Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Fill-in-the-Blank Education

I haven't taught in more than twenty years, but I think about classrooms all the time. I've decided there are two ways to teach.

Focus on the answers.

Or focus on the students.

Either way earns the same paycheck.

I once worked with an English teacher who was a fascinating person but gave mind-numbing tests and assignments. She bragged about her multi-paged exams that were a snap to grade. They read, as one colleague joked: The ____ of the ____ is the ____.

"Does that tell you if they really understand Shakespeare?" I asked her.

She shrugged and said, "At least they've read it." But I knew many of them hadn't. Secretly they read Cliffs Notes to grasp the plot points for daily quizzes. Then, prior to the test, they memorized all her classroom pronouncements: "The three themes in Hamlet are...."

No muss no fuss.

I saw the effects of breezy teaching on Maggie when she entered first grade and brought home the Power Book, announcing it was her nightly homework and had to be done at a desk with a lamp.  Faithfully she set up shop at my grandparents' hundred-year-old radio stand upon arrival from school each day. Every page had an illustrated three-sentence story with three follow-up questions to be written precisely like the sentences. It went something like this:

Jenny likes apples.
Jenny climbs the apple tree.
Jenny picks four apples.

What does Jenny like?
What does Jenny climb?
How many apples does Jenny pick?

By Thanksgiving, she'd stacked up perfect scores but complained about the monotony of these stories, pointing out they weren't really stories at all. Keep in mind, this was a girl who, at three years old, pointed to punctuation marks on the page of the picture book I was reading to her and asked, "What are these things?" One night when she was five, she interrupted my reading aloud and flipped several pages back and forth, asking, "Wouldn't it better if this picture came before that one?" She was absolutely right. She also liked creating different endings to her favorite books.

"She has the stuff of an English major," I told Cliff early on.

So we were devastated that her classroom language arts program was an annoying grind that overlooked any sense of independent thinking or imagination. Because of his administrative role at the school, he suggested I speak with the teacher about our concerns and a possible approach to re-engage her mind.

I met with the teacher and proposed that Maggie write her own scenario with an illustration and questions. I assured him she was capable of writing more than three sentences. He stared at me and said that would be inappropriate because it wasn't the point of the program. There would be no way to assess her work because she couldn't be adequately compared to her classmates. "How would we determine her reading level?" he asked.

I recently asked Maggie what she remembered about the Power Book. She said, "It was the first time I understood why people hate school."

So there you have it.

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