Friday, April 17, 2015

Waiting for Knowledge...or Pursuing It?

There’s a great scene in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot when Estragon says to Vladimir, “Let’s go.” And Vladimir replies to his buddy, “Yes, let’s go.” Beckett then gives us the final stage direction: “They do not move.”

Usually, talking to my 7th graders about the English portion of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) test is a bit like that scene. There is not a whole lot of movement when it comes to deep learning, knowledge, and reflection.

So this year—my sixth as a public school teacher—I decided to not really talk about the test very much.

I figured that if my students were learning to become more effective writers, stronger readers, and deeper thinkers, that would show up on any kind of assessment they were forced to take.

But with three days to go until the test, I noticed something: a bunch of my students began to freak out.

“Mr. Reynolds, are you going to prepare us for the MCAS?”

“Mr. Reynolds, WHEN IS the MCAS?”

“Mr. Reynolds, what are we going to have to do this year on the MCAS?”

And that’s about when I realized that I was either doing one of two things: 1) being a terribly inept teacher in not photocopying a slew of models and worksheets and test preparation activities for my students; or 2) practicing what I had been preaching all year long: that education is about more than a test grade, and that authentic learning is more about going deep than it is about going fast or far.

However, I relented a bit and explained what the MCAS was about, and what it would ask them to do. I even photocopied a few examples of what the MCAS people said were strong writing samples.

This seemed to quell the anxiety of some of my students. Yet the day before the test, I asked all of my students in each of my five 7th grade classes to close their eyes. Then I asked them to hold up a hand with fingers from 1 – 5. 1 meant I am really freaked out and nervous and anxious about this test tomorrow! 5 meant I am not worried at all; everything will be fine.

While some students held up 5’s, I felt a pang inside myself to see that some students felt a 1 or a 2. Many held up a 3. In years past, I had done more test prep activities, and I had detested every minute of it. It felt so awkward to stop what we were doing as a class to hand out practice bubble-tests, practice test-writing prompts, and practice readings.

I love writing and reading. They are my lifeblood, and I believe that words have the power to dramatically transform lives. But I struggle with the intention behind the words we ask students to read and write. If the intention is words for the sake of accountability, my heart wants to distance itself from activities in this camp.

Maybe I am idealistic. Maybe I need to learn how to help my students pause the normal classroom activities and prepare with conscientiousness and a good work ethic for the test that they are required to take.

Maybe I am selfish. Maybe I need to learn to think about my students more—asking, if they are forced to take this test, then isn’t it my responsibility to ensure they are impeccably well-prepared for it? In this vein, my actions this year indict me as self-focused and unkind.

But some part of me wants to hold on to the hope that as we talked (briefly) about the MCAS this year, and as I used the refrain, “You are more than a test score” over and over and over and…Perhaps something of that reality set in.

Perhaps my students were able to reflect on the fact that we can focus on writing and reading for the sake of writing and reading, rather than bubbling, and they felt the continuity of our class and curriculum moving deeper and deeper.  

Maybe, come next Fall, their scores will provide the verdict.

Or maybe, we won’t be just sitting around waiting to hear their scores. Maybe our stage direction will look a little different than Vladimir’s and Estragon’s. Maybe we won’t be waiting, at all, for the knowledge of if we are strong writers and readers, so much as we’ll be pursuing it.