Testing, Testing, Testing V

“How are you doing?” I asked a colleague on Wednesday morning.  “Is it Friday yet?” was the response.

“How are things?” I asked someone else on Thursday.  “Ms. N. reminded me it’s Friday Eve,” she said, “so I think I can make it.”

The longing for Friday is partly cultural.  We Americans love our weekends!  And I deeply value my weekend times with family, with friends, with “just me.”  But as I finish this post Friday morning, what does the desperate longing for weekends say about  factory-model schools?  It certainly says work should  be viewed as painful – a thing you endure but don’t enjoy.  Friday, the “last day,” is a mini-celebration. We even have special Friday-only dress codes.

In Japan, I’m told, there’s a big celebration on the first day of the school year.  But we count down to the last day.  Some of my colleagues are already counting … and  some count the days, hours, minutes “till I get to retire.”

And for many teachers, Friday is “test day” – because “that way the kids will be quiet.”  And because Friday “has always been” test day – post-production quality-control inspection day.

As Laura pointed out in a Google+ comment about yesterday’s post, there’s a

triple whammy of despair: factory-model schooling AND pain-punishment AND sorting-selecting testing… oh my gosh. Seeing the three of them in a row like that makes me wonder if that might not be part of the problem with provoking change – I doubt there are a lot of teachers who embrace all three of these things… but I am guessing that many teachers do endorse one at least, so that even if they are aware of the archaic nature of the factory model and the pitfalls of pain/punishment, they do still believe in sorting/selecting… while someone else might have their doubts about sorting/selecting and factory model, but they are still trying to use pain/punishment as a management strategy… and so on. As long as any dimension of the current system has any supporters, it will be hard to change – and different people get lured into supporting the current system from such different angles, as your grim list of three shows.

It’s easy to despair if you focus on that grim list of three, especially on a Friday.  But what f you focus on the learners themselves?

I felt positive energy from most of my Latin I students Thursday even though their day overflowed with testing.  We had begun to work in earnest on creating stories that will become our major assessment for the reporting period, and most of us were deeply, thoughtfully engaged.  To be fair, in each class one or two groups had tremendous difficulty staying focused … but just one or two groups.  As you read this post “live” Friday morning, we’re using one of the school’s mobile laptop labs to edit video or create illustrations and audio.

I wonder if the struggling, unfocused groups will do better.  They often do when a deadline draws close.  Some really seem to desire external management – they work harder with someone standing over them, “motivating” them (as teachers like to say) with promises of rewards or threats of punishments.

Are they confused when I won’t play the reward-punishment game?

Do they like pain-punishment, bad grades, calls home to parents?

Or do those things simply mean Ms. X or Mr. Y is “serious” about “doing the work?”  Have they been so indoctrinated to the factory model that they’re lost without an assembly line of worksheets, a foreman-style teacher armed with carrots and sticks?

Why do so many teachers like threats anyway?  “If you keep acting like that – or being like that – I might just have to call your parents,” we say.  “If you keep doing badly on tests, you might end up with a bad report card.”  Do we mean the threats when we make them?  Or do we make them  … because that’s what schools do?  Many threats are empty, students know this – and a lot of young people have trouble believing adult authority figures.

Is that distrust a feature or a bug in the factory-model system?  Are factory-model schools, empty threats and all, designed to make struggling students feel disconnected and unwanted … or is that just an unfortunate byproduct of the design?

Debbie and Brendan made some profound, deeply related points on this Google+ thread, points I need to respond to another day.  And check out the conversation here, too.

When I look at the profiles of my “struggling” students in our student information system, I see common elements: “young for grade,” last school attended whose focus was on “getting the scores,” prior history of struggles to “get those scores,” labels of “bad and lazy” or “slow and sluggish.”  It’s hard to develop and demonstrate self-control when Ms. X, Mr. Y, and their counterparts have spent years yelling at you for “being bad” and “being loud” and “being lazy.”

After all, being means it’s part of you, right?  You can’t really change your being, can you?

Ms. X and Mr. Y would say they had positive intentions when they yelled and labeled – if nothing else, they wanted a fairly quiet classroom “so the good kids who care can learn.”  But by labeling the child rather than the behavior, they sowed seeds for a bitter harvest.

“You know,” one of my Latin III students told me a year ago, when she was in Latin I, “you have really high expectations.  You actually want everybody to learn, not just the good kids.”

Can we rebuild a system where good and badlazy and diligentcaring and not caring refer to permanent, innate qualities rather than ever-changing behaviors?  Can we recast the labels and test results into tools for growth? Or should we just give up, put on our special Friday shirts, and celebrate the weekend?

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Published in: on October 26, 2012 at 10:31 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. “Are they confused when I won’t play the reward-punishment game?

    Do they like pain-punishment, bad grades, calls home to parents?

    Or do those things simply mean Ms. X or Mr. Y is “serious” about “doing the work?” Have they been so indoctrinated to the factory model that they’re lost without an assembly line of worksheets, a foreman-style teacher armed with carrots and sticks?”

    As you asked these questions I couldn’t help but think of a similar situation I am facing in one of my classes this year. I detest so much the “power play” that goes on between teachers and students, what you call the “pain/punishment cycle,” and I try to avoid it at all costs. I have had to go more “old school” in some instances this year than I like, and on reflecting I came up with two reasons:

    1) Problems inherent in the curriculum. That’s entirely my fault and I will correct it as much as I can this year and try to enact new curricula for future classes.

    2) Some students don’t care about learning the material, so they need to be forced to comply (even if they can’t be forced to care). A set of students does care, a set doesn’t. (Remember that it’s largely my fault for using a bad curriculum.) But things are how they are, and I need all students to be at least ostensibly engaged so that those who are actually engaged are free to be so.

    Those are my thoughts, anyways. Do you think those students who you see working only when a due date looms are concerned more with taking the path of least resistance to a good grade than with actually learning for the sake of learning?


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