Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Teaching to the Pulpit

Welcome to "The Gods Are Bored," snickering behind our hands since ... forever! If you can't laugh at the world, you're screwed. Now, I don't mean laugh at everything. Just the funny stuff. If your life seems short on funny stuff, force yourself to search it out. Pray to Loki, Anansi, or Coyote. That ought to do the trickster.

Ever since there have been standardized tests, there have been mandates to teach to those tests. Curriculum is built around "passing the test."  Here in New Jersey, this means a lot of answering open-ended questions and a lot of writing the same kinds of essays over and over again.

Of course the students catch on. They did the same thing last year! Why do it again? Good freakin question.

The answer, of course, is that it's "on the test." The students know this. So they begrudgingly pull their loose leaf from their binders and dig into yet another explanatory essay.

The latest test wrinkle here in Chris Christieville is an essay that explains a quote, an adage, or a common emotion, such as the need to overcome fear. It's this quote/adage thingy I'm teaching right now to 110 students from Camden.

(Yes, that does mean that I will have 110 essays to read by the end of March. Yowsa.)

You know how it goes. Sometimes you get a class full of respectful, studious kids. And sometimes you pull a classful of smart-alecks. This happens to teachers everywhere, and if you're not a teacher, then you were a student -- which were you, the nerd or the smarty?

Today my smart-aleck class comes up with the Big Question: "Why are we always practicing this test stuff?"

Not to pat myself on the back or anything, but I can usually finesse these questions.

"Well," says I, "all you're doing in this essay is explaining something. And you do this all the time with your friends. They might say, 'What do you mean?" and you'll tell them what you mean, and then maybe follow it up with a little story about someone who did the thing they can't undersand.'"

This answer was met with derision, some of it in the form of barnyard noises and the rest of it dotted liberally with expletives. I dug into my Phi Beta Kappa brain and came up with ...

Anne: "You know where you hear this kind of essay all the time? At church. I don't know how many of you go to church, but next time you're there, listen to how the preacher structures his sermon. First he'll give you the Bible verse. Then he'll tell you stories that illustrate it. Then he'll end with a call for you to be more like the Bible verse. That's just what we're doing with this essay. So I'm not only preparing you to take the standardized test, I'm preparing you to be a minister."

Only one kid in 25 said, "I don't believe in God." The rest of them tucked into their essays, no doubt dreaming of glory days ahead in which a sea of pious faces will turn their way to hear their wisdom.

Hey. In this job you do what you gotta do to keep those Number Two pencils moving across the paper.

However, if anyone ever comes up to me and says, "Mrs. Johnson! I became a minister because of what I learned in your English class!" I am going to binge on the Coffee Cake Muffins from Dunkin Donuts ... I just read that those puppies have as much fat as a brace of Big Macs.

Another day in the classroom, another pathetic attempt to wrench meaning from test prep. Coyote, take me away!



your a better man than I am Gunga Din.

Makarios said...

I read a post the other day--can't find the link right now--that noted that the people who grade the essay portion of the SAT's (which are allocated 25 minutes of the test, if I remember correctly) take about 45 seconds per essay. Good to know--perhaps. Or perhaps not.

Debra She Who Seeks said...

Barnyard noises, LOL! I do a fabulous chicken imitation -- wish you could hear it!

shel said...

I love finding teachers with a sense of humor. My son is the smart-aleck. I tell him it's fortunate he's always smiling; perhaps that prevents teachers from strangling him. He'd have been the one to inform you that UU ministers don't often use Bible verses, if only to redirect your focus & avoid the dreaded essay a bit longer.