Students, Not Standards: Calling for Solidarity in 2016

Many years ago, I was sitting in the last class session of the capstone secondary ELA methods course as part of my M.Ed. The guest speaker that day was my high school English teacher, the man responsible for my primary career path, Lynn Harrill.

Lynn was friends with the professor, who was then working at the state department of education, I believe.

Toward the end of the class, the professor asked what we wanted our students to know when they left our classes. That question was followed by lingering silence.

Ever the eager student, I said, “I want them to know themselves,” and I caught a glimpse of Lynn smiling widely.

Of course, that is what Lynn had taught me, although most people probably assumed it was reading and writing Lynn had so expertly given his students (which, by the way, was also true).

This moment—one of a very idealistic and naive young teacher, me—comes back to me often, and despite my many failures as a teacher, that grounding goal has always guided me. Not to be simplistic, but I teach students—that’s why I teach.

While reading Four Stories That Homework Tells Children About School, Learning, & Life, I was struck by “STORY #3: School Is More Important Than Other Pursuits/Interests/Activities.”

And now I have to investigate that memory again.

Yes, Lynn Harrill changed my life by being my sophomore and junior English teacher in high school. He was gracious, kind, and encouraging to a deeply insecure and anxious teen (me) who had decided he was a math and science person—because that is what school had told me.

Junior high English classes had been mostly draconian English teachers, grammar book exercises, and diagramming sentences. The “English” content of those classes was easy (I made As), but I loathed it all, even the texts we were assigned to read (much of which we did not read).

Now, before I launch into whining, let me be clear that my story is about how school failed me—but that because of my tremendous privilege (white, male and—according to traditional schooling and standardized tests—high verbal and mathematical intelligence), the consequences of those failures were miniscule. I attended college and continued to make As (easily), leading to an MEd and EdD.

I share this, then, not to bemoan poor pitiful me (or to brag), but to highlight that schools often fail students in ways we do not acknowledge and that the consequences for those students who need schooling most are monumental.

While I was begrudgingly playing school and succeeding, at home I was engaged in a rich array of hobbies and interests that school not only ignored, but also indirectly refuted (even Lynn told me as a 10th grader I needed to stop reading science fiction [SF] and start reading real literature such as Fitzgerald).

I was collecting, reading, and drawing from thousands of Marvel comic books. I was voraciously listening to popular music and studying the lyrics. And I was doing the same with comedy albums, mostly George Carlin and Richard Pryor.

My reading life, as I noted above, was Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, Arthur C. Clarke, and whatever works were prompted by my mother’s SF film fascination. I fell in love with The Andromeda Strain because of the film, and much of my formative life was driven by the five Planet of the Apes films and TV’s Star Trek.

My response to the real literature endorsed by Lynn was tepid (but always the mama’s boy, I did as teachers told me to do), but my life was irrevocably changed when he also recommended writers I would never be assigned in the rural South of the 1970s—notably D.H. Lawrence.

Well, damn, I thought. This is literature?

My journey from student to teacher began in my sophomore year of high school as I began to untangle the false narratives school had taught me and came to embrace the authentic narratives of my real life, my real Self, outside of school.

More than a decade into my teaching career (in the position Lynn left at my high school) and in the same doctoral program Lynn had completed, I finally discovered critical pedagogy as the complete vision of student-centered teaching and learning I had been haphazardly practicing.

Regretfully, my entire career as an educator (18 years as a high school ELA teacher and then 14 more years, and counting, as an English educator and first-year writing professor) has occurred under the antithesis of student-centered critical education—the high-stakes accountability movement.

All of which, ironically, I have been prepared for by the very reading material school marginalized, science fiction and dystopian fiction.

Standards, high-stakes tests, and accountability fail students, fail teachers. They conspire to do exactly what homework accomplishes in story #3 above.

I cannot step away form this: I must teach those students placed in my care, and that duty requires me to find out who they are, what they know, and what they want so that we can work together so that they find who they are and who they want to be.

So, I wonder with the new year, and the allure of resolutions—who is with me in 2016? Can we make this about students and not standards, not tests?

See Also

Doubling Down (Again) by Reverting, Not Changing: The Exponential Failures of Education Legislation

Teacher Quality, Wiggins and Hattie: More Doing the Wrong Things the Right Ways

More on Evidence-Based Practice: The Tyranny of Technocrats

Beware the Technocrats: More on the Reading Wars

I Don’t Need Standards To Teach, I Need Students

Are Common Core and Testing Debates “Two Different Matters”?


11 thoughts on “Students, Not Standards: Calling for Solidarity in 2016

  1. I read mostly historical fiction, science fiction and fantasy in high school. I still do, but I’ve also read some anointed literature. Who decides what is literature and what isn’t—college professors? When a book you read in 1974 stays in your head for more than forty years—-Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Dispossessed,” for instance, it’s literature. But wn I was earning my MFA in writing in the early 1980s, I was also required to study literature and I focused on America’s greatest literature from i20th century authors. For instance, Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway. All these years later, I still remember there names but I’m not as fond of their work as I still am of Tolkien, Le Guin and others who wrote historical fiction, fantasy and SF.

    If we want children to love reading, I think it is a much better idea to encourage them to read what they want to read and not hand them a moldy list that mostly dead white men said we should all read.

  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. In my current job I teach and now that I am in academia I see education through very different eyes. Hopefully I am a better teach now than when I started because I really focus on teaching people instead of teaching curriculum.

  3. As someone who works with children and adolescents but not in the school system, I am intrigued and distressed by most of what I see in and learn about schools. It dismays me that standardized tests have encroached into elementary schools to strike fear into the hearts of nine-year-olds. I have watched them, heads down, hurrying to the classrooms (because these are the few days in the school year when you must not be late or, god forbid, absent – making them the most important days of the school year?) with the same kind of unhappy bewilderment I feel standing at the edge of a logging camp, or reading that Monsanto is using RoundUp with impunity, or confronted with any other grotesque and terminally short-sighted act of destruction.

    I think it’s important that you said, that high-stakes tests and the (distorted) accountability that goes with them fail not only students but also teachers. I have found myself remarkably resistant to burn-out as a counselor, even in some purely terrible jobs, but when I think about the role teachers are being forced into further and further and I imagine myself as one of them, I see myself burning out – burning up – like a wisp of flash-paper.

    I hope there is a way to make it about students and not tests. I hope you – and many others – find it.

  4. I am with you on this. There has to be a true shift in our educational direction or we will continue to lose generations of children who do not know who they are or what they want.

  5. Wow, this is a great and true blog. I can’t remember too much that I read in high school except, Edgar Allan Poe. That may have been the only writing I was interested in out of the syllabus.

  6. Like everyone who has already commented, I love this blog. Education has become about everything other than the actual students. It has become about grades, it has become about sports results, it has become about political correctness, it has become a banner under which schools or parents or politicians can rally others to their causes. It is sometimes about knowledge. It is seldom about people. Education seems to care more about what children achieve, how favourably they present their schools or families in the public eye. It seems to care a lot less about who they become. And the irony is that so many schools’ mission statements place the emphasis on their pupils and their holistic development. Thank you for reminding teachers about the ideals that drove most of them into the profession in the first place. Sometimes it is easy to forget them when the administrative burdens of the teaching year and the pressures to please so many different stakeholders bear down on us.

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