Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Mar 27 2012

Post-First Week of Testing Thoughts

Well, the first week of testing is over. We survived! But in the middle of this high-stakes testing, I wanted to talk briefly about something someone commented on a few posts ago. I was lamenting how many things such as cultural references or experiential knowledge get in the way of my kids’ comprehension. The comment pointed out that these cultural references are completely dependent on what culture you grow up in, and there’s nothing wrong with coming from another culture that doesn’t share those references. But our current system imposes a “deficit model” on our kids that somehow judges them as inferior because they don’t know who Old Mother Hubbard is and don’t understand a reference to her.

My students don’t come from strictly mainstream American culture. They come from a mixture of Navajo culture, media influences, rural America, and so much more. So much goes into their perspectives, and they know a ton of stuff about things I have never experienced: how to butcher a sheep, how to devotedly care for your younger siblings even when you are only 9, how to best prepare yourself for “mud days” after snow melts, and lots of other things that you learn when you grow up in the places they do. So what if they tell stories in circles instead of in sequence? There is absolutely nothing wrong with telling stories that way. The story is totally understandable and the audience gets plot and nuance just as well. In some ways it’s more interesting because it brings in side tangents too. So what if they use words like “until” and “all” in different ways? This is a regional speech pattern, and doesn’t interfere with meaning.

But here’s the thing. According to the NMSBA, being able to tell stories in sequence is an important skill. According to graders, using “ain’t”means you don’t sound professional. I know the standards set by these tests are arbitrary at best and prejudiced at worst, but changing the standards is far beyond my locus of control. For better or worse (and from where I sit, it’s looking like worse), my students will be judged for the rest of their academic careers and possibly into their professional lives by these same arbitrary standards. It’s my job to help them succeed within that system. It’s my job to help them be the highest-achieving student they can be. It’s my job to teach them sequencing.

So, do I agree with the commenter about the validity of where my students come from? You bet I do. Are the standards by which they are judged fair? No way Jose. But there is not one darn thing I can do about it. Teaching, from a social justice perspective, is all about tensions: teach to the test, or teach critical thinking? Give them a worksheet that might limit thinking, or risk overwhelming them with the endless void of a clean piece of paper? Prepare them to succeed even if it means more assimilation, or respect their own unique perspectives? Mirror the education their middle class peers are receiving, or stick to the remedial curriculum “with fidelity”? The tensions are endless. The answers are unclear. In the end, it comes down to choices, and no matter which option I choose I will be forever regretting its imperfections.

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    In which I muse about New Mexico, teaching, and life in general.

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