Monday, March 18, 2013

Bubble sheets make me want to hurl.

Bubble sheets make me want to hurl.

I’m a smart, flexible thinker. I’m creative, well-read and articulate. When I take the time to research and plan, I am capable of exceptional study skills.

I spent my childhood reading. I was shuttled to every extracurricular and enrichment activity I asked to take part in. My mother corrected my grammar in first grade. I was the second grader who could explain subjunctive tense.

I have all the makings of a good test taker. Usually, I am. But despite all that, bubble sheets make me want to hurl.

You might think a fifth-year teacher in an urban school system would have gained some perspective by now. You might think five years of No Child Left Behind would have calmed me down, lowered my blood pressure, and taught me not to freak out because tests aren’t the most important thing. You might think that five years of confronting the real problems that cause our students’ sub-par standardized test scores -- poverty, violence and apathy – I would know better than to dread tests that I’m not even taking. 

You’d be wrong. Bubble sheets still make the bile rise in my throat.

Every year my seventh graders go through multiple days of standardized tests. Tomorrow, they start the first of three days of ELA testing. My stomach is churning, right on schedule. My seventh graders, on the other hand, could care less. They’re nervous that they don’t know the writing prompt, and about being able to work for so long, but beyond that, they’re fine. As I write this, they’re emailing me to ask if spray-on deodorant is better than roll-on deodorant because I gave them a speech today about how important it is to smell good when you’re going to be sitting in one room with 28 other people for 4 hours.

He's thrilled to try out his new deodorant AND take MCAS!
*Results not typical*

So why aren’t they nauseous like me? I’m not even taking the test.

Seventh graders are a curious species. They are self-conscious to a fault while determined to hide this fact and pretend like they don’t care what other people think of them. They’re moody and volatile; everything is the Best Thing Ever or the Worst Thing in the World, and the tiniest sideways glance can make or break their day. They try on different personality traits as they form their identities, yet still spend a large portion of their time calling each other fake for doing just that. Seventh graders are developmental wild cards – clay malleable and soap scum stubborn. It’s why I love teaching them. Seventh grade is the year when you learn to pick yourself back up on your own, not depending on your parents or friends to do it for you. Seventh grade is both lonely and empowering at the same time, the best and worst and everything in between. Seventh grade is where people are made.

Seventh grade is also awful. Going through it once was enough, and if you’d asked me at the time, I probably would have told you half a school year was more than adequate. But at times like these, I almost miss it, because seventh graders have no idea what they’re up against. 

In seventh grade, they took us to the New England Aquarium where the woman who was the voice of the Little Mermaid sang for us. She had red hair and was dressed like a total slut. At the time, I was conflicted. Looking back... Ariel was kind of questionable to begin with, so I forgive the woman for her outfit choice. 

They don’t know the role background knowledge plays in any kind of literacy-based test, and how much they’re already missing. They don’t know how much time we spend crunching numbers in meetings, analyzing why five of them got the wrong answer on question 7 but not question 9 which is strange because both questions target the same learning standard (In all likelihood, those five probably got the question wrong because they were upset about something involving Justin Bieber). They don’t know how quickly test scores and grade point averages add up to paint a picture that determines in part what chances they have in life. They don’t know how one rough year can create a knowledge gap that could throw them off for years to come. They don’t know that each day of learning helps them, providing them with skills and strengths that will come in handy.  They don’t know any of it. They’re completely unaware.

I would love to not know any of that sometimes. I would love to not care for a change. I would love to look at all those bubble sheets and feel healthy apprehension instead of stomach-curling nausea. I would love to stop worrying about the sixth grade class that does no homework. I would love to not think about tomorrow before it happens, and do something today without considering how it will affect my tomorrow. I would love to spend an hour doodling INSTEAD of doing what I’m supposed to be doing and not worry about what I’m missing.

Insert some ridiculous jingle sung by Peter Griffin about throwing up in toilets, a jingle that goes on for 90 seconds too long.  

What if that was my life? What if I blew off a professional commitment, and in lieu of discipline, my principal or vice principal CALLED MY MOTHER, then she yelled at me and made me stay in my room until I did what I was supposed to do?

When did this happen? When did I change? I remember making excuses and forging notes in high school. I remember lying to my teachers, my parents, and myself. I remember putting things off until the last minute and then deciding not to do them at all. Then some xylophone music comes on, the picture gets blurry and I’m 10 years in the future with a salary, a lease, a car I paid for, a master’s degree, three teaching licenses, and two sets of good china. I blinked and now I’m a grown-up who does things and cares about things and owns things and thinks about things before doing them and it’s really complicated and hard and sometimes all I want is to be screamed at by my mother and told what’s right.

One time, roughly 2 years ago, I had a panic attack. I was behind on work stuff, I gained 4 pounds overnight, a guy blew me off, there was a dead mouse in the kitchen, I was broke, and on top of that my room was a WRECK. Hysterical, I called my mom. She told me to stop everything and clean my room, because it would help me think straight. I told her I was tired, and she YELLED AT ME. My mother YELLED at me, circa high school/2001 YELLED at me to clean my room. It worked. I calmed down immediately and cleaned my room until I could think straight. It was so nice to relinquish control. It was oddly liberating to be told exactly what to do.

I wish I could take a break from caring and doing and making decisions all the time, but I can’t turn it off. I do my best to compartmentalize, and push it to the back of my brain, but I can’t un-know the things I know. Even in my most mellow moments a part of my brain contemplates whether or not the Incubus song playing in this bar would be an effective way to teach metaphor (ANSWER: It is).

Teaching is not a job I leave at work. It will always come home with me, whether I’m grading papers or not. It will always be on my mind, whether I’m in front of a class or in the ocean or out for a run or watching Law&Order SVU. Learning is a big deal. Supporting seventh graders as they grow into the people they will become is a big deal. Standardized tests, however flawed they may be, are a big deal. What we do in schools –the frustration, the magic, the journey -- IS A BIG DEAL.

I guess that’s why bubble sheets make me sick to my stomach. Standardized tests are a part of something bigger that means everything to me. Teaching means everything to me. My students’ futures mean everything to me. Any test that even attempts to measure that – regardless of its efficacy – is bound to twist my stomach into knots. In my experience, if it matters to me, I feel it in my stomach, whether it’s nausea, anticipation, anxiety, shock, adrenaline, perseverance, pain, or fear. I’ll deal with it, so my students don’t have to. They have enough to deal with just trying to become people. I can only hope they grow up and fill their lives with things they care about so much it twists their stomachs up in knots.

So bring on the bubble sheets, Department of Education. I’ve got my Pepto. Do your worst.

And try to enjoy it, seventh graders. Pretty soon you’ll be real live grown-ups, without the luxury of a mom to ground you, a teacher to discipline you, and a 30-minute detention to repent for your 12-year-old sins. So work hard, but don’t rush to be a grown-up. Spend a good long time picking out the sweatpants you’ll wear for MCAS day (since I told you to dress comfortably), because soon you’ll be real, live people, limited to the 2 pairs of pants you haven’t stress-eaten your way out of fitting into. Pass notes in overly stylized handwriting. Set detailed goals for yourselves that all involve getting to new levels in the latest video games.

Enjoy it. I’ll be over here, holding my stomach.

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