Death

…and then life happened

I had planned a follow-up to my recent Power of Positive Technology post… but then life happened.  The new school year started on a Wednesday, and Thursday night my father died.  He and my mom had been living with us for about five months, waiting to move into their new house.  Dad had been sick for a long time, and we knew the end was near, but I was still (and continue to be) blindsided by grief.  It comes in waves, rolls over me, recedes for awhile, and then – BAM – it’s back.

As I struggled to focus on my work, I thought of how hard it must be for my students to focus and learn new concepts and complete homework and study for tests… when their lives are in chaos.  In my own fog of grief, I would leave work and drive towards the grocery store, knowing we needed food for dinner, but as I approached the parking lot, I would just keep driving toward home.  “I’ll order pizza,” I would think.  I didn’t have the energy to park the car and go into the store.

My students are probably not suffering grief on a regular basis, but from what I read in their journals, there is plenty of chaos in their lives: parents in the throes of divorce, siblings in the angst of adolescence, friends in the midst of middle school drama.  And every year I have a student or two who have recently lost a parent or who lose a parent during the school year.

I want to teach my students to persevere in the face of adversity.  I know that life is hard and they need to learn to keep plugging through the most difficult times.  But I also know that there are days when it’s all we can do to get dressed and make it to class on time.  And my own bout with grief makes me wonder: if all we care about is test scores, what do we expect our children to become?  Are we neglecting their emotional selves?  Are we asking them to be robots?

I don’t have an answer.  But I do know that when grief strikes, it’s all we can do to face the day, not to mention learn a new concept, demonstrate proficiency, perform on demand.

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They’re kids, not Olympians

We work hard all year, writing and reading and analyzing and discussing and reading and writing some more.  And then, all of our hard work and learning are testevaluated and assessed in two days of state exams.  Multiple-choice exams, mind you, no writing necessary.

So we also work hard to create a testing environment that supports our students.  We keep our daily routine the same.  We schedule the tests so that students take them in the same classroom, with the same teacher, where they have learned the content that year.  Students are tested in only one subject each week, so that their other classes are kept on a familiar routine.  And we encourage our students to approach the tests as an opportunity to show everyone what they know, what they have learned.

And then this happens: a beloved 2nd grade teacher is gunned down by her husband, who then kills himself.  Their 18-month-old twins are left orphaned and her two teen daughters from a previous marriage lose their mother.  Many of our students were in this teacher’s class.  One of her daughters is a student at our school.  The victim was a local girl, attending high school here with many of us.  Her mother was our teacher when we were in junior high.  The ripple effects of this horrific tragedy continue to splash against the hearts of so many lives here in our tight-knit Northern California community. We are devastated, in shock, angry, grieving.

flowersThe day after the shooting my 8th grade students were scheduled to take the first half of their state exams in English language arts.  Wisely, our administration postponed that day’s testing.  So that Monday back to school we did the other kind of work so common to teachers: we acted more as counselors, walking our students through grief, giving them time to write, draw, talk, share.  We let them leave class to go to counseling rooms.  We ignored the mandated curriculum because we knew that nothing was as important as acknowledging their grief, allowing time for healing.  Some needed to cry; some needed to get back to a normal routine, whatever “normal” might be.  We straddled that precarious line, offering solace to those in need, some semblance of regular “school” to those who wanted it.  The first day was exhausting, the second, a little better.

By Thursday of that week, we needed to be back on track.  We have little flexibility in the timing of the state tests, so four days after the shooting, my students took the first 90-minute portion of their English language arts exam.  I watched them as they read, contemplated, and bubbled, and I thought, does it make sense to anyone that all the work we have done this year is assessed in this one sitting?

This is not about the horrors of domestic violence, and in no way am I suggesting sadthat issues with state testing can compare to the losses faced by this family and their community.  But as we reeled from the shock of this tragedy, the absurdity of our situation was magnified.  We all have good days and bad days, we all have struggles and tragedies and life’s curve balls thrown at us, but over the course of the school year, we do a lot of good work.  Why, then, must we perform in a one-shot, high-stakes testing scenario?

Maybe it makes sense for law students taking the bar exam.  Maybe it makes sense for Olympic athletes competing for gold.  But does it make sense for 13-year-old students?  And what about their 7-year-old siblings?  Seven. Years. Old.

Adults learn to set aside whatever is going on in their lives in order to perform in a high-stakes situation, but children? No, it doesn’t make sense.  And this is why some of us are trying to fight back.  Join us?