My Secret Life as a Pilferer of Education

Sharing to back up my claim of having taught myself a few things, including reading music and some mediocre piano achievements.

I’ve been living a secret life for most of a decade. In early November, I completed an eight-year-long personal journey, one I undertook largely on the sly. I felt shy about sharing my goal because I needed all of my energy for the work. I had none left over for explanations, justifications, or talking myself out of believing any potential naysayers. There’s a lot of backstory to this, so here goes.

Immediately after high school, I got two years of college – an Associate of Arts in Liberal Arts, 64 credit hours — under my belt, while working part-time jobs. But I was in debt and broke. I mean, I had to choose between tampons and toothpaste level of broke. I had no car, no bicycle, and sometimes no bus fare. I simply couldn’t finance any more higher education at the time. So I stopped temporarily. I went to work at an office job with the idea of returning to school after I’d had the chance to save some money. I held a picture in my mind of myself in cap and gown, walking across a stage to receive my bachelor’s degree. It was always a part of The Plan.

Life kept thwarting my return. But every time I was stymied, I’d summon the image of myself graduating and know I was still working toward it. My mantra became, “This is a setback, not an end.” That went on for decades.

At one time, when I lived in Kansas City and The Plan hadn’t been put off for all that long, I applied to UMKC and was accepted as a transfer student, with a major in anthropology. My dream was happening, or so I thought. I had an enrollment date on my calendar and had met with the financial aid office. But the day before I was set to become official, I encountered an unexpected “road closed” sign on my path. The details of what happened are no longer important, but suffice to say it was a plan-derailing event, something that threw up a spiked wall between me and college enrollment.

I spent a while falling apart, and then regrouped. I went back to the UMKC campus, this time to the employment office, to pick up some job applications and get a list of openings. I would go to work there, was my plan, and get my tuition paid as an employee. Before this could happen, my spouse got a job offer in Columbia, which was a good thing. So we moved.

We got settled here, had a couple of kids, got busy. Every once in a while, I checked on what it would take to enroll at a school in my new hometown, but never could see how it would work at the moment. My new plan was to get my education ball rolling again once the kids were in school all day. I saw some other moms who were pursuing higher education. But I couldn’t help noticing the ones who were most successful at it had lots of help, a robust support system. Grandparents who could babysit frequently. Somewhere to take the kids when they were sick and couldn’t go to daycare. My extended family were all far away. I had wonderful friends, but you can only call on friends so much.

I want to say right here, I absolutely am glad I had both of my children. I can’t imagine the world without them. I would not trade them in on any other dream. I just thought I could have kids and also have my other dream, in some fashion.

When my youngest was in kindergarten, I got a shelving job at the public library. Things were falling into place. This was the first step toward my new career. I would have an advantage when I got to library school, after finishing my four-year degree. (An aside: it is ridiculous that Library and Information Science is not offered as a four-year degree itself. If you disagree, I am happy to fight.)

Each time I received a paycheck, I took a few dollars and put it in an envelope – the seed of my college fund. But more things happened, of course. Cars and appliances broke down. Both of my children ended up with expensive-to-fix dental injuries on the school playground.  My younger one had a major health issue that resulted in large medical bills. I was also saving a few dollars from each check toward my children attending college someday. As their bank accounts were sacred in my eyes, it was always my envelope that got emptied. Then I’d start over again.

Every time I considered returning to school, there was some reason why the time was not right. I always needed to wait. I see now I was too easily discouraged, too willing to believe negative voices, whether internal or external. But finally, I looked at the year and at my age, and thought, “Now or never, baby. No matter my level of external support, no matter my own self doubts, I need to do this now.”

It was 2011. At work, I had long since moved from shelving to public services. My kids both were teenagers. They could stay home alone for periods of time, prepare their own food, ride their bicycles to school in good weather. Surely, they could adapt. Due to time and money constraints, I might have to stick to one or two classes at a time, but I was ready to slog. 

A little voice of doubt made itself heard in my mind, though. It had been so long, I wasn’t sure I could do college work anymore. What if I tried and failed? It was around this time that several universities began posting class lectures and syllabi online with free access for anyone who wanted to audit. Aha! I could do a trial run to see if I was up to it. 

I signed on for a Modern Poetry course through Yale University. They imposed no requirements, but I did. I “showed up” for class three days a week and completed every assignment in the time frame originally set for in-class students. I did every reading, wrote every paper. I looked forward to the homework, enjoying every bit of it. I learned a lot and I did keep up.

I began the application process at the University of Missouri, Columbia, changing my desired major from anthropology to English, hoping to avoid any requirement for fieldwork. To ward off jinxes, I told almost no one.

