I was on the phone with CT this evening. She’d had a rough day today; it seems that an afternoon meeting produced more than its fair share of frustration for her, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
CT is one of six freshman teachers in her school and, of those six, CT’s been teaching the longest (she’s working on close to 30 years in the classroom). The point of this afternoon’s meeting, as I understand it, was to discuss the content of the common final exam and to decide which materials should be included to test student knowledge of, and performance in, freshman standards.
Listening to CT tell the story, I got the impression that the other five want to be able to create a true/false, multiple-choice, fill in the blank exam. They’re not interested in student interpretation of poems or short stories or, as far as I can tell, the students’ ability to write creatively or analytically. They want right/wrong, easy to grade, checklist-type tests.
Now, perhaps I’m being idealistic when I say that this approach is, well, full of shit.
Why do we teach English in the first place? Can any of you recall the definition of “iambic pentameter?” How important, honestly, were vocabulary lists (and their corresponding tests) to your compilation of a rich and varied word bank? My point is this; you may have known this stuff while you were in the thick of high school, but how much of it carried over into REAL LIFE? Because, really, that’s what we’re educating these kids for…REAL LIFE.
I understand that there are a lot of mechancial elements of our language that kids really NEED to know in order to use the language effectively and to their best advantage. I’m also fairly sure that, unless they choose to go into a career in poetry or novel writing, they won’t need to be able to easily and accurately describe a rhyme scheme or identify enjambment. So why are these things so important to these teachers?
It seems to me that a lot of the desire for the kinds of assessments CTs department wants, and the lifeless, check-list style of teaching that accompany them, is based in fear and a lack of self confidence. Relying on a rigid, fill-in-the-blank, only-one-answer-can-be-right kind of curriculum is simply a means of sheltering teachers from taking risks and entertaining the idea that there’s more to be learned from the curriculum than A, B, and C. Opening up the possibilities, and requiring students to really think, makes for a lot more work for a teacher, too; as we invite a broader scope to our teaching, we make obsolete the easy-to-correct quizzes and tests.
What’s important, at least in MY classroom, is for kids to be able to read, write and speak eloquently, critically, and effectively. I want my students to read poetry for the language and the emotion and the imagery, not for the AB AB, BC BC rhyme scheme. I want my students to be able to take in literature as EXPERIENCE, not simply an exercise in plot explication or character sketches. I want kids to make connections between literature, poetry and their own lives that were NEVER imagined by the Boards of Education or the text book writers. I want my students to leave my classroom better able to understand others’ voices, and their own, and to be able to use those voices to better understand their world – and their place in it.
My hope – my dearest and most sincere hope – is that I can find a job where this kind of enthusaism and love is encouraged and nurtured, and not in a place where the freshman teachers get together to discuss the wording of true/false answers on a common exam.