There has to be a better way
I have a fabulous bunch of students this semester. They’re really smart, nice, and seem to like listening and talking to each other.
And not one of them has been to school in a time when courses didn’t culminate in a high-stakes, standardized test.
Let me say that again. My students have never been to school in a time where courses didn’t culminate in high-stakes, standardized tests.
This isn’t a post about high-stakes testing. But when I think about the recent schools where I’ve visited or worked, The Test is the center of discussion, especially as the testing date draws closer. I’m fiercely curious to know what tests my students took, in what grades, what they did in their classes in the weeks before the tests, how the curricula in their classes related to the tests (not the standards or benchmarks for the grade level– the tests themselves), the instructional practices the teachers used.
I’m wondering about the differences in schooling that my students and I have experienced. I’m wondering what I have to say that will make sense to them.
I went to school in a time when you were placed in an academic track in grade 6 and stayed in it until you graduated. What mattered was grades. A low grade meant I wasn’t fulfilling my responsibilities, chief among which was to live up to my potential, what ever that was.
But it was also the 1970’s, a time of challenges to all kinds of social, political, and cultural institutions. This included challenges to ideas about learning, teaching, and schooling by writers as varied as Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner, John Holt, Peter Elbow, Ivan Illich, many others. It was also the time of experimenting: open classrooms, Foxfire, just about any kind of alternative school you could imagine. There was even one within my school.
By my junior year of high school, I felt worn down by AP and honors classes, the chronic emphasis on achievement. I asked to be admitted to the alternative program, telling my reluctant parents, the head of the school, anybody who would listen: There had to be a better way.
For me, the interdisciplinary, experience-based alternative program transformed not only my relationship to school but my relationship to learning. I discovered how and why to learn for myself. My teaching job in an alternative program inspired by the ideas of Maurice Gibbons only deepened my belief that a core priority of schooling is for students to learn how to learn for themselves.
Not a grade. Not a test.
These days, I think the closest thing to experiential learning we’re going to find is an English classroom where writing is the means by which students connect with themselves and then connect themselves to the world.
You know how baby birds imprint on the first thing they see after birth? I think teachers do this too. We get imprinted with the ways of learning and teaching that leave the deepest impressions on us.
My students have never been to school in a time when there weren’t high-stakes standardized tests
It’s going to be an interesting semester.