I’d made it to the step of ordering my old college transcripts when I received a call about my mother. She had fallen, possibly had pneumonia, and was in the hospital. I was a midlife baby, so I never had young parents. My mom had become old and frail. My oldest sister had been providing diligent care in her home, but Mom’s needs were overwhelming. She required skilled nursing care around the clock. The only facility in their area was subpar. I quickly agreed to look for a place for her in Columbia. I didn’t send for my transcripts.

The next four years of my life kept me so busy, I practically met myself coming and going. Crises popped up as fast as I could knock them back. I was hanging by my fingernails, what with the intensity and constant demands of raising teens, one of whom left high school to spend time homeschooling and one of whom had a 504 ADA plan with the school district, requiring constant meetings and monitoring. Along with my parenting duties, I had the demands of being responsible for my mom’s well-being – care plan meetings, visiting three or four times a week, going to all of her medical appointments, making sure she had denture powder and enough socks, doing the paperwork and making the phone calls for Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security. It was like having a second job.

Let me say about my mother pretty much the same thing I said earlier about my children. I am glad I was able to bring her to live near me for her final few years. It was a treasure to spend the time with her and see her so often. I absolutely would do it again, given the same choices. But it did slam the door on my college aspirations.

I kept telling myself to be happy with everything else I had done and accomplished, to let The Plan go. Yet, I couldn’t. I tried to think of ways to revive it, while speaking of it even less than before. When I did mention the idea, the same people who urged me to wait and put it off because my young children needed me were suddenly all like “What? At your age? It’s way too late.”

At a family gathering, two relatives engaged in a staged conversation in my presence. They didn’t mention me, but only other hypothetical people of about my age who talked about going back to college.* The two of them agreed and reinforced each other’s points about how selfish it would be and how little sense it would make to spend that kind of money on college when you were middle aged already.

Pivotal paragraph alert:

I had changed, though. Instead of shutting me down as it had in the past, that kind of interaction fired me up. I thought a lot about the Modern Poetry class I had taken and realized how many resources had become available that were inexpensive or free. I might not walk across a stage or get a piece of paper at the end of it, but I could still put myself through college. Since I was homeschooling my oldest kid for a couple of years. I could homeschool myself, too.

I researched majors once again, determining what degree requirements were feasible for me to meet, considering my circumstances and available resources. Many schools offered a degree in General Studies and/or Liberal Arts. The requirements appeared nearly identical for the two, and it was continuation of what I’d already done in school. Third time a charm – I designed a course of study that would fulfill the listed requirements for this bachelor’s degree at a few different places. Then I started the long, but happy grind, one class at a time.

It would be a mammoth undertaking, but I was determined not to cut corners or cheat. If I did, I would be cheating only myself. Since I’d already done the Modern Poetry course, I gave myself credit for it on my transcript. Though I didn’t always hold myself to the same time schedule I had in that course, I did hold myself to the same finishing standards. If I took a course, I had to do all of the work and do it as well as I could. No skipping even a single assignment.

I needed some college level math, so one of my early subjects was College Algebra, which I did through ALEKS. It wasn’t completely free, but it was pretty affordable. They require you to show mastery of a lesson before you can go on to the next one. I went back to online Yale and took a Theory of Literature class, again attending every lecture, doing every reading, and writing every paper. Through my public library (also my employer), I had free access to many online continuing education classes. Universal Class was one option for these. I studied a few subjects there – film studies, geography and others. They all required papers and quizzes to get a certificate. I knew they did not go as in-depth or require as much as a full-semester college course, so I personalized, beefing them up with supplement readings and projects of my own. And at the end of each Universal Class course, I would add only a single credit hour to my spreadsheet because I didn’t want to pad. I wanted to do the real work.

Both of my kids unwittingly provided opportunities for me. My younger son had taken piano for several years, but gave it up for other pursuits when he was around 15. I had all of his old lesson books, including one titled “Practical Theory, a Self-Instruction Music Theory Course.” I had always wanted a better understanding of music. I worked my way through his books for a music appreciation elective credit. If any one subject came close to kicking my ass, it was this one. But I taught myself to read music passably and have soared to mediocre heights on the piano.

My oldest started attending community college. As he adjusted to the demands of higher education the first semester, he requested my help with studying and organizing for one class in particular, an American History class. While earning my AA degree, I’d taken world history classes, but no American History. Here were some new credit hours I could accrue. Since I was helping my son keep track of assignments, I knew what they all were. When he wasn’t using his textbook, I read it cover to cover. And wrote all of the papers — mine, not his.

I used whatever slivers of time I could find to focus on my schoolwork. During the early years, I spent a lot of time in a parked van one place or another, waiting to pick up a kid from school or other activity. I took advantage of those moments to study. I also studied on lunch breaks. I took work with me when I visited my mom, who was prone to drifting into naps. I stayed up late at night finishing assignments and got too little sleep, just like a “real” college student. My house became very dusty.

