Bringing balance and sanity to our schools

How often do you hear yourself urging a student, “Come on, you have to learn this. It’s going to be on the test!”?

I hear this appeal in classrooms all the time, and am certainly guilty of having uttered it myself. Still, I have to laugh, because after three and a half decades in this business, I’m still waiting for a student to respond, “OK. I wasn’t going to learn this, but as long as it’s on the test…”

There is so much pressure to prepare kids to take the test— and by “test,” I generally mean the “Capital T” kind of standardized test— that we can easily lose sight of our purpose and priorities. In the frantic days after 9/11, I called a friend, a History teacher in a school about two hours north of the city. After talking a bit about how she and her family were faring, I mentioned that this would have to be an amazing time to be a History teacher, with history happening right on her students’ doorsteps, so incredibly relevant and real to their world.

“You’re kidding, right?” she responded. “We have to get through Ancient Egypt for the [NY State Standardized Tests] this week.”

How often do we miss opportunities right under our noses, opportunities for real and meaningful learning to take place, for connecting with kids, for creating an emotionally safe learning environment, or even for inspiring student motivation and self-management (much less success) because we are so busy barreling through the curriculum?

“My department chair told me that I will get through the book this year, regardless of where the students are or what they need,” one teacher told me. And I remember observing another teacher doing a lesson on complex operations with fractions who had large numbers of learners who could not add or subtract whole numbers. When asked by her supervisor why she was teaching over her students’ heads, she threw up her hands and said, “It’s on the test!” Of course, by test time, her students could neither do the problems on fractions nor much of anything else. Teaching to the test, in this case, served no one.

It’s easy to feel like our options are limited and frankly, the Capital-T tests aren’t likely to go away any time soon (though hopefully the political pressure and lust for scores will ebb over time, as most trends in education ultimately do). Nonetheless, there are things we can do to achieve a certain kind of balance and sanity, and in so doing, improve student achievement.

We all know that anxiety and distress are not good for anyone’s brain, and putting pressure on educators and their students is not going to make scores go up (and in fact, is far more likely to have the exact opposite effect). There are teachers in the field who are managing, some against incredible odds, to not let the pressure get to them. Some brave souls simply refuse to buy into the value or importance of the Tests, close their doors and do their jobs. One told me that she was able to reduce her students’ fears and test-anxiety by telling them, “Yes, it’s a test. It’s like flossing. It’s something we have to do.” And from that point on, she refused to even mention the Test, working with her kids where they were academically, and taking it from there.

Another teacher, in a district where all teachers were required to teach the same page on the same day (in the ridiculous notion that this practice would assure no student being left behind) started her class by telling her students, “Humor me. I need to teach page 51 to keep my job. When I finish, I will come around and teach you.” I saw a remarkable degree of concentration, focus, self-management, and commitment from her students, not just in their academic performance, but in their behavior as well. (There’s not much fun— or much point— in cooperating in a class you’re going to fail anyhow. And it’s just as easy to lose students who are bored or inadequately challenged.)

And let’s face it. We all need to hear, see, or experience certain things more than once before they make sense. In any class with more than one student, we’re likely to encounter such a diverse range of learning styles, modality preferences, intelligences, personalities, and temperaments, that presenting information in one way is only likely to reach a fraction of the kids. The whole notion of teaching all kids the same thing at the same time in the same way— indeed the concept of standardization itself— is a throwback to our Industrial Era beginnings, when assembly-line priorities demanded uniformity and sameness above all. But the workplace of previous generations no longer exists, and even factory workers in the 21st century need a set of skills that would never have been imagined by— much less required of— their predecessors. (And frankly, the idea that we can walk into any classroom and teach a concept and expect uniform mastery is not based in any reality I’ve ever experienced.)

Good documentation and parent support can buy quite a bit of leeway. When faced with the prospect of having to choose whether to “cover” square roots or teach addition to a group of eighth graders who could not add if regrouping was required, it seemed like a natural choice to teach them to add. And even then, years ago, there was pressure from above, questions about why I was teaching first-grade math to eighth-grade students. Aside from the obvious (“Because they don’t actually know first-grade math.”), and the fact that this notoriously unruly and disruptive class was actually engaged, on task, and making progress, the other thing that bought me a little breathing room was a stack of file folders, one for each student, each with copies of pre-assessments and post-tests, work samples, scope-and-sequence charts checked for mastery. Better still, several files contained notes from parents, excited and grateful to finally see a math book in their homes, not to mention enthusiasm about math from their kids! (Parent support is much easier to come by when their children are successful and excited about learning.)

It’s not surprising that we see so many students acting out their boredom, indifference, anger, or frustration in so many classrooms today. Of all the areas in which we could easily eliminate many discipline and attitude problems, the idea of increasing opportunities for larger numbers of kids to be successful seems to be one of the most difficult to accomplish. Nonetheless, give students access to success and achievement, and the inclination to goof off, disrupt class, or refuse to work makes less and less sense. Although it may take some students a while to actually see that success for them is indeed possible, being able to engage students will be a lot easier when we can wear down the students’ assumption that they aren’t any good in this subject and will probably fail not matter what they do.

