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Learning: What We Should Really Have in Common

I've been slowly making my way through the November edition of English Journal. This edition is dedicated to standards--something that, try as we might, we just can't seem to avoid. 

I'm not far into the issue, but Stephen Heller's article, "The End of Innovation," really made me stop and think about what I see happening in so many places. Just like I hate the phrase "data-driven," I'm starting to distrust the notion that everything should be assessment-driven. Heller makes his case here: 

By putting assessment at the forefront of the agenda--and in effect having the ends justify the means--we risk losing that creative spark that not only authenticates lifelong learning but also inspires teachers to recognize that while students do share many of the same qualities from year to year, each child and each classroom is different, and each requires the capacity to differentiate in ways that permit greater flexibility in teaching students. 

I've been down this road myself. I've been so fixated, focused, and crazed in order to meet the demands of an assessment that I've rendered myself unable to think about the needs of the people I am really there for: my students. Am I there to teach To Kill a Mockingbird, or am I there to foster a love and appreciation of literature? For me, it's the latter. And there's no real, or at least authentic assessment, that can "measure" whether or not a student has developed a love of reading.

The set of 30 bodies in front of me at any time is different from the 30 next door and the 30 I will see later in the day. If I expect to do the same thing every hour or as every teacher in my grade level, I might succeed at seeing performance on an assessment, but there is no way that I can ensure every student's needs are met.

Further, an assessment-driven culture turns a classroom into a checklist. I only have experience with teaching English, but I would argue that the fluidity of the subject makes it near difficult to create a checklist classroom. I don't ever want my students to stop doing any of the things that I've worked to teach in my classroom, but I've also witnessed days where what we are doing just seems rote. There is no spark. Learning and engagement have taken the backseat to accomplishing and doing. Students are experiencing, like Heller suggests, an environment where "have to" takes precedence over "getting to."

Heller also reminds teachers that we have an "educational covenant" with students. There is such a large amount of trust established, or broken, on the first day of class. Will we live up to the promises that we make students when we tell them that they will think, read, and write in ways unlike ever before? Or will too many walk out of our classrooms with a boxed-in view of what the English language arts really are? It's more than MLA formatting, more than teaching argumentative writing, and more than the confines that narrative writing is placed in.

I want to end with another Heller quote that has had me thinking for days: "... [W]e should be mindful that each day that we (as teachers) stand before our students, we are recruiting the next generation of ourselves." If we live by assessment and not by learning, is lasting learning taking place?

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