Wednesday, May 24, 2006

What's the POINT?!

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.


Blogger Kizz said...

I think you're idealistic in your interpretation of why the teachers want that sort of exam. It's May, they have kids and lawns and spouses and vacations and they're tired and they're willing to compromise and take an easy way out so they don't have to read eleventy million shittily written essays and remember to take pleasure in the 2.4 of those essays that are any good.

Some of that quantitative stuff is important, and with state wide standards I think you have to have it on a lot of tests, don't you? Though you can add the interpretive things at your discretion.

And now, just to bust chops, I do think that vocab tests are important especially as I hold regular conversations with college educated people who don't know any words at all. I'm afraid they're going to get a lien on their home and think that a mime is coming to visit - it's that bad. Also, I can define iambic pentameter, trochaic pentameter and even half assedly define a cinquaine. I can tell you which languages use a couple of those as a base in every day conversation. No, if I were just doing my secretarial stuff that probably wouldn't matter and I wouldn't care but I'm glad I know it. And I think that being exposed to that and the ababacdcd stuff is good for anyone who does anything from study poetry to listen to popular music.

But I'm a hard ass that way. Probably because I feel inadequate and resentful about the way I learned (or did not learn) grammar in my time in public school.

May 25, 2006 10:27 AM  
Blogger Mrs.Chili said...

Hey, Kizz!

You caught me before I had a chance to post the "advocate for the Devil" entry I've been composing in my head all morning.

You're absolutely right about the state standards, and Husband brought up the issue of accountability (see Wayfarer's discussion of assessment and accountability at
Teachers are expected to be able to quantify what their students know, and how those students compare not only with their peers but also with themselves over time. It's difficult to show that with qualitative assessments; I understand that. I'm just wishful thinking here that we can somehow begin to nudge a perceptive shift that allows for the idea that there's more to success in school than nailing true/false, fill in the blank tests.

I UNDERSTAND why these kinds of assessments are used, but I disagree with the incredible weight and value that this kind of learning is given by many of my colleagues. They are thrilled when a student can pick out alliteration and couldn't be bothered to stick around long enough to find out what the kid thinks the PURPOSE of the alliteration is. They're not asking students to think for themselves - they're asking them to internalize and spit back pre-determined answers to pre-determined questions. It's mind-numbing and I resent it, both as a teacher AND as a student.

I'm trying to come up with a metaphor for how I feel about this issue, and I'm not sure this is it, but run with me for a minute. It's much like, oh, figure skating or dancing. One the one hand, you've got the technical perfectionist; all the moves are executed precicely and in perfect synchronization, but the performance is essentially soulless. On the other hand, you've got the stylistically rich performer who, though she may stumble here or there, leaves the viewer with a much more positive impression. There's personal interpretation in the second's performance - there are questions and challenges and risks taken that increase the overall value of the work and, in my mind, make up for a lot of technical errors.

I guess what I'm saying is that it's not enough to simply KNOW something. It's equally, if not more, important to know HOW TO USE IT,and how to use it well.

This is a huge issue that won't be settled here, but it sure is great to think and talk about it.

May 25, 2006 1:07 PM  
Anonymous nhfalcon said...

Another analogy you might want to try , S, would be guitar playing. While some players (say, for example, Yngwie Mamlsteen) can blow you away with their speed and technical prowess, their playing is only so much ego-stroking. A player like Clapton, on the other hand, plays with his heart, not his head and hands.

May 25, 2006 6:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As an ocassional lurker on your site, I have noticed something. You are great at pontificating at the top of your lungs until another blogger calls you on it. You more often than not flip and can't really defend your point. Do you really feel strongly or not?

By the way, Kizz is amazing!

May 26, 2006 9:04 PM  
Blogger Mrs.Chili said...

Anonymous, did you not notice the comment I posted after Kizz's? I said that I understand the need for quantifiable assessments, but that I still disagree with the weight that such assessments seem to carry with a lot of educators. I feel it's important for students to be able to think within the framework of the language, not to simply to remember-regurgitate-forget.

This attitude was reinforced in me when, in my first internship experience, a student explained something to me. We had spent the last fifteen minutes or so of a class reviewing vocabulary words on a Wednesday and they were CLUELESS - they could neither spell nor define any of the words they'd been assigned to learn on Monday. "Mrs. Chili," Dear Sweet Boy explained to me when I expressed my frustration, "don't worry. We'll study on Thursday and pass the test on Friday." I'm sorry, but that's not how I want students to navigate my English classes.

I'm pretty sure that my stand on this issue is pretty clear - and that I'm neither pontificating nor flipping. Is it not important to be able to see more than one side of an issue? That's part of why I do this.

I started - and maintain - this space to bring in as many voices to my experience as I can. Thanks for adding yours.

