May is testing month at CHS, especially if you are a junior. So far, they have lost six hours of class—a full Friday—to two multiple-choice tests for SmarterBalanced, and three hours of English class to writing a “performance task”, i.e. an essay based on several articles. They will lose three hours of U.S. history to the math “performance task” next week. If you are a slow worker, there will be more time taken from class and study periods. They have also taken the PSAT and SAT, some have sat for the ACT, and many of my students have taken at least two AP tests in the last month. All told, many of my juniors will take eleven or twelve discreet standardized tests this year, mostly in the month of May, which is also the glory days of Honors American Lit, because we are done with formal essays and are free to ponder the nature of story, of reality, of respect, and of humanity as we read Slaughterhouse Five and The Things They Carried. It has been a long year.
This was in our minds yesterday as we trudged downstairs to the windowless computer lab to begin the performance task. For some reason, I am required to perform the scripted lesson before the test, but I have to leave the room while they read and write. I do not do well with scripted lessons. The question was written on the board as we walked in—something like “Where do you go for information and news? Why?”
“Do we really have to write about that?” one girl asked, sighing.
“Can we just talk about it?” another lobbied.
In two seconds, we were off script. “Yes.”
“Mr. Duerfelt.” One student called out.
“Yeah, he talks about the news every day,” another agreed. My task was to divide their responses into “traditional” and “non-traditional” news sources. Where does the APUS history teacher fall in that dichotomy? I put him in the middle.
CNN,” one boy added. “Online.”
“Oooooowwwww,” – the traditional response to anything “deep” and “intelligent” echoed through the room.
“They want me to add these,” and I wrote Facebook, Pintrest, Vine, blogs, and smartphones, even though we all know that smartphones are the orange amongst the apples here, and we are smarter than SmarterBalanced.
At this point, the class begins to laugh. The absurdity of the whole situation, of me, who does not own a mobile phone, use a smart board in class, and continues to show Wallace and Grommet on VHS the day before Winter Break, instructing my tech savvy class on the use of PINTREST as a source of legitimate news—like snapchat of a ninth grader’s hair is news!—overwhelms them. I read them a blurb about blogs and citizen reporters, we indulge in a moment of questioning whether “citizen reporters” are actual trained journalists, and we are done.
“You are now ready to complete the performance task,” is my closing line, and they turn on their computers as I head upstairs to read ninth grade narratives.
And I was struck, as I am every year in May, by how my students, how all of our students, rise to the occasion every day. We present them, far too often, with dumb stuff and they take it and run with it, creating something beautiful—or, at least, humorous-- out of the mundane over and over again. Every day, we are given moments of grace, of laughter, or intelligence. It is the greatest gift of teaching. We should not squander it on testing.