Thinking About How Kids Get Left Behind, and About How They “Catch Up”

24 May

There was an article from the Tacoma News Tribune on the internet not long ago about the announcement that Washington State was the first state to lose its No Child Left Behind waiver –which meant that the state has to fund tutoring and teacher training without the help of the Federal Government. It also seems to mean that the whole state is now considered a “failing state” because this year was to be the year that ALL students pass the state tests in Math and Reading. That didn’t happen. The article didn’t discuss how close students came, or which schools had the most failing students–or why. It was mostly about the financial penalties. (A portion of the article did mention low-income students in Pierce County, however, but did not say anything about their test scores.)

I have no fondness for standardized tests. I think there is far too much “One size fits all” thinking in this country as it is. So–I would like to spend some time reflecting on the way we measure and label kids–and the harm I think it does–to the kids, and to those  of us who used to be kids.

  I have spent my adult life working with students at every level who struggle with reading and writing and who, therefore, dread those subjects. I don’t know if most people “like” primarily what they are “good at,” and “dislike” everything else, but that’s strange, to me. I enjoy some kinds of struggle–not because they “strengthen me,” necessarily, although they probably do, not because they challenge me, although they do, but just because I like to put forth effort. It’s a pleasure. I think maybe I would sometimes go so far as to say struggle is a form of play, for me. This doesn’t mean it’s trivial to me.  I enjoy trying to lift something that is a little too heavy for me. I like the feeling of being so tired from physical work that I can’t  finish even one sentence, and fall asleep with my pen leaking ink into the pillow–my half-finished sentence still there  in the morning, waiting for me.  I kind of like knowing some of my limits. I like exploring a new language, trying to say sounds that my native language doesn’t have. I like  baking a new kind of cake, or bread, or using some ingredient I have never used before, or leaving out a familiar ingredient.  I’m just curious what will happen. 

Perhaps I can call it play or adventure because there are no serious consequences for such play. I don’t think of myself as “dumb” if my cake doesn’t rise, or if native speakers of a new language don’t understand what I am trying to tell them. We laugh together.  They know that the same thing might happen to them if they tried to speak a new language. 

So–I’m left with a couple possible explanations for this. Maybe external evaluation kills the joy of struggle. Maybe grades and standardized tests  kill the love of learning.  It seems very possible, to me.

As a child and teenager, there was a lot of pressure on me, mostly from my father, to get not just good grades, but the top grade. He never cared how I did in school, compared with other girls! He wanted me to score higher on tests than the son of his old football buddy. It was no joking matter. It wasn’t MY ego that was involved; it was HIS. He was still fighting some old battle with his friend, still feeling, perhaps, one down. It was no laughing matter for me either–because he was never teasing and light-hearted about it. At the supper table, the quizzing would begin: So what did so and so’s kid get on the history test today?” I knew from the tone of his voice that he would be angry. I knew that ninety-nine out of a hundred was, to him, a failing grade–if his friend’s son got a perfect score. “Don’t let it happen again!” he would snap, and go into a lecture about how lazy and irresponsible I was for missing a point. It was the same with sports. It was never enough just to enjoy the game. I had to WIN. I had to be the best.  It ruined those activities, for me. It wasn’t until I moved away from home and told him that I would not accept his criticisms any longer that I began to enjoy learning and think of it as an adventure.

Students who fail all the time almost always  think of  THEMSELVES as failures. We shouldn’t do that to kids.  We should, at least, give them plenty to feel good about. One can know one’s limits and still feel great–if his or her person is not directly or indirectly the object of criticism.

When students struggle with reading and math–and other school subjects, there are plenty of reasons, but that doesn’t mean they must dread those subjects for the rest of their lives. Often, as most people now know, different people learn in different ways, and for different reasons. It’s helpful to know what some of those ways and reasons are, and aren’t. 

Hardly any of my college students loved Freshman Composition. In fact, most dreaded it, and put it off as long as possible. Consequently, most of my Freshman Comp students were Juniors and Seniors. I was amazed at this, at first. Also, in my first semester at my second college, seventy-five of my eighty students cheated–had their mothers or girl friends write their papers for them, copied them from old paper files in their dorms, or even turned in papers that had just been written by classmates. They were surprised, first, that I could tell. “It’s your VOICE I’m looking for,” I would say. “HUH? What? VOICE?” It was a foreign concept. They were afraid that if they “were themselves” they would sound “dumb.”

So–we played with “voice.” “Try sounding like the President of the University in this paper,” I’d suggest. Try sounding like the policeman who stopped you for speeding. Try sounding like a film star you like, or hate, or a singer, or. . . .Writing started to feel a little like wearing someone else’s clothes–on purpose.  It became fun. We proved that even twins didn’t have the same sound on paper.  That’s when things really started getting exciting.

Then we played with “dialogue.” “Make your paper a dialogue with me,” I’d say. What’s a dialogue? A real , felt conversation where you’re really listening and open to understanding where the other person is coming from.” “Well, in real life, I would never HAVE a conversation with a teacher. Teachers aren’t real people. They,’re. . . .” “Hey, I’m just as real as YOU are.” “Oh, I didn’t mean it personally.”  Dialogue, too, became fun. My students began to find themselves entertaining.

Soon, we were miles away from where they had been at the beginning. They felt real, they felt open, transparent. They could no longer predict what they would say. They no longer counted their sentences, or their words. They no longer used words to try to impress me. Writing was becoming something more like swimming–or tennis–or dancing. It was becoming a sort of working together to see what we could understand. It involved some sense of risk, and newness. It became more open-ended. They began to say things like “Read mine first!” Or “When do you think you will have those back?” Amazing!  

NO one is left behind when learning works this way. It’s mutually supportive. It’s playful, fun, moving, serious, surprising–one of a kind. And memorable. Something worth  savoring, and saving. It’s not so much about school anymore. It’s about being a fellow human, about being alive now, and not sometime after graduation.  

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