For the past week, my students have been working on a synthesis essay. They read five short stories, watched a movie and looked at an excerpt from a “Declaration on Human Rights.” The texts they read and analyzed focused on an Essential Question: Why is it important to accept others who are different? This Essential Question (EQ) has been on my wall the entire school year. It was printed on almost every handout or worksheet. As a class, we analyzed the question itself, looking at the various meanings of the word “accept” and how the phrase “others who are different” might interpreted in different circumstances. They used outlines, graphic organizers and note-taking/highlighting strategies. My students knew the material, and they understood the Essential Question.
Then came the task of writing the essay. After looking at several essays (on similar topics) to examine format, use of citation and how to support of the Essential Question, the “usual suspects” of writing angst slowly began to emerge. “How long does it have to be?” “How many sentences should we have in each paragraph?” “Does it have to be five paragraphs?” “Do you want us to mention all the stories?” “Do we have to write about _____________?”
As a teacher, I have always balked at giving students definitive parameters for writing. I’ve tried to give my students enough latitude and leeway to allow for creativity and genuine response while providing enough structure to ensure they have the requisite writing skills. It’s a sticky wicket, and students are often frustrated with my responses such as, “I can’t tell you how long it should be. Just answer the question.” “If I say 700 words, and you only have 500, you’ll keep repeating the same things until you get to 700.” “Address the topic, support your ideas, use good transitions and the rest will take care of itself.” This week was no different except the frustration over length and format were greater.
They were not asking these questions to be indifferent, obstinate or difficult. These were honest questions. Questions that lurk in the writing soul of most middle school and high school students. They are questions that were cultivated early in their educational lives. Questions whose seeds were planted by “standards” that create concrete checklists for student achievement as early as kindergarten. Seeds that flourished and grew until, by middle school, they became deeply-rooted, mighty oaks.
This is the first generation of students I call High Stakes Kids. Most of their education has been under the auspices of quantitative high-stakes testing. In simple terms, these students have been the lab rats of an educational agenda that has sought to “reform” schools by holding teachers and students to standards that can only be quantified by testing. The early results are starting to come in (though most educators predicted their outcomes years ago), and they are not good. We’ve created a generation of students who can regurgitate facts but struggle to apply them in meaningful or real-world ways. And it’s not their fault. They are not stupid. We are.
We’ve created classroom environments in which teachers are assessed not on the value of the lessons they are teaching, not on their abilities to make abstract ideas more concrete, not on the relationships they develop with students, and not on the ways in which they make their content more meaningful and applicable. We assess teachers on whether or not Essential Questions are posted, whether or not standards are highlighted, whether or not ID badges are worn and doors are locked at all times, and whether or not written lesson plans exceed a 3 X 5 box in a lesson plan book.
Appearance has become reality.
Years ago, the daughter of a friend of mine was in my 5th grade class. During Open House, she looked around my room and disapprovingly said, “There’s not much on your walls, Mr. Mucci.” She was right. I turned to her and said, “It’s not what’s on the walls that matters. It’s what happens within these walls.” Einstein put it better when he said, “Not everything that counts can be counted; not everything that can be counted counts.”
If you’re still not buying this argument, let me change the subject area from English to Art. An art teacher teaches her students about landscapes. At the end of the unit, she assigns them to paint a sunset. The students hesitate, and then the “usual suspects” being to emerge. “How many colors do you want us to use?” “Do we have to use blue?” “Can my sun be three quarters of the way set or do you want it to be half way?” “Can the setting be the beach or does it have to be an image of a horizon?”
If you’re comfortable with a future with paint by numbers art museums and novels with the same plot and outcome, then do nothing. If you can find beauty in both a Jackson Pollock and Claude Monet painting, if Thomas Pynchon and Tom Clancy both deserve space in the library, then allow a new group “usual suspects” to emerge. “Why are we doing this?” “What is my child really learning?” “How much is too much?” “What are the test results used for?” “Is there another way to do this?”