Today was one of those perfect days in teaching, a day where I remember what I love about this job. It’s sad that I sometimes forget. Sad that so much has changed in such a short time in this career. But every once in awhile, that spark comes back to remind me. Over my two decades of teaching, my creative license as a teacher has slowly been chipped away. The assignments, the readings and the pacing of my class have been laid out for me. The tests I give my students are common to every other teacher in the building and, by default, common to every student. The argument is that, in making everything standardized, we can better assess a student’s progress and a teacher’s merit. But in standardizing education, we have made not only the tests common, we have made education common as well.
Before reading Romeo and Juliet, it is important for students to understand the norms of the Elizabethan Time Period. Without that knowledge, they would not truly understand why the play twists and turns in quite the way it does. So, my students set out on a journey of exploration. During that journey, they are asked to dream. To imagine. And to create. Through the power of imagination, they walk out of the brick-walled confines of their classroom and travel back in time to the year 1558. In that moment, my room transforms into this creative space, where students are given choice and allowed to tap into their own strengths and curiosities. In one corner of the room, a student begins sketching out a Graphic Novel. She has spent a few days researching the era and wants to create a story showcasing Knights and Lords and Ladies. She especially wants to include a Court Jester, something to add some comic relief and keep her audience guessing. As she sketches out her ideas, the girl next to her researches common insults and slang from the time period. They discover a Shakespearean language generator and are giggling together, trying out phrases for their Jester to hurl at the maid later in the story. “Thou puking, pox-marked, mold-warp! Fetch me my supper or I shall hurl this stool at you!” they say while laughing.
One table over, an introverted boy is deep inside his own head. His headphones are on and he stares intently at his screen. His eyes are alive and alert. He is designing a video game which will be based on the 1500’s with challenges and levels that will take the player from Page to Squire to Knight. This is the same boy who often comes into my class, his bag dragging behind him, and slouches into his seat with a groan. He is depressed and often attempts to sleep. But today he is on fire. As I circle by his table, he calls me over. In rapid succession, he explains to me his plan, lays out the blueprint for his game and asks me a few questions. “What is something a kid would have to do to be accepted as a Squire?” he asks me. “I don’t know, let’s look it up,” I reply. He is alive and engaged. He is smiling.
At the next table, all that can be heard is the clicking of keys on a keyboard. At this table, my Creative Writers are silently working. Their fingers click-out imaginative stories taking place hundreds of centuries in the past. One girl is making herself the protagonist; she has traveled overseas from America and has landed outside the castle walls of a great king. Another girl has decided to make her main character, a boy of 14, wander off into the woods only to be met by a witch who lures him back to her hovel . She intends to involve him in a sinister plot to kill the Queen. Another girl, interested in black history, asks me if she can incorporate the beginnings of the slave trade into her tale, but she admits she doesn’t know a lot about it. “Let’s research it!” I say. And the next thing I know, we are learning together about serfdom and Queen Elizabeth’s early history of condoning and encouraging slavery.
As I pass back around the room a boy shouts out, “Ms. V! Can there be ninjas in my story?” A few students giggle, listening in. “Nick, is there a good reason to have a ninja in your story?” I ask him. “Yea! You see, my character is a time traveler and he has ended up in this Elizabeth girl’s time, but he doesn’t know that because when he left Asia- after that whole war he fell into over there- one of the ninjas followed him back in the portal and now he has to fight off the knight that is hurtling toward him with a joust-stick-thing but at the same time the ninja is behind him with nunchucks so now he has to fight them both.” He comes up for air. “Dude,” I say, “that sounds epic. I can’t wait to read it.” He beams and goes back to typing.
At another table, students are gathered around an online storyboard program called storyboardthat.com. They are creating digital graphics to match the era they have investigated. As they begin designing, one boy is heard saying, “my Knight is going to have dark skin.” He clicks on the skin feature and takes his character from dough-white to brown. “And the queen is going to have light skin. The king too. But when the baby comes, it will be dark-skin.” The class erupts in laughter. “Oh snap,” says Shamell. “We all know what that means.” They get lost for a few minutes in typical 14-year old giggling and banter, but they continue working through it all. Another boy searches through the accessories on the site. “Sweet!” he yells out. “They have a guillotine!” He shows his tablemates. “Oh, you know that knight gonna lose his head soon as the king sees that baby.” More laughter fills the room.
This. This is why I became a teacher. This is where true connection and learning happens. When we allow students to explore and imagine and have fun, we are allowing them to grow an appreciation for their own learning. We are instilling in them a yearning for information. My student who began researching slavery in the Elizabethan era will remember her research. She will apply it later in life. It meant something to her. Had I given her that same information in a powerpoint and asked her to take notes while I lectured, it would have meant nothing. Had I told her, this will be on the test, she would have lost interest.
So why do we allow our students (and ourselves) only these brief moments of fun in our classrooms? Why are these assessments seen as fluff and filler before the next mandated standardized assessment? Why are these projects not the main event? We have become so focused on data, on high-stakes testing and on comparing our students to other students that we have lost sight of the fact that we are killing their love of learning. When we teach to the test, (which more and more of us do because the test is everything), we lose our joy. Testing decides our merit, our income and often decides our funding. But it has no affect on our engagment or on a true quest for knowledge.
When we take something as complex as Shakespeare and whittle it down to fit into round bubbles on a scantron sheet, there is very little joy left in learning. Words filled with poetry and passion and power, reduced to an A, B or C response?