Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Outside the Lines-- of the Standardized Test Bubble

When I was student teaching, I had an experience that left me in tears and immoblized for days afterward. It started well enough-- with what I thought at the time was a cultural difference I didn't fully understand. It ended badly. Let me tell the story.

I student taught at a new construction school in what folks called "Crack Row" in the historic Pittsburgh neighborhood of Homewood. 100% African American, free and reduced lunch, a terrible academic record. I had asked for an urban setting- the rougher, the better. After having taught poetry at my kids' school, East Hills International Studies Academy, I thought I was well prepared. That school was in the middle of the projects. Our poetry club went from 30 kids after school to culling grad students from Pitt and other parents to teach Kindergarten-Fifth grade. We were a huge part of the school culture, the Principal loved us, the kids loved us, we got grants from Heinz Endowments-- it felt a lot like success in an inner city school. I got this, I thought.

Now getting ready for my student teaching--I had some education classes under my belt, I had lots of experience working with kids, I even had read Keith Gilyard's Voices of the Self. This book was highly influential. I was on fire to save children from deciding by second grade that school was not for them, as Gilyard's work described so eloquently. I was going to make the difference in their lives with my training, my love, my passion and my sheer will.

Fast forward to a week into student teaching. Breaking up fights every day multiple times between children who sometimes seemed to these very white eyes as feral, managing hungry kids, homeless kids, angry kids, mentally unstable kids-- this was terribly hard-- but not as hard as dealing with the adults in the building. Some of them were motivated, excited to be there, loving. Some of them were motherly, professional, highly talented, academically prepared. Some of them were racist and some of them were hopeless complainers-- and of both races. The Principal was a terrible manager. Some of her teacher favorites strolled up to get their kids from lunch duty 15 minutes late-- fully 1/3 of our Library period-- while we held that teacher's kids outside the library with our own incoming class in line, waiting to go in. I was overwhelmed and disillusioned. Nothing had prepared me for kids with PTSD and adults such as these. A week in, I wasn't sure I had anything to offer inner city kids.

And then it was time for the PSSA's-- the standardized tests that are part of No Child Left Behind. Our school had not made AYP, the Principal's job was imperiled, as was the entire staff's-- and the pressure for the kids to do well was ON. The Principal ordered extra food that week so all kids were fed a bigger breakfast and had unlimited access to fresh fruit, crackers, cheese, etc. between and during classes. Immediately the poor behavior came under better control. The kids were hungry-- I knew that-- but I didn't know how hungry, or remember how food insecurity can affect one's mental state from my own childhood. The Principal also had the staff plan an enormous rally to get the kids pumped for the tests.

On the day of the rally, there was a guy in a costume, blaring hip hop music, dancers, a play of sorts-- a really big production to try to get kids to understand the importance of the test. I thought this kind of thing was an expression of a cultural difference between myself and the African-American staff. I hoped it would help. It did the work of getting us all more on edge than ever, that I will say. We clearly understood the high stakes going into testing. The kids seemed to clearly understand what was at stake should they perform poorly. They were amped. It wasn't clear how they felt about the tests- but they knew how we felt, how the Principal felt- how the state felt. I was taken out of the library for the week of PSSA's to help "proctor" the exam. I was paired with a second grade teacher I didn't know.

The first day of the PSSAs I showed up, coffee in hand, dressed up, bright eyed and ready to do anything I could to be part of the team and drive up test scores. The reality was that I sat at the edge of the room while a teacher scalded the kids- really scalded and flayed them-- with frustrated, shrill instructions interrupted by screaming reminders not to ask questions. She said she wasn't allowed to answer any of them. Children were seated with their cardboard test-taking "privacy screens", their extra #2 pencils, their mints. She read the instructions and told them to take their tests. She called them "beauties," pretty incongruous to her task and her tone.

