I’m Terrible…by the Numbers

I woke from a nightmare. I was taking standardized tests. I bombed. I’m glad it was a dream.

It’s standardized test season, a time that strikes more fear in the hearts of schools than a life-sized poster of the Bieber mug shot. Everyone’s defined by these numbers. The media has a frenzy like Discovery Channel’s Shark Week.

We say we want schools to succeed but it’s completely untrue. Let’s be honest. We want to see blood. It’s a proven fact that Americans produce, consume, and enjoy more bad news than ever. My friend designed a blog dedicated to good news in education. She doesn’t have as many readers as a news story about drama, destruction, and gore. It’s what America wants. 

So, just to prove pundits wrong, teachers spend our valuable time compiling numbers to show our students are learning. I’ve spent an entire year this year logging numbers in spreadsheets. My husband laughs at me and calls me a bean counter. I’m a historian. I’d rather tell you the history of beans than count them–I’m not very good at that.

Screen Shot 2014-01-29 at 6.08.26 AMAnyway, numbers can prove anything, depending on what we want them to show. 

I recently read this TechCrunch article where Facebook and Princeton duke it out using big words and math nobody can understand. Princeton intellects prove Facebook’s about to die and Facebook retaliates by showing on graphs and charts that in five years, Princeton will have no students. And it’s all “good” math.

What it shows is this–I should stop worrying about all these numbers that affect my life and start graphing. Do it in color to boot. In my first job, I prepared diagrams for arbitrations. This was before cool computer programs, so I’d sit down with rulers and colored pencils. Nobody else used colored pencils. I rarely, if ever, lost an arbitration. The key to life is colored pencils. When people see pretty things on paper, they are always predisposed to nod and say, “Yeah…” and agree. I have to make my numbers look pretty. And use colors in my graphs. 

Incidentally, this is why I spend so much time teaching my students to detect bias. 

I wish our educational system wasn’t based on testing and numbers. It’s hard to look at a student and say “Well… you look like an 85….Yes, you, indeed are a 92.” I’ve had smart students miss midterms and had to give them zeroes, as if that one grade made all the difference in their success. It does to the grade book, however. 

So, back to my nightmare. I have taken every standardized test alive. I sort of enjoy them because I didn’t grow up with video games. SATs were the nerd way of beating our friends. I enjoyed the idea that someone out there was trying to defeat me and I had to stop them. Nerd “video” games.

But I fell asleep on section three every time. The silence. The lack of communication. It was like meditation with multiple choice questions. Trivia questions. I fought sleep…then…out cold, drooling. But I always scored well. I wondered what I’d have scored if I stayed awake. 

The point is, test numbers aren’t a solid measure any more than Facebook or Princeton’s predictions. I don’t like basing graduation or teacher careers on them.

If the numbers don’t prove much to me, what does, you ask.

Vision. Creativity. The ability to work and stick with a problem until it’s solved–the recognition that learning has changed and that students have the power to blow things out of the water and follow their passions. All I do is connect it to success. I’m the guide, not Alex Trebec.  If students have those three things they are well on the road to amazing. 

In my dream, I failed the standardized test. In real life, if every adult out there took these standardized tests, I think the media would have fun. It’d show I’ve forgotten all the trivia that once made me great. Made me able to defeat tests even while half asleep. I bet we all have, but we’re still successful. I am. I do a lot, and I like the person I’ve become. 

But if you give me that test, the numbers will show you I suck. 

So today, I pause for a moment to tell students how awesome they are. “You are not defined by the numbers. You are defined by you. Do the work. Stop at nothing to keep learning things you are passionate about–for your whole entire life. Be great…No, don’t be great. Be amazing. Regardless of what the numbers told you you’d become.” 

 

 

[image: valdosta.edu]

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Stop Teaching Reading!

Screen Shot 2014-01-06 at 5.17.24 AMWhoever’s teaching these kids to read–stop. I know, you’re amazing. You have a magic about you. One day, I put Declan on the bus. Seven hours later, he got off spelling. Mysterious!

