What Teachers Teach, Measured or Not

Sonny and Ace’s school is wrapping up the latest round of standardized testing for this academic year. Sonny and Ace aren’t old enough yet to worry about the process or their results. Sonny rather enjoyed the testing, in fact—or rather, he enjoyed his class’s pre-testing “brain breakfasts” to fuel minds (and tummies) for clear thinking. He also looked forward to the occasional appearance on the screen of the wagging cartoon dog that said, “Good job!” Ace didn’t mind the tests, either, once assured that testing time would not conflict with gym class. He mainly looked forward to wearing the big headphones.

These tests measured their mastery of math and reading, both obviously crucial to educational success. They are assumed to reflect a teacher’s effectiveness. But while they may reveal some truth about a teacher’s influence, they do not tell the whole truth.

_ _ _

I stared at the lopsided circle of blue crayon around the whale picture on the worksheet. The class had been instructed to circle the things that started with K. Oops. I made my way to new kindergarten teacher, wondering how she would respond to someone who failed to follow directions. “I made a mistake,” I confessed, pointing out the whale. She waved away my concern. “That’s okay!” she said, smiling.

My kindergarten teacher taught me that it’s okay to make mistakes.

A classmate held up his hands, which were smudged with brilliant, deep blues and pinks and greens. “This chalk is messy! It’s even on my shirt!” He looked expectantly at our neat, orderly teacher, obviously hoping to be liberated from the art project. Our neat, orderly teacher cast him a sympathetic smile. “Doing art is messy sometimes,” she explained. “We just enjoy it and clean up afterward.”

My first-grade teacher taught me that the lack of neatness and order in creative endeavors is not a shortcoming.

“She is very strict,” an older girl warned me toward the end of the summer. I envisioned a year in a classroom run by a drill sergeant. Fantastic.

A few weeks later, I slumped down at my desk, having sneezed and coughed my way through the day, hating the story about locomotives that we were reading aloud. When the story (finally!) ended, the teacher approached my desk and knelt beside me. I looked at her warily, certain that I was about to be told to sit up straight or throw away my pile of used Kleenex. “You don’t feel good today, do you?” she asked. “How about I ask your grandma [the school secretary] to drive you home so you won’t have to ride the bus?” And she did.

My second-grade teacher taught me that people often transcend their reputations.

“Here we come!” “Where from?” “New Orleans!” “What’s your trade?” “Lemonade . . .”

When it was her turn for recess duty, kids from every grade flocked to her to play “New Orleans” and other games from her endless supply. We loved her turns for recess duty, when nobody felt unwelcome on the playground. We loved being in her classroom. She was gentle, creative, fair, and relentlessly patient. She was fun. She never rushed. Did she ever raise her voice or even convey irritation, even to repeat offenders? I don’t think so.

My third-grade teacher taught me that kindness and patience effect genuine respect in a way that harshness never can.

Every Friday morning my fourth-grade classroom rocked with the singing of old songs, enthusiastic piano accompaniment courtesy of the teacher. This same teacher often entertained us with stories about his childhood on a farm with his many siblings; he didn’t have to spell out how much he cherished it these memories—his face told us that. At a time when end-of-the-year class picnics were being replaced with skating parties, he invited our class to ride bikes from school to his house in the country, where we enjoyed an old-fashioned picnic, complete with sack races and swimming in the creek. On that afternoon we were as carefree as any kid from a previous generation would have been.

My fourth-grade teacher taught me the power of well-placed nostalgia.

It happens every autumn the morning after the first hard freeze: I step outside and am visited by poetry: “When the frost is on the punkin’ and the fodder’s in the shock . . .” Poppies incite a similar phenomenon—“In Flanders fields, the poppies blow . . .”—as does any mention of Abraham Lincoln’s death: “O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done . . .” In fifth-grade we memorized this poetry, despite memorization’s falling out of fashion in educational circles.

My fifth-grade teacher taught me the beauty and inspiration of poetry and its power to make connections. He taught me to ignore the claim that memorization is a meaningless parlor trick devoid of real value.

My sixth-grade teacher was a man of high academic standards and stern repute. He marched us through a long list of Newbery books—the more serious ones, such as Adam of the Road and The Trumpeter of Krakow—and tested us after each one. If the B was too creatively formed on the word abjurer, he would mark the correctly-spelled word wrong on the spelling test, claiming that letter wasn’t a real B. (Ask me how I know this.) He liberally doled out “lines” to wayward students, and don’t think that such students would be lucky enough to escape with, for example, writing “I will not be disrespectful” 50 times. Instead he would write on the board for the guilty party to copy—and the rest of us to gawk at—a “line” along the lines of “I will cease and desist my display of abominable attitude post haste and endeavor to maintain impeccable behavior forthwith as becoming my position as a student who is striving to mature and to increase in decorum.” The culprit would turn pale, the rest of us would vow never to risk being assigned such an atrocity, and we’d all learn new vocabulary. Win, win, win! (For him.)