May 27, 2006 4:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is it not amazing how issues have more than one side. Flip-floping (if that is what it is) is usually not sufficient to explore all sides to any issue. Only through exploration can we learn. Only through sharing can we expand our horizons. Keep it up Mrs. Chili

May 27, 2006 8:33 PM  
Blogger Wayfarer said...

I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to reply to this post, Chili. Grad school has kicked back in again. There’s a lot that I want to say on your topic.

Reproducible bits of knowledge have been a focus in educational practice for a long time, largely because they represent objective evidence that learning has taken place. The drive to quantify learning has, without doubt, been one of the greatest quests of modern educational theorists and researchers. Teachers, for their part, have gladly accepted that learning should be calculated and statistically organized for two primary reasons. The first is the widely held belief that science and objectivity are the best methods to use in creating fairness and equity. The second Kizz outlined in her reply, above. It is simply easier for teachers to prepare, execute and evaluate student work that asks only for these isolated bits of information. I can appreciate this, especially this time of year. I’m burnt to a crisp and I still have a month of teaching to go. I’m getting papers coming in for projects now, and it’s killing me to have to review them all. Fortunately, I have a higher percentage of them that will be worth looking at than the average in Kizz’s comment.

Traditional classroom instruction, with its isolated bits of often unrelated information, is not the most efficient or effective way to help kids learn. The best kind of learning occurs when students are actively engaged in the discovery and reflection of concepts and information that are based on knowledge they already possess, and that have direct relevance to their lives. The thing is, even when teachers are convinced of this, many hold to the traditional approach. One rationale for resisting change to this model may be that teachers are being held more and more accountable for the performance of their students, particularly on high stakes tests. It would certainly be reasonable for teachers to be hesitant to make radical changes to their courses—especially changes which would move away from a mastery of specific content knowledge—when doing so would result in punitive actions being taken against them.

It is important to make it clear the truth that, while isolated bits of information are not, in and of themselves, good final educational goals, they are a step in the ladder on the way to higher order skills. Vocabulary in language, for example, should not be the end of the process, but something used to promote good quality writing. Knowing the perfect squares of numbers through 100 is, likewise, not the final goal, but one in a series of steps that lead to understanding WHY mathematics works. We, as individuals, will remember the bits of trivia that are important or relevant for us—as individuals. The rest will atrophy in favor of more relevant skills and information.

After reading both the post and your response, Chili, I wonder why Anonymous thinks you have flipflopped on this issue. Your statements about your goals as a teacher are consistent, and the fact that you understand the realities of why quantitative assessments exist doesn’t lessen your opinion that they are improperly valued and inappropriately used by many teachers. I’d like to read more about why you think the way you do, Anonymous. Can you explain why you feel the way you do? I don’

I teach in a school with a majority of students who do not learn well by rote memorization. They are artists and performers, and reading words or numbers off a page simply isn’t effective learning strategy for them. That’s not to say that I don’t push them to memorize things. They spend a great deal of time engaged in exactly that task (one cannot speak French if one does not know the words), but they do so in the context of doing something else, such as acting out dialogs, learning and singing songs, doing crafty things and, most importantly, practicing writing and speaking in language THEY would use.

How do I know if they’ve really learned what they need to, though? Well, the proof is always in their ability to DO SOMETHING with what they’ve seen. If they can speak/understand/read/write the language using what they’ve learned to do tasks they’ve been prepared to do, then I can say they have. This is, as you might imagine, somewhat difficult to quantify with a letter grade or, worse, on a 0-100 scale. At our school we don’t use them. We have a minimum level of passing credit that communicates, in essence, that the students KNOW what we’re evaluating, not just that they can pass a single paper-and-pencil test. Sounds great in theory, doesn’t it? Yet, this system, too, has its pitfalls. For one, it places an incredible burden on both students and teachers to hold to the true ideal of learning, a thing that is not always possible in the practical world. For another, it is difficult to show the world that this approach is successful--without some sort of quantitative assessment…

…like a paper-and-pencil test.

May 28, 2006 1:17 AM  
Blogger Kizz said...

Anonymous, thanks for your endorsement of me. I have to say, though, it's the story of my life that the people who think I'm amazing don't identify themselves.

What you're identifying as flip flopping feels more to me like the very discussion that Chili is advocating as a learning tool. I can see where you're coming from, Chili has never been afraid to passionately express her feelings but she's equally willing to explore the other aspects of an issue and change with what she learns. I wish I could say the same for myself. If you read more of my work you'll see that taking a stand isn't easy for me, I try to incorporate all the responses I think I'll get to stave off disagreement. This is because once I've decided something and stood up for it I find it very hard to be swayed without feeling like I'm losing face. It's not a trait I think is particularly useful.

