Some Things are Hard to Measure

…and apparently, some things are hard to write about. They must be after all- why else would it take me so long to write a new blog entry? (tsk tsk…) Anyway, I’m here now, and in the face of all of these new standards and new assessments, I find myself thinking about the things that are hard to measure- the particularly thoughtful and electrifying insight that a student may have in the course of a live class discussion and may or may not ever be reflected in something that gets tested. How do we capture that, other than to acknowledge it and encourage more of the same? I am reminded, for example, of what a student said when we read Langston Hughes’ poem Harlem. (What happens to a dream deferred…). She said “What if by ‘does it explode?’ he means an explosion of creativity and self expression?” One question can change the way you see something forever. Then, in a different class, after viewing a series of films that were loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey, a student waited after class to say “I’ve seen most of these movies before, but I’d never really seen them until now.” How exactly does that get captured on a standardized test, even when that very moment is all you could hope for as a teacher?

For those of us who think the most important thing an education can do is to make kids care about learning enough to pursue it on their own, standardized assessments of any kind can pose a challenge. If nothing else, testing as the primary means of judging whether or not a child has been properly educated misses so much about the actual potential of children and, for that matter, teachers. How do we test for curiosity, persistence, and passion, especially in a school culture that increasingly squeezes those impulses out of every corner of the school day? As it is, popular culture has a disdain for school and for those who do well in it. Of course, the schools that live in the memories of people who write books and movies brought it on themselves, by allowing a stereotype of schools as places of soul crushing conformity to be just true enough to live. Whenever educators make serious attempts to craft something different from that model- especially when it involves poor and working class kids in public schools, those efforts are derided and discouraged. We keep persevering, though. Reaching students and getting them to be thoughtful and engaged is hard to measure, but so well worth it.

Here is a poem from a young former English education graduate student- she is a poet, of course. Not quite sure how I would assess this, but I know it means that this is a young woman who cares deeply about teaching and learning. When a teacher gets a poem like this she is reminded why she chose this profession, and continues to choose it.

Poem

By Karstina Wong

I had never seen anyone eat a poem

or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,

but that did not stop me from writing

word upon word, again and again

until I had made a small

four stanza poem for my professor.

 

She gave me a seat in the English Education program,

and I gave her a poem.

She showed me where Icarus drowned,

and taught me how to show others, motivated me

and lifted me from the bottomless pits of writers block,

answered my e-mails promptly

(whether they were addressed to her or not),

led me into a world where children learn by doing,

and I, in turn, presented her with a poem.

 

Here is a Masters Degree, she said,

and here is a career and a lifetime of intrinsic rewards.

And here is your poem, I replied,

which I imitated from Mr. Collins.

 

Here is a cap and a gown, the power to change lives,

how to teach poetry in a classroom, and incorporate art,

a ruler and some chalk, and let’s not forget

an invitation to join the aesthetic group,

and make sure you call Ron Link, she whispered,

and here, I said, is a poem I copied

and two books I bought from Strands.

 

And here, I wish to say to her now,

is a smaller gift- not the archaic truth

that you can never repay your teachers,

but the admission that when she took

the imitated poem and the two books from my hands,

I was as sure as any new teacher could be

that this fold up, wrinkled piece of 81/2 x 11 regular printing paper,

along with two thinly bind books would be enough to make us even.

So that’s it. If I ever have a bad day between now and the end of my teaching career (which I expect and hope is a long way off) I will be able to take out this “fold up, wrinkled piece of 8 ½ x 11 regular printing paper” and remind myself what I’m capable of. May your teaching life be full of moments like this.

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