Sometimes I feel like all we do in school is test. Between the Oregon state reading test that students take every year and the writing test that they take in 4th, 7th, and 10th grades, the reading work samples and writing work samples that we're supposed to do on a district (rather than state) level, and any other school-wide mandates that come up, it often feels like my students are either just finishing a test or about to start one. Then, add to that the fact that we have to reserve two more weeks for retakes--students who initially fail the reading test get a second or even third attempt to pass--and it seriously means that every month, at least, there's some kind of high-stakes testing going on.
It kind of makes me wonder when they're actually supposed to learn the stuff that they're being tested on.
I'm often frustrated by the fact that there's so little time, that we jump jump jump through the testing hoops with so little chance to really play with language and books and learning like I want to. When it comes down to it, no one in my classes is going to be a better reader, writer, or thinker simply because they were worried about passing an extraneous test graded by anonymous, state-employed readers. My students will get better because they care, because they see reading and writing as relevant and necessary to their lives, because they see it as something enjoyable, even, if I do a good job.
With that in mind, I've been trying to make time for literary play and fun. It's hard to do amidst all the pressure to be on track for curriculum and get in enough test prep and whatever else, but I always feel like a better teacher when there's room to take a breath and learn something for the pure joy of it.
So the other day, I decided that I was going to read my students a poem that I'd written for the class I'm taking right now. They all know that I'm taking a poetry class since I sometimes talk to them about what I'm doing in it (for a while the class I was taking paralleled what I was teaching, which was so rad), so they were stoked to actually see a product. They were even more stoked when I told them it was about them. It was the sweetest thing ever, actually, and I write this for anyone who doesn't think that 7th graders are among the most awesome people ever: the excitement on their faces when I told them I'd written about them was priceless. And after I made a super big deal about how shy I am about sharing my work and how I really needed them to be respectful and at least listen, even if they didn't like it, they were so fricken sweet. All but one of my classes burst into applause after I'd read it, and they were fiercely loyal to me when I told them about the changes my teacher wanted me to make.
I guess my point here is that I think they learned more--at least, in the deep way that becomes part of how you see and interact with the world--from that one lesson than they did for a whole week of prep for reading work samples. They learned that they were worthy of art, for one. Many of them (and this absolutely breaks my heart) have never had someone make them feel important and special; for me to immortalize them in poetry, however bad, and share it made them not only critics but muses too. They heard that even teachers are shy, that even teachers write stuff that isn't sucecssful on the first try. They learned that I was willing to put myself out there, too, that I'm not just asking it from them. Hopefully, they learned that writing was a way of expression, that it could be for them too. It's true, maybe they won't be able to answer another question on a state test correctly because of the day I set aside to read them a poem they'd inspired. But I like to think that they'll be better people, and more likely to read and write later in life, becase of it.
Here it is:
The whiteboard is covered, again, with
multicolored scrawls, hasty remnants of a day's
hard learning. The stubborn patch that never quite erases
glowers like a dying ember in the sun, sun that
glints through blinds closed to protect students' eyes
even though any one of them would rather be outside in it
than protected from it.
A book lies capsized on the floor; the bookmark
languishes feet away from the page it was meant
to keep. Someone, tomorrow, will be
literarily lost. A homeless yellow journal, spiral
spine askew, totters on the edge of a desk, its secret thoughts
a short plunge away from the night custodian's
Empty seats upend themselves on desks over which no
heads bend and no adolescent pencils scrawl. An example
paper pinned to the back wall flaps like a loose jaw, up, down
in the wind that floats through the open window, but
no one inside will be distracted by it. Even the breeze itself
feels devoid of air, as if the faraway students have taken
all of its life with them in their frenzied, indifferent exit.