One Hundred Years From Now (excerpt from "Within My Power" by Forest Witcraft)
One Hundred Years from now It will not matter what kind of car I drove, what kind of house I lived in, how much money was in my bank account nor what my clothes looked like. But the world may be a better place because I was important in the life of a child.
Thirty one years ago I began my life as a teacher. It’s hard to figure out how many students I have hung around with during all that time. For the last 14 years, I have had mostly the same ones for two years. Years ago I had the same amazing child for three years in a row. So, an exact number is hard to come by. But it’s a lot.
Each year, each group is different. Each child is an individual so special and unique. I have taught in three states, 4 different school districts, under six superintendents, in nine different schools, under ten different administrators. Change is definitely the constant.
During all of that time school policies have changed and the emphasis toward test scores has become pretty intense. Test scores have always been important but back in the day, it was in a global way. There wasn’t the pressure to perform on high stakes tests that there is today.
It started for me when I worked in southern Indiana in the early 80’s. Our school was underperforming when compared to another school just a mile or so away. On paper, most descriptors were similar. We had about the same number of kids bussed (yes, bussed), the same number of free-and-reduced-lunch, same average household income, etc. Our principal compared our test scores to our sister school on the overhead projector, flipping chart after chart up to demonstrate our shortcomings. How could they perform so much better than us? What were their teachers doing that we weren’t doing? She was getting pressure from the higher-ups and was just passing it down the line. It’s hard to blame her.
What we needed, she determined, was a task force to investigate. I was drafted to be on the task force. Long story short, we went over to our sister school several times at different times of day. I probably wasn’t the right one to be on the task force for lots of reasons. I wasn’t what you would call a traditional teacher. I didn’t stand up in front of the class with the teacher’s edition and read what the teacher was supposed to say. We didn’t do very many worksheets in my class. My kids wrote pretty joyfully, but they were able to write what they wanted to for the most part. My students read a LOT, but it wasn’t from the second grade basal reader most of the time.
So my view of the situation was a little skewed when I visited the school down the road. What I saw there was remarkably similar to what I saw at my own school. Basically, the curriculum was driven by the textbooks. Basically, everyone in the same grade level taught everything the same way at the same time. The kids sat at their desks for the majority of the day. There was not much conversation. It was a transmission model of instruction where the children were sort of passive recipients of information. I didn’t know that I could really say much in our report without getting myself in trouble. It seemed that this school was following the same awkward model of instruction as our school.
The question still remained. How were their kids testing significantly higher than ours?
On our last visit to the higher testing school, we went first thing in the morning. The children in the second grade classrooms I visited came in, quietly put their things away, and sat down to complete a bunch of worksheets. It seemed pretty status quo to me. The difference was, these worksheets were exactly like the standardized test all of the students had to take in the spring. These worksheets were even made, and sold to school districts by the same company that published the test.
Ah ha! These children were being prepared to take the test by taking the test every day, a little at a time. Their test preparation was with the test. Not that the questions were exactly the same. But they were almost the same. So, these children spent nearly an hour every day going over the test. They spent almost five hours every week preparing for the test, which amounted to about ONE HUNDRED FIFTY hours at least.
Now I had to wonder when the children read. When did they have the chance to write their own stories? When could they create their own math stories for each other to solve and engage in science conversations? When could they read the books they wanted to, the authors they loved, dive into a genre and not come up for air for a while? When could they talk about current events and listen to great books read aloud? I never felt like I had enough time to get in all of the important stuff, much less fit in an hour each day of test-prep-worksheets.
So when we reported out at the next faculty meeting, I raised my hand to speak. It was a no-brainer… “The reason their test scores are so much higher than ours is that they teach right to the test every day.” My principal must have known this. We were probably sent over there so we would come up with the conclusion that we needed to spend the money on the same materials. Her agenda was clear. She just wanted the suggestion to come from the teachers. I lamely thought that she would agree with me that this was just wrong; that spending thousands of dollars to buy their test-prep materials would amount to paying ransom to the very test-makers who were calling the shots.
She shut me up with a glare and a, “See me in my office,” spoken through gritted teeth. I did see her in her office and she bawled me out like a second grader for my “careless remarks”. Of course they weren’t “teaching to the test” as that would be illegal. Their test preparation materials had been reviewed and selected with care. Furthermore we were going to purchase the same materials and use them with our own students and that I had better hold my tongue from now on.
I did hold my tongue… pretty much. We spent thousands of dollars on the workbooks and I expect that our test scores did improve. I was only there for another year-and-a-half so I am not aware of the long-term results. I expect that in terms of the test scores, they delivered the desired score increases. I did not use the materials much. We did some exercises before the test so the kids would be used to the multiple-choice format. The thing is, my class’ scores were pretty high anyway. Even before our investigative task force, our scores were fine. Most of the best of what happened in our room was not tested anyway. Pencil-and-paper-fill-in-the-dot tests do not truly measure reading ability let alone a kid’s passion to read. They don’t accurately measure problem solving ability or curiosity or motivation or pleasure seeking knowledge. I guess my big question is, what did they miss? All of those children who practiced taking the high stakes test hour after hour, day after day… What might they have done in school that was a better use of their time?
This following poem is something I posted a couple years ago, but I think it fits here as well. I am a teacher of little kids. I don't just teach math or reading or social studies. I don't just teach children to take tests. I teach children. This poem by Ina Hughes reminds me.
We pray for children
who put chocolate fingers everywhere
who like to be tickled
who stomp in puddles and ruin their new pants
who sneak popsicles before supper
who erase holes in math workbooks
who can never find their shoes
And we pray for those
who stare at photographers from behind barbed wire
who can't bound down the street in a new pair of sneakers
who never "counted potatoes"
who are born in places we wouldn't be caught dead
who never go to the circus
who live in an x-rated world
We pray for children
who bring us sticky kisses and fistfuls of dandelions
who sleep with the dog and bury goldfish
who hug us in a hurry and forget their lunch money
who cover themselves with band-aids and sing off key
who squeeze toothpaste all over the sink
who slurp their soup
And we pray for those
who never get dessert
who have no safe blanket to drag behind them
who watch their parents watch them die
who can't find any bread to steal
who don't have any rooms to clean up
whose pictures aren't on anybody's dresser
whose monsters are real
We pray for children
who spend their allowance before Tuesday
who throw tantrums in the grocery store and pick at their food
who like ghost stories
who shove dirty clothes under the bed and never rinse out the tub
who get visits from the tooth fairy
who don't like to be kissed in front of the carpool
who squirm in church or temple and scream in the phone
whose tears we sometimes laugh at and whose smiles can make us cry
And we pray for those
whose nightmares come in the daytime
who will eat anything
who have never seen a dentist
who aren't spoiled by anybody
who go to bed hungry and cry themselves to sleep
who live and breathe but have no being
We pray for children who want to be carried and for those who must
for those we never give up on
and for those who don't have a second chance
For those we smother... and for those who will grab the hand of
anybody kind enough to offer it.
Ina J. Hughes
At school we have a moment of silence every day. "Please pause for a moment of silence," says the child who reads the announcement. It used to mean nothing to me. It was just this little moment where I would mentally prepare for the school day ahead. Now I pray for children.