Sunday, February 6, 2011

What’s Love Got to Do With It? Is Test Driven Educational Reform Driving the Joy in Learning from the Nation’s Classrooms.
Dr Mark Naison
Fordham University

Sometime during my childhood, probably before the age of eight, I fell in love with learning new things. Maybe it was the trips to the Bronx Zoo and the Museum of Natural History I took with my parents, maybe it was the explosions I made with my chemistry set ( which today would mark me off as a future terrorist!) maybe it the wonder of reading about dinosaurs and how humans evolved from apes; maybe it was the excitement of memorizing the capitals of every state and the batting averages of major league players, but I became a person to whom the joy of acquiring and make sense of new information was as powerful as my love of food sports and music.

The public schools I went to, though students sat in rows and did more than their share of memorization, did much to encourage the intellectual curiosity of kids like me! There were science fairs and spelling bees, regular trips to zoos and museums, science labs and arts projects and an audio visual squad that allowed its student members, once they were properly trained, show films for the entire school. There were assemblies where we sang and put on plays, regular recess where we played punch ball and Johnny on the Pony, and gym classes where we did calisthenics and played dodge ball. Sure, there were fights with tough kids and bad moments with mean teachers- and I had my share of both- but I loved going to school. So much so that I became a teacher myself, figuring that the best way to keep the joy of learning alive was to share it with future generations of students.

Today, with all the pressure on students to pass standardized tests, and the public humiliation, and possible loss of jobs, that awaits teachers and principals if their students don’t “perform,” I wonder if students who grew up in working class neighborhoods like mine ( Crown Heights Brookyln) are having the love of learning smothered and driven out of them in the schools they are attending? The feedback I am getting from my former students who teach in such schools is not encouraging. Huge amounts of their teaching time is devoted to test preparation, and they are under close and constant scrutiny by school administrators whose own careers are now entirely dependent on student performance. More and more, the principal becomes like a high level college coach whose future employment depends on their won loss percentage, and they pass that pressure on to their teachers and students as surely as those coaches do to their players. What disappears in that situation is joy- joy in playing, joy in learning. Young people who should be experiencing the wonder of discovery are being told, in ways indirect and direct, that the jobs of the teachers and administrators who work with them are dependent on their performance on the tests they are taking. No young person should be subjected to that kind of pressure at age 18, much less at age 8! What you have is a situation where the time and space for creative playful thinking, and experiential learning is being squeezed out of the school culture. School is no longer a place for dreamers, for adventurers, for people who live in a world of the imagination; it is a place for people who dutifully follow orders, and respond to a fear of failure.

Unfortunately, things have gotten much worse since Barack Obama took office and launched “Race to the Top.” Seven years ago, I was invited by a visionary school leader, Julia Swann, into thirteen Bronx elementary schools and middle schools to train teachers to do Oral and Community history projects with their students. Ms Swann had located a two month window of opportunity in the school year where teachers were no longer under pressure to do “test prep” and she thought that community history projects would be something that would energize school communities and get parents more involved in the schools

Ms Swann’s vision proved prophetic! The teachers leaped on the opportunity to bring the history of Bronx neighborhoods to life in the classroom. Students interviewed their parents and grandparents, their teachers, neighborhood merchants and created amazing visual as well as literary records of what they had learned. Some schools had day long oral history festivals, to which the entire neighborhood was invited, which included poster boards, exhibits ( some of near museum quality) journals and newspapers, performances, student made documentary films and food fairs highlighting the cuisines of the different cultural groups represented in the school. One school, PS 140 in Morrisania, created an “old school museum” honoring the cultural and musical traditions of the neighborhood and decided to make community history an integral part of the school culture. Everywhere I went (and I attended events at all 13 schools!) I saw incredible joy on the faces of teachers, students, parents, administrators when they showcased what they had done. There was no pressure to meet an external standard or pass muster with an outside reviewer. Rather, there was the joy of discovering that history lived right among them, in the stories told by the people closest to them, and in the material objects (immigration records, birth certificates, articles of clothing, recipes, records and tapes) that they had preserved. I even wrote a little rap, which I performed at all 13 schools, to honor what had taken place

Region 2 and Network 3
Are Rocking Oral History
Our 13 schools, in the BX
Are using daily life as text

We do food, music and immigration
To show how the Bronx leads the Nation’
With hip hop, salsa and R and B
The Mixing of Cultures is Our Family Tree

Working on this Project, with these remarkable Bronx students, teachers, and administrators, may have been the best single experience in my forty years as a college teachers

Unfortunately, it could never be done today? Why, because there is no longer a two month period in the school year where teachers are free of the pressure of test prep! Now, you are lucky if you could find a WEEK in which classroom learning is not dominated by the pressure of student, teacher and school evaluation.

This, to me is a crime . Not to the children of the wealthy, who go to private schools, or suburban public schools, where the arts and science and creative learning are still integral to the school experience, but to working class kids like I once was who are filled with intellectual curiosity and are having the joy in learning replaced by pressure and stress that is being passed down relentlessly from school administrators to teachers to students.

Make no mistake about it, when we destroy the joy of learning in a large portion of our youth, most of whom are from racial minorities and immigrant backgrounds, we are doing our nation irreparable harm

Will people please wake up and stop this travesty against the young people of our nation. Let students learn, let teachers teach, let the joy return to our schools

Mark Naison
February 5, 2011

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