Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!

Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!
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Teaching is the profession that teaches all the other professions. ~ Author Unknown

My goal is to reveal one teacher's humble journey of self-reflection, critical analysis, and endless questioning about my craft of teaching and learning alongside my middle school students.

"The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called 'truth'." ~ Dan Rather

Monday, February 15, 2010

'Tis the Season for Test Anxiety

Inevitably, when I walk back into my school and classroom tomorrow, anxiety will be high. With a full week off from school due to our "blizzard of the century," we have lost five valuable instructional days in the month before the dreaded Maryland State Assessment (MSA). Beginning in kindergarten, students learn quickly that standardized testing matters and is often supposed to be a "true showcase" of what they learned so far that school year. Pathetic, I know.

My eighth graders are THE most tested K-12 grade, and they know it. In addition to the regular MSAs, they have a MAP-R reading test at least twice a year, at least three practice MSA tests, the Science MSAs, a technology assessment, midterm and final exams for high school level credit, the PSAT, and for many, high school magnet entrance exams. These are, of course, in addition to the regular quizzes, tests, projects, and essays assigned in their seven daily classes. With AP and IB exams, the SAT and ACT, and the HSAs (High School Assessments) as integral parts to the college application process, high school will only present more opportunities for students to make or break the grade with their test scores.

The question is -- does this kind of standardized testing measure students' genuine levels of academic growth and potential? Many proponents of George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, which began in 2002, believe so. Don't get me wrong; I also believe schools and teachers should be held accountable for student learning and achievement. However, there has to be a better way to do this than teachers constantly shoving tests down my students' throats or feeling so pressured to "teach to the test," especially as a English or math teacher.

This climate of never-ending testing creates an endless cycle of despair and pressure that is detrimental to students' health, happiness, and personal well-being. Our current sixth graders in our building have so much anxiety about testing and school in general that a handful of them make themselves sick before school each morning -- or put on a display in the parking lot when refusing to exit their parents' vehicles. My eighth graders are conditioned to testing and know what is expected of them, though I find it disheartening that they almost expect teachers to "teach to the test" in their core subjects now.

This winter, my students completed a propaganda project on a controversial issue of their choice, with one of the topics being standardized testing. It is amazing how much my students already know about the importance of testing, and I was pleased to see several of them create vivid visual displays and present thoughtful, articulate speeches revealing their opinions about testing. Not one of them saw standardized testing as improving student learning or teacher instruction. I believe they may be onto something here....

Even though it is important for students to learn and master district and state standards in each content area, creating a standardized test for each skill is unnecessary. I find that the more authentic assessments allow students to display their knowledge of concepts and skills using a variety of creative mediums, be it through art, music, poetry, speech delivery, or personal/analytical essays. Howard Gardner reminds us of the seven intelligences people possess, so why not give students options in their tests, essays, and projects? Kids are so stifled these days, and very rarely is imagination and creativity encouraged in the classroom. This is truly devastating, and as teachers, we have the power to fundamentally change this reality.

Currently, my students are reading and performing Twelve Angry Men, a classic play in three acts by Sherman Sergel. Each student is taking on the persona of one juror and getting to bring that juror to life in our classroom every day. In addition, my students are learning meaningful vocabulary words about criminal law, exploring the roles of juries in modern society, drawing personal interpretations of the courtroom and their chosen jurors, becoming their own jury with modern court cases, displaying mastery of plot and character through DYRT (Did You Read This) quizzes, and ending the unit with a critical character analysis in the form of a five paragraph essay. Students love these opportunities to express themselves through theater, art, and writing.

By denying students the chance for authentic assessment and pure creative expression, we are thereby denying them of one of the most important skills they need for adulthood -- the ability to feel comfortable in their own skin and discover their own passion for a written or artistic medium of expression. Despite the crazy testing climate students today are forced to exist in, we have the challenge of identifying true teachable moments and encouraging our learners to explore themselves -- and their many intelligences -- in class each day. The more interactive, hands-on, and applicable to their own lives their learning is, the more information and knowledge students will retain about each subject. And yes, this is the kind of knowledge that will be reflected in not just standardized tests but in the true people and leaders they have the potential to become.

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