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Teaching: Notes from the Front Lines

On finding your element

I just finished Ken Robinson’s book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. If you have not yet read it, do so immediately. The book contains several inspirational stories of people finding their “element,” or the place where talent collides with desire.

Robinson blames the current education system for discouraging youth from finding their respective elements. By favoring math and English over other subject areas, including art and physical education, Robinson believes we are stifling young minds. And towards the end of the book, he goes on a much appreciated rant about the ills of standardized testing.

As a teacher in Baltimore, we live and die by standardized tests. But Robinson’s book gave me the inspirational push I needed to come into school on a Monday, ready to again light a fire under my students. All until I was called into a meeting.

I am a tenth grade English teacher. In Maryland, during a student’s tenth grade year, they are required to take the state's standardized test in English. My meeting was to inform me of two things: One, the juniors who had failed the test last year recently retook the test and had similarly dismal results; secondly, because of this, a red flag was raised and our school was in danger of failing.

So what, might you ask, does this have to do with me? I was essentially tasked with manifesting a modern-day miracle. Currently, only 35 percent of my kids were passing. But if I could get 80 percent over the hurdle, things might actually balance themselves out.

Did I mention that at this point in the year, I had only been teaching these students for three weeks?

I had been brought in as a replacement, my administration explained, because very limited learning was taking place with their prior teacher. The students were viewed to be out of control. So I took over the reins.

After three weeks of teaching these students, the administration decided to make yet another switch.

In my meeting with them, they gave me an instructional plan. I was no longer to teach A Raisin in the Sun or future books in our curriculum like Julius Caesar or Animal Farm. My foundational teaching of basic grammar that the students were actually enjoying was also thrown on the scrap pile. Not to mention independent reading, even though I had recently accumulated hundreds of dollars in new books for my students via DonorsChoose.

Instead, for the next eight weeks, I was instructed to only teach material that came directly off past standardized tests.

This new plan was devastating beyond words. I had just gained the trust and engagement of my new students. Now I was required to start from scratch, expected to fill 80 minutes each day with nothing but test questions. If I am daunted by that idea, how could it possibly excite the students? I fear they will become disengaged and that—even if their scores do rise—they'll have just been turned into little machines that can spit out the “best” answer, with very little new understanding.

Because of this development, my students will have only read two books during class this year. And we wonder why students in urban areas struggle to keep up with their suburban counterparts. I find myself getting more frustrated each day that I teach. If I was a betting man, well, you get the idea.

At this point, I just need to say yes and amen to the current expectations. I will do my best to sympathize with my students, while pushing them to master the objectives of this new plan. I will use what credibility I have left to carry the students along on this new path. At the same time, I want to remember the lessons of Robinson’s book: I will aspire to make test preparation as creative as it can be, all the while reaching multiple types of intelligence.

The great educator Paulo Freire once decried the practice of viewing children’s education as a bank. He said most educators deposit knowledge into students by dumping as much information into them as possible. This banking concept assumes that if you deposit enough knowledge, it will end up in a student's savings account.

However, we now know that students learn best by being active in their education. The more hands on a lesson, the better. Just like a new employee that must learn on the job, our students can be told over and over again what to do, but until they actually do it themselves, they have not mastered a thing.

I came home that day, feeling frustrated and depressed. I walked straight up to my room and saw Robinson’s book on my bed. I was definitely not in my element.

David Donaldson is a Baltimore City schoolteacher and baseball coach.

More photographs from David's classroom, taken by Matt Roth, can be found here.

UPDATE: The photos have been removed from this post.

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