April 30, 2015
[Image is of the character Gaston, from the Disney film Beauty and the Beast, known for his dislike of girls like Belle reading books, and Belle, whose book he has stolen.]
I used to write more about educational issues than I have been for the past couple of years. Partly due to the fact that as I’ve known more of my own friends who have become teachers, and more parents especially of kids with complex educational needs, my feelings have moderated a bit. So many people are doing the best they can with not enough time or money. Perhaps I’d been too strident. I was actually wondering recently if I might more or less give up the topic. Maybe I was a little bit crazy.
Well, the New York Times has come to the rescue with this story of school districts that require students who opt out (or whose parents have opted them out) of New York’s state assessment tests to sit at their desks and do nothing while their classmates take the exams.
With sadness, I conclude that I was not crazy.
The article details that while many districts have relented to parental pressure and allow test-refusing students to either do other work, read quietly, or go to the library, some are sticking to policies of prohibiting them from doing anything but sitting and staring.
“We were not going to reward them by having them do something that other students may perceive as either fun or more interesting than taking the assessment,” says one superintendent.
Either fun or more interesting than taking the assessment, as in doing other assigned homework or reading a book quietly.
I’m just going to throw this out there, school administrators: If you sound like a villain from a Roald Dahl book, you should possibly reconsider your life choices.
Funnily enough, when this story came to my attention, I’d just been telling a friend the story of how my middle school assistant principal had tried to disallow me from reading at lunch.
It actually started with A., a new student that year, who was sitting at a table behind me quietly reading a book one day, when I overheard her being told to put it away by Assistant Principal Jones. A. complied and didn’t say anything else about it, though I asked her later if what I thought just happened really just happened, and she said yeah, she thought it was really odd, too.
Already a lot of things about the way things were done in this school felt stupid, mean, and unfair to me, but this was above and beyond. Not long afterward, having a book I was eager to finish, and not so much trying to be deliberately snarky but definitely curious as to whether I’d draw the same reaction, brought my book to lunch.
Sure enough, Mr. Jones was along shortly to tell me that I needed to “put that away, young lady.”
It wasn’t a school library book, it was mine, so the objection couldn’t have been that food would get spilled and ruin it, or that I was reading and not eating, because I’d eaten and had my empty lunch cooler to prove it.
And this doubly didn’t make any sense, because Mr. Jones was also the person who, every other day or so, was selecting for punishment whole entire classes of sixth and seventh graders for supposedly being too loud. If we were reading, we weren’t talking, so shouldn’t he be thankful for our not contributing to the noise?
In telling Sparrow the story, I finally figured it out.
He didn’t like us reading because then we were proof that he was just picking tables randomly to punish without a care in the world for whether we’d actually done anything wrong. If we were reading…we were obviously innocent of being part of the discipline or noise problems, and he wasn’t thankful at all because that undermined his excuse-making ability for the bullying and scapegoating he enjoyed. Collective punishment of whole classes was common, and treatment of everyone as guilty was justified because “we can’t always tell who the troublemakers are and aren’t,” but now that was demonstrably not true. And this development was not appreciated.
I know this sounds like childish reasoning, but if that wasn’t what was behind it, somebody else solve this for me, because I haven’t come up with a better answer in nearly 20 years.
(Long story short: Our gifted teacher was enlisted to protest to the principal, and before long there were about five of us participating in defiance, and he actually kept fighting the issue, like we went through two or three rounds of this, but eventually our right to read at lunch without further harassment was established.)
Is it self-evident enough that when school faculty would rather kids actually do nothing than read or be tempted by having to see another kid reading, that something is extremely wrong? I mean I’m just inarticulate at the logic that if they can’t control how you use your time, you won’t be allowed to use it at all…but not disbelieving.
Because the effect isn’t only to not make refusing the tests look attractive, it’s to prevent any kid from showing that they can and will use their educational time more constructively. And they can’t be allowed to generate any evidence that their time is being ill-used, that they know it, and that they do know how to do better with it.