 One child kept moving the table he was sitting at. The teacher shrieked at him to quit distracting others-- didn't he know how important quiet was for concentration? Did he want others to fail? Fail their school, their families, their teachers? The tension in the room, already high, made the children and I sweat. I went to the kid who kept moving the table, to try to quietly encourage him to stop. He couldn't. His legs were too long and didn't fit under it. He wasn't trying to move the table-- he was trying to sit there quietly. But he didn't fit-- and he couldn't-- and each time he tried, the teacher, really at this point a terrifying witch stereotype from a badly acted Hansel and Gretel film-- shrieked at him.

Many of the kids weren't doing the test. The teacher would read the instructions, allow the time to run out, and then read the instructions for the next section. Those kids who weren't doing the test couldn't read the test booklet. You read that right. They couldn't read the friggin' test. They couldn't read the answers. The test was a joke from beginning to end for this group-- totally inappropriate-- but the teacher had to give the test, in the manner proscribed-- whether or not the kids could do it. She said she wasn't allowed to explain or clarify questions, and there were test monitors in the building that day to be sure each rule was followed to the letter. I was frantic. How could I be sitting in a room while this kind of situation occurred? I didn't know what to do.

And then a child named Angel, most inappropriately named, solved the problem and broke the tension. She turned over her desk in the middle of the room, spewing papers, pencils, mints and the cardboard privacy screen onto the floor. It hit the hard floor like a canon and echoed like thunder. She stood there, defiant, smiling. The teacher turned blue and screamed. Angel did. not. care. She clacked her hair beads around, stuck out her little behind, and danced in a circle. She sang, "Go pee-pee! Go pee-pee! Go pee-pee!" while twirling her little self around in circles. Sometimes she'd stop and do a huge, all over booty shake. Sometimes she'd just make faces and clack her beads. The other kids watched her, smiling, awed. She got louder, the clacking beads more frantically bashing around her head, her dancing crazier. Papers settled in corners of the room, swishing under her feet.

The teacher yelled at the kids to ignore Angel and do their tests. We all knew sending behavior problems to the office resulted in a triumphant and quick return of that kid, smiling knowingly, having had a "talk" and a piece of candy with the person in charge. Some kids tried to resume their test, but most just watched. I was awed, too. Angel's response was the only one that made sense. Here I was, a 40-something teacher, and I was cowed by the teacher, the high stakes, the tension, the repercussions, the need for acceptance, you name it. Not 7-year old Angel. She just flipped over the desk and essentially gave the whole thing the finger. She knew bullshit when she saw it.

I cried in the parking lot after school. What had I signed up for? At the end of my student teaching, I was absolutely sure I did not want to-- could not-- work in an urban setting. I felt-- still feel-- that student teachers need a full semester devoted to nothing but working with a type of inner city child: the child who lives in a food desert, whose parents are in prison, whose family members are shot in front of their eyes, whose parents sling drugs, who live with grandparents or in homeless shelters or with family friends. The children who jump behind cars to avoid being hit by a drive-by shooting, which happened during my student teaching. Babies-- shaken, almost hit by flying bullets, having saved their own lives on the street by hiding-- now coming to a school where their performance on a standardized test-- devised to make them fail, requiring none of their intellect or gifts--was used to judge them, their teachers, their community.

You've heard all this kind of thing before. What you may not have heard, so far even from me-- is the joy of the kids. The kids like Kristopher, a quiet fourth grader who wrote a poem off the cuff beginning with the line, "the faces of my people" about how beautiful his neighbors were. The joy of those children and parents who somehow triumphed: the grandmother who adopted two little boys born addicted to crack who worked nights, but still found time to volunteer in the cafeteria, iron the boys' uniforms, and visit the school library daily to get new books to read to them. She had her boys report out to us each morning about what they had read the night before--and ask probing questions about the books. The way the kids-- lots of boys included-- could double-dutch. The talent the kids displayed at critical thinking-- the ways they questioned stories, authors' intentions, instructions to assignments, above all, us. The way the kids made incredible poetry, visual art, and were grateful if you remembered their names, remembered them-- their beauty. Their minds. Their ability to solve problems that had nothing to do with canned tests. Their ways of answering questions that hadn't been asked, that were 10 steps ahead of anything we had thought to ask. I thought of them then-- and still do--- as uncharted rainforests full of things that could cure the world, if only we could find a way to nurture them, protect them, get out of their way. We were trying to make them into bonsai trees--carefully controlled and shaped to our specifications--when each one was a wild growing forest, full of blooming.

