When I was a department chair, we spent nearly a year defining reading, writing, speaking, listening and research. We discussed their merits, contemplated their weight in the curriculum, and developed a sequence of skills and expectations for our courses. We spent another year tailoring assessments to these skills and deciding whether a student was emerging, practicing, or proficient. Then we matched those skills to the Illinois Learning Standards, completed a gap analysis, and retooled our courses to better meet post-high school expectations. You know that story. We are all in the same boat whether we are aligned with PARCC, Smarter Balanced, or one of the new options. Some of you are paddling downstream with it, others may be stranded in the wide open water of the process, and some may be reluctant to even put a boat in the water for fear of a tsunami building somewhere upstream threatening to dismantle our fragile hamlets and villages.
My district administered a climate survey last fall and a few trends emerged. Issues of stress ranked higher than others, but our student’s perceived stress level had fallen from 85% two years ago to a mere 79% who now believed that academic stress was a significant factor in their lives. Even though student stress was considered to be lower than during a previous survey, 4/5 of the students at Lyons Township High School still felt stressed beyond the butterflies before a test or the fear that bringing home a C to mom and dad might result in losing some privileges. Our students report significant stress that results in poor decision-making, recreational drug use, self-harm, and even debilitating anxiety and school phobia. Sadly, there’s nothing unique about our students and their reaction to stress. School has become the place to go to be judged, measured, sized-up, ranked, sorted, and, unfortunately, discarded. This goes beyond reading, writing, speaking, listening, and researching. Or does it?
I had a conversation this morning with a colleague who has been at LTHS for 23 years—a year longer than me. Jane was distraught. A student of hers confided to her that his friend who sat next to him in her class had attempted to take his own life the weekend before. The student further explained how he himself had contemplated suicide just the year before, but, he assured her, he was over that now. Jane asked me, as an administrator, which objective she should put on the board for the day’s lesson as they read Tuesdays With Morrie, especially the chapter about detachment. I was dumbstruck and must have muttered some kind of administrative babble. When I got back to my office, I sent her this message:
Objective #1–Connect students to life.
In the school newspaper today there was a letter from Jack, a student who just a few weeks ago had won the inaugural “Mr. LT” pageant, a fundraiser for Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Jack is not your typical teenaged beefcake. He is slight, meek, and incredibly funny. For the past few summers he has sharpened his wit by taking classes at Second City in Chicago. His talent in the pageant was a comedy bit suggesting that Culvers (a Wisconsin-based hamburger and custard chain) was way better than any drug. He won by a landside. Since the pageant, Jack learned that tumors in his brain had returned, and he underwent brain surgery for the third time. He will not be able to finish his senior year in school as he prepares for chemotherapy. His letter in the paper implored his friends to live life to the fullest and embrace humanity. Despite his concerns and fears, he wrote “People tend to dote on all the bad things in life, when we should really be celebrating the positive aspects. Enjoy the things you have because others don’t have those things.” Communication through writing fit Jack’s audience and environment.
Last week I got linked, through LinkedIn, to one of my former students. JoAnna is a wonderful writer who I had in class and then worked with for another semester in an independent study. Despite getting to know her and her writing so well, I hadn’t heard from her in more than 10 years. But last week, I came to find that she is going to be presenting at the inaugural David Foster Wallace (DFW for you fans) conference this May. I read her story, which paid homage to DFW’s “Forever Overhead,” and the terror and faith it requires to jump off the diving board and into adulthood. I knew I had shared this story with her in our creative writing class, and whether she remembered that or not, how often does a teacher get to see something that you shared with a student show up in their art? I am still walking on air.
JoAnna was a troubled high-schooler, coming to grips with body image and eating disorders and her sense of place in the world. Over the years, she has been able to turn her struggles into art with a wit and a self-deprecating sense of humor that makes me know she is going to be alright. But earlier in her story, before her character climbs the rungs of the ladder into her future, JoAnna wrote a line that just won’t let go of me. “There’s not much to get excited about when therapy teaches you how to manage all of your epiphanies.”
Everything that happens in an English classroom is connected to humanity. Epiphanies, story arcs, irony, clarity of writing and thought, argument discernment, clear communication, and the expression of emotion and fear—it ALL matters. Without a teacher to guide it and shape it and mold it, humanity gets lost. That’s where assessment comes in. Assessment, defined by the Stricklands in Reflections on Assessment as “a collection of data, information that enlightens the teacher and the learner, information that drives instruction,” must give a student the feedback necessary to develop a voice in the wilderness (Strickland and Strickland 1998). When developed seamlessly, the content of the English classroom merges with the expertise of the teacher to inform and enlighten both the student and the class. It is through the transaction of the English classroom that meaning is made, resilience is taught, and the problems of a teenager in a suburb outside of Chicago in the middle of North America can be placed into the context of the wider world. No standardized test, no matter how well-intentioned, can replace the relationship between a teacher and a student.
If Common Core can help us all develop a common vocabulary so that we can all help give voice to the voiceless, then I am all for it. If spending hours in faculty meetings going over a map of skills to decide where they can and should be taught so our students can find meaning in their daily lives, I say yes. If we are going to have a knock-down drag-out discussion over whether Beloved is going to be taught because of the message of hope and humanity in the end, despite the objections of a few, then it is really and truly worth the headaches. But if we roll over and let a testing company decide what is important or we buy the newest textbook because it has the Common Core seal of approval, then we are all lost. Our epiphanies will have been managed. Our students won’t be able to write that letter to express what they have learned about humanity in the face of great fear.
This summer, two of my colleagues and I have been asked to share our insights on assessment at the CEL Institute on Critical Issues at Elmhurst College. The topic, “Assessment for School Leaders and Teachers,” is one that could go on for days. Months even. You may be wondering just exactly what could be gleaned from such an event. How does a leader or team or school or district prepare for the still relatively unknown new tests (to me, they are not assessments, a distinction I would be happy to debate with you this summer in Elmhurst). I can promise one thing—we will not be talking about readiness for national testing. We will be talking about teacher readiness to assess real student work. We will be talking about the essential human need to read and write and speak and research and listen. And we will be doing our best to ensure that the students that come into your classroom will be heard, be respected, and be given a voice that you absolutely have the power to shape and clarify and amplify.
We are dealing with a generation that is on the verge of becoming lost to any number of societal ills. The tsunami is rumbling its way downstream. Call me a romantic, but there is one place where they must go every day for safe harbor, and that place is school. The only person they have to see every day, K-12, is an English teacher. It is up to us to nurture and develop every student that we come into contact with. It is up to us to learn how to truly assess students.
Director of Curriculum and Instruction
Lyons Township High School, IL