I teach eighth grade humanities in a New York City public school. This week, we began preparation for the state English language arts exam — the very beast responsible for the now famous, much debated teacher data reports recently published by several city news organizations. Sitting in my classroom, I find I am also seated in the midst of a political and ideological firestorm. As various voices in the news duke this out, we teachers quietly choose for ourselves how to respond on the ground.
In my class this year, we have a motto: “You are not a number. You’re a human being.”
It’s meant to be silly and serious at the same time. Around here, we encourage 13-year-olds to embrace their silliness. So, on Monday, we took a moment to acknowledge and release a bit of the pressure created by the impending state exam. On the agenda, I wrote “Celebration of ELA-related Creativity.” I gave my students the instruction to create something that would help us kick off the test preparation unit. The only guidelines: It must be creative; it can be funny if you like, and overall, it must be positive.
Among other things, my students composed a “Schoolhouse Rock”-style singalong song, performed a re-written Shakespeare scene, showered the audience with paper airplanes containing a mathematical formula that determines the odds of getting a good score by guessing on every question, and choreographed an interpretive dance. I can tell you, for last-second projects with no grade attached and 30 minutes to create, they were awesome. This never fails: I am always humbled and amazed by the outpouring of creative energy that occurs when kids are given the space to express themselves in a non-judgmental environment.
Going forward, of course, I shall dutifully instruct them on reading skills, comparative essay writing, and test-taking strategies. Is it possible to make this instruction interesting and engaging? Sure, to a certain extent. But for those moments when the boredom borders on painful, we now have a poster to point to and sing (to the tune of B-i-n-g-o), “There once was a cow who went to school and studied for the ELA…”
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The score I received on my own teacher data report is based on the two years I spent teaching seventh-grade English in the South Bronx. I’m not too concerned with the results: The magical math placed my teaching abilities in the “above average” range. Lucky for me. Also quite fortunate is my current position in a school where I am respected as an educator and an individual and allowed to be thoughtful and creative with my teaching. And, certainly, there are other advantages. I tell people, “Getting this job was like winning the teacher lottery.” Due to the school’s popularity, we evaluate and hand-select each student who comes here. The parents are supportive, their kids motivated and cooperative. We have all the materials and technology we need. I readily admit that these factors make some of what I describe much easier to achieve. But I’ll ask my readers, just for the moment, to please suspend your conclusions until I have reached mine.
Teaching such academically inclined, successful students presents a different set of challenges from those encountered in many public schools. Our kids, quite frankly, are far too stressed out for their age. The system of high school acceptance in New York City creates a focus on grades and test scores that approaches fanatical among students vying for spaces at the “top” schools. It begins in elementary school: Fourth-graders are made aware that their state test score will be a determining factor in their middle school acceptance. If they want to come to a school like mine, they had better receive a “top” score and “top” grades.
Imagine your sweet, intelligent, talented 9-year-old child going through the following thought process: I mean, if I don’t get into the right middle school, then I won’t get into my first-choice high school, which besides proving that I’m not as smart as I’m supposed to be, will prevent me from going to the college I’ve had picked out since kindergarten because my genius older sister goes there and then my parents won’t love me as much as her and I’ll end up working at McDonald’s and my life will be ruined forever. Obvi.
An over-dramatization for effect? Perhaps. But believe me, it isn’t so far from the truth. I watch my eighth-graders spin those wheels for months out of the year. Soon they’ll have similar thoughts about college, and on and on it goes. Some people will tell me, well, that’s just life: Be realistic — if you want to be the best, if you want to be successful, you have to be competitive. This, Ms. Lacey, is “the way the world works.”
I am so over that argument. The world is hardly static. Things change so rapidly that our slow adult brains need kids to explain the continual shifting of popular Internet memes. Yet, people still seem to think we should be educating for the way the world once was, or is right now, and so we unwittingly limit our children as we have limited ourselves. A poignant symbol of this phenomenon is the education community’s obsession with quantifying people’s value. We have been reducing students to data points for years, but now that the same has been done very publicly to teachers, people seem ready to have a real conversation about it. I have no problem with using valid data to measure performance and help us improve, if we can find a way to do it wisely; Bill Gates already made that argument for us. The consciousness of our culture is clearly tuned into this issue at this moment, so my hope is that we will use the momentum to move in a positive direction. A possible first step in that direction? Let’s adopt my classroom motto and begin our conversations from there. “You are not a number. You’re a human being.”
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Teachers are human beings; usually, the types who feel compelled to do something beneficial for the rest of humanity. You can’t reduce to data the complex human exchange that occurs between teachers and students. Where do you account for the value of teaching empathy and service to community? Of celebrating a child for her own quirky personality, talents, and uniqueness? How about the building of self-awareness and esteem? Sparking an interest in something that will bring a student joy for the rest of his life? You know as well as I that this list could go on forever.
Teachers are in a position to plant seeds for a positively evolving future. We chose this job because we understand the need to educate our fellow humans in a way that nurtures their potential, compassion, and vibrant inner lives. In my school, I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to act on this understanding. Students need to be respected, supported, and appreciated in order to grow and flourish; their teachers need the same. I choose to envision a future in which we all receive those things in abundance.
Trina Lacey is an eighth-grade humanities teacher at East Side Middle School as well as a writer.