All of that work, effort, striving. Yet I couldn’t share it with much of anyone. We all have blind spots. I’ve had some of my own revealed to me over the years. One of the most common blind spots I notice in others is the tendency to judge people based on the degrees they have or haven’t earned. There’s somehow a common idea that if you didn’t pay someone for your knowledge, then it’s not real. It’s supposed to be a commodity that you bought in a college or university. If you got it any other way, it’s illegitimate, pilfered even. You stole that knowledge. You shouldn’t get any credit for it or be allowed to use it. Or, if it didn’t cost a fortune, it must be a lesser quality of knowledge.

I wanted to be able to talk about my pursuits, to enthuse, to express the joy I felt. To explain the reason I didn’t or couldn’t do something else with my time was because I had to finish writing a paper for a class. I worked with some younger colleagues who were still in school. I’d stand by while they spoke of the demands and the joys and the new knowledge attained in their studies. I wanted that conversation with someone. But I knew if I ever said anything, it’s not the conversation I would get.

A handful of times, the fact that I was taking some class arose organically. But I spoke without getting into the layers of what it meant in my life. After a while, I became cagier about even casual mentions. Because here was a typical interaction.

I was talking to someone who spent a lot of money for her knowledge back in the day. I’ve seen her mentor younger folks and heard her express respect for how many of them managed to juggle school and work. It’s very possible that she herself had more life responsibilities than I realized. But from what I knew of her at the time, it didn’t seem she had many. She had a full-time job and a husband, and that was about it. To me, it was a dream. Imagine all I could accomplish and do in the same situation!

I, on the other hand, was barely sleeping due to everything on my plate. I was in the midst of dealing with extremely difficult teen stuff, including some health issues with both kids, always needing to drive someone somewhere, or taking one of them out for practice driving hours, or helping with homework, or mediating disputes. I was working my day job, spending many hours per week on my mom’s needs, groceries, cooking, etc. Yet somehow, I still managed to have a class going at almost all times.

Anyway, the conversation — I casually mentioned an interesting fact I had just learned in an online class. I was enthusiastic about this bit of knowledge and thought we could have a discussion about it. But after I mentioned the course I was taking, here’s the turn things took instead.

In a martyred, wistful tone (possibly exaggerated in my memory), she said, “Maybe someday I’ll have enough free time to do things like that, taking a class just for fun.

It took me a beat to respond because I had to swallow a “fuck you” instead of letting it out. I’m generally a laugh instead of cry person, so I chuckled at her obvious joke, and told her, “It’s the one thing I do for myself. It’s so important, when almost every second of my life involves taking care of other people, to wedge in one small thing for me. It’s what keeps me from burning out on the thousand other responsibilities I have.”  Which was really a long-winded, more socially acceptable form of “fuck you.”

For the record, I’ve forgiven her, even if she never had a clue she needed forgiveness. But lesson learned. If I had been paying someone else in a formal program to give me the information, it would garner admiration. Because I was constructing the road for the educational journey myself, my efforts were seen as the frivolous activities of someone without serious responsibilities who had too much time on her hands. I stayed mum after that…

With one significant exception. I took the risk of sharing my plan with some close mom friends who showed understanding and support. I had believed the only cheerleader I needed was myself, but their words sure bolstered me.

I persevered through my mother’s end of life, my two children reaching legal adulthood, kid number two moving away, followed shortly by kid number one moving away only to return a few weeks later, then kid two returning in a few more weeks. And eventually, my firstborn launching again. Me taking on a second job, a side hustle doing online transcription. Two vehicles getting totaled. Innumerable home repairs. Always, no matter what, I kept my studies near the top of my list of priorities. It was slow going at times, but I plugged away.

These last couple of years, I was down to simply electives. In February 2019, I did the math and realized I needed only three more credit hours. I’d just wrapped up a fiction editing course and was trying to choose my next topic when a copy of The Complete Plays of William Shakespeare dropped into my life for free. By “dropped into my life,” I mean I skimmed it off of the top of a box of books in a recycling bin on the loading dock at work, but whatever. I can interpret the signs how I want.

For my last and final subject, I would design my own course. I gave myself the assignment to read all of Shakespeare’s plays, also watching performances of them when possible, streaming online or on DVD. I would also write a page about each one. For a few, I found Great Courses lectures that were illuminating, as well. About two-thirds of the way through, I wondered why I hadn’t limited it to one category. Why didn’t I stick to only Shakespeare’s comedies or his tragedies? On the other hand, how many people can say they’ve read every last one of his plays? Nose to the grindstone, it took me nine months for this last class.

One day on my lunch break, I sat in the coffee shop of Lucky’s Market and wrote my final paper. I dotted in the last period and looked up, stunned. I had persisted and crossed the finish line. The world around me looked the same, people going about their mundane tasks. But in my spirit, it was all trumpets and confetti.