But after lunch he would read aloud the more hilarious Newberys such as Porko Van Popbutton and other purely entertaining books, such as those featuring Soup and Rob. When we’d howl over Soup’s joke about peeing, he’d laugh along with us.

My sixth-grade teacher taught me that even those with serious academic standards need not eschew lighthearted fare.

 – – –

Whether standardized tests are an accurate measure of educational quality, whether they are fair across socio-economic lines, and whether they reflect the effectiveness of teachers—who knows. What I do know is this: even the best tests, standardized or otherwise, do not fully measure a teacher’s worth.

They do not measure how Sonny’s teacher, Mrs. K., is detail-oriented and highly organized while remaining calm and flexible. They do not measure the personalized notes she regularly writes to students praising their accomplishments and efforts—notes that at least one of her students saves in his desk drawer at home. They do not measure how she captures students’ attention by singing instructions to them, her unruffled classroom management, or the affection with which she greets students each morning and bids them farewell in the afternoon, often praising them for a specific job well done that day. They do not measure her thoughtfulness and foresight in arranging for brain breakfasts before standardized testing.

They do not measure how on the first day of school when Ace panicked at my leaving him, Mrs. C. distracted him with a conversation about frogs, recalling from his getting-to-know-me letter that he loves frogs. They do not measure how she allowed him call me from the classroom when he lost his first tooth. They do not measure her high expectations for behavior or the students’ rising to those expectations. They do not measure the bird calls she has taught students to identify. They do not measure how she launches each morning with a positive spin by inviting students to share their latest good news. They do not measure her tricks for helping young children learn to pronounce TH properly instead of as an F sound, nor do they measure a five-year-old student’s elation over wearing her insect-vision goggles during the Insect unit so that he could better pretend to be a bumblebee.

The tests  measure math and reading, unarguably important, but they do not measure everything. No test can accurately measure the scope of a teacher’s effectiveness. And that’s okay, as long as nobody pretends that it can.

“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”  — Albert Einstein

Teachers, math and reading count. But so do these other things—immensely. They matter, and they last. For all you teach, thank you.

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The World Needs More Artists

“Every child is an artist; the problem is staying an artist when you grow up.” – Pablo Picasso

Kids love to be artists. For a kid, creating something is about the process, not the product, even though Pinterest, with its showcase of perfect products perfectly photographed, would have us think otherwise. And, in fact, the siren song of my “Crafts with Kids” Pinterest board has lured me more than once to transpose the process vs. progress hierarchy, and I park my kids at the kitchen table to fashion, for example, snowy owls out of pinecones and cotton balls.

“Here,” I say enthusiastically. “Start by pulling apart the cotton balls.”

No argument there. Pulling anything apart is fun.

“Now squirt some glue onto these paper plates.”

Squirting glue: also fun.

“Now dip the pieces into the glue—no, not that much; dip it, don’t drag it—and poke it into the spaces in the pinecone.”

Here’s where my plans for Perfect Snowy Owls Made of Pinecones begin to wobble.

“I want to pull apart more cotton balls.”

“I want to squirt more glue.”

“Let’s have a cotton ball snowball fight!”

“Can we put on the googly eyes now? My owl is going to have ten eyes. And I don’t want to glue cotton balls, so he won’t be white and fluffy. He’ll be brown and not fluffy.”

What was I thinking? Making snowy owls was my idea, not theirs; they want to create, not copy. I cobble together a somewhat rumpled snowy owl and let them do their own thing, which they entirely prefer anyway. They paint the cotton balls and glue them on paper. When they run out of cotton balls, they indulge in a few paintings.

Ace paints a volcano: “Here’s the lava flowing, and here are the rocks.”

Sonny: “Is that a tree growing out of the volcano?”

Ace: “Nooo . . . I changed my mind. It’s not a volcano; it’s a dinosaur. That’s its tail.”

And before he finishes, it’s back to being a volcano. Image

Volcano. Dinosaur. Whichever.

