Testing my patience
Teachers focus too much on standardized tests, says Charlene, 14, instead of inspiring us to think for ourselves.
Interview with a teacher: what’s the best way to teach students?
When we started our unit on poetry in my eighth grade language arts class, my teacher kept repeating that learning to analyze poetry was an important skill that we needed to pass the standardized tests. I was looking forward to learning how to analyze poetry because I had never really understood it before. So when my teacher passed out Robert Frost’s poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” with the explanation of what each line meant, I was ready to scream.
I wanted to figure out what each line meant on my own and then have my teacher show us how to understand the meaning of the poem. Her handout made it seem like there was no other way to interpret the poem.
The year before that, another teacher lectured about the theme of generosity in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, without allowing us to figure out the theme ourselves. I was half-listening to my teacher’s hardly enthusiastic voice when she looked up at the end of the lecture and asked, “Does Dickens express the idea of generosity?” My friend and I looked at each other, just to make sure we had heard her ask a question she had spent the last hour talking about. My teacher scanned the classroom for volunteers. A couple students snickered when one student, seeing an opportunity to earn participation points, answered “yes.” My teacher responded with a satisfied look and dismissed the class.
It was like she didn’t even care if we learned or not—just as long as we got the right answer and could pass the test. It seems that giving the answers is common for a lot of teachers when they are preparing students for standardized tests. As state testing neared, my teachers frequently mentioned that we were analyzing poetry or learning grammar rules because “it’s bound to show up on the test.” I had another teacher who taught parallel structure, a state standard, minutes before distributing the test. It’s not like we could learn it that fast because we needed to practice it. Because teachers kept stressing the tests, it made me wonder what the purpose of an education was. I knew it wasn’t just to memorize facts. The point of an education is to learn how to think for yourself.
The pressure built in middle school
In elementary school standardized tests weren’t a big deal—we were given cookies and juice before the tests and played games like hot potato afterwards. Standardized tests became more important when I entered middle school. The school district sent home letters listing reasons why testing was important (good test scores raise the prices of homes in Walnut), and when testing began, the principal came on the intercom and made ego-boosting announcements like, “In all my years as principal, never have I come across such a talented group of students such as yourselves.”
My school gave practice tests months before testing began. Then as the California Writing Standards Test neared in seventh grade, my teacher announced that we would be writing essays on a computer program called Holt Online Essay Scoring. She said that it would be good practice for the writing test. Had my school completely lost its mind? How in the world would a computer grade an essay?
The computer would “read” an essay and give a 1-4 score in less than a minute, along with so-called “constructive criticism.” I had doubts that the computer could grade an essay for content, so I purposely submitted an essay containing run-on sentences with words 10-15 letters long that I found on thesaurus.com. The computer gave me the highest score and told me I “demonstrated exceptional sentence quality by avoiding awkward sentences” and “used precise, accurate, vivid, and imaginative words,” the same comments my friends got.
When we wrote essays, I wanted comments from my teacher telling me my argument was weak or my grammar was wrong. I’ve always liked improving and striving for perfection. I like organizing things my own way—so much that my brother once tricked me into color coordinating his closet. I wanted my writing to be the best it could be, and I knew I needed criticism to improve. But the Holt Online writing just felt like busywork, so eventually, I stopped caring.
In eighth grade, my school district introduced another writing program that wasn’t helpful, the Jane Schaffer Writing Program. I liked the program’s focus on supporting statements with examples, but I thought the pre-writing was a waste of time. It was like filling in the blanks of a Mad Libs. Before beginning to write, we had to complete 10-page packets of web designs (we drew bubbles that branched off of the main idea and created a web to help us brainstorm) and charts in which we had to explain what each quote meant. Every sentence had to be color coded using red, green, black and blue pens. Whenever we had to work on the packets, my friends and I would pass notes to each other, saying things like “Jane Schaffer should die.”
