Saturday, December 28, 2013
Teaching to the Heart
It's pointless, I know, to rail against the current love affair with standardized testing in our public schools. It's here; it's going to stay awhile, like a clueless friend in your late-night living room, a friend who either can't tell time or doesn't care that you're tired and want to go to bed. In Ohio, the test mania began in the 1990s and was one of the principal reasons I retired in January 1997, the first day I was eligible to collect benefits. I'd watched the Ohio Proficiency Tests transform our wonderful Harmon School into something it had never been before: a test-preparation factory. (I exaggerate--but not by much.)
Some years my eighth graders did well on the reading and writing tests; some years, less well. And I honestly never felt I ought to take credit in the good years or blame in the bad. I'd had the kids(most were 13 years old) only forty-two minutes a day for about half a year when the Tests arrived. Doesn't it seem arrogant to take credit? Paranoic to take blame?
I knew that in my room were kids who could have passed those tests when they were nine years old--and other kids would who have trouble passing them when they were adults. It's called the Normal Curve. Sure, I had my students read and write a lot--every year--and some years my students were clustered more in the upper half of the curve, and so they did well. But sometimes the cluster was in the lower half--and guess what happened those years? All my fault, I know. Freeze my salary.
I've said all this before in one way or another--but, like a deep splinter in my foot, it reminds me every now and then of its painful presence. What bothers me a lot is this idea that something is important only if we can measure it--test for it. We can test, say, for knowledge of vocabulary words, for a kid's ability to punctuate according to conventional rules, for his or her ability to pick from a list the "main idea" of a paragraph, and so on. And so we do test for those things. And then we think we've measured something significant. Numbers add gravity even to weightless things.
We can also test kids' abilities to write conventional paragraphs--you know, the ones with topic sentences and details and examples and the like (the kinds of paragraphs that rarely appear in the work of our best writers, by the way). And so we do. And then we think we know something about a kid's writing talent and achievement (we don't).
But all this testing--all this emphasis on scores--flies in the face of what I think is most meaningful in an education. For a moment--think about those teachers who most influenced you, maybe even inspired you ... those whom you most admired and respected. What was it about them that made you feel that way? Was it their knowledge of commas and topic sentences? Their ability to teach vocabulary words? To prepare you for a standardized test?
In my case, it was none of those things. It was who they were that mattered. What they valued. How they showed us (not told us) about the excitement of an intellectual life. I remember those teachers who seemed eager when they came in the room (okay, not always!), who had something exciting they'd been thinking about--something they'd read or seen or heard. Something that might have related directly to what we were doing--or not.
And even more important to me? I admired, even loved, those teachers whose hearts were visible in class. Those teachers who could--and did--weep at a lovely line in a poem, whose anger at the behavior of a character on the page was genuine, who laughed when Huck Finn said that the main difference between a hog and a man is that a hog will go in a church every day, not just on Sunday. And so on. Teachers who made me want to be like them; teachers who made me care.
Teachers with such hearts--hearts so immense that you can hear them beat, even see them pulsating in class--those are the teachers who inspired me, who educated my heart, as well. And they, my friends, are the ones who truly taught me. For once the heart is engaged, the mind obediently follows, commencing a journey that only Time will end.