Teaching to the Test

I am now one of those people who is over the age of thirty and living in their parents’ basement. This is not because I am a jobless bum, but rather because I am in-between jobs and in the process of moving from one country to another. My stuff is sprawled over the basement as I sort through what I should take and what I should leave behind. I have to make predictions about what my life will be like in the new country that I am moving to, and what I will need for clothes and for entertainment. Most of this is old habit as I have learned much from past experiences about how to stay informed about my sports teams, and watch their important games, what television shows I can access, how many books and new music will keep me engaged until I can make my way back to the United States, and most importantly how I can engage with my new fellow colleagues. I am excited about the change, and nervous, but not as nervous as I was when I made my first leap to a different country six years ago. The whole reason I don’t feel the same kind of fear of what I was getting into during that first time is because I have lived through it before, and I know a little bit of what I should be expecting. I am prepared. There is something about being prepared and how that helps to reduce stress in your life.

It is part of what I have been doing this past week. Every day, my alarm has been waking me up, so I could crawl over to my computer, hop on to Zoom, and participate in a workshop for a class I will teaching for the first time next year, AP Literature and Composition. I knew a little bit about the class from teaching in an AP school for four years, but I had a few questions that I needed answered to make sure that I could give my students the support that they will need. I have been looking at different lessons, and different texts to use in those different lessons. It has taken me back to my college days and all of the literature classes I took back then. I am sitting in a room with like minded people who love to read and talk about what they read, and it has been fun to engage with texts in this way again. But we have also looked at many students’ essays based on the prompts they might encounter on the test, and we have gone over what the College Board will be looking for when they grade them. It reminds me of the drudgery I go through any time I have student plop a completed essay on to my desk and the task I have to go through in order to grade them all and get the feedback to them. Granted, these are the higher end students writing literary analysis and for the most part, they are engaging and well written. Also, most of these essays were written in a time period of only forty minutes, so they do not take that long to grade. But I appreciated the opportunity to look at this final product because it helped me understand where I need to get my students in order to be successful in this class and on this exam.

This gets me to one of the biggest discussions that teachers have when they are assigned to one of these classes with a big exam at the end of it. Should I be teaching to this test or does that do my students a great disservice because I am not preparing them for the more important thing, life? I do believe that this is an important question to examine. If I am being honest, there will be very few of my students who will need to know how to to write a good literary analysis essay in order to be successful in life. There are very few professions that need to know how to do this, so why should I spend so much time nurturing this skill within my students? Wouldn’t the time be better spent exploring the ideas presented in the literature and having my students talk about these issues to become better citizens after they have graduated from high school? Does the test actually measure their ability to do this, and why do a bunch of dead white males hold the keys to this kind of profound thinking?

But then again I look at the reason I love literature so much, and why I want to instill that same kind of love into my students. There is a reason that the most successful people have the ability, desire, and ambition to read a large amount of fiction in common. Every story that they read teaches them the capacity to understand the world from a different person’s point of view. They get to live hundreds of pages in the mind of another person. It is the true definition of empathy, and this ability makes successful people great leaders and amazing innovators. The ability to dig deep into a piece of prose or poetry and analyze it in a way that is profound and purposeful. This may not be a skill that an engineer or a lawyer might need to know, but it is something that a human being needs to know. And though it is important to have a profession in life, it is also important to be able to practice that skill of empathy so you can have those connections in life that are meaningful.

Can I reach that level of understanding by teaching to the test? Normally, I would say no, but I do believe that AP Lit is a different class. It is a skills based class. I will be teaching students how to write effectively, and writing effectively is nothing more than an act of thinking effectively, so essentially what I will be teaching students is how to think effectively, and if they can do that then they will be successful on this test, and this test will allow them to reach that level of understanding that they need with others so they can be empathetic and successful. Why wouldn’t I then teach to the test? It is what I should be teaching anyways.

So as I prepare to take the leap to a new country again, I have been taking some time out of packing and getting the supplies I will need to be comfortable in this new country, I will take a little time to make sure that I am also prepared to teach this class for the first time. It will allow me to get my students to the place where they will need to be in order to be successful not only on the test, but life as well. I now look forward to the new school year with anticipation because it will a great one filled with a lot of fun, and I can’t wait to get to it.

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