The day comes when a teacher is forced to use force.
I remember the unlikely conflict between nine-year-old Reilly and me when I required him to write a personal narrative.
The robot arm of mandatory standardized testing has placed its steel fingers around my neck. Reilly peeks over his owl-like spectacles, lowers his head and says, “You’re killing me here.”
An interview I heard on the way to school this morning still feels like a pin in a voodoo doll: “The problem is that teachers are coddling kids and dumbing down America!”
Before we were such convenient scapegoats, teachers planned out creative Units of Study, building cool activities around a theme: Carnivorous Plants, Egyptian Architecture, Time Travel. Or around an author: Jean Craighead George, Gary Paulsen, Lois Lowry.
Kids’ imaginations were fired up and they spent days engaged in researching, imagining, writing, measuring, experimenting, calculating, and presenting.
But these days, we are forced to give frequent practice tests on test-taking skills, and these lead to lockstep monthly, midterm, quarterly, and semester tests on every subject known to mankind, broken down into it’s smallest disparate part.
Some children can discern a fable from a fairy tale before the Country Mouse says a word.
Most normal people don’t need to know the difference between a prefix and a suffix.
And as for ‘critical thinking’, my favorite teenager once asked, while answering a follow up question for a high school literature assignment: “How would I know what the author’s purpose is? I didn’t write it. Why don’t they ask the guy who wrote it?”
Take Reilly, the fourth grader. He tested into the GATE (Gifted And Talented Education) program, but is also ‘on the spectrum’. He has sensory issues under the hoodie, behind the thick glasses. Has a few tics. Likes to hang out on the swings. Worries about his Grannie, who takes care of him and his teenage sister till his Mom can come back.
It’s two months till the high stakes tests. Everyone in America wants Reilly to do well, and start building hopes now for a college scholarship and a spot on a Banking Board. He and I have been experimenting with a few risks, working on some social fears. He’s a whiz at math. Terrified to find his voice and write. Thinks he might make a mistake and disintegrate.
Reilly Day 1 Personal Narrative
After days of brainstorming with the class, making lists, and talking about settings and events for our personal narratives, Reilly’s only response remains, “Can’t you just give me the F?”
Of course not.
I dictate an implausible start for him, pausing after each sentence, hoping he’ll add something of his own at some point. Like a kid’s first ride on a bike, when he takes off on his own, pedaling away from your push. I force him to write what I say:
“I can never think of what to write. My mind goes blank. I can’t remember anything that has ever happened to me. I guess nothing has happened. I have never left home. I have lived in my room for nine long years.”
When he finishes writing this, he finally starts blurting:
“Well, I have a cat but he has never done anything because he’s an inside cat. If he gets outside he will be in danger in two seconds.”
I make him write what he has told me. We have words on paper. It’s time for lunch.
Reilly Day 2 Personal Narrative
He refuses to read when the class is reading, then refuses to write when we are writing, so I finally give him his first ever ‘Behavior Report’. I phone Granny from my desk. She recommends I send him to the office to talk with the Principal. Put him out of his misery. Siberia. The firing squad. When he returns, he sits down and writes:
“One day, my Granny told me to get some exercise. She thought it would be an exercise if I went up to the National Park. I said No. Then my Granny was mad. She said I had to go and I couldn’t watch T.V. until I got a photo of a jackrabbit, a rattlesnake, and a tortoise with his head and legs out.
She gave me a camera, then pointed her finger at the door and yelled, “Out!” When I headed toward the desert I felt like I was in a sauna without steam. I sat on a rock and drank the water I brought, then I heard a hissing sound. I jumped off the rock and ran fast as I could. A light bulb went off in my mind. I had to take a picture of a rattlesnake. I got close enough so I could take a picture, but not get bitten.”
When I call ‘time’ on the writing assignment, Reilly stops, but grumbles, “I’m not finished.”
After three other students read us what they have of their first draft, he volunteers to read his. He reads the whole thing softly, rapidly. There is spontaneous applause from his peers.
I’m not sorry for what I did.