Don’t Say the “F” Word

I try to pride myself in being a woman who believes in actions being stronger than words, and I attempt to teach my kids that same value. I often tell them that they don’t have to tell me sorry, they just need to change the behavior. Because of my strong belief in this principle, the environment of test taking season is not one I like. It is not so much the test itself, but rather this idea that our school year has been about the test and that after the test the school year is basically over. No one come out and says that. In fact they talk about how we don’t teach to the test nor do we stop learning after the test. But my students think that learning stops and we won’t do “real” school after FCAT, their state standardized test. But they say that because even though the administration says those things about learning, their actions do not back those statements up. Because of the emphasis placed on the test and the anxiety you could cut with a knife that enters in the months preceding the test, the children have been exposed year after year to this build up of pressure and an unspoken idea that THIS is the only thing that mattered this year. The reality is that the test exists, and it is important to the school’s grade and in tenth grade they must pass it in order to graduate and not become a retaker in their subsequent years. I get that. I want my kids to graduate. It’s the nature surrounding the test and my own kids past interactions with it that concerns me more. 

If the secret of success is in fact never losing twice, then my kids are on the losing end of the stick. And that’s hard. It’s hard when you are made to feel stupid for the rest of your school year and hear comments about being in intensive reading classes for the rest of your life. One of my students was talking to me Friday after school about how embarrassed she was when she got a 1 last year (a 3 is a passing score) and was made to feel dumb by a system that does not know how to balance measuring student knowledge and a humane approach to education as life learning. After talking to her for some time, she looked at me and asked, “Ms. Younge, do you really think we’re going to pass the FCAT with flying colors?” I was taken aback for a minute by the honesty in her question. She was looking for her teacher to help her believe that what had been engrained in her mind about herself was not true, that she could pass the test and get out of intensive. I could not find the best words right away, so I asked her if she felt she had learned more this year than last year. She told me she felt like they were an honors class and that she understood a lot more of what she read this year because we actually discussed the reading instead of workbook work that she did last year. I smiled and responded that her answer was the answer she needed. That she needed to believe she had learned a lot this year and that would guide her through her test. And then I paused, hesitant sometimes to make such declarations, but I kept going and told her I thought she could pass this year. And I do. Do I think all my students will pass? I don’t. And it’s not because I don’t believe in them, because I believe beyond 100% in every last one of my students, but one thing I have learned to do well this year is know that having high expectations and having unrealistic expectations are not the same thing, and too many teachers, especially TFA teachers don’t realize that. I sit through meetings with other reading teachers who teach the lowest 25th percentile like I do and they talk about how they want all their students to pass their FCAT, and I wonder if they have lost touch with their students because of this “big goal” that they have lodged inside their mind. 

Life is about moving forward. When you’ve been lagging behind in the race, to the point that it probably feels like people are lapping you, it should go without saying that it will take some time to make up the ground that has been lost. In my classroom there is a sign that says “We move forward, never backward.” To me it’s most important that my students continue to grow in their reading levels, how many words they can read in a minute (a crucial sign of growing fluency as well as important for taking timed assessments), and their confidence that if they focus each year that they will continue to get closer to the finish line. Maybe it won’t be this year, but resiliency is a key intrinsic element that must be present in our classrooms. Especially the ones like mine. At some point that child needs to run into someone that says this year you’re going to turn it around. You’re going to make a clear plan to reach the finish line and not stop until you get there, whether that is this year, next year, or some year after that. 

My kids sit for their test next week. I’m not anxious and I have been calmly reviewing with my students. I am rather hopeful about next week. I am hopeful that my classroom’s culture of working hard even through roadblocks will be with them even when I am not on test day. That my students won’t see their four letter nemesis and break down but rather confidently take the test knowing that this year they learned something that will move them forward in life, above and beyond the test. 

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