Tuesday, March 10, 2015

This isn't going to be on the test!

Standardized test season is upon us again.  All over the United States, children from 3rd grade to high school are gearing up for the annual battery of examinations in reading, writing, math and science, while school districts are scrambling to find enough computers and rejiggering the daily schedule to accommodate the serial rounds of testing that will span across 6 weeks or more.

Too easily lost in the fog of testing are opportunities for other high quality learning not specifically based on or connected to the standards.  Such is the routine balancing act that teachers do.  Prepare students for the test...and model, encourage and entice them into a life of joy in learning.  Those twain are hard to make meet sometimes (if you’ll pardon the hashing of the expression).  So, now and then you have to let one or the other go, and at least occasionally it’s a good idea to elevate something good, rich or interesting over the more instrumental demands of this year’s test.

Such is the case with some “teachable moment” opportunities we are creating while reading Lord of the Flies with our 8th graders.

Monday, at the start of each class, we vacated our rooms (listening from out in the hall) and left the classes a note saying they needed to elect a chief--as the group does in chapter one of the novel, and that the chief should assign students to reading groups.  Since then, the chiefs have "run the room"--arranging student groups in a seating chart, managing the class oral reading, organizing work, grading some of the work, keeping students on task...all of it.

Each class has generated different circumstances--one chief is crisply efficient, but concerned about whether the rest of the students like him, while another is very intelligent, but not quite as firm as might be necessary.  One even arranged for a temporary replacement while he was to be gone.  Whispers of resistance movements have thus far failed to materialize, while chiefs exercise widely varying degrees of authority, and so on.  

The teachable moments are different for each, but we have already seen this exercise illuminate in bright and clear colors some of the ideas (about authority and responsibility, maturity, adulthood and childhood, loyalty and friendship, etc.) of the book.

For instance, how a government creates legitimacy for its authority—by traditions, a central personality, or rules that transcend individuals—is one of several important issues raised in the book.  And this problem is played out clearly in our stylized island experience.  

Expressions of loyalty to a chief beleaguered by detractors, pleas for preferential treatment from distressed comrades, demands for justice from wronged colleagues all remind one of the quite real vagaries of life in a community, be that a family, school, workplace, church, or...well, anywhere.

We could undoubtedly find any number of ways that we’re meeting common core state standards--in this very activity, as well the work we’re doing along the way.  But there’s no need.  Everyone sees--the students not least--that we’re doing good and instructive things, and, though they may not even realize it, they’re more engaged (the pedagogical golden ring) in the thinking about the book, what’s happening, why, etc.  

It’s practically heresy to say it, but such is the kind of learning we’d prefer for our own children.  Maybe it’s worth thinking about whether such things would be as good as more testing...for everybody’s children.

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