Some arrive at the destination by paved road. I came through the briars. The snags in my clothes, the scratches on my legs – those are my honors cords. I created my own maps for the journey, gathering knowledge in a basket I wove myself.

I started with one online class in 2011. And on Wednesday, November 6, 2019, at 1:35 in the afternoon, in a grocery store, I graduated from my own private, one-person university.

~


*It’s possible they really were talking in hypotheticals, but it felt directed toward me at the time, maybe because it jibed with my some of my own worst internal fears and doubts.

Can We Make Public Schools More Like Public Libraries?

I have worked at a public library for 11 years and been a public school parent for 14. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve found myself wishing my kids’ schools could be run a little more like the library. Here are some examples:

1. Truancy. During a handful of years one or both of my kids had several colds and missed more than the “allowed” number of days of school. Whereupon I received an automated shaming letter chastising me for my child’s absences and explaining how important education is. These letters always lead me to thinking about the broader issue of how often school districts and the governments that fund school districts rely on a punitive approach to issues. I understand the concern if a student has excessive absenteeism when they’re not ill. But what will actually help get them in the door? Schools are frantic to have a good head count every day so they get full funding. If they can’t get the kids there in the seats, the district is financially punished. In turn, they punish kids and parents when the kids don’t show up. It’s been my observation that punishment is more likely to lead to dropping out altogether. It’s almost as if the students are there to serve the system instead of the other way around.

Wouldn’t it be worth a try to use some positive measures? When people don’t come to the library, the question isn’t “How do we punish them?” The question is “How can we better serve their needs so they’ll want to be here?” Community surveys are done on a regular basis to discover what residents like about what we’re already doing, what things we could do better and what new services folks might wish for us to provide. Occasionally, we’ve kept what are called “No logs” – listings of every instance where a staff member said “No” to a patron request. After a few weeks, it was easy to see what needs weren’t being filled. Several times a day we were saying “No, we don’t have a fax machine for public use.” Well, after realizing how often people were requesting to use one, we do. Now we can say “Yes, there’s a fax machine you can use.”  Same thing with notary services. And maybe when the person comes in to use our fax machine or get something notarized, they’ll notice a flyer for an upcoming program that catches their fancy. Or they’ll see our DVD collection and say “Oh, I didn’t know you had movies here.” And they’ll come back again. Or not. But at least we’ve found one way to be of service to them.

2. Choices.  At the library, you don’t have to do everything or be good at everything. You can choose how much of the library to do. If you want to come to several programs every week, plus checking out print books, ebooks, audiobooks, DVDs and music CDs, go for it! If you only want to use our downloadable music service from home, that’s fine. My 16-year-old is feeling really done with English at high school and he gets top scores on all assessments. Why does he have to keep taking it? Likewise, there have been classes that caught his interest, but the learning he’d already done in the subject happened outside of the school setting and so he didn’t meet the prerequisite. At the library, if a 6-year-old wants to participate in our Lego program, there’s no prerequisite that they must have attended storytime as a three-year-old. Also, you get to choose which books to read and we don’t scold you that they’re too easy or too hard. You can figure that out for yourself. The library doesn’t have a quota. Read one book per year or 70, we’re here for you. If there’s a book you want and we don’t have it, you can suggest we purchase it. If it’s a new book, published within the past year, there’s a good chance we will. What if students could suggest classes or even just have a say in the curriculum of the classes already offered? Would they be more motivated? More interested? Maybe.

3. Cooperation and sharing. Let’s go back to that book you wanted that the library doesn’t own. If it’s older than about a year, we probably won’t purchase it – BUT. We will try to find a library that owns it and request a loan from them. Libraries borrow from and lend to each other constantly in an effort to make as many resources as possible available to as many people as possible. It’s not unusual for a book to journey hundreds of miles to fill one patron request. With today’s technology I wonder if schools could do something similar. My son has had the experience of signing up for a class that didn’t happen because not enough students enrolled for it. But with Skype and other technologies, it seems to me schools working together could come up with enough students for a class that could meet via technology. Or they could arrange for the three or four students from one school to remotely attend a class happening at a different location.

4. Pacing. My library’s lending period for most materials is three weeks. But if you get finished sooner, you don’t have to wait until the end of that three weeks to start reading or listening to the next thing. And if the three weeks passes but you’re not quite finished, you can renew unless there’s a waiting list for the item. Even then, you can get back in line for it and have more time to finish. At school, you have a set amount of time to do the unit. Finish early? Okay, twiddle your thumbs for a while. Not quite done? Too bad. That was your only chance. (I do realize many individual teachers work with students to remedy this; I’m talking about systemic issues, though.)