Do kids really make those perfect crafts on Pinterest anyway? Ever notice how some of the kids holding up the perfectly crafted item don’t even have paint or marker on their hand or clothing? I’m pretty sure that in some cases—not all, but some—the mom makes a few prototypes of the DYI Stepping Stone or the String Bowl or the Hula Hoop Weaving Loom and then bribes her kid with M&Ms to pose with the best one for a photo.

(Disclaimer: Following a list of instructions to complete a project and taking pride and satisfaction in the product is a good thing. But when kids want to create, they want to create.)

The Torrance Test is a system to test for creativity. For example, the subjects might be given a short amount of time to turn a series of incomplete line drawings into pictures.  Those who score the highest are not necessarily the best artists; they are the ones whose ideas are the most original and elaborate, the ones whose images tell a story, express emotion, present things from a different angle, and convey a sense of motion.

(Try it out at RaiseCreativeKidz. Find some kids and have them try, too. Make up your own incomplete figures for each other to complete. It’s fun!)

E. Paul Torrance, the creator of this test, wanted to prove that creativity was as important as intelligence—in every field, not just the arts. But researchers who have used this and similar tests have found that elementary school kids score better on the tests than high school kids do. Overall scores have been decreasing since 1990.

This is obviously a problem.

“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”—Maya Angelou

So go paint a picture, transform an incomplete doodle into a vibrant picture, write a song, make up a story, or invent a secret language.

And have your kids do the same.

The world needs more artists.

Lessons from a Four-Year-Old

My little guy turned four a couple weeks ago—but he would take umbrage at being described as little. Despite his reticence toward strangers, he does not hesitate to correct anyone who has called him “little fella” or the like. “’SCUSE me. I am a BIG boy.” (Later he’ll recount the conversation with disgust: “And that guy thought I was little,”—insulted, yes, but mainly astonished that anyone would make such a gross error in judgment.)

This morning he was drawing at the kitchen table. “Come here, Mommy; I have something to teach you. See?” I went to see. “See? If you make a red thing and then color over it with a blue marker, you get a purple thing.” He carefully ran his already-inky fingers over the purple thing. “Except if you color too much with marker in one place, it gets wet and makes a hole, so you have to be careful.”

I took up the blue and the red markers and crafted a purple blob, sans hole. He nodded, satisfied. “I like to teach people things.”

And Ace has indeed proven to be an effective teacher in his four years.

When, at age 10 months, he piled books in front of a baby gate in order to scale it and the next evening actually started to dissemble another baby gate (yes, really), he showed that with a little effort, one not ever need be fenced in.

When, at age 18 months, he seized my hands and dragged me away from chopping vegetables to laugh and dance with him and Sonny to “If I Had a Hammer” in the hall, he illustrated that the carpe momentum opportunities are far more valuable than whatever it is that they’re interrupting.

When he began to fiercely resist having his teeth brushed, he taught me (or, more accurately, forced me to learn) the art of an effective headlock.

When he is eating something particularly scrumptious (be it tangerine slice, M&M, or sunbutter sandwich) and offers someone else a bite—persistently poking it into his or her mouth at the first sign of resistance—he displays not only generosity but also the art of receiving graciously what another is excited to offer. Even if it’s a smudged M&M.

When he stands at the sliding door patiently watching a chipmunk (whom he always dubs Chippy) eat the animal corn he scattered on the deck, he models the importance of taking delight in the small things.

When, first at age 2, and then 3, and now 4 he insists on wearing his beloved firefighter boots to church, yea, even  with his Easter suit, he teaches the entire congregation that a) fashion is not as important as personal style and b) it’s not the kid’s job to make the mom look like she’s on top of things.

When he retreats from a crowded gathering, explaining, “I need some alone time now,” and then emerges, refreshed, 20 minutes later, he proves that introversion requires no apology.

When he spends five minutes buckling his car seat rather than accepting help, he teaches me the importance of doing for oneself. (And patience. Sitting in the garage for five minutes also teaches me patience. I hope.)

When he rejects part of (okay, most of) his wardrobe because “these clothes are not soft, Mommy!” he demonstrates that life is too short to choose needlessly uncomfortable options.

When he stamps and roars through the house in an uncanny imitation of a lumbering T. Rex, he personifies the delightful power of imagination.

When, mere minutes after I snap at him for some not very good reason,  he creeps up behind me, giggling, to tickle the backs of my knees, he challenges me to be a better forgiver-and-forgetter, like him.

And finally, when he bravely advises strangers that he is not little, he shouts to the world that nobody ever has the right to make another person feel small. Ever.

Happy birthday, big guy.