First Person

Teaching To The Test

Collin Lawrence is a former New York City teacher who is recounting his four years working at a Brooklyn high school. Read Collin’s previous posts.

As the 10th-grade global history teacher at the Brooklyn Arts Academy, the fact that my students would have to pass a Regents exam in my subject as a prerequisite for graduation was never far from my mind. I grew to have a love-hate relationship with this requirement. I liked using the exam to motivate my students and hold them accountable to learning. But at the same time, I found many of the facts assessed by this exam to be arbitrary or trivial.

The Regents Exam in Global History and Geography consists of 50 multiple-choice questions, 12 or so short-answer document based questions, and two essays. A student must score 65 to pass. I typically found that if my students could score 30 out of 50 on the multiple-choice section, they could pass the exam (assuming they wrote both essays). This was no easy task, considering many of my students had low levels of literacy and very little factual knowledge of history or geography to start the year.

Teaching my students the depth and breadth of knowledge necessary to pass this exam was a yearlong process. (Actually, the global history curriculum in New York state covers two years. However, since there were different ninth-grade history teachers in each of the four years I taught at this school, it felt like my responsibility to prepare students for the exam). Before my second year I decided to teach thematically instead of chronologically, anticipating that my students would learn more by studying a few key ideas in-depth than by exposure to a traditional survey approach. This meant I had to choose my themes carefully, so I could introduce many regions and eras under the umbrella of one big idea. My themes included industrialization, imperialism, and human rights, among others. A unit on human rights included content about the Holocaust, apartheid South Africa, and the Rwandan genocide, for example.

For most of the school year, I taught my thematic units using primary and secondary sources and requiring a fair amount of essay writing. I hoped this would prepare them for the essay and document-analysis portions of the Regents exam, and this also best reflected the way I think history should be taught, But for the last six weeks of the school year, I shifted into coach mode and drilled my students on all the facts they might need to know for the multiple-choice section of the test. I designed a program that involved making 15-20 flash cards each week, superficially covering all of the content I didn’t have time for during the rest of the year.

I’ve selected two sample questions to illustrate my issue with the multiple-choice section of the Regents exam. Here’s the first:

Peter the Great of Russia, Kemal Ataturk of Turkey, and Shah Pahlavi of Iran were similar in that in their nations they

  1. restored feudalism
  2. established programs of westernization
  3. instituted democratic governments
  4. allowed foreign occupation

Did you know the answer? My students did. They picked “2” because they learned that Kemal Ataturk westernized Turkey. They did not necessarily know the meaning of “westernization” or which choices to eliminate. But because the Regents exam often asks variations of this same question, I had prepared them for the possibility by teaching them the simple association of Ataturk and Westernization.

By contrast, many of my students got the following question wrong, despite actually having knowledge about Confucius:

Which belief is most closely associated with the philosophy of Confucianism?

  1. nirvana
  2. reincarnation
  3. prayer
  4. filial piety

Here, my students panicked. Most of them knew that Confucius believed children should respect their elders, but they did not know the term filial piety. Instead, many went with a word they vaguely recognized, such as nirvana, even though they may have known that word was connected to Buddhism, not Confucianism.

Despite the seeming irrelevance of many of the facts I asked them to learn, most of my students responded positively to my test-prep regimen. I think they liked the concrete nature of learning facts as well as the consistent positive reinforcement they received from weekly assessments. Once students saw that my system actually helped them improve their scores, most bought into it.

In the end, 55 percent of my students passed their exam during that second year. This was up from 33 percent the year before and was a higher pass rate than the same group of students achieved on their math and science exams. Even so, some of these students barely passed and benefited from generous scores on their essays (teachers grade their own students’ tests in New York). The students who did not pass the exam would have to take it again and again in the future until they did.

The harsh lesson for many of these students was that there is no way around this requirement. I tell my students each year that I can give them the “tricks of the trade” in terms of what to know but I cannot learn for them. Like it or not, passing the exam requires memorizing a lot of information and memorizing information takes work. It takes some students a long time to come to terms with this. A few never did.

