Friday, September 11, 2009

The Program and Guerrilla Teaching


Besides the lives of the students themselves, the greatest casualty of this ridiculous beast known as No Child Left Behind is learning, itself.   We know that the powers that were (SGWB) unleashed an infantile creature on a rightfully concerned public and it has been reeking havoc on education in America ever since.  But today the ravages of NCLB have hit an all new low.  My husband teaches the English/Ed Masters program at the university,  and his course at the moment revolves around methods of teaching writing to high school students.  He is giving his students excellent pedagogical information as well as viable lesson plans they can take back to the class room.  Well, some of them.

Imagine our horror when we discovered that there is a programmed curriculum, implemented primarily by at-risk schools, that does nothing more than teach to the test.  I'm not talking about a handful of teachers wasting time on worksheets and test drills.  No, I'm talking about a system that hogties teachers and forces them to implement the most asinine methodologies in a vain effort to insure that their school meets NCLB performance requirements.  This is far more insidious.  It is a program that does NOT require students to actually read books.  No, it simply "teaches concepts" that are necessary to pass the state standardized test.  You read that right—"concepts."  It's nothing more than a glorified exercise in rote memorization of terms.  

Now we all know that there are teachers who teach to the test for a couple of reasons:  1)  they have no imagination.  2) they are too scared for their jobs to risk actually teaching anything but rote memorization.  But holy crap, folks!  We're talking about the only link between our kids and actual learning!  

This so-called program requires only that the teacher give the students "snippets" of text in order to learn to recognize a concept that will appear on the test.  Do freshman read Romeo and Juliet?  Hell no!  What good would that do?  They read a few lines so that they can understand what a simile is.  

Do they read Animal Farm and speculate on the potential or plausibility of utopia?  Are you kidding?  They might have a few sentences to from the book and learn that this is an example of political/social satire (if they're lucky!)  Make sure you remember the word and its definition, kids.  It will be on the test.  But never mind about those nasty little nuances that actually make such literature relevant and important.  And FUN!

What happened to actually reading classic and modern texts for the sake of learning how to think and to follow a concept all the way through to its magnificent impact?   What happened to authentic assessment and active learning...and actual fun in the classroom?  

According to my impeccable source, deviation from the program could be risky.  When did it become professional suicide to read an entire book with students, to build a 3-4 week lesson plan on a single novel or even a group of poems that are connected by theme or style or some other relevant, interesting quality?  For the good teachers, their only resort is guerrilla teaching.  That's right.  Actually teach, but don't let the administration find out.  Put your job on the line to actually do your job.

Consider this:

The year after I left teaching, I met a student who not been allowed to learn.  On pain of death.  This remarkable young woman came to my former high school for her senior year after being home-schooled her entire life.  After one semester, she had moved into the top ten rankings, which unseeded a student who had been part of the smart crowd for years.  As you might imagine, at the top ten dinner, all the whispers were sniping remarks about how this home-schooler  had only one semester on her GPA and her success had relegated one of the golden children to the 11th slot.  

At this dinner, each student must stand up and explain why they brought the guests that they chose.  Many of these guests were teachers who had made a difference.  For this young woman, it was a man who had risked his life for her.  You see, this articulate, intelligent, courage teenager came from Afghanistan only a few months before.  Her mother had literally risked her life to educate her girls at home, for you see, it was illegal to educate a woman in their country.  And the man, he had risked everything to smuggle them out of the country so they could have a chance to live a decent human life.  

This wasn't about any stupid state exam.  This had nothing to do with coloring in the right bubble or memorizing a vocabulary list.  This was literally about life and death.  After she told her story to this group of whining, wonderful top ten students, education had a whole new meaning to every soul in that room.  Jaws open wide, eyes shining with emotion, every single person understood what it meant to be graced with the opportunity, the privilege to truly learn.

May we never forget it.


  1. Wow. What a fabulous story told with great passion. Thank you! It's a shame our educational system has teachers risking their jobs in order to "teach."

  2. I taught in the city - and that is a lot of what I saw.

    My closest friend at my school, now retired, spent her final year of teaching, teaching the way she did when she first started. She included all her special days (chocolate day, popcorn day) and chose not to 'teach to the test' as she'd always been instructed.

    When scores for the school came out the following fall, the 5th graders had scored the highest they had in MANY years.

    I'll stop there, but you know I hate NCLB as well.

    If only all students could hear a message like that girls.

    Great post!

  3. I too taught-being young I was shuffled here and there and taught many subjects (one (health) that I wasn't even qualified for.

    My absolute favorite experience was my ESL history classes- oh, how those kids wanted to learn! They saw the chance to be in a classroom and given a textbook as a privilage.

    Their parents were so grateful of any attention I gave them. Unlike those who when I called with my concerns for their child yelled at me "When he's at school he's your problem. Quit buggin me at my work." Yes, that's a quote.

    Or the parent who said to me "But readin's hard for him. Why can't you tape the chapters for him?" I was teaching 7th grade then. I was so mind boggled that she didn't feel he should ever be made to actually read that I didn't even think to say, Why the heck can't you tape the chapter? I've got 120 other kids to worry about.

  4. Oh, Leigh Ann, I'm so glad she did that!

    Susie, I've heard man of those comments. Of course if only more people would realize that the real crisis in education is at home, not at school, we might actually get somewhere.

    I'm not saying the government should get into our homes--but it we could just get the parents to realize what is at stake and what THEY have to do with it. Amazing, huh!

  5. Amen, Amen, and Amen. Thank you for this story. Understanding the education system and the challenges faced can only come out through stories like this. I've taught in public, private, and charter schools and the struggles are universal.


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