Schaffer required each paragraph to be five sentences long. I would count my sentences to see how many I had used up, but I got so frustrated with the limit, I started using semicolons instead of periods. My teacher marked off points because, technically, I broke a “Schaffer Rule.”
I got marked off a lot for breaking a “Schaffer Rule” but never because of the content in my essay. I don’t think my teacher even read my essays (she just counted my sentences) because she never wrote comments or corrected my mistakes.
I hadn’t been taught how to think critically
Schaffer made me dislike writing since it seemed to imply that writing wasn’t meant for expressing yourself or for enjoyment—it was to see how well you could follow instructions. Every time I got frustrated or bored with the packets (which was often), I would ask my teacher, “What’s the point of this?” She always answered, “The district uses it, so we do, too.”
The worst part was that my teachers weren’t preparing me for high school. The summer before freshman year, we had to read the book My Ántonia by Willa Cather and find quotes that were examples of literary terms, symbolism and themes. I realized that I didn’t know how to identify symbols or interpret the mood because I had always relied on my teacher to tell me the answers. I sat in front of a blank computer screen, not knowing what to write, and eventually, I had to look up the answers on SparkNotes. I was worried that I wasn’t ready for high school because it seemed like teachers expected us to already know how to do this.
But at the same time, I was excited for high school because my brother told me I would have challenging teachers who actually cared. He told me who to request as my English and history teachers, and luckily, I got both.
When I got my first English essay back, I was sure I had misread my grade when I saw a big B- at the top. I soon realized that my teacher rarely gave full points because she felt there was something to work on in every assignment. Because of that, she made me want to learn. I hadn’t been that motivated since first grade when I was bribed with Oreos and milk. Even though the district required her to teach Jane Schaffer, she didn’t make us write using it. She also never lectured. Instead, we had class discussions, in which we were allowed to disagree with each other and even with her! When we discussed the book To Kill a Mockingbird, some students challenged her when she explained which characters were considered mockingbirds because of their vulnerability and gift of music. My teacher listened to us and said, “I’ve never thought about it that way before.”
I thought all the English teachers at my school were as good as mine, but one day in class, my friends told me not to complain about that night’s math homework because they also had 60 study guide questions to do for English. They said it was busywork because it didn’t require thinking and all the questions could be answered with one quote from the book. What was the point of doing it? I told them that my teacher assigned us 13 questions that required us to analyze what a passage meant.
“Do you have any class discussions?” I asked.
“Not really,” my friend said. Another added, “Mostly it’s just her talking, and we take notes.”
I realized that their teacher, who taught AP and honors English, was just like my middle school teachers—they didn’t give students a chance to think for themselves.
To understand how my English teacher was able to teach the way she did, I interviewed her. She said she wasn’t going to let the district’s requirements stop her from teaching her own way. I had always thought that my teacher forgot about Schaffer, but talking to her showed me she deliberately didn’t teach it because she didn’t think it helped her students. “It’s too formulaic,” she said. She showed me that teachers can find a way to prepare their students for tests while still motivating them to learn and think for themselves.
When teachers focus on tests and results, students do, too. Most students at my school think the purpose of an education is to do well on the SATs and go to college. They read classics they don’t like just so they have something to write about on the essay portion of the SATs. I don’t want to learn just to take a test and get into a good college. I want to learn to be able to think for myself. I try learning on my own by finding the themes when I read classics and understanding what is good writing when I read modern literature. I form my own conclusions when I read newspaper articles and discuss them with my friends to get their opinions.
I never understood that teachers cared about their students learning until my ninth grade history teacher asked us during the first week of school, “Why should we study history?” My classmates and I debated about learning from the past and if it is useful. The discussion showed me that the purpose of learning history wasn’t to take tests but to understand current events, like the war in Iraq, and different people’s perspectives. I think a lot of students and teachers have lost sight of the point of getting an education because life isn’t about grades or test results—it’s about learning and thinking.
Click on the "Interview with a teacher" link above the story to read Charlene’s interview with one of her favorite teachers about her ideas on how best to teach students.