Friday, March 07, 2014

They Will All Be Shakespeare

Welcome to "Thy Gods Are Bored!" If ye with patient eyes attend, what here shall see is naught to offend!

Have you ever, just for the fun of it, written something in which you mimicked the style of a famous author? Confession here: I do this sometimes for the fun of it. It's kind of a nice cerebral challenge.

What do you know? It turns out that this particular talent is one that will determine whether our high school students are college and career-ready.

I wish, oh how I wish that I was making this up. But the latest teachers' meeting regarding our nation's new standardized testing brought more information about what is in store for our youngsters. One task they will have to complete -- on computer -- is to finish a narrative in the style of its author, taking care to follow the plot and character interrelations.

Are you confused yet, reader? Here's an example:

The test will give students the first 1,000 or so words of a story like "The Gift of the Magi," by O Henry. This was written, I think, between 1890 and 1910. After the students read the passage, they will be expected to continue the narrative, using O Henry's style and higher-level vocabulary. Another example used a passage from Frederick Douglass with the same instructions: read it, finish writing it, use his style.

The task must be completed in 50 minutes.

Did you do this in college? I didn't do this in college. Not for an assignment, anyway. Maybe it was my major that didn't require this kind of assignment. Oh, wait. I majored in creative writing. 

We teachers also got treated to another of the tasks we must teach in our English classrooms. Students will have 80 minutes to read two pieces of informational text (probably scientific or health-related), study a chart or other graphic, and watch a YouTube. Then they will have to write a position paper and use the information to support their point of view, taking care to quote from the texts and videos. This sounds more like college, but a whole hell of a lot less like the high school English classes I took, where we did such useless things as reading Charles Dickens and Oedipus Rex.

Basically these new standardized tests could expect high school juniors and seniors to be able to write like Shakespeare. Even though the highest talents in the world have not produced another Shakespeare in 400 years.

Needless to say, every teacher in my meeting, which included all the faculty for history and English, was appalled. Remember, we teach in an urban school where more than three quarters of the kids get free breakfast and lunch every day. But I'm also wondering how this will play out in Levittown. Even in Snobville, where one of the snobbiest things is the school system.

But wait. There's more.

Fourth graders. Fourth graders will be sitting for one 50-minute session of writing (narrative) and an 80-minute session of writing (analytical), followed by two 50-minute sessions of math. All on computer.

When I was in fourth grade, the only thing we did for an 80-minute nonstop stretch was watch the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series one afternoon in October.

If you are reading this, and you are a parent of a school-aged child, I urge you to find out all you can about your state's standardized testing platform. (New Jersey is using the more difficult one, PARCC.) Ask yourself: Will these high-stakes tasks fill my son or daughter with a joy for learning? Will these tasks spark their individual creativity? Will they have the mental endurance to complete the tasks at the tender age of ten?

Parents, you've got to fight this. If we teachers try to, we'll be called slackers.

Oh, gosh! I almost forgot! Look at this splendid YouTube video my daughter The Spare shot for one of her classes! (Below) Please leave her some kind words of encouragement. She's taking Shakespeare in college right now, but she's not being asked to write like him.

1 comment:

Lucretia said...

This is truly appalling!! I was grateful when my son graduated from high school back in 2008; I'm even MORE grateful that I no longer have children in public school (CA) after reading your post.

Yes, I did once CHOOSE to write a section of poetry in the style of a book I was reading for my World Lit class. The book was Dante's "Inferno", and I was in the 12th grade. I CHOSE to do this instead of writing a boring paper on the book. It was an independent study class, so I was free to spend LOTS of time in the library drafting it, and looking up words in my Dictionary of Synonyms & Antonyms. I also had the rest of the semester to finish it. I got an A, and my teacher loved it.

That children as young as fourth graders should be FORCED to do something like this is, as I said above, truly appalling, especially after the fiasco of "No Child Left Behind", where they didn't have to learn much of anything at all, as far as I could tell. And don't even ASK what I think of standardized testing; as a teacher, I'm sure we agree on that one as well.

Sorry about the rant, but this administrative crap is just incredible, especially since I work at a state university, and I see all the time how truly uneducated so many of our high school graduates actually are. Let the teachers teach what is needed, not what the admin people think would be a good idea!

Thanks for putting up with it all, Anne. It's teachers like you who prevent the wholesale destruction of our educational system. I salute you.