatures with a host of connotative resonances. [Me sneaking a photo in Dickens’s kitchen at Doughty Street]
Just when I thought the US-UK push for creativity, innovation, imagination, flexible mindset, individualized learning, curiosity, and inquiry must necessarily have produced a generation of young learners unique in the annals of education, I am forced to rethink my task.
I need to acknowledge the voices filled with hope that I can prepare them for tests. But I want fill them with hope beyond tests, beyond this year, and into a distant future where they see themselves as dreamers, makers, community members, readers, writers and thinkers.
I need to remind them that English Language Arts is a humanities class; we read and write about human beings, because people are inherently valuable. Reading, writing, and thinking about people both real and imagined offers us contact with and contemplation of lives that matter. We become more valuable, interesting, and effective persons by coming into contact with them: we are changed.
I need to continue this conversation with colleagues at the NCTE convention in Minneapolis, including the CEL workshop. When I speak at roundtables and sessions on writing hope, establishing empathy, and close reading for “wonder and awe”, I await suggestions from participants that redeem our students from a culture of pragmatism and restore a sense of awe at beautiful language, strong characters, and words that evoke lasting imaginative impressions, whether “Fourscore and seven” or “Call me Ishmael.”