Thursday, October 9, 2008

Essences of Teaching: No. 4: Summoning Our Courage

Fourth in a Series of Three . . . or More

(Review Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

If I may add a fourth "S' along with storytelling, scholarship, and sharing, I would add the essential of summoning our courage to face and meet the challenges of our profession. Unlike random heroes of a dramatic moment, a time of peril or personal tragedy, people whom we hail as "hero" when faced by a non-negotiable situation of extreme circumstance, teachers must summon courage each and every day, with each and every classroom, and with each and every child. Our heroism comes from a steadfast vision of what should be the case, of what future we imagine, and what we know children can do, think and learn.Many Challenges

We must summon our courage inside and outside the classroom. To address the struggles of students can be daunting. Whether our students have learning disabilities, physical disabilities, emotional problems, drug addictions, English as a second language, or are bullied for sexual orientation, religion, or minority ethnicity--the sheer number of variables of what calls a teacher to intervene can make it tempting to "let that one slide." Yet we teachers know if they "let that one slide," then we've let a child slip through the cracks, and so rather great teachers take stands against mediocrity, make eddies in the river of complacency, place roadblocks to bullying and defamation, and shake off the hindrances to learning. As we do so we become exemplars of resiliency and accomplishment – the true sources of self-esteem for ourselves and our students.

A Tsunami of Technology

A great challenge is presented by incredible increase of technology that is reshaping the way students think and learn and therefore demanding we change the way teach. We must summon our courage, for this is not a pedagogical trend or a wave to ride out, it is a tsunami of technology and it is cresting above our heads. To survive, our communities must embrace the use of technology and support its funding. Teachers must be given training support and make every opportunity to learn and work with new and emerging technologies on an on-going basis. "Our schools are going to change more in the next ten years than they have in the last hundred. Everyone reading these words will be part of that change. Get ready." So says James Daly, editor of Edutopia magazine. Summon your courage.

Standardized Tests

With George Orwellian flair of a name and Aldous Huxley's dystopian vision of education, the No Child Left Behind Act has ushered in Big Brother's Brave New World version of teaching and learning—every student to turn out like the next by 2014. Its euphemistic name makes it difficult to argue against its substance, for no teacher, no legislator, no community member would not be in favor of the phrase. But as professionals of in the field, experts in pedagogy, we know a name is a name is a name and that the current plan in practice does not smell like a rose. Standardized tests encourage cookie-cutter curricula that are limited in scope, purpose, and utility, while our students are unlimited in needs, potential, and talent.

Standardized tests, as they are now, with high-stakes emphasis and heavy penalties and few educational rewards are stifling our learning communities while offering little in the way of inquiry, relevance, or the future.

Since standardized tests have been introduced in the 1990s in Pennsylvania, one by one,--writing, then reading and math, now science, and with more proposed on the way--we know the Class of 2009 has sat in a class from Kindergarten to Twelfth Grade preparing for and taking and retaking government mandated standardized tests for at least 180 days. One whole year of their public schooling spent on a standardized testing. A whole year!

Standardized testing by definition negates variables of divergent thinking and innovation. Standardized testing by definition negates the uniqueness of our students, their differentiated abilities, and their varietal talents. Standardized testing by definition negates the ingenuity of our teachers, their ability to develop relevant curriculum, and their professional talents to deliver instruction in meaningful, learning activities and provide real-world assessments. The more we use standardized tests to measure student ability, the less our schools are empowered to offer students opportunities to show their true achievement. Each year that a school meets Annual Yearly Progress of testing, is a milestone of that school's curriculum's regress toward becoming irrelevant.

Such milestones become tombstones to the kind of student performance our state and our nation country needs in order to compete in a global marketplace, a marketplace in which the successes will be built upon creativity as much as productivity, upon designing as much as performing, and upon collaboration as much as invention. When have you seen a standardized test that calls students to be creative, to design, and to collaborate? They don't exist. We must, as Robinson says, be "out of our minds" if we think standardized tests are the measure of whether we have left a child behind. The tests themselves leave children behind.

Thus, we must summon our courage. We teachers must resolve to replace testing with authentic assessments that mean learning for students and accountability for educators.We must summon our stories and our scholarship--what we as professionals know to be true from research and in the life of a classroom and in the life of each child.

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