I’ve hit another snag in my development as a teacher. It’s one of those moments that seems to happen every couple months or so. I’ll be moving along in the classroom just fine until being hit in the face by an internal error, some conflict of values. It could be an assignment, a particular student, or a conversation with an admin. When you’re as mercurial and highly susceptible to mini revelations as I am (I claim that a book or person has ‘changed my life’ with startling regularity), you might think I’d get used to mentally lurching between ideological flashpoints. But I haven’t.
Each time it’s like walking into a pedagogical house of mirrors. I’m surrounded by so many different reflections of myself as an educator that I don’t know which is the ‘real’ me. It’s not that any one reflection is right; it’s that I’m trying to find the reflection that feels authentic and true in this moment. The newest version of myself that I can project into and grow into. The pattern is always the same. Some inchoate sense of unease begins tingling my nerve endings. The discomfort remains ever shifting in my periphery, lurking in the background until I’m able to finally put a name to it. This post is my attempt to name it. I’m currently residing in a liminal space regarding academic skills. I’ve known for some time that I’d have to come to a decision about the role of academic skills in my classroom.
My wife and I decided to heat up a frozen pizza for dinner last night. As my eyes scanned the colorful box for the temperature and cooking time, a thought occurred to me. This task, looking over a ‘real world’ nonfiction text (a pizza box) in order to locate a particular piece of information, is similar to what we have students do when we ask them to work on identifying and analyzing organizational patterns. For those of you unfamiliar with middle school English Language Arts standards, organizational patterns are the common ways authors organize information. Compare and contrast, cause and effect, chronological order, etc.
After finding the information I needed, I reflected back on my process. I realized that my quest for information, a real desire rooted in a biological need, did not hew to any particular strategy or pattern. I neither read nor reread. I didn’t look for signal words or analyze text features (bold letters, text boxes, images). The only heuristic I put into place was whether or not the visual information coming in took the representational form of a number or a letter. More specifically, I’m pretty sure I simply inserted a lazy gestalt filter that highlighted any appearance of a two or three-digit number (350 degrees, 17 minutes).
Organizational patterns were sitting on my brain. They were the most heavily tested skills on my student’s most recent benchmark exam (My district’s benchmark exams are created and tracked by Interactive Achievement, a Virginia company purchased last year by PowerSchool Group. PowerSchool Group, in turn, was purchased by Pearson back in 2006 only to be sold to Vista Equity Partners, a private equity firm, in 2015). I couldn’t help but wonder about the value of devoting time to teaching organizational patterns as a skill. In short, what was the point?
As an English teacher, I’ve joined colleagues in discussing the importance of students learning about main idea, the difference between summarizing and paraphrasing, and Greek and Latin roots and affixes. The reasons behind students learning these things are the usual suspects: college and career readiness, the ‘real world.’ I’m not saying these aren’t skills. I’m just not sure about their value. I’m also questioning the need to elevate these skills as the primary point of focus for my classroom.
As a student of history, I know that curriculum is a political construction rooted in particular ideologies and value systems. I also know that the economic purpose of education, a vision of schooling rooted in producing market agents equipped with the skills deemed necessary to compete in a particular workplace, now functions at a hegemonic level. Focusing on these skills and standards limits what I can do in my classroom to a narrow and superficial spectrum. Any talk of difference, of plurality, of building a collective of community-based individuals is silenced and labeled superfluous. Because those things can’t be tested, and the machinery of data requires testable skills.
But when I receive back low test scores a real sense of panic sets in. The dizzying artifice surrounding the act of testing makes it almost impossible to treat test scores as anything other than capital T Truth. Those moments of moral and ethical panic are visceral. The urge to commit myself to the language of the technocrat, of skill matrices and action plans, is staggering in its strength. To try and discuss larger, thornier questions of purpose and pedagogy is to relinquish the thoroughly modern idea that teaching means testing, standardizing, and recording.
I have to question the point of spending valuable classroom time asking children to work on these things. I rarely draw on these discrete mechanisms, and I work in education. I barely understand most of the things I do on any given day. I write and read and try to do the most amount of good for the most amount of people with the limited influence I’m gratefully allowed to wield.
I’m not sure what I’m going to do moving forward. I just know that I must press forward and reach some sort of conclusion for myself. I’m acutely aware of my pedagogical failings, and I feel genuine sorrow for the children I teach who might be academically stunted by their 7th grade English teacher’s misguided quest to align spirit with practice. Until I’m able to articulate my personal vision of the language arts classroom, I must trust myself to enact a pedagogy of kindness and respect, even if that means some time away from standards and measurable skills.