Saturday, April 27, 2013

Of Tests and Projects

Next week I will be at both ends of the educational spectrum.  Each morning I will be a prison guard (ie. proctor) for the high stakes NJ ASK testing (high stakes mostly for teachers, since they are the only ones that have any real consequences if students do poorly).  In the afternoons, the 7th grade team (of which I am a part) will be monitoring student group work for the 9th annual Biome Zoo Project (an interdisciplinary biology/geography project).  Every year I am amazed to see the creative solutions developed by the students.

My classroom has become a “sterile environment” as papers are now covering up the many quotes and pictures I have around my classroom.  The state doesn’t want students to be able to gather information from the wall so all educational posters (ie. “How to write an Essay”), must be covered.  I understand that and declared to my team, “That’s OK, I don’t have anything educational in my room” (my room is covered with things like a Beatles Yellow Submarine poster and an old Napoleon Dynamite poster).  And then one of my “teammates” advised that we should take down or cover ALL posters because he said they might give kids ideas on the essay, thus educational (I wondered if we should cover the clocks too because the numbers could give the kids help in math).  

So when testing begins in my classroom next week, the walls will be covered with paper, you know, kind of like when you see those black lines or blurred pictures.  As I walk up and down the straight aisles of kids working diligently on circling dots  in their desks with the blanks walls, my lively, energetic classroom will be reduced to something more resembling a prison block license plate making facility.

And I am still not clear how the heavy emphasis preparing and taking standardized tests is going to improve students.  The only conclusion I can draw on an increase in score on a standardized test is that student improved on their ability to take tests.  It may help them on their SAT's, but not much of any use in real life.

I have always found developing interesting and creative classroom experiences drives students to learn and that test prep lessons work against that and alter schools into child labor factories.

After the testing is over, students will gather in their biome groups and create a 15 minute presentation “selling” their idea of a zoo the combines a specific biome and culture in the world.  Before they got together with their group, they spent the previous 3 weeks researching and then creating an individual project based on their topic.  Groups come together, share what they learned in their individual preparation, and then make a plan for their presentation.  The end results are filled with entertaining skits, elaborate 3-D models of their zoo, and choreographed dances and songs.  

Teachers are being told that the many of the jobs we are preparing students for do not even exist yet due to constant upgrades in technology.  We are told to best prepare students, we need to design lessons in a framework for 21st century learning skills that include creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration.

Looking at the two educational extremes this week, state mandated testing and teacher  designed projects, which one allows the students to show their preparation for the 21st century workplace and which one is locked in a 19th century mindset?

(But what do I know, I'm just a teacher with over 20 years experience, not a politician making the educational decisions)

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