Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Message is Clear: Learning is Sweet

One recent afternoon the principal came by to visit my middle school classroom, a common occurrence at our friendly little school. He witnessed this scene: several of the kids in my Community Building seminar were shelving books in my classroom library. A few more were clustered by the radiator, working on how to catch an escaped pet – we finally caught him using a strategy figured out by an alumnus of our school when he was a third grader, passed on by a fellow teacher. A music teacher was also in the room, teaching a group of kids the lyrics to a new song he wrote about Michelle Obama's Gimme Five movement. A paraprofessional, who also teaches dance, had dropped by to help with the choreography. The Community Building kids not in the room were reading with first graders. The room was pervaded with the smell of the homemade chicken soup the middle school students in the classroom next door were learning how to make. The principal laughed and said, “What kind of school is this?” It's a school that has finished with PARCC testing...until May.
In the Jewish tradition, children begin school by licking honey off of a book. The message is clear: learning is sweet. I teach in a K-8 public school that is ordinarily a joyful, exhilarating place full of experimentation and messy learning, the kind of place where kids are excited to come to school each day; where learning is, indeed, sweet. And then every spring, as testing week approaches, a pall casts over this place. All the energy we ordinarily spend educating children must be directed towards preparing for the increasingly difficult demands of testing them. This year, the state where I teach has adopted the computer-based PARCC test, which means diverting resources for weeks and even months: computer use across the grades is limited by the need to practice for, and then administer, the test. Both administrative and teaching talent and hours are used to prepare computers for testing. Special education teachers and other support staff must be testing instead of working with students. Regular class schedules are disrupted for weeks on end. I am reading the Harry Potter series with my first grade son, and just this past week I was re-introduced to dementors, the eerie prison guards who cause despair by consuming happiness. The comparison seems apt: testing sucks all of the energy and joy from my school as surely as the dementors suck the happiness and hope from the human soul.
Standardized testing is so painful because it turns my role on its head. As a teacher, I am both educator and protector of my students, a role I have inhabited more fiercely since I became a parent. I am part of a school community that cares for these children and works hard to meet their educational and emotional needs as they grow. During testing, I suddenly become an adversary. I must administer a test they find stressful, frightening, confusing, and sometimes demeaning. I am prevented by the rules of the test from offering the scaffolding and support that promotes both education and success.  I cannot speak to them beyond the confines of a script, nor read their work, even if they are proud of it.  The walls are covered with black paper, lest the students see anything that might offer support or inspiration. And all of this is necessary, they say, because we teachers don’t do our job, we don’t adequately educate these children. Yet here I sit with my hands tied for weeks on end, not able to do what I see as my job. It’s no wonder the blog Blinkies & Briefcases recently noted, “[O]ur system is not just broken, it is shattered and slicing our children and our teacher with shards of its jagged remains.”
Teachers, and even students, have begun to speak out about this outrage. Many teachers in PARCC states have written articles and blog posts echoing my own experience with the disruptions and, frankly, insults to our profession that result from testing. An honors high school student in New Jersey wrote about her frustrating experience taking the PARCC. In my home state of New York, the governor's proposal that teacher evaluations should be tied increasingly closely to the scores from standardized tests has prompted schools across the state to reach out to parents and the community. The teachers at my son's school wrote an impassioned letter and invited us to participate in an event taking place citywide: parents and teachers joined hands to form a ring around the school, protecting it symbolically. I desperately wish I could protect my child's school, symbolically or otherwise. But I had to be in another state that morning, administering the PARCC, doing my level best to protect a different school. The letter from my son’s school ended: “Make whatever noise you can!” I would willingly protect my child's school with my body, but since I can’t, these words are my noise.
In the end, my colleagues and I do what we must to shepherd our children through testing. We keep it joyful and soothing even in these worst of times. We rage, silently and sometimes not so silently, that we must do so much extra work to protect these children from something that, politicians say, is necessary because we are not trusted to do our jobs.
The sight of children at my son’s school with paints and bright poster-board, making signs for the citywide protest that proclaimed “Respect our Teachers,” gives me some hope. I still believe that if we stand together, parents and teachers and children, we can still recapture that sacred moment: the child holding a book, smiling, the taste of honey on the tongue.

Leah Oppenzato - NJ Teacher

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