Saturday, October 8, 2016

"The Whole is Less Than the Sum of Its Parts" - Focusing on the Small Stuff

A few weeks ago, we received our students’ PARCC scores (PARCC is the standardized test we take here in NJ). Thankfully, I work in a district where TEACHING is celebrated over TESTING, so opening the email was not a pressing matter. Rather, it’s there for us to check out, at our convenience, in the hopes of sparking reflection on how last year’s students performed and gaining a bit of insight about our current students.

Nevertheless, that email took my breath away. My legs started to tingle and my stomach got queasy. I vowed that I wouldn’t open it, but my resolve lasted no more than 20 minutes. Before I knew it, I had printed it out and was pouring over it, with highlighters and Post-Its at hand. There were some great surprises! Kids who I knew had it in them, pulled it out… maybe not hitting it out of the park, but holding their own. But, unfortunately, those surprises could not wash away the letdowns. 

Those kids. Those kids who – despite our best efforts (mine and theirs) – just couldn’t hang come test day. They tried. Oh, did they try. I watched them. Taking their time. Making little notes on their scrap paper. Using every minute of the testing window. Oh, did they try. But… they only “partially met” or just “did not yet meet” expectations. (I do applaud PARCC for putting in that little “yet.” Kudos to appreciating the value of a growth mindset!)

Although I can honestly say that I’ve never felt any direct pressure about my students’ scores from anyone in particular – not my students’ parents, not my colleagues, not my administrators – the pressure is there. It is always there. It’s hard to explain… in fact, as I write this, I’m struggling to put into words what our “testing culture” has done to me, to my practice.

When I first started teaching, standardized testing was around, but it was of little concern. Every year, come May, we’d spend our mornings filling in some scantrons and our afternoons playing kickball outside. It was slightly inconvenient – the testing, not the kickball! – but really, no big deal. The following October we’d get our former students’ scores. Again, no big deal. Maybe (if we really looked) we’d find a pattern that might lead to a little reflection on our practice, but mostly, we’d look at the scores, nod in agreement – because honestly, any good teacher can tell you exactly how their kids will perform after knowing them for about a month! – and then file them away somewhere safe, waiting to be shredded when we clean out our desks the following June.

My how things have changed.

Despite my district’s belief that teaching matters more than testing, for whatever reason, I feel squeezed. Not a day goes by where I don’t think about how well I’ve covered a standard, or if that assignment was “PARCC-like” enough to provide adequate practice for the big test, or how I can improve their typing skills. Not a day goes by where I don’t stress over how that answer would be scored by PARCC or if that response could be deemed “off topic.” And not a day goes by, where I don’t look at a kid and think (gulp!) about all the things that he CAN’T do yet, rather than celebrate how far he’s come. Ooh, admitting that hurts. But, it’s my truth.

I’d say that maybe it’s just my ultra Type-A perfectionist personality. But, pretty much every teacher I meet – even those enviable Type-Bers who manage to maneuver seamlessly through the day despite their desk being covered, literally covered, in papers – these days feels the same.

Recently, I was talking to one of my favorite mentor/colleagues and she commented that, in her 30+ years of teaching experience, she’s come to find one thing to be true: in teaching, when it comes to kids and their performance: “The whole is LESS than the sum of its parts.”

I reflected on this idea. And before long, I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this is absolutely true. When I think about all the papers and tests and projects that I’ve graded over the years, they pale in comparison to what I watched a kid learn in the process of writing/taking/creating them. Final products, I realized, are always a bit of a letdown when you compare them to journey you watched a kid take to put it together.

Immediately, I refocused myself. I decided to be present for those little moments that occur along a kid’s journey and to stop staring at the destination on the horizon. The test is the test is the test. I can’t change it. I can’t beat it. I can’t fight it. It’s there. But, I don’t have to make myself crazy staring at it looming in the distance. Instead, I can focus on all those little wins throughout the day and celebrate all the things my kids CAN do.


When she wrote this, I overheard her say, "I wish the bucket was bigger. I have so many hopes and dreams!" Agh! My heart strings! So what if she struggled to write about every.single.idea that she had listed here! It sure was fun and eye-opening to listen to her dream about them.

And this...
Despite the fact that their final papers were just so-so, watching these two initial strangers work together, help each other, and become friends in the process, was everything. Overhearing things like, "I like your opening. Can you help me with mine?" and "It's cool how you started all your paragraphs with one word. I'm gonna do that, too!" is why I became a teacher!

And this...
Student: "When I was leaving my house this morning, I got the best idea for the last paragraph of my paper. I didn't have any real paper so I just grabbed this from my counter and wrote it down so I wouldn't forget."

Me: "Today is the day you became a writer."

It doesn't even matter how her paper will turn out! From this day forward, she is a writer, and nothing, certainly no grade or PARCC score, can ever take that from her.

* * * * * * * * * *

These moments... these PARTS are most certainly greater than their SUM. These everyday lessons, experiences, moments... no test score could ever measure them. And so, from now on, I simply will not let them.

Hope October is treating you all well. I have progress reports due next week. GAH! Where is the time going!

Happy Teaching!!

1 comment:

  1. I love your reflection and looking at your kids as all "the little parts" not just the whole. My favorite thing is all the combinations of sweet, learning, "family" type moments that we have in a day. I love that my kids are happy and comfortable in my room. Learning happens. Tests don't make up our kids!