Month 6 of 10

MLK weekend 2020 marked the first anniversary of the surreal moment when I left my seventh grade Humanities classroom. There are hundreds of people and memories that I have missed since that transition. Yet there is one dominant cultural factor in US schools that I certainly will not miss. To frame the following 1,200 words about it — and to properly introduce a hog — let us flash back a few years further. 

In January 2016, on the first day that our middle school staff had returned from winter break, the newly appointed Interim Superintendent walked into our Humanities teachers’ planning meeting. I can not recall why I was not in the room, yet that meeting produced a metaphor that comes to my mind almost every day. 

[I recently exchanged text messages with Mrs. Myers. Back then she was the LeBron of our 7th grade team, The Heat. Since she actually heard it, here is an excerpt of her words.]

“Kids would be back the next morning, and we were planning our units… [The superintendent] came in to introduce himself and we explained our process, letting him know we were planning formative and summative assessments… We were saying what a supe would want to hear. So he [replied], ‘Well, you don’t fatten a hog by weighing it all the time.’”

A 21st century proverb for all educators, cemented in 2016: YOU DON’T FATTEN A HOG BY WEIGHING IT ALL THE TIME.

The danger is in the details, specifically the vacuous blind spots.

Down in Texas, we have entered the phase of the academic year where school professionals are largely adjusting our attitudes, our curriculum, and our instruction based on mid-year test data. From now through Month 10, standardized tests are the dominant factor in public school, but YOU DON’T FATTEN A HOG BY WEIGHING IT ALL THE TIME.

Only a high-calorie diet, a sedentary lifestyle, and some occasional heavy lifting can fatten “a hog” —  our students; “fat” is academic knowledge and skill; “weighing it all the time” is incessant measurement by multiple choice assessment. Overtesting traumatizes many students; it counteracts the business of education, an LLC (Literacy, Learning, and Culture). 

When we first heard the hog proverb, Mrs. Myers and I were in our first spring semester of graduate studies in educational leadership at separate public universities. We gave the same STAAR (State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness) and STAAR-based tests all year, and taught the same course in the same wing.

We wondered how often our students were taking STAAR-based tests. The answer was alarming — at least once a week, on average, for the entire school year. Most of the bubble sheets in this barrage were about 10 questions long. Nearly all of the 60+ tests were in multiple-choice format.

I am not the state legislator who has vowed to get rid of it or the writer who was unable to correctly answer multiple-choice questions about her own poems on STAAR. So I will not argue much against standardized testing. Measurement is not all bad. Yet every school district with year-end scores as its top priority fails our children by Overtesting. It also subjects campus staff — especially teachers — to weeks of boring silence and months of serious pressure, yet the outcomes remain predictable.

YOU DON’T FATTEN A HOG BY WEIGHING IT ALL THE TIME.

I weigh 215 pounds, about 50 more than when I graduated high school nearly 30 years ago. My wife just bought a new bathroom scale, and I just joined a fitness club. Which of those two investments can actually help me alter my weight?

Pulling a hog away from its feed trough and laying it on a scale eventually malnourishes it. Students are ultimately processed as numbers, as winners and losers, as blessings and burdens; even summer school has become test-prep camp. Altogether this is what Dr. Angela Ward of Austin ISD and 2Ward Equity Consulting coined as STAAR-vation.

Pardon my ignorance and inexperience; feel free to straighten me out in the comments section below. I grew up on concrete. I occasionally visited the zoo. I was never in Future Farmers of America or anything like it. But, I think any farmer or rancher could help a hog get plump by changing what goes in its mouth or how it uses its body.

In this extended metaphor, food is even more important than exercise. Similarly, academic growth mainly requires a high-calorie diet. Creative expression, identity work, critical thought, socialized learning, social studies, and mainstream English are a good start. For carbs, we have got to be serving a heaping helping of writing, reading, listening, and speaking. Once the young hogs are stuffed, they can kick back and gain some weight. 

Comfortable routines will fatten them up. They can rest in a welcoming culture of community building, of clear and high expectations. Vibrant learning is experienced uniquely, so neither every class nor every day is the same. Once children can sense that their identities are safe, that they can learn by freely taking risks, making mistakes, and asking questions…

Then, teachers can put their scales away for a while. We do not gain weight overnight or feel ourselves putting on pounds. It is a gradual, habitual process of consistently conditioning our children for heavy lifting. 

Zaretta Hammond (Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain) credits Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow) for framing the long-term oppressive effects of creating dependent learners with limited literacy and processing skills. So we need to untether teachers from talking so much; let students do the thinking, problem-solving, and creating. Guiding our children to develop their capacity to bear the cognitive load is the equivalent of calisthenics, stretching, breathing, and strengthening their core. A kid in this kind of shape can grow up to be a G.O.A.T.

Now back to 2016, when Christopher Tienken argued that we should just cancel standardized tests, since we can largely predict the scores anyway. Our acting superintendent’s hog proverb was liberating for Mrs. Myers, now an assistant principal.

“It was the first time leadership had given me permission to just teach. To focus on doing right by kids,” she said, “and not boiling the 12 year olds and work we do down to a string of numbers. That had a tremendous impact on me and the scope and sequence of my class.”

Testing has become so dominant in the last 20 years that any loving educator will reasonably strive to help students pass, or at least do their best on the test. It largely determines children’s academic reputations, as well as their access to rigorous coursework and, ultimately, higher education. Meanwhile, test data largely dictates a student’s personal view of whether they are smart and whether they belong. 

Our so-called hogs are being predictably and repeatedly led to slaughter because far too often we weigh them instead of helping them gain weight. Except this is not livestock; they are our children. 

Nevermind their personalities, ways of knowing, and learning styles within a classroom or a campus. Let us prop up a STAAR way above the value of the student experience. Let us rotate and revolve around a billion-dollar, one-size-fits-all summative assessment business.

What if we scaled down? 

What could we learn by putting our scales down?

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