5. Mixing of age groups. One lovely thing about a public library is how it’s for everyone. We might have a 17-year-old and an 80-year-old in the same “How to Sell Online” class. While there are some general common-sense age guidelines – a 3-year-old can come to story time but not sign up for a gardening seminar – there’s a lot of intergenerational mixing, which is good for everyone. If you’re 90 years old and have never used the public library, you’re welcome to start today. Even programs aimed at a certain demographic aren’t as narrowly restricted as grades in school. Our teen programs have 13-year-olds and 17-year-olds.  Siblings can attend together if they have the same interest.

Looking back over my list, what I see at the core is a desire for schools to be more flexible and less punitive. I know change is hard and complicated, and almost always brings with it unforeseen consequences. But I can dream, can’t I?

How We Flunked Story Time

may_28_6968_frog_tadpole “Story time saved my sanity.” Thus proclaimed a friend with children much younger than mine. She gushed to me how much her family loves the library, and especially the children’s programs.

This sent my mind into a reminiscence of my own family history. I didn’t reveal to her my shameful secret. But I will confess it here. When my daughter was three and my son a newborn, our family flunked out of story time. At the very library where I now work.

It had to do with the green paper circles. Lily pads you might call them if you were a story time lady presenting a tale about frogs. Or, if you were my then 3-year-old daughter, you might call them wall dots, green steering wheels, round green hats, or frisbees. In her eyes, the possibilities were endless.

“Let’s sit on our lily pads little frogs, while we hear a story!” prompted the cheerful story time lady. 10 or 11 out of the group of 11 or 12 little frogs obediently criss-cross apple sauced on their lily pads.

“Frogs sit *on* their lily pads, not *under* them,” said the story time lady, still cheerfully.

“Mine’s a hat!” said my three-year-old, also cheerfully.

“Okay, well, let’s get the story started,” said the story time lady, gamely.

As the other children were doing the finger plays, my daughter was driving us to the store with the steering wheel that had been so thoughtfully provided. “I’ll drive since you’re holding the baby,” she whispered to me.

“Remember to sit on your lily pads,” prompted the story time lady, a little sternly, as the story ended and she prepared to begin a song. This time she was looking at me, a look that told me I was allowing my kid to Set a Bad Example, and I should begin enforcing the story time rules like a Good Mother.

But she’s not being disruptive, I thought back at her. She only whispered once, right in my ear. If I argue with her, that will be disruptive.

I don’t remember the song, probably something to do with amphibians. I remember I sang along, while wearing a green paper hat, held on my head by my kid. It was only fair that I have a turn, after all. See, I had taught my child about taking turns and sharing. Not a total loser mom, huh?

As a finale, there was a second song. And the kids were allowed more action this time, hopping, a little, in place, on cue. Or in one case, doing a small interpretive dance – The Dance of the Green Circle. My inner being was divided between mortification and fierce pride. I know which side the story time lady came down on, as she threw in an extra demonstration of the proper form of hopping.

As the program ended and parents left hand-in-hand with their children, I saw some other families grouping together, comparing this experience with story times of other weeks. Apparently they had a story time clique. Their offspring had been in training since birth. And here I thought I could bring in my wild child starting at the advanced age of three and have her fit in.

Said child, meanwhile, now that she was allowed to move around and talk freely, was pointing out to me all of the things you could do with a circle of green paper. You could decorate a wall with it. You could tuck in the top of your shirt in back and have a round superhero cape. You could hide your face behind it to play peek-a-boo with a baby. You could use it as a baby blanket. After a minute, my mixed feelings coalesced into amazement at my kid’s mind and attitude – that she could be so excited and could see so many possibilities in circle of paper.

I glanced around at the other families, with their conforming kids, who would have fit right in on that planet in “A Wrinkle in Time” – the one where the children bounced their balls at the exact same time on the exact same schedule every day. Suddenly, they seemed a little, hmmm, soulless might be the word? Those poor moms and dads, seeing the limitations of their merely adequate children exposed in the bright illumination cast by the creative genius shining from my daughter. Yeah, I couldn’t put them through that again.

We’d stick to our informal weekly playgroup and leave the organized story times for those others. I imagined the librarian in charge of the program that day thinking of us as “not story time material.” I suppose some people might look at it as having failed, and at times I have looked at it that way, too, wondering why my kid has such a hard time getting with the program. But I prefer think of it more as not a good fit. See how non-judgmental I’m being about the others’ rigidity and lack of imagination?lilypad

The same dynamic would continue to play out in public school as the years went on. My older kid often had “better” ideas than the teacher about how an assignment should be done. Some teachers loved this and used it to advantage. In those classes, my child learned a lot and accomplished some remarkable creative achievements. Others instructors – I call them lily pad teachers – lived by the philosophy “Rubrick uber alles!” My offspring showed a marked failure to thrive in those classrooms.

I never have completely sorted out my feelings. No, I don’t think the school should have to convert any of their computers from qwerty to Dvorak because one kid think it works better. (Pick your battles, child.) But yes, I do think my then-10th-grader should have been given extra credit instead of a zero on that world history report for having gone so far above and beyond in research and effort, in having a desire to do something that wasn’t a rehash of every other paper that had been written in the same classroom for the past decade.

