I truly hoped never to reach a point where I’d look at my career in teaching and think to myself, “Six and a half more years… Six and a half more years… Six and a half more years…” which is what I have until I can retire with full benefits.
It’s not because of the kids. They continue to remain wonderful, but the institution of education is imploding. In my school district, bit-by-bit, we are turning the study of literature into mere readin’ and writin’. The district has issued a mandate that literature is not to be studied in terms of “Shakespeare” or “American Literature” or any other such focused examination, and the next step is to phase out the novel completely. The idea is to teach lots of short works, test for basic things, like comprehension and understanding of terms like “foreshadowing” and “metaphor,” and then have kids reproduce these techniques in short writings of their own. Study a work of literature because in it we might come closer to understanding ourselves and the human experience? It’s not readily measurable. Can I determine the exact percentage of my students who got “what it is to be human”? Can I measure exactly to what extent they got it? Can I ensure that they all got the same thing? No? Then forget about it.
Write a structured essay? No, no, no! Their writing must only mimic “real world” writing, like blogs. Don’t get me wrong—I love a good blog, but essay is as much about how to think as it is about how to write—hence its often contrived structure at the 9th or 10th grade level. The problem seems to be that assessing how well a kid thinks is time consuming. Assessing a piece of writing for devices (simile? check; vivid description? check; rhetorical question? no? too bad) can be done much more quickly by whatever sots get stuck reading “constructed responses” that are chock-full of literary devices, however poorly executed. I’m not kidding. I once saw an exemplar for an “advanced” constructed response used on our state test. I don’t know how to teach anyone to write that badly. Strunk and White had to be turning in their graves. Lord! How many adjectives and adverbs can you squeeze into a single paragraph? That’s what passes for “vivid and precise use of language,” which is one of our state standards. The end result is that we are eliminating the formal, structured essay in favor of the crazy prose that is so popular today—long on emotion and short on evidence or deep analysis.
The funny thing is, I used to be the one who railed about the fact that the only writing we taught was the five-paragraph literary analysis. “Not all of our kids will be English majors,” I protested. Well, gee, I didn’t mean get rid of it. I just meant, let’s do some other stuff, too. What’s with the all or nothing bit?
The district is also pushing “research-based instruction.” Again, don’t get me wrong. There are some good ideas that come from this. But when every lesson plan is supposed to use a graphic organizer (various charts kids can fill in) or “think-pair-share” (where kids pair up and talk about the lesson), it gets cluttered. Some lessons are truly enhanced by visual organizers. Some lessons are complex enough that kids need time to process verbally. But for cryin’ out loud, not every lesson requires them. I think it’s OK to let kids figure out how to process a piece of information for themselves every now and then. I think a master teacher doesn’t merely use these tools, she knows when to use them for maximum effectiveness. But again, they can be checked off. Measure the precise degree to which a teacher inspires students to think, to examine their lives? Can’t be done, so it doesn’t matter.
And I’m not bitching because I suck. I’m being evaluated this year on a new and much more concrete rubric. Actually, I like a lot of the rubric. I think much of it really does cover good teaching. It has things like making purposeful connections between my subject and other disciplines, which I am really big on. In any given unit in my class you will also learn about history or science or some other subject that’s connected. (Of course, none of the district staff development covers this, and it’s never talked about—it’s just quietly on the teacher rubric no one sees unless they’re being evaluated. And I’m not asking that the district focus on it because they’ll end up over-simplifying and screwing that up, as well.) The rubric is designed so that most teachers will simply meet the standard. They really have to go above and beyond to exceed. So far, I’ve exceeded in a number of areas, and nothing is below the standard.
Last year, 40% of my sophomores attained “high growth” on the state test and 30% had “typical growth.” Of the 30% who achieved “low growth,” a quarter were already in the “advanced” category and stayed there. Yes, if I have high achievers who merely stay high achievers on the state test, I must count them as “low growth” students. Another quarter of my “low growth” students had excessive absences, so they weren’t in my room for me to teach them. This leaves about 15% of my whole class who have low growth that is probably due to some less-than-effective teaching on my part, and/or parents who don’t care or rescue too much, or a million other factors. I don’t make excuses. I am always looking at what’s not going perfectly in my classroom and working on solutions. That 15% is important, but not every teacher will reach every kid. I’ll never get it down to 0.
To me the data suggests that, as I continue to ignore the district’s mandates and insist upon teaching literature as a means of understanding what it is to be human, most of my kids seem to be testing just fine. The overall body of evidence suggests that I know what I’m doing. The district’s overall scores, though, are declining. For the past 5 years, district CSAP scores in language arts have fallen. What does that data suggest about the district’s instructional leadership, I wonder.
So I’m glad I only have six and a half more years—because until someone actually comes into my classroom and directly tells me that I must stop teaching the way I do, my kids will be reading novels and writing structured essays (as well as other kinds of reading and writing). I do think, though, that central administration will become more and more invasive, and I’ll be bailing right about the time someone gets around to coming into my room and telling me that I absolutely must stop teaching effectively. As for my son, who will be graduating with his teaching license in two and a half years? His will be another story. I worry.