It’s almost like the people implementing these policies are more interested in safeguarding their own ability to see their students as the problem. Their interests aren’t served by their students’ taking an opportunity to prove that they aren’t the problem, by reading on their own initiative.
Now where have I seen that before?
(I know, I know…somewhere down the line it all comes back to funding. School districts ultimately need kids to take these tests for reasons of funding and school quality rankings.
I humbly submit, though, that when growing percentages of students are saying No, this is not a good use of our time and we’d like to be educated as people, not test scores, that maybe schools should try standing up for their students.)
In point of contrast, my senior year of high school, some new set of standardized tests was introduced for which we were a test group for the state of Missouri, and for some reason that made sense at the time, they had half the class take it in the fall, and half in the spring. This left half of us with nothing to do for four hours a day, for two full weeks. They put us in a spare classroom with only the typing teacher to keep an eye on us, but otherwise left us alone, to do whatever we wanted as long as we could do it in that room and without being heard too far down the hall.
People did homework, or just talked while sitting on the combination desk-chairs in contortions not normally allowed, and I have a vague memory of some Hangman getting played on the blackboard. I finished reading Les Misérables and started and finished The Three Musketeers and I think also some Kurt Vonnegut.
And as much as part of me decried the waste of time that we were required to be there when no one cared what we did, part of me was actually pretty overloaded with AP classes and happy enough for a chance just to read a book which has turned out to have stayed with me in a lot of ways besides being how I passed the time while stuck in a room so half my classmates could take a test run of a test.
I remember The Three Musketeers. I don’t remember one single thing about that test. It’s an absolute blank in my memory.
I’m not making this stuff up, and I wish I were. I don’t actually enjoy being obsessively critical of the American educational system more than anything in the world, but it just keeps going to inane lengths to show that it doesn’t really love it when kids independently demonstrate, like, enjoyment of literacy, or ability to act in their own best interests.
I think it might not be a coincidence that those are things we’re supposed to believe that kids don’t have.
If I can boil anything down from this, maybe something like “If school officials can’t fucking stand the sight of a child reading…there is something else going on, and it’s probably nothing good.”
April 22, 2015
Our weather has been really nasty for a long time, I have had almost no break time over the course of the winter, and my apartment building has been under renovation so I’ve also been in construction noise hell. I took advantage of a recent day off with halfway decent weather earlier this month to walk 12 miles or so.
The Old Putnam trail in Van Cortland Park turns into the South County trail in Westchester County. It follows the route of what was the Old Putnam Railroad from Putnam County to NYC.
That’s the end of New York City right there.
Sadly, this route is marred by traffic noise for quite a bit of it, but a few sections are really beautiful and quiet.
I made it to somewhere called Grey Oaks, NY before I was really hungry and starting to figure I should probably make it back to NYC before dark….I also forgot how hard paved trails are on the feet.
April 18, 2015
So my school district had this policy, too–no unnatural hair colors, including red that was too bright. Kids were sent home under this policy a fair bit and it did not make international headlines.
But aside from just thinking it was unfair and stupid when I was in middle school because I thought people should have a right to self-expression in ways that are harmless to other people, I actually just realized something, while commenting on a Facebook thread about this particular instance, about why it inspired such intense contempt in me for the school personnel upholding it.
The adults making and enforcing policies like this were people claiming that we should look up to and respect them, that they were entitled to our mental time and attention and a huge degree of control over our lives.
But supposed adults who could not deal with a child having green hair…were no way, no how, going to be people who could teach me how to survive in this world or make a life that I wanted to live. That was a huge signal that the challenges relevant to our lives were…on a different order of magnitude.
Something in me was going “You cannot help me, if you seriously think that this is a big deal and expect me to as well.” If a student’s loud hair is way outside the range of your ability to cope, if that is what bends you out of shape…you don’t have the maturity or adaptability or the ability to teach them that I need, to put it somewhat mildly.
It really undermined my ability to take those people seriously as grownups, let alone as teachers or authority figures. It also really put the lie to the claim that so much of what happened in school was necessary to teach “social skills” or ability to work with people different from yourself…when how much clearer could it have been that tolerance for difference was for some people but not others?