Eventually the little frog grew strong enough to hop its way out of the public school pond and forge its own path to college, via self-study and a GED. Have I mentioned the college major? – Fisheries and Wildlife. Lack of preschool success at frogdom notwithstanding. I guess it didn’t go on the permanent record.

greencirclegreencirclegreencircle

A Tale of Two Classrooms.

It was the best of educational experiences. It was the worst of educational experiences. It was a time in which a student could get an A on her English assignment for writing her “how-to” paper on the subject of How to Begin Your Secret Mission. It was a time in which a student could get no credit at all for writing a paper in World History with the assigned topic of “Ancient Greek Mythology” because she went beyond the rubric when she explored the sociological aspects and explained why the myths made sense in the context of the culture, when they can seem so nonsensical today. It was a time in which English teachers were lauded and World History teachers reviled within certain households. Creativity was nurtured and creativity was punished; individuality was encouraged and rigid conformity was enforced. Students were going directly on to brilliant college success because of their abilities to stretch their minds; students were headed to a life selling cigarettes at QuikMart because of their inabilities to follow directions to the letter. It was an American girl’s sophomore year in high school. The two classrooms were in the same building, but may as well have been on different planets.

Does any of this sound familiar? If you have a child in public school, I’ll bet it does. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from seeing my kids go through the school system, it’s that the administration can be good, bad or indifferent, and so can the curriculum. But it’s the classroom teacher who makes the most difference between a good educational experience and a bad one. If you’ve had a good teacher, remember to thank him or her.

Those are my thoughts for today.

 

A Mother’s-Eye View of Standardized Testing

I wrote this essay a few years ago. It has received more “we almost published this” letters than any other piece of writing I’ve produced, yet it never makes the final cut. So why not put it here?

Good test scores? A lifetime supply of cookies for you!

**

Human beings are incapable of playing in the rain. I learned this when I worked for the local public school district. One of my duties in the Title I office involved processing the tests given to children as part of their preschool screening. In the section used to determine a child’s problem solving ability, a question asked, “What do you do when it rains?”

One boy answered, “You can play in the rain if it’s warm and there’s no lightning.” He was marked wrong.  Apparently the creators of the test and the answer key knew something I didn’t. I thought people possessed the ability to frolic in falling water. I was also under the mistaken impression that we humans could stomp in puddles, but the kids who mentioned this activity were considered equally wrong.  The only things we can do when it rains are: go inside, use an umbrella, or put on a raincoat. According to the test makers anyway.

I’m not criticizing the Title I program. It’s a good thing. It helps kids who need extra assistance prepare for kindergarten, and provides individualized instruction to children who are struggling with reading. The Title I teachers and administrators I saw in my stint as an office grunt were by and large hard working, empathetic and dedicated. But they worked within the public schools, and as far as I know, no part of the public school system escapes the scourge of required standardized testing.

This isn’t a new development, of course. During my own school days, in fourth grade to be exact, I was identified as gifted and placed in a special program. In what area did my gifts lie? Not visual arts; I was about average there. Certainly not music; to this day I can’t carry a tune. My social skills were mediocre at best, so I wasn’t being recognized for my interpersonal abilities. I could do math in my head, and I loved to read. But my real, true gift, my greatest ability, was test taking. I intuitively grasped the formula for multiple-choice tests and I had a talent for figuring out what authority figures liked to hear in the way of answers. Throughout the years of my formal education, I received a lot of praise for my exam marks.

How have I applied this skill in my adult life? I haven’t.  I’ve never found an employer willing to hire me to take tests. I don’t field requests to perform the Stanford Binet at parties. Nobody knows or cares what my SAT scores were. My husband didn’t bother to find out before he asked me to marry him. My children don’t care; they just want to know what’s for dinner. All of those numbers everyone made such a big deal about back then turned out to be the most irrelevant facts of my life.

As much emphasis as test scores received when I was in school, things are worse for my own kids. For their generation, it begins when they’re toddlers. Both of my children were enrolled in Parents as Teachers, an early childhood program, free to families, in which a parent educator comes to the home roughly once a month, does educational activities with your child, and gives you information about child development. Like Title I, it’s a good program with many benefits. Then there’s the testing.

My kids, both at the age of two, participated in the Denver II screening, given to check their progress on various developmental milestones.  My daughter and son both proved the maxim that tests can be standardized, but children can’t.  One of the skills the children were asked to exhibit was block stacking. My daughter, as a toddler, adored building toys. She performed brilliantly on tower making. The problems began when the blocks were put away so she could move on to demonstrating her social and verbal acuity. The parent educator may have thought they were done playing with blocks, but the examinee disagreed. For the remainder of the session, every question posed to my daughter was met with a request for more block play.  Finally, the examiner gave up asking her anything.

