Midsummer. Teachers stand metaphorically alongside me on the edge of a precipice looking out over a deceptively vast pool of summer’s blue water. Eager to dive back in, we gaze at the path we have traveled these past months.
The allusion to Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” fits life’s many transitions. But while Frost’s speaker confesses his regret for not being able to “travel both [roads]/And be one traveler,” I will retrace my journey, examining my road with a critical eye.
I traveled the well-worn path of testing this year: my valiant students endured ten standardized exams.
When the heat of August descends, I will take the back roads to my school and sidle in furtively. I will build a road for my students cobbled not with test preparation, but with stories: old stories to recall and revise, unfamiliar stories to arouse curiosity, and stories told by students themselves as they gain agency with language.
These days, stories can be a lot like summer’s fireflies: their evanescence suggests that they have disappeared, but they are waiting under the darkness of educational reform.
Let me tell you a story.
Back in March, I attended a panel discussion at Fairfield University. Speaking on educational reform were Wendy Lecker, senior attorney at the Education Law Center; Jonathan Pelto, author of the blog “Wait…What?”; Dr. Yohuru Williams of Fairfield University; and Thomas Scarice, superintendent of Madison Public Schools.
Scarice was the first to speak. He shuffled through his notes, then stepped away from the podium, explaining that he needed to depart from his script.
And then he said, “I’d like to tell you a story.”
(Four months prior, the 2014 NCTE conference in Washington, D.C., was titled, Story as the Landscape of Knowing. Along with educators Dr. Bryan Ripley Crandall and Shaun Mitchell, we presented on behalf of the CT Writing Project-Fairfield a workshop on the value to students of textual lineages. The conference title captivated me: we create our landscape of knowing through reading, positioning ourselves within (or without) that landscape. This is crucial for my students, as they straddle the chasm between childhood and young adulthood. Hungry for stories, they crave some iteration of their lives within the details of what they encounter on the page. But they have been starved of the story in this era of “education reform” our country has embraced as a panacea for the socioeconomic inequity which drives public schools to shameful ends to achieve Test Scores.)
And Mr. Scarice wanted to tell me a story? I was in.
Over the past ten to 15 years, Scarice asserted, we have “experienced the dehumanizing of our work with kids” as we “stand at the altar of data.” His words resonated.
An administrator once motivated to increase test scores, Scarice’s revelation occurred in the midst of an encounter with a student.
“Each kid comes with a story,” he said, “and the irony is that, at the center of the enterprise [of education] is people.” Corporations and publishers are paving their roads with the gold received marketing models of “standard-aligned” curriculum. But the equations utilized to produce such merchandise don’t consider our students. We can impose and demand and drill, but the test subjects are individual children with backgrounds diverse and personalities eccentric. You cannot establish protocol without factoring in the subjectivity of response.
When my eighth graders and I read The Outsiders, I’ll highlight the figurative language in the novel, but what causes authentic engagement are the questions. For instance: “Are we destined to maintain the stereotypes into which we are born?” Or: “Are we confined to stay within the boundaries of expectations predicated by our circumstances?” Conversation morphs to critical thinking.
Stories matter. Neglecting to provide students with what Dr. Alfred Tatum calls “an enabling text” (“one that moves beyond a sole cognitive focus—such as skill and strategy development—to include an academic, cultural, emotional, and social focus that moves students closer to examining issues they find relevant to their lives”) obviates the will for students to invest in their own educational process.
Common Core has students reproducing information verbatim as evidence of understanding, omitting the “I” that adolescents need to connect with. Their Landscapes of Knowing erode and (to refer again to Robert Frost) they cannot know “how way leads on to way.” Foundation crumbles.
My landscape of knowing is connected to the characters I meet. I look to their stories to examine my own, to test the murky waters of risk, and to approach my own perspective with honesty. If my students can do this, I have shared the most meaningful lesson. If I have traveled the road of stories with them, I know that they have resources to last a lifetime. When they leave my classroom, their own landscapes will continue to grow.
Julie Roneson is a 7th and 8th grade English teacher at the Discovery Magnet School in Bridgeport.