Here's to Angel and the brand of wild fight she had in her. Here's to the kids at that school who saw us for what we were: frightened sheep more concerned with keeping our jobs than walking the hell out, saying we refuse to give PSSAs-- fire us now, we won't do it. And here's to the kids who won't end up in jail or slinging, but making art, writing poems, nurturing younger ones, finding a way- and who knew deep down I loved them, I cared for them-- but didn't know how to teach them.


  1. Hum, Mrs. May-Stein nice article with quality feeling tone and a deep understanding of the hardships of being poor, black, and in a challenging school in Pittsburgh. However, I wonder if your husband, Assistant Superintendent David May-Stein truly understands the full implications of the task at hand? Central Office Administrators of PPS insist that "effective teachers" can turn around these schools of circumstance and move the children to proficiency. Central Administrators also prescribe and promote the response your principal would have initiated with a child for such a classroom outburst. Talking to the child, giving them a piece of candy and returning them immediately back to the classroom is the failed PELA way of promoting equity and minimizing out of school suspension rates. These two ideas will surely promote student achievement gains and close the achievement gap...NOT! As you say, "the principal was a terrible manager," of course she was but through no fault of her own. PELA principals throughout PPS are NOT known for their ability to manage a school because their #1 priority is to be in the classroom 4 hours a day to improve a teachers practice via RISE. Let's get real! Until the failed course of action to improve our schools has a dose of School Management Course #101 as a significant factor in increasing student achievement, we will continue to see inadequate student progress systemically. There is not one Central Office Administrator at PPS who could manage student behavior and improve student achievement at Faison. To accomplish such a task, the caliber of a Regina Holley would be needed. Oh, but not in this administrations eyes for she was not only an educational leader but a school manager...and a darn good one! Maybe we'll get some "new blood" Board Members like Dr. Holley who have past experience as an educational leader who can review the district data, research and needs of the students in specific neighborhoods to make a long term plan on how to improve student achievement.

  2. Dear Anonymous,

    First of all- you got a beef with my husband, take it to him. I am not him and he's not me. This blog is for my opinions and experiences. It is not his platform, and comments directed at him belong with him.

    That said, David was one of the most successful Principals in the district. He worked in some of the roughest schools, including Allegheny on the North Side and the now closed Alternative School for Violent and Disruptive Students-- and he was greatly successful both as an educational leader and a building manager.

    I can't speak to the PELA model or the RISE model. I'm a sub, grossing $100 a day to bust my behind making endangered school libraries suitable places for kids. Lots of blood, sweat and tears, but luckily for me-- still kind of an outsider position.

    I hear your irritation, frustration and rage. I don't blame you. I'm pissed too. I am fearful that an all-charter model is on the horizon for PPS. Be clear: that information is my opinion ONLY and has no inside data from my husband or anybody at the Board. Like I said, I'm an outsider. However, I do think that people like you and me who care about kids in PPS have to stand shoulder to shoulder and fight the things that make us mad. I hope you'll consider reading Jessie Ramey's blog Yinzercation. She's a local educational activist who knows the truth about what's going on. Her blog isn't just a source of information but is a rallying place for like-minded folks. The time is coming for us to gather together-- not make anonymous comments on each others' opinions-- but really stand together and raise our voices for kids in the PPS. Watch her blog for groups that start to form to fight. I want to stand with you and make real change. Thanks.