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I certainly did not mean to insinuate that my child is not being exposed to literature in his current schooling. He absolutely is, and to a lot of it. His teacher has read them fabulous books, many of long-standing renown. She often (and wisely) reads the first in a series, without continuing on, which piques their interest and then allows the children to pursue the rest of the books on their own. That’s how Braedan was turned on to the Little House books, which I had never ever read until this year, and now with the Narnia books, which again I’d only ever read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Now, Braedan is reading them all on his own, plus I’m following along by reading them aloud at night.

Braedan has also had that wonderful experience of choosing a spot in the room, even under the desk, to enjoy a carefully chosen book. He has done this quite a lot in his English language arts class this year and it has fostered his love of reading in a way I had only dreamed possible a year ago. He absolutely totally loves reading and allows himself to get fully immersed in a story. He said recently that he finds it hard to go twenty-four hours without his book, even (he noted with some amazement) on the weekend, when reading is not so strictly enforced. He — and we together — have gotten to know the characters in some of these books so that we’ll refer to them in completely unrelated circumstances: “Wow, that reminded me of the way Pa always says….” and “I think if Digory were here, he’d ….”

Unfortunately, the reason Braedan has had such wonderful and free exposure to literature is because he’s in the highest reading class. (Of course, no one ever says these things aloud, but it’s true nonetheless…) I’ve seen, both as a teacher and now as a parent, that the lowest performing students (and those, one might argue, who most need exposure to high quality books) are the ones forced to do tedious and repetitive remedial work with little or no literary value. And that, in my mind, is unacceptable. Meaningful learning takes a long time and can be hard to measure, but it is still immensely important.

When I was teaching 6th grade language arts in Cleveland Municipal, I used to allow my students time to write, without specific guidelines, in their journals. I had created a list of possible topics for them to write about, unless they had their own pending issue. The list was stapled in the front cover of their notebooks and they could freely choose from among the nearly 50 topics.  Everything from “Do you think it’s better to be an adult or a child? Explain” to “If you could change one thing about your home life/school/neighborhood/world, what would it be?” Students had to truly think and then had to express their thoughts and opinions in writing in an effective and coherent manner.

The journal entries weren’t graded (gasp! today they’d have to come with a 4-point rubric) but I did indeed read them and often responded in writing right in the notebooks. It provided incredible insight into my students’ lives and minds and built a level of trust between us that served me well. But one day I sat in a meeting with some district administrators where we were discussing the various ways to teach reading and writing, and the woman in charge asked who used journal writing in their classrooms.  I proudly raised my hand (thinking, my god, who doesn’t?) and was completely shot down. She berated me and my methods because there was no measurable data generated from them and because they failed to correlate with any specific tested objective. Ummm, how about to think? To have ideas and opinions and actually express them?

The very students who most need opportunities to connect, either with literature or through writing, are the very ones whose educational experiences are being made narrower and narrower until the whole of what they “know” can be expressed by filling in a bubble.

And that, in my mind, is shameful.

Students across Ohio are taking their OAAs today. The Ohio Achievement Assessments. You know, the ones that “matter.”

My boys are still too young for these tests but one year from now, Braedan will be subjected to a special kind of pressure and strain the likes of which he’s never experienced. Not that he will struggle on any of the tests; he is an exemplary student and should pass them all with flying colors. But it will be impossible for him to overlook the extraordinary importance placed on these few days of testing by all around him.

I’m not blaming his particular teachers nor his particular school nor even his school district. But I am blaming society at large and the current system of assigning value to entire schools and districts based on the results of a few standardized tests. How can you possibly determine the overall quality of an individual or collective educational experience using the results of three days of tests? How can you capture the creative process or the ability to discover, try, make mistakes and try again? How can you capture the grand social experiment that exists in our local public schools, comprised as they are of children from dramatically different socio-economic, cultural and racial backgrounds? How can you measure the love teachers demonstrate for their students by filling in bubbles?

I was dismayed to read this article in the New York Times on Sunday about the lack of exposure to literature in English classes. What would my middle school education have been like without acting out Helena and Hermia from A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream? Or without the intense and timeless lessons taught by To Kill A Mockingbird? What insight would we be lacking about the human experience and human suffering if we hadn’t studied Greek Mythology or read Of Mice and Men? Or even those short stories taught by Mr Hirsh in 7th grade English like The Necklace and The Lottery (that one haunts me to this day).

Or what about the simple joy of finding a place to curl up on the floor (the freedom of lying under a desk instead of sitting at one!) to get lost in a novel of your own choosing. Or listening to your 3rd grade teacher read Charlotte’s Web aloud and witnessing that stunning moment at the end when her voice chokes up.

What about building three-dimensional replicas of historical times and events? I remember doing this in 4th grade for our Native American project. And again in 6th when we studied feudalism in Europe. (I do not, by the way, remember a single one of the many worksheets I completed in school.) Don’t even get me started on science experiments and hands-on math instruction.

None of those things can be tested using multiple choice or scan-tron sheets. Enough is enough is enough. If you agree with me, sign this national resolution against high-stakes testing. And then go get lost in a great book.

 

 

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