I like that he’s lying on the floor reading books about bugs and dinosaurs. I have to pull out “Hooked on Phonics” to help.  Understand, though, having kids who read makes parenting a whole new game.

I can’t spell to get around him anymore. “Want to go to the z-o-o with us if we have time?”

“THE ZOO!” Now we have to go.

“Hey Mom? How do you spell ‘ass’?” Who around here was talking about Biblical donkeys?

We always read a story before bed. “Before bed” can be any time up to, or including, my own bedtime. I get no rest. He pops out for a variety of reasons. “I need water.” “My leg is itchy.” “The Red Sox should’ve lost.” “How ’bout that global warming?”

But still, I have to read to him. Reading together is good. They tell me to log the stories we read. This, I don’t like. First off, who believes a kid who read Dr. Seuss for six weeks in a row? Does it count for “twenty-five books?” And if he reads “The Hobbit,” do we need twenty-four more? I can’t help it if he fixates. Second, it’s my job to give homework not do it. I forget and fall asleep.

I tell him we’ll read a short story, since it’s late and he hasn’t gone to bed. He hands me a long one. “READ!” This wasn’t a problem in the past. I skipped pages and said “The end.” Now, he knows. He waves his little finger and says, “HEY! You missed a page!” He knows when I shorten pages, too. “It says, ‘he said,’ Mommy. You forgot to read that part. Do it again.” 

He can read captions on advertisements, like the number to call to order As Seen on TV toys. He keeps a logbook of words he needs to spell into Netflix search to get his favorite shows, sounding out the ones of which I do not approve, asking me word by word when I least suspect it. He writes them secretly on pieces of paper hidden throughout the house.

I check his shelf. No “Steal this Book.” No “Anarchists Cookbook.” Just a bunch of dinosaurs whose names I can’t read properly. I think we’re safe for now.

But it got me to thinking about this moment–the moment where a child learns and becomes more independent, less simple to control.

I’ve been teaching skills I call “Big Money Skills.” Things students can use in the real world–data analysis, public speaking, writing, a touch of entrepreneurial spirit. These are dangerous things. Public speaking may give them the confidence to mouth off, learning about the world could teach them to use a GPS and be out after curfew. Writing might make them use big words, then we’d all have to pull out our dictionaries while they run haywire doing whatever they want. The entrepreneurial spirit could give them big ideas. Soon they’ll be filling out tax forms at the Sunday dinner table.

Watching Declan learn to read made me realize I owe all my parents a big apology. I hope I haven’t given you too much homework or taught your kids things that annoy you. From now on, I’ll focus on skills that will get them to be independent and move out of the house, that’s all. Standards be damned. Then, you’ll have a moment of peace that I crave, and you’ll like me once again.

 

[image: echouser.com]

Kids in the Hall: The Bell’s About to Ring (Surviving the Day before Christmas)

Screen Shot 2012-12-21 at 6.01.28 AMIt’s between classes.

I’m looking down the hallway at the kids running around, scattering in every direction in the five minutes between classes. I’m remembering what it felt to be one of those kids.

The kid with the outrageous fashion, the kid talking to her friends in hushed tones. The kid with the entourage spearheading her way through the crowd joking with another girl, implying “I own this hall.” The kid who’s about to start a family.

The drama queen. The seven-foot basketball player. The bully. The one who stands up to bullies on behalf of kids who won’t. The one who hates school but will talk to me. The one who I hope will not try to kill herself this year. The one who acts like a jerk but I think there’s something going on at home and I just can’t get the time to figure it all out yet. I feel bad about that. The kid who annoyed everyone two years ago and is now featured in articles on the fast track to success.

The kid with the hipster glasses and Chucks, who half-a decade ago would have gotten himself locked in a gym locker but in today’s hip-is-cool fashion stands out a leader. A group of “those that care.” A group of “those that do not.”

Tons of girls holding each other’s hands–gay rights buttons, shirts, artsy fashion.  Tons more throwback jerseys. Some I-want-to-be-Japanese outfits. Kids with phones-that-are-illegal-in-schools popping out of pockets for one last check of the social media making sure all’s clear for 40 minutes of lockdown in a class they didn’t choose.

