And yet, so much of the policy that is being at the state and local level is not geared toward creating these adventurous readers and writers. Too many of the policies are not written by teachers and educators, but rather by politicians and businessmen. I worked in politics for a long time before going back to school for Library Science, so I should not be surprised. I know how politics works. But that doesn't make it any more demoralizing. We start with the reasonable idea of wanting to know how our students are faring, and which teachers are succeeding at teaching our children, and we end with standardized tests that no one is happy with. These tests then dictate what and how our children are taught.
Two of my own children are in the throes of end-of-grade testing. For my third grader, it is all new, and a little anxiety-inducing for the mere fact of its newness. For my fifth grader it is old hat, and he isn't too concerned, except that he knows his scores will determine which math class he will take in middle school. That is worrisome for him only because he wants to be in the same class as his friends. For both of them though it means test prep and a move away from the project-based learning that has them excited to go to school. They are spending less time on the things that make education meaningful and authentic. How do we both get the data we need, and teach in a meaningful way?
So this is what was swirling around in my head when I ran across this article in the Washington Post. Nancie Atwell, the educator, writer, and winner of multiple prestigious teaching awards, writes about the most powerful teaching innovations: time and choice as readers and writers. She talks about engaging reluctant readers by helping them find books they can dive into, and creating writers by giving them the freedom to write about the things they are passionate about. The part I most appreciated from her essay addresses this question of teaching in the age of standardized tests.
In this time of Common Core State Standards, public school teachers feel pressure to adopt methods geared to the new assessments. I sympathize. I also know what I would do if I were in their shoes: try to teach authentic writing and reading, but devote a couple of weeks in March to a genre study of test writing and to strategy lessons about multiple-choice questions and answers. During my years in public schools, my students drew on their rich experiences as writers and readers, along with a few tactical practice sessions, to perform at least as well as kids who’d been test-prepped all year long, and usually much better.