As my little girl sat happily constructing walls, the parent educator pondered how to “score” her. I looked over the questions and pointed out that my daughter had demonstrated all the listed skills during previous visits. According to the rules, though, she couldn’t be given credit for them if she didn’t do them during the test. On the other hand, the examiner couldn’t well write down that my child was incapable of things she had been observed to do. The parent educator eventually wrote the word “refused” on the lines where the child’s answers were supposed to be recorded. An Alford Plea of sorts, I suppose.

When my son did the same screening three years later, he willingly answered every question. He loved to talk; it was his favorite activity at the time. But he tended to give nonconformist answers. When asked to supply the name of a friend, he said, “Grace (his sister) is my most friend.”  Wrong. He was supposed to have given a name from outside the family.  In the world of the Denver II, siblings can’t be friends. As his mother, I felt he couldn’t have given a more right answer.

At the time I found it amusing and even endearing, the way my children wouldn’t be boxed in by these silly tests. I stopped laughing when I discovered the scores were to be included in their school records and the numbers used by people who had never even met my children to make decisions about their educations and lives.

This is what makes me all prickly about standardized exams.  They don’t produce insight; they produce numbers, which are taken completely out of any context, and then used to define a child. I never met the Title I child who liked playing in the warm rain, but his response gave me the impression of a joyful little boy who also had a level head on his shoulders. Not only did he refuse to allow the weather to spoil his fun, he possessed enough wisdom to evaluate when it was safe to be outside and when it wasn’t. That made him an A#1 problem solver in my book. Unfortunately, what went into his school record likely reflected a different view; perhaps of a boy who was only a three in problem solving, not as clever as those fives. We can’t expect as much from him.

Similarly, my son’s “score” was skewed. In our family, we regard each other as friends. I guess the folks who created the developmental screening didn’t get along so well with their own relations.  Too bad they’re the ones who get to say which is the right answer when a difference of opinion arises. Where I saw a sweet, big-hearted boy who adored his sister, the number assigned to him declared he wasn’t quite up to speed with his social awareness, and subsequently he entered school already labeled as a bit deficient.

Then there’s my daughter, who exhibited all the skills they were looking for every day of her life except for test day, when she had something else on her mind. Even if everyone agreed on which questions and answers were necessary and right (a big stretch), a test score still only reflects what the child does during one small portion of one day, ignoring whatever accomplishments she demonstrates the entire rest of the year.

My children have been blessed so far with wonderful teachers, ones who do look beyond the numbers. My daughter’s second grade teacher realized that reading level and emotional maturity are two very different things. Though my daughter could read most of the books in the school, she wasn’t ready for the themes in some of them. The teacher made an extra effort to find books for her that met her needs on all levels. In first grade, my son rarely completed any work assignment. His teacher, drawing on her years of experience, recognized his painfully slow work habits as a product of perfectionism. She had the wisdom to see he didn’t need extra instruction in the subjects at hand, but did need encouragement to take risks. These are the sorts of insights that are at the heart of effective teaching and can never be gained from penciled-in bubbles on an answer sheet.

Yet, thanks in large part to the federal government’s No Child Left Behind Act, these terrific educators are able to spend less and less time educating. One day, looking at my daughter’s heavy homework load, I asked, “If you’re doing all this work at home, what is it you’re doing with your class time?”

“Taking tests,” she said with a world-weary sigh.

A number of philosophers have written about the human tendency to confuse the symbol with the thing it symbolizes.  It seems to me this has happened with test scores. They’ve been transformed from a symbol of what students are pursuing – education – into the thing pursued. In the interest of raising scores, students at West Blvd Elementary School, in Columbia, Missouri, are now be required to spend longer days, and more of them, in the classroom than other students in the Columbia Public Schools. The district’s budget is so tight that some teacher positions had to be eliminated; yet money was found to create a new administrative position, “Director of Research, Assessment and Accountability.” A testing czar, in other words.

Posted on the Columbia Public Schools web site is the district’s Assessment Plan, all 49 pages of it. Two pages are devoted to “motivating students to do well on state and district-wide assessments.”  Techniques mentioned include treats as rewards (Tootsie Rolls are listed by name), raffles, and motivational assemblies. Another two pages are devoted to test-taking strategies. One of the strategies for multiple choice tests is: Choose a middle answer (B, C, or D) versus a first or last choice when a guess is necessary. This isn’t unique to one school district; it’s a standard tactic for multiple-choice tests. It’s also an admission that a high test score doesn’t necessarily reflect mastery of a particular subject. Mastery of how to work the system maybe.