First Person

To close out teacher appreciation week, meet the educators whose voices help shape the education conversation

From designing puzzles to get kids fired up about French to being christened “school mama” by students, teachers go above and beyond to make a difference. Chalkbeat is honored to celebrate Teacher Appreciation week with stories of the innovation, determination, and patience it takes to teach.  
Check out a few of the educator perspectives below and submit your own here.

  1. First Person: When talking about race in classrooms, disagreement is OK — hatred is not by David McGuire, principal at Tindley Accelerated Schools and previously a teacher in Pike Township. McGuire is also a co-founder of a group called Educate ME.  
  2. First Person: What my Bronx students think about passing through scanners at school by Christine Montera, a teacher at East Bronx Academy for the Future in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators 4 Excellence-New York.  
  3. First Person: What 100 ninth graders told me about why they don’t read by Jarred Amato, High School English teacher and founder of ProjectLITCommunity.
  4. This fourth-grade teacher doesn’t take away recess or use points to manage the class. Instead she’s built a culture of respect by Liz Fitzgerald, a fourth-grade teacher at Sagebrush Elementary and Colorado Teaching Policy fellow.
  5. First Person: Why I decided to come out to my second-grade students by Michael Patrick a second grade teacher at AF North Brooklyn Prep Elementary.
  6. Meet the teacher who helped organize the Women’s March on Denver, a profile of Cheetah McClellan, Lead Math Fellow at Denver Public Schools.
  7. First Person: At my school, we let students group themselves by race to talk about race — and it works, by Dave Mortimer, and educator at Bank Street School for Children.
  8. What Trump’s inauguration means for one undocumented Nashville student-turned-teacher a profile of Carlos Ruiz, a Spanish teacher at STRIVE Prep Excel and Teach for America fellow.
  9. First Person: ‘I was the kid who didn’t speak English’ by Mariangely Solis Cervera, the founding Spanish teacher at Achievement First East Brooklyn High School.
  10. First Person: Why recruiting more men of color isn’t enough to solve our teacher diversity problem by Beau Lancaster, a student advocate at the Harlem Children’s Zone and  Global Kids trainer teaching, writing, and developing a civic engagement and emotional development curriculum.
  11. Sign of the times: Teacher whose classroom-door sign went viral explains his message a profile of Eric Eisenstad, physics and biology teacher at Manhattan Hunter Science High School.
  12. First Person: How teachers should navigate the classroom debate during a polarizing election year  by Kent Willmann, an instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. He previously taught high school social studies in Longmont for 32 years.
  13. First Person: I teach students of color, and I see fear every day. Our job now is to model bravery by Rousseau Mieze, a history teacher at Achievement First Bushwick charter middle school.
  14. Pumpkin pie with a side of exhaustion: Why late fall is such a tough time to be a teacher by Amanda Gonzales, a high school special education teacher in Commerce City, Colorado.
  15. This teacher was a ‘class terrorist’ as a child. Now he uses that to understand his students by Andrew Pillow a technology and social issues teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep Middle.
  16. What this teacher learned when her discipline system went awry — for all the right reasons by Trilce Marquez, a fourth-grade teacher at P.S. 11 in Chelsea.
  17. Here’s what one Tennessee teacher will be listening for in Haslam’s State of the State address by Erin Glenn, a U.S. history teacher at East Lake Academy of Fine Arts and Tennessee Educator Fellow with the State Collaborative on Reforming Education.
  18. An earth science teacher talks about the lesson that’s a point of pride — and pain a profile of Cheryl Mosier, a science teacher at Columbine High School.
  19. A national teacher of the year on her most radical teaching practice: trusting kids to handle their bathroom business by Shanna Peeples, secondary English language arts curriculum specialist for Amarillo ISD.
  20. How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate by Jean Russell, a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School,  2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year and TeachPlus statewide policy fellow.

