Friday, March 28, 2014

Everyone in That Room Wrote Something

Proctoring school-wide exams is by far the most unproductive activity for teachers.

For alternative school students who previously haven't been successful in school, we tend to make testing worse by being overly strict during these sessions. No talking. No music. No walking in the hallway. No food. No drinks. No gum. No smiling. No personalities. And no thinking. Oh, but do your best. Thaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaanks!

When I'm proctoring an exam, I do play some music on low to fill the silence in the testing room. My students do not like silence. They're not used to it, and so it unsettles them. If we as educators want them to succeed, we should test our students on their terms since it's content we think is important. They don't have a choice in what they get to learn in this country, so let's meet halfway. A little bit of Ray Charles isn't going to hurt anybody. It might actually keep the student who finishes early from distracting others. Or it might keep the student struggling to remain motivated and finish the exam in the room. You never know.

Earlier this week, I was proctoring an exam that required quite a bit of writing. The test was modeled after a standard NY Regents: multiple choice, short answers, then an essay. For those of us who have made it out of the system successfully, this is standard operating procedure. For my students however, the essay is the final boss in a video game that you can't beat without cheats. It's just not going to happen. During tests like these, many students complete the multiple choice, write a few sentences for their short answer questions, and then try to escape without an essay. They have every right to leave, we can't really stop them. I can't just lock my door until every student writes an essay, but that doesn't mean I can't compel them in my own way.

"Yo Mista, I'm done, where do I turn this in?" Ali asked. Ali is a bright student at my school, particularly in mathematics. I've had Ali for about a year and a half as a math student. On the NY Algebra Regents this past January, he scored the highest of all students, so I know his strengths as well as his weaknesses. Writing doesn't come second-nature to Ali, so he has a tendency to give up quickly.

I shot him a smirk. "Not so fast wise guy, let me make sure you finished everything." I flipped through his test and sure enough, he was trying to get by without doing the essay. It's my fifth year of teaching, and I still can't understand the logic of not finishing a test. You sat through the whole exam and you know it counts towards your grade. You know you won't pass this test without this essay, so why did you even come? It never ceases to amaze me. But alright. I'll play your game kid.

"Bro, really?" I gave him the so-called "teacher look."

"Honestly Mista, I ain't doin' that essay. He got me mad tight this morning." Ali revealed.

"Really? So it's not because you hate writing, it's because your teacher got you upset earlier? And your way of getting him back is by failing. Forcing him to teach you this class again next semester. Yeah... that'll show him."

"Nah.... it's not that...." Ali was slipping. He could see I was about to win. It helps that he respects me too, so he has a tendency to listen to me for more than five seconds. This sweet kid bought me a fucking cake when he found out about his Regents score, so I knew I had leverage in this situation. I knew I could talk it out and at the end of the conversation, he'd be writing that damn essay. Unfortunately, I also knew I'd have to have this same conversation at least five more times over the course of the next half hour as there were other students in the room who'd probably try to do the same thing. I had to make my point a bit more theatrical.

I held Ali's test in my hand as I walked over to my computer. I quickly Googled a picture of Frederick Douglass. I found many. I turned on my SMARTBoard.

"Everyone look up. This guy, right up here. Frederick Douglass. He fought tooth and nail to get his freedom when he was a slave. He learned how to read and write in secret, then wrote a motherfucking book about how people at the time didn't want Blacks to learn what he learned. Many people in our country at the time believed reading and writing was for Whites only."

I paused and shot a stare at a few students who I knew were going to try to get away without writing. "Ali, look at these pictures. You see? Good. Now take this test back, write a kick ass essay, and never forget how hard people had to work in this country to have the opportunity to write an essay."

"Wow... you dead be right though. Aight, Imma try Mista. You dead be hurtin' my feelings sometimes, but I know you know it works." He giggled.

I can't promise Ali's essay was good. I can't even promise if it made sense, he wrote something. Everyone in that room wrote something.

This blog is a space I use to jot down some of the craziest shit I do and say in my profession. Please don't take this post to mean the following:
(a) Teachers "save" the minority children of this country. They don't need "saving."
(b) Posting pictures of heroes from America's darkest times will motivate all children. It won't.
(c) I am this frank and blunt with every student. I'm not. I build relationships, then leverage those using my personality and humor to get what I want.


Anonymous said...

Sometimes you just need to lay the smack down. And it works.

Anonymous said...

testing is what's going to bring this country down to the gutter

M said...

1) Testing itself is not what is going to "bring this country down to the gutter." Statements like that are the kind that make people angry but don't add to the conversation. Test content, test format, test administration, and the way we use test data are just a few of the factors that could make testing a useful tool for educators.
2) It's a little facile to think that an image or pep talk about a group's history could inspire students to write. There is a complex set of factors leading to every human interaction - this student already respected you and the messages you've given him. In that context, any attention you gave to his lack of response would encourage him to write. In another group of students, that approach could be seen as racist at worst, and simplistic at best.

Yo Mista said...

@ M:

1) I agree completely. If we can't "test" what our students are learning, how do we as educators know what support our students need? I think the commentator above meant the "standardized testing" trend funneling its way down all the way to Kindergarten is harming real learning and taking testing out of educators' hands.

2) Agreed even more so. This is my blog, and they are my stories. Yo Mista! is not a teacher-web-resource on how to teach, what to teach, what to say, etc. The method I used in this post was used due to my relationship with the student, the culture I'd created in my classroom, and my previous knowledge of the student. I wasn't trying to preach "power to the people." I was just taking a simplistic approach in response to his simplistic attempt to get out of writing a few paragraphs.