Part 1: I want to thank Don Zancanella from the University of New Mexico and Michael Moore from Georgia Southern University for presenting legitimately sound educational information for this session. I have no doubt you are going to learn quite a bit about Common Core Standards and their affect on literature. Consider me the warm-up act. I’ve been teaching middle school English long enough, twenty-two years and counting, to have been part of many innovations that would revolutionize our field: Madeline Hunter, Backward Design, Learning Styles, 6-Traits of Writing, Outcome-based Education, Fountas and Pinnell, Writer’s Workshop, Writing Portfolios, Performance Assessment, Whole Language, Multiple Intelligences, (Reliable scoring, Metacognition/reflection, Cooperative Learning, GLE’s and of course, Common Core Standards are just a few that have come, gone, lingered or just arrived on the scene.
Last year, I attended some really wonderful presentations at the NCTE conference in Chicago, I thought about submitting a proposal to make a presentation on how education has changed over the past ten years, since That Which Shall Not Be Named was enacted into law. This is the ten-year anniversary year, after all. While my ideas for a presentation were still fresh, I thought I should get to work right away, and in fact, I had plenty of time to work on it after being diagnosed with pneumonia the day after getting back to St. Louis, my hometown. I wrote up a snappy proposal and right before sending it off to the powers that be at NCTE, I shot it over to a friend for editing who wrote, in all caps in the subject bar, BORING! DO NOT SUBMIT! So, I just blew it off. But on the day that submissions for proposals were due, however, I had an epiphany. Why not propose a personal perspective on how my career has been dramatically affected by standardized assessment, specific and to the point. Now, I have no doubt my first proposal about writing process would be far more educational and pertinent than what I’m about to share, but on the other hand, maybe you just need a break from learning all the great things there are to learn about making you a better teacher. When I’m planning out what I want to say to an audience, I inevitably end up writing a story. So, here is a story.
I became a middle school English teacher back in 1991. It was a great time for me professionally because my district was in the process of making some major changes to their English Language Arts program, which back then was called “English,” which later became “English-Literature,” then morphed into “Language Arts,” which ended up turning into “Communication Arts,” then “Literacy” and coming back full-circle, which we kind of like doing in education, to the hybrid— “English-Language Arts.” Anyway, my district was up for making some major changes, wanting to move away from basal-style teaching and get more into a literature-based reading program and a more individualized writing program based on the Nanci Atwell model of Writer’s Workshop. Within two years of becoming an English teacher, I was given the responsibility of running the Language Arts curriculum committee for elementary and sixth grade. Oh, man I thought I was hot stuff. For a new teacher, this was like being given the keys to a Ferrari and told to go have a little fun. Little did I know my boss, who looked like an Amazonian Martha Stewart and probably had the bank account to boot— but way more intimidating than even the pre-jail Martha — she had already asked more than a dozen other teachers on the district committee to be the chair. I was in my mid-twenties, the only guy on the committee and young enough to be the son of nearly every woman there. There were easily 1,200 years of combined of teaching experience next to my two.
If you turned on contemporary radio at the time, you might hear Ace of Base, Richard Marx or the Crash Test Dummies. I remember listening to Mazzy Star’s new song, Fade into You, which is a depressing little gem, when I drove to our main office to meet with the boss, whom I was both terrified of and apparently attracted to given the embarrassingly erotic dreams I’d been having leading to this first meeting to discuss curriculum. I had a legal pad full of ideas for overhauling the Language Arts program, which was already in the process of making major changes. I also had a raging cold, one of many that I seemed to continually have over my first five years of teaching. The boss motioned for me to begin, listening politely as I rambled for perhaps ten minutes until—‑ever so gently— she pressed a finger to her lips.
“Thank you for sharing your ideas with me, but I did not ask you to meet today to only discuss the curriculum.” She smiled Mona Lisaesque as she loomed before me, a WASP giantess, which let me tell you is the dream of every young Jewish guy, perhaps 35 years my senior.
Panic. My god, this was my Mrs. Robinson moment.
“As you know, we are now formally assessing the writing of our students throughout the district and are spending a lot of money by sending them out to the St. Louis Public School district to be evaluated.”
Now, at that time, to the best of my knowledge, sending these essays out the St. Louis Public School District was the only way to have formal writing assessments graded, and writing assessments were suddenly all the rage. This was the only institution in the state that graded writing assessments, and I guess that was cheaper than sending them out of state. Now, I should mention before I continue, that at this point, the St. Louis Public School district had been in steep decline for a number of years, did not have a good reputation and has since been taken over by the Missouri Department of Education after losing accreditation due to poor test scores. The great news is that they just received provisional accreditation last week. So, my point is, with so much riding on the results of how these assessments were graded, and given the shape of the St. Louis School District, this was a really bizarre place to have the assessments scored. But back to the mid-1990’s.
The boss continued. “The St. Louis Public Schools are looking for teachers to help grade the writing assessments. They need good people. And you know I obviously like you.” (Pause) Her gaze bore into my leaky eyes, which had been continually running along with my nose, which I kept surreptitiously brushing away with my sleeve.
“Don’t they have their own teachers?” I asked with such serious dry mouth that my lips were gunking up from both the cold virus and Carmex I had liberally applied before sidling into her office.
Instead, she said, “They need additional staff. It’s a big job. And I would like you to be our, shall we say, representative, see how they do things, see if this is worth the time and money we are spending.”
I explained that I had already committed to teaching summer school for our own district, but since she informed me that I would, in fact, not be teaching summer school since we suddenly had enough teachers. Hmmm.
This sounded very suspicious, because we had never had enough teachers to teach summer school, but what choice did I have? There was no Mrs. Robinson moment, no “Boss, are you trying to seduce me?”
In fact, before I formally accepted the job, I sneezed so quickly and violently that most of my cold wound up dribbling down the front of the boss’s desk.
I was officially now on an assessment-spying mission.