First Person

I’m a black man raised on the mistaken idea that education could keep me safe. Here’s what I teach my students in the age of Jordan Edwards

The author, Fredrick Scott Salyers.

This piece is presented in partnership with The Marshall Project

I worry a lot about the students in the high school where I teach. One, in particular, is bright but struggles in class. He rarely ever smiles and he acts out, going so far recently as to threaten another teacher. As a black, male teacher — one of too few in the profession — I feel especially compelled to help this young black man reach his potential. Part of that work is teaching him the dangers that might exist for him, including the police.

The killing of Texas teenager Jordan Edwards proves, though, that it’s not just black boys with behavior issues who are in danger. Jordan — a high school freshman, star athlete and honor student — was shot dead by a police officer last month while leaving a house party. As he rode away from the party in a car driven by his older brother, officers who’d been called to the scene fired multiple rifle rounds at the car. One bullet went through the passenger window, striking Jordan in the head. Murder charges have since been filed against the officer who fired the fatal shot.

It’s a near impossible task to educate black children in a society that constantly interrupts that work with such violence. Still, it’s incumbent on educators like me to guide our students through the moment we’re living in — even when we can’t answer all their questions, and even if we’re sometimes confused ourselves.

I began teaching in 2014, the year the police killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice dominated headlines. The tragedies have piled on, a new one seeming to occur every month since I first stepped into a classroom. I currently teach ninth-graders at a predominantly black charter school in Brooklyn, and I often find myself struggling to make sense of the events for my students.

I’ve shown them clips from popular films like “Selma” and “Fruitvale Station” and prepared lessons on the civil rights movement, and I’ve done my best to ground it all in the subjects I was hired to teach — American history, composition, and college readiness. My hope is that these films will encourage my students to connect today’s police violence to our nation’s history of racial injustice. And, because there are no easy answers, they’ll simply be encouraged by the perseverance of those who came before them.

I can’t help but worry I’m sending them mixed messages, however, teaching them lessons on resistance while also policing their conduct day to day. As an administrator and one of few black male teachers in my school, I’m often charged with disciplining students. I find myself having a familiar talk with many of them: “get good grades,” “respect authority,” “keep your nose clean.”

It’s instruction and advice that can feel pointless when a “good kid” like Jordan Edwards can have his life cut short by those sworn to serve and protect him. Still, I try in hopes that good grades and polite behavior will insulate my students from some of society’s dangers, if not all of them.

The Monday after police killed Edwards, I asked the students in my college readiness class to watch a news clip about the shooting and write out their feelings, or sit in silence and reflect. Many of them were already aware of what happened. I was proud that so many of them were abreast of the news but saddened by their reflections. At just 14 and 15 years old, many of them have already come to accept deaths like Jordan’s as the norm, and readily expect that any one of them could be next. “Will this police officer even be fired?” one asked. “Was the cop white?”

The young man I worry about the most was more talkative than usual that day. During the class discussion, he shared his guilt of being the only one of his friends who “made it” — making it meaning being alive, still, and free. The guilt sometimes cripples him, he said, and high-profile police killings like Jordan’s compound that guilt with a feeling of hopelessness. They make him think he will die in the streets one way or another.

I didn’t know what to say then, and I still don’t have a response for him. I’ve always taught students that earning an education might exempt them from the perils of being black in America, or at least give them a chance at something more. I was raised on that notion and believed it so much that I became an educator. But deaths like Jordan’s leave me choking on the reality that nothing I can teach will shield my students from becoming the next hashtag.

In lieu of protection, I offer what I can. I provide a space for my students to express their feelings. I offer love and consideration in our day-to-day interactions and do my best to make them feel seen and, hopefully, safe for a few hours each day.

Fredrick Scott Salyers teaches at a charter high school in Brooklyn. He began his career in education as a resident director at Morehouse College. Find more of his work here.