The bell’s about to ring. Someone peeks out the door to see if any teachers are watching. To see if I am watching. I am. I say, “Sit down, the bell’s about to ring.”

The bell–that relic of the factory era to which we still teach like hamsters in a cage or Pavlov’s dogs.  It rings. I obey. I enter. I teach.

I struggle lately. There’s too much to teach. Too many students. Too many systems. Too many requirements. Too much in my mind. I’m buried in systems. No time to make larger connections. To build relationships. Will have to do it all online. “Email me your homework.” I wonder if they feel that way, too. “Okay, Miss.”  I’m starting to have nightmares. I can’t keep up with the numbers. There are too many. They don’t pass the test. I can’t save them all. They can’t become numbers. They are my kids.

My husband tells me not to be ridiculous. I try to listen. He makes a lot of sense. He’s expanding a business. An entrepreneur. Worrying about real things like funding, contractors, plans, paying his staff. Not just about data, a million students, a new evaluation system, and my first bad evaluation. EVER. People are starving in the world. There are bigger things to worry about.

But today, I try to make class fun, engaging, less like a tread mill of prep-for-tests-wait-for-another-evaluation-did-you-use-higher-level-questioning-do-your-senior-project-I-failed-my-evaluation-rubrics-checklists-teacher-training-oh-my-god-I-have-252-students-and-I-really-want-to-read-their-stuff-I’m-overwhelmed-you’re-overwhelmed-are-we-all-in-a-sinking-ship?

I try to make it real. More like the magic that swirled around me when I first walked through the doors in education. When I got all the time in the world to teach lessons that made kids return from their busy lives to say, “Remember when you said…” “That time we learned…” “When we discussed…” It mattered. It still matters. It matters more.

I remember when my heroes transformed me when I was that nerd wearing India cotton walking down the hallway talking to my friends, knowing that the biggest thing of the day was the crush I felt on the kid coming my way…that if I just stayed in that spot one extra second after the bell–that bell–I could have a decent conversation and feel the butterflies in my stomach. Even though he liked my best friend.

Back to the class I am presently teaching–I make some big connections. I share some laughs. I ask about someone’s mom.  Someone else has been out all week. I email a link to the kid who’s in Columbia for a month–he can participate, too, thanks to technology. I talk about opportunity cost. I take some late papers. Someone says, “I handed that in.” I say, “You did not.” They find the paper and hand it over. “My bad.” I tell them not to forget to study.  Someone asks me if they can have a cup of coffee. “You have to earn your cup. Report before school. We’ll talk.”

“Miss, what time does class end?”

I shrug my shoulders.  “I don’t know. When the bell rings. The bell rings, you leave, It rings again, more of you come…the bell….” It’s always the bell.

I remember feeling freedom in school.

Lunches outside near the track. Finishing projects into the afternoon unsupervised.  Secret meetings in the band room, theatre, drama, picnics, games. Freedom. Writing notes. Folding notes. Stuffing them in locker vents to wait for the 20 years until trees would be rescued by texting.  Walking to school early–5AM–to run the track for an hour then shower before school–to get a piece of peace. Alone. Freedom.

Back to the present. I smile. I wish these kids freedom. They may never taste it. Things are different now. Tough to think outside the box in schools and buildings with locks, chains, and gates. With high-stakes tests. With cameras. With so many rules. With police. I’m thankful we don’t have police. Yet.

Oops. There it is. The bell. They get up. Some say “thanks.” I say, “See you tomorrow. Don’t forget to finish…” Someone complains about a test. I say, “Come in the morning. We’ll fix it.”  I take a sip of coffee. I’m hungry. Didn’t eat lunch again. Corrected papers. Went to the bathroom. Got ready for the next class. Five periods gone, a million connections made, a billion more left to make, two more periods left to teach.

One more day till vacation.

I think I’ll make it.

I need to relax.

[image: deadhomersociety.com]