On a totally picky stupid point I'd like to say that the Dear Sweet Boy story doesn't refute the usefulness of vocab tests. Chili, you were just talking to him before he bothered to do the work. :) What would be interesting would be to talk to him on Monday and see what he'd retained. In my opinion if he'd retained even one word it'd be a triumph. You have to use a word, what, 200 times before you "own" it, that's not possible in a week. But being exposed to a word so you get a bell ringing in your head when you hear it again is that first step on the road.

Wayfarer makes the point I'm harping on, the WAY we get kids to learn stuff SHOULD be varied, it should go outside the box, I'm all about that, I'm trying to make my living helping teachers do that but in the end we live in a large country and we have city, state and national standards that we're required to meet so the standardized test is a necessary tool. This doesn't excuse the teachers that use only simple quantifiable tests but I think the importance of those tests needs to be given a little weight as well. That's all I'm sayin' :)

June 02, 2006 11:29 PM  
Blogger Mrs.Chili said...

Kizz, I TOTALLY buy into the idea you brought up about exposing kids to vocabulary words through lists - though I prefer to do it using texts that they are reading and using anyway, so the words won't just be random, disembodied bits floating around with nothing to latch on to in the kids' brains. My own children have pretty extensive vocabularies simply because they read and encounter words in their reading that they recognize when they see again (or, in the case of Punkin Pie, when they see it in a movie - "BRING OUT YOUR DEAD!!!"). Why should a kid learn "extemporaneously" if the word has no application in their lives at the moment? I suppose the argument can be made that pre-reading exposure to the word would help the student when they finally DO encounter the word in their lives, but I find - both for myself and through observation of my children - that learning the word when it's useful causes it to better stick in the brain.

It would be VERY interesting me to me to see how many of the vocabulary words that kids "learn" over the course of the year are still accurately accessible to them in June. I'm not sure it would be enough to ask Dear Sweet Boy aobut what he remembers on Monday - I want to know what he remembers (and, more to the point, what he can USE) today.

I'm all for varying the way kids are exposed to material. I want them to work to figure out how they best learn - do they need to make lists? Notecards? Do they need to talk it through? Draw? Dance? What's it gonna take for that kid to keep what s/he's trying to learn? I LOVED having you come to my class because you brought in ways of thinking and looking at Shakespeare that some of the kids never considered before. The experience was unique for them - it wasn't just Mrs. Chili at the front of the class telling them this stuff, it was someone new, with a new voice and a new face and a new sense of humor and that may have been EXACTLY what a particular student needed to understand Romeo and Juliet. This is why I bring in film and music and art and theatre and guest speakers to my classroom. And why, as long as I have a job, you'll have a gig in my classrooms.

What I was orginally railing against in this post was the attitude that the freshman teachers at my former internship school are taking - the stand that there are set answers to set questions and that the students' being able to produce those answers is the ONLY THING THAT REALLY MATTERS. CT is practically beside herself with frustration over it; no allowances are made for other kinds of knowledge. Only rhyming poems are allowed on the final. Students aren't going to be asked about how literary devices affect the tone or meaning of a piece of writing, only what those literary devices are and whether or not the students can pick them out of the work. In other words (in CT's words, actually), they won't be asked to THINK - they'll be asked to regurgitate pre-determined answers, telling the teachers what they want to hear. While it could be argued that this is an important skill to have in real life, I'm not sure I'm ready to advocate it as a learning style.

Thank you all SO much for continuing to have this conversation with me. It's difficult, as a new and somewhat idealistic teacher, to balance the current reality of public education with how I believe it should be. I know I can't change the world, but I have a responsibility to myself and my children (both biological and academic) to have as broad and inclusive a perspective on it as I can manage. You're helping me do that, and I am grateful.

June 03, 2006 9:02 AM  
Blogger Kizz said...

Maybe I was lucky, I'm pretty sure that by HS most of my teachers were using words from what we were reading for vocab tests. Is that not your experience in your internship?

Like I said, I agree that regurgitation shouldn't be the ONLY way things get done. And I do get CT's frustration. In the same way that essay ONLY isn't cool either. Also, ONLY rhyming poetry? What the blazing fuck?

Thanks for promising me work. Don't think I won't hold you to it. :)

June 03, 2006 10:59 AM  
Blogger Mrs.Chili said...

I swear to Goddess - only rhyming poetry. When CT sent me an email after a particularlly frustrating meeting, she asked me to choose a poem and compose a couple of questions about it. I chose "You Darkness" by Rilke, then wrote about how it contained a lot of the poetry terms and conventions that the teachers wanted on the final. She emailed me back to say that the poem wouldn't be acceptable becuase it didn't rhyme.

I'm dead serious about giving you work when I'm in a classroom. Even if I have to pay for your show my own self, you WILL bring Shakespeare to my kids. Count on it.

June 03, 2006 12:21 PM  

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