There are better ways to assess the areas in which a child is doing well and in which they need more help. Some private schools and home school families have pupils build a portfolio throughout the year to provide an overview of what they have learned and accomplished. Daily observations and common sense go a long way as well. I don’t need a test to tell me if my kids can manage fractions. They cook with me in the kitchen and can easily double recipe ingredients from a quarter to a half-cup, from 3/4 to 1 1/2 teaspoons.  My daughter has taken several sessions of private weaving lessons with not a single test of any kind.  But anyone looking at the pieces she turned out with each successive class could see how much she was learning and improving.

So why do we parents, teachers and school administrators keep participating in what so many of us see as a deeply flawed and harmful practice? Though it makes me cringe to admit it, the honest answer for me is fear.  According to federal and state mandates, any school with less than 95% participation gets in trouble. So do the schools where students don’t produce high enough scores.  I’ve considered boycotting the MAP (Missouri Assessment Program) by keeping my kids home on testing days. But then I’ll think, “Do I really want our school’s year extended? Do I want to feel responsible if teachers lose their jobs?” No wonder the administration is almost frantic to make sure children show up to take the test. And fill in the correct bubbles.

Another problem with moving away from mass standardized testing toward a more informative and helpful system of assessment is that it would require teachers to pay increased individual attention to each student, which would mean smaller classes, which would mean a need for more money.  I’m convinced the resources are there; it’s just that we as a society would have to make a major commitment to changing our priorities. The words from the classic bumper sticker come to mind:  It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the air force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber. A tall order, but maybe we don’t have to try to accomplish it all at once; we can keep it as an eventual goal.

In fact, simply eliminating standardized testing would be a good start on freeing up material and human resources to be used for better purposes. My local school district’s budget for the past year included more than $170,000 just for testing materials.  I don’t know what salary is paid to the new testing administrator. But it looks to me like eliminating the testing budget plus the new administrative position could provide enough money for at least a few more teachers.

And what can parents do to make this start happening? Realistically, many of us struggle just to keep up with the laundry and grocery shopping, and don’t feel equal to the task of reforming an entire culture. For some the answer is private school or homeschooling. For others, those aren’t viable options. Personally, all I know to do is keep talking every chance I get, and encouraging others to do the same. Maybe someday someone will listen.

In the meantime, I do what I can to educate my own children about the realities of standardized testing. I especially like to tell them true stories about “problem” students, such as Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, and M.C. Escher (who famously flunked out of school because his test scores were too low.) When we talk about the ‘gifted” program and the fact that the school district deems only 2% of students worthy of an enriching educational experience, I give my kids a story problem, “If two percent of students have enrichment provided by the schools, then what percentage of pupils will have to go get what they need for themselves, and which group is learning more about resourcefulness?”   And when we get tired of discussing schools and testing, we all go out to play in the rain.  Some days I feel like that’s the best thing I can do for my children.

**

Uh-oh! Low scores! It's into the pit for him.

Book thoughts: How having a stroke is like going to school

Note: This isn’t a review. It’s a summary of some random thoughts I had while reading.

I began reading My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor after watching the author’s speech on TED . Taylor is a brain scientist who experienced a stroke at the age of 37.

I’ve never been in the hospital with a stroke. So why did her experience seem so familiar as I read about it? The answer revealed itself with this sentence: “I wanted my doctors to focus on how my brain was working rather than on whether it worked according to their criteria or timetable.”

Aha! It was much like having a kid in school, I realized. Substitute a few words and you have a sentenced uttered by some parent somewhere at least once every day, especially if that parent has been through the IEP process.

“I wanted the educators to focus on how my child’s brain was learning rather than on whether it learned according to their criteria or timetable.”

I may have uttered those exact words. I know I’ve said something at least very close. 

There’s also this sentence from the book: “My ability to cognate was erroneously assessed by how quickly I could recall information, rather than by how my mind strategized to recover the information it held.” 

Familiarer and familiarer.

Taylor credits many thoughtful healthcare professionals who offered her real assistance and compassion. Nevertheless, it’s clear they were working within a strong institutional culture that made it difficult to operate outside the proverbial box. Likewise with teachers. Most of the ones I’ve known are great individuals, working within a strong institutional culture that allows teaching to a narrow range of learning styles and not much more.

We parents are asking them to meet our children’s needs, while the boss – the institutional culture – is requesting them to get the children to meet the needs of the system. This is why left-handers used to have to be cured. They smudged the paper too much; it caused problems with institutional efficiency. 

In the chapter titled What I Needed the Most, the list again seems like one that should be sent to educators as well as those working with stroke survivors. For instance: “I needed the people around me to believe in the plasticity of my brain and its ability to grow, learn, and recover.”

Some of the other needs she mentions – love, encouragement, dreams – are things we all need. May we all grow, learn and recover from our lives’ traumas if we remember to supply these to each other.

I encourage everyone to watch the talk on TED, even if you don’t read the book. It’s got good information on stroke, things we all should know. But it’s more about life and love and compassion, things we all should know as well.