Graduation … this coming Friday afternoon. Exams for seniors … mostly finished today, with a few makeups on Tuesday morning. Exams for non-seniors … starting tomorrow, continuing through Thursday, finishing next Monday since it’s hard to have an exam on Graduation Day. Ms. X and Mr. Y are in countdown mode and have been for quite a while. It’s a time of year when the last is a common phrase: the last regular faculty meeting, the last set of grades, the last time This Particular Report is due. It’s good to take time to reflect when you’re close to the end like this, but it’s hard because of the time pressure and the last-minute changes.
Our Relevant Powers have spent weeks polishing and attempting to perfect the schedules and locations for final exams, but even they know that last-minute changes are probably inevitable. If someone is sick and needs a make-up test? If someone needs a special testing location or extended time? The plan has some provisions, but complex plans are easily derailed. A friend in Other Parts, where the Great Big Important State Tests have already happened, described of a class-coverage plan that fell apart and a desperate, last-minute search for functioning calculators. Those kinds of last-minute changes are rare in These Parts, where Relevant Powers monitor such things closely. But other kinds of last-minute changes are inevitable … especially given the stories of That Stomach Virus, which seems to be making the rounds among families I know.
Ms. X and Mr. Y are probably upset because they don’t get a last-minute “exam review” session at the end of the day with the classes that will take exams tomorrow. For many years that was the tradition, and for every other exam that tradition will continue. But Official Policies and Scheduled Events came together to prevent such a thing this year. Have Ms. X and Mr. Y read or heard about the research on distributed practice and its superiority to massed practice? Probably; in fact, they probably did well on The Test that covered such things back in That One College Course. But it’s hard to translate head knowledge into practice, especially when it’s close to the end … and especially when there are traditions and Official Policies that encourage last-minute cramming. Just one more PowerPoint! Just one more worksheet packet, one more set of released questions! A friend with a young child, not in These Parts, described a new form of summative testing in Their Area: a form where the teacher “reviewed” for each page of the Great Big Unofficial Test right before the students “took” that page.
If the purpose of testing is to measure retention, or maybe even to measure understanding, such an approach is … misguided at best, probably even more misguided than Ms. X and Mr. Y’s desire for one more last-minute cram session the day before. To its credit, Official Policy in These Parts flatly prohibits “additional instruction” on the day of a Great Big Important State Test. But if the purpose of testing is to generate scores, and the purpose of those generated scores is to be as high as possible, then my friend’s child’s experience makes perfect sense … at least within that context. How far is it from the “review” Ms. X and Mr. Y do at the beginning of The Period when their students take The Test on That Particular Chapter?
As I sat down to write this post, I saw George’s Google+ share of this excellent post about a classroom visit by Sugata Mitra. I wonder how Ms. X and Mr. Y would respond to such a visit, or to Mitra’s notion of learning on “the edge of chaos.” For that matter, I wonder how our students would respond! The “good little workers” I’ve known are terrified of The Wrong Answer, often so terrified that they don’t want to risk such a thing: “Just give me a worksheet,” as K used to say, “and tell me what to put on it.” Quite a few of the “bad, lazy ones,” as Ms. X and Mr. Y would define them, are terrified, too … terrified of giving yet another Wrong Answer, getting yet another label, looking bad once more frustrating, saddening time. The Latin Family sometimes takes them closer to “the edge of chaos” than they’ve ever been, but not as close as Mitra might take them. And it’s uncomfortable, and challenging, and everything that learning is probably supposed to be … but when you’re close to the end, it’s hard to sustain that kind of energy.
On the surface, the Latin Family will be doing a fairly conventional-looking, small-group-focused “Rotating Review” today. There are eight statiōnēs, six focused on a small piece of making or analyzing particular grammatical elements, one on reading and interpreting a fairly simple passage, one on systematically reviewing and classifying vocabulary. With our extended time for the senior exams, we’ll have about 15 minutes to spend at each station, plus some time to wrap things up at the end. But the stations are deliberately chosen to focus on minor pieces of the language learning and acquisition puzzle. There’s no attempt to cram things in, no desperate quest to “cover” a semester’s worth of skill development in a two-hour block. “Remediation, enrichment, whatever you want to call it,” as somebody said at a recent meeting? That will happen, but it won’t happen quite the way Ms. X and Mr. Y might envision it.
It’s hard, sometimes painfully hard, to build and sustain joyful learning communities in an environment where the focus is much more on The Numbers than The Learning. It’s hard, but it isn’t quite impossible! On a busy, potentially hectic Monday, when everyone is so close to the end that they can almost taste it, that’s important to remember and hold on to.
I wonder what other important memories we’ll build together today!