Saturday, December 10, 2011

Finding the Switch

Those of you who know me have heard me talk a lot about the light switch analogy when it comes to teaching kids who have been put in lower-level classes. Humans are born curious. Watch any baby try to stuff things in his or her mouth for an afternoon and you will see that we enter this world wanting to know all we can about it.

So, it broke my heart when one of my students asked at the beginning of the year, "What kid likes to learn?" She had so obviously been surrounded by other kids who felt like school wasn't for them, she had concluded that her classmate's feelings were the norm. Another teacher in my department and I started talking about curiosity switches. Everybody has a switch. When you get here, it's usually on. Something in your life--parents who don't read or read to you, a teacher who is mean, a friend who teaches you to de-value learning--can turn it off. The switch is firmly off for most of my last block class.

You might remember, careful blog reader, that we did a project exploring survival during a zombie attack in October. The switches were on then as students worked diligently in groups, problem-solved, and gave creative presentations on how they would stay safe. I've been searching for another project that would capture that same spirit ever since.

Yesterday, I had the students who had just received their writing test scores read this account of a successful school board member who nearly failed his state's standardized tests. We used this text to analyze author's purpose because we knew it would be on the reading test coming up in January. We also began a conversation about how we are smarter than the test makers. We know the scores matter in that they're required for high school graduation, but past that, we don't need those numbers to validate any one as a scholar or a person.

The students talked (mostly) one at a time. They asked each other questions. They never suggested my greatest fear--that because of this conversation, they wouldn't try to pass the next standardized test they have to take. I spoke very little. Accountability and testing aren't bad, my students concluded. The tests they're asked to take just aren't designed well.

"You know, you're the only teacher in this whole school who would let us talk like this," said the same girl who once told me no kids likes learning, "and it's really made me think."

(I don't think she's right about the other teachers. Most teachers seem to feel similarly about the tests. I'm just glad English gives me leeway to use conversations like this to sharpen our critical thinking skills.)

By her own admission, I made a student think critically. It was almost as good as the zombies.

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