Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Dragons and Princesses

I have been reading poetry.  It's either due to a shortening attention span or a need for some deeper meaning to this increasing temporal life.  Perhaps it is a mixture of both. Rainer Maria Rilke is a favorite.  He reminds us of deeper truths that resonate in the backgrounds of our minds.  There is a light that seems to flow through this writing.   Princesses on the other side of dragons and love on the other side of fear, gives us hope in the face of darkness.  Rilke has a way of tapping into a deeper truth, a truth I often do not recognize until I see it written on the page.   We face dragons in this life, but that is not the end of the story, that is the beginning of an adventure calling us to beauty and courage.

One dragon, for those of us in the public schools, is the insatiable amount of testing and paperwork.  We have unit tests that need to be passed and completed by certain days.  We have new state tests that we will spend time preparing students to take and then spend more time taking (several hours, I am told) and than more time reviewing.  We have standardized tests to see if students are making gains relative to themselves and the nation (or maybe it's to see if we teachers are doing our job).  We work hard to prove ourselves worthy and to make sure our students pass the tests.

Excessive testing is a dragon in education right now. It seems to fly in the face of brain research and common sense.  We know that kids need to feel safe to be fully productive students.  This means we need to give time to developing and encouraging a positive learning community.  We know students need to connect learning with prior knowledge, and so integrated and meaningful curriculum is essential.  We know that students must be engaged and motivated in hands-on and creative ways.  We know that students need to prepare for a culture that cares less about facts and more about higher order thinking.  We know that grades are less meaningful than how we process knowledge and  how we use knowledge.  Ultimately, we want to develop life-long learners, creative thinkers and happy contributors to society.  And much of what we know is important can't be measured in a computerized test. All of this we know from either experience or current brain research.  And yet, all of what we know is important becomes harder and harder to navigate with the addition of so many tests and so many timetables.   We can't have it both ways.  We can't focus solely on test scores and timetables while developing enriched, creative, open-ended, flexible and nurturing learning communities.  They are two opposing forces.

This is not to say that we don't need to set high standards.  In fact, I think we need to set higher standards than ever before.  But setting high standards does not mean more computerized assessments.  And it certainly does not mean every student will be on the same page on the same day or will be able to pass the same test on the same day.  Developing exciting and dynamic educational experiences should be about human connection and integration.  It's about building on and connecting to an individual's prior knowledge.  This should be our focus.  And when that is our focus, we will rarely be on the same page but our students will blossom and grow in amazing ways that we can't even imagine.

I don't know if we can see the princess through the smoke of dragon breath in this age of excessive assessments.  It is a hard time to be a teacher and it is a hard time to be a student.  But here is what I think -- it will get better.  There will be a time when we look back on all this emphasis on test scores and evaluations and realize how painful it was to everyone who suffered through.  And we will not go back.  We will slay this dragon.  And we will be in a time when students and teachers will be the individuals that they were meant to be. We will remind ourselves what is really important in education.  We will find our princess through all that smoke and fire.  Sometimes, the only route is to face the dragon with all our beauty and courage and know that there is something beyond the fire.  And sometimes -- that something is us.

Peace, Beauty, Courage and Love!