Few students can make progress when we teach above their heads. And for any teachers who have ever experienced the high of seeing a student experience a true “aha!” moment, you know that these little miracles happen when we can help kids connect new learning with what they know, value, or have experienced, when we teach in a way that makes sense to their nervous systems, and when we teach in an environment that feels safe and supportive.

So here are a few suggestions for creating some balance in dealing with the pressure that surrounds standardized testing.

• Control what you can control. Although I could devote pages to what’s wrong with standardized testing and the way the tests are currently being used, let’s just accept, for the moment, that the tests are here, and that they are far more political than educational. Let’s focus on what’s truly valuable in teaching kids.

• Even if you work in an intensely data-driven environment, you do not have to pass the pressure on to your students. In fact the less fuss you make about the tests, the less stress your students will feel about the test, and the less you come off looking like that’s the only thing that matters to you.

•Assess what your students already know. If they can already demonstrate mastery, you can justify moving them ahead. If they lack prerequisite skills, you have something to back up your decision to teach what they need.

• Document like there’s no tomorrow. Good documentation is more than a sign of professionalism and accountability. It also helps to protect your administration, whose support can be invaluable when matching your instruction to the needs of your students. Keep track of assessments, dates specific skills were mastered, work samples, and progress.

• Focus on the kids and to whatever degree you can get away with it, start with them where they are academically. Be willing, and prepared, to work with individuals and with small groups. As students make progress, raise the hurdles and continue to challenge them with increasingly difficult concepts and more complex assignments.

• Start thinking of “fair” as “equally appropriately challenged” rather than “same.” Our students are growing up in an information- and service-based economy. We are no longer training a factory workforce.

• Maintain high levels of performance as your criteria for achievement. Continue raising hurdles as kids make progress. You can fend off charges of “lowering the bar” or grade inflation when you keep pushing and refuse to accept inferior or substandard work.

• Move along the lines of district-mandated curriculum. If you have to back up the content you’re teaching or choose to include content that is not listed in the mandates for your grade level or subject area, working within what’s already established in the system can give you more leverage than arbitrarily choosing skills or content to teach.

• Minimize frustrating, time-wasting power struggles to leave more time for instruction. Strive to create win-win power dynamics in which you are still the authority, but are able to accommodate students’ needs for power and autonomy within limits that will accommodate their need for structure. Often, you can achieve this goal simply by offering students choices about which problems or assignments they want to do, or by offering them some input about topics, processes, media, sequence, or other factors involved in the work they do.

• Vary your assignments. There are a lot of ways to demonstrate an understanding of condensation and a lot of topics for kids to explore in their writing, for example.

• Vary your presentations. An overwhelming majority of students are visual and kinesthetic learners. Differentiate your instruction to accommodate a variety of learning preferences and needs. Kids learn (and behave) better when we present information in ways that make sense to their nervous systems.

• Take brain breaks. Middle school kids can sustain concentration for about ten to fifteen minutes at a time on a good day. Move to a different part of the room, invite them to share something they just learned, bring their attention back with a chime or auditory signal, take a stretch break. Even a 15- to 30-second change in the action will help them stay focused. (And movement within the classroom can significantly reduce requests for the bathroom pass when kids just can’t sit still for one more minute.)

• Allow do-overs. Use the time you spend evaluating assignments, especially homework and seatwork, to identify where kids still need instruction and practice. Show students how to “do it right” and encourage them to redo the work and resubmit it for additional credit. They’ll learn more from correcting their mistakes than from getting a grade.

• Focus on the positive. Whether simply recognizing what kids did right on their assignments or emphasizing the positive consequences of their cooperation in expressing contingencies (“When you do what I’ve asked, you can…”), this small act can have a powerful and positive impact on student behavior and commitment.

• Stay in present time. If “next year’s teachers” don’t teach this way, it’s especially important that you provide opportunities for kids to learn in a success-oriented, win-win, and brain-friendly environment.

• Think through your priorities and remember what brought you to this profession. (Did you really want to become a teacher to prepare kids for a test?)

• Be willing to take a few hits. Bucking tradition can cost you some conflict or disapproval from colleagues.

Finally, don’t wait for the system to get healthy and functional. It’s not likely to change on its own, though I do believe that any efforts to bring balance and sanity to our schools, and to build a sense of community there will help make schools better places to be, work, and learn, regardless of where these efforts initiate. And as far as the Tests go, I’m more and more convinced that if we can connect with kids, provide emotionally safe environments, challenge students at academically appropriate placements, and teach in ways that their bodies and brains can understand, the Tests will take care of themselves.

This article was written for In Transition, the Journal of the NY State Middle School Association, Spring 2008, Vol. XXV, No. 3.

Related links:

Click here to read “Testing, Testing…” an excerpt from Chapter 9, ”Brave New World: The Changing Role of the School,“ from Creating Emotionally Safe Schools © Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc., 2001).

Other excerpts from Creating Emotionally Safe Schools:

Pretty and Popular: Discrimination and Belonging
Spare the Rod (Problems with Corporal Punishment)
Brave New World: The Changing Role of Schools
Bearing Witness: Support for Children in Crisis
Stressful or Painful School Events and Experiences that Can Compromise Emotional Safety

Click here for more information about this book, Creating Emotionally Safe Schools.
Click here to read what people are saying about this book.

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