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7 Life Lessons: A Letter to My Students

Graduations remind me of diving boards: parents and teachers become spectators, waiting to see each student jump, spring, and dive into ...

Friday, 29 January 2016

Exam Fever: A Double Edged Sword

This year, I'm teaching 3 groups of twelfth graders, and they're all in the process of preparing for their final IB exams. The tension in the room is often palpable, and our conversations seem to revolve around these ominous upcoming exams. We speak about criteria, rubrics, exam prep, revisions, past papers ... the tedious and exhausting language of exams. And the truth of the matter is, I'm experiencing intense exam anxiety and fatigue.

I'm starting to wonder about the point of all this.

What happened to poetry? What happened to intense discussions about literature and life? What happened to the love of learning? What happened to kids reading for pleasure? And what are the costs of making kids feel as though not just their futures, but their self worth, depends on the outcome of an exam?

Exams do have their benefits. As I've argued in the past, they force teachers to teach to mastery (as opposed to mere exposure), and they hold everyone -- teachers and students -- accountable for student learning. They also teach kids to cope with stress and pressure, and students certainly learn a lot about self-discipline and the subject-matter itself as they move through the process.

When I taught in the US and didn't have the pressure of an external exam, I do think that more kids fell through the cracks; it was easy for kids to just move from one grade to the next without really mastering skills or content, or without really being held accountable for their learning. And of course, teachers could do pretty much what they wanted -- a little grade inflation here, a lack of rigor there, and no one would be any the wiser because there was no external, objective exam board evaluating your students' skills. Teachers could just say things like," Every child learns at his own pace" and move the kids along. And no one would know or care that the kid couldn't really write a sentence to save his life. Without external exams, there was no pressing need to confront and deal with a student's academic gaps and failings.

But, exams also have a high opportunity cost, don't they? When we spend so much time teaching to a test, we lose time that could be devoted to cultivating a deep and abiding love of learning. And could we (and this is a thought that frightens me) even be killing a student's sense of creativity and individuality? After all, exams expect one answer -- the right answer -- and there's very little room for divergent thinking, originality, and out-of-the-box approaches. You're better off with a formulaic approach, if your goal is acing an exam where the examiner is expected to grade according to strict rubrics and criteria. In fact, in many ways, exams are the antithesis of creativity.

So, here I am, faced with a strange dilemma: I want my students to do really well on these exams. And I want the satisfaction of knowing that my students have mastered crucial skills that they will need for life -- critical reading skills, control over language, an ability to craft a well-structured and convincing argument, the ability to appreciate and analyze literature and literary techniques.
And yet, I also want to feel as though I'm firing these kids up, inspiring them to love language and literature, giving them the freedom to discover and express their innermost selves, and helping them become passionate readers and learners.

Are these goals mutually exclusive? When we prep kids for exams and create an exam/achievement culture for our kids, do we inevitably sacrifice that creativity and inspiration? Or can teachers strive to do both: teach skill mastery for exams and also fire-up passion?

 I think the solution lies in poetry.

I want to turn to poetry for sustenance. Food for the soul. The more intense the focus on exams become, the more determined I am to begin my lessons with poetry, with "thoughts that breathe and words that burn," so that my students can spend some time at the beginning of each class feeling intellectually moved and energized. We can share poems, they can write poems, we can seek and appreciate the beauty around us. And then, perhaps, when we go back to the skills and the texts that will be tested, we can focus not just on the upcoming exams, but also the learning involved and the beauty of language.

We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.

- Dead Poets Society

* thoughts that breathe, and words that burn...Thomas Gray

Monday, 11 January 2016

Asian versus Western Parental Demands: A Deepening Rift?

I recently read this really interesting article in the NY Times on a school district in the US, where parental opinions on curriculum and academic pressure are severely divided along racial lines. Apparently, the White parents in this particular school are pressuring the school to reduce academic competition and pressure, while Asian parents, mostly immigrants, are anxious that the school will then be reducing standards, "dumbing down education," and preventing their children from excelling academically.

Here are some interesting extracts from the article:

"On the other side are parents like Mike Jia, one of the thousands of Asian-American professionals who have moved to the district in the past decade, who said Dr. Aderhold’s reforms would amount to a “dumbing down” of his children’s education.

“What is happening here reflects a national anti-intellectual trend that will not prepare our children for the future,” Mr. Jia said.

About 10 minutes from Princeton and an hour and a half from New York City, West Windsor and Plainsboro have become popular bedroom communities for technology entrepreneurs, pharmaceutical researchers and engineers, drawn in large part by the public schools. From the last three graduating classes, 16 seniors were admitted to M.I.T. It churns out Science Olympiad winners, classically trained musicians and students with perfect SAT scores.

The district has become increasingly popular with immigrant families from China, India and Korea. This year, 65 percent of its students are Asian-American, compared with 44 percent in 2007. Many of them are the first in their families born in the United States.

They have had a growing influence on the district. Asian-American parents are enthusiastic supporters of the competitive instrumental music program. They have been huge supporters of the district’s advanced mathematics program, which once began in the fourth grade but will now start in the sixth. The change to the program, in which 90 percent of the participating students are Asian-American, is one of Dr. Aderhold’s reforms. (bolding mine)"

The article was intriguing, and in some ways it mirrors the discussions I have with parents here in Singapore as well. International schools in Singapore often have a fairly even split between White and Asian families, and this demographic often creates a sort of split personality for the school, pulling it in two entirely different directions. Asian parents tend to want more "academic rigor," whereas Western parents worry that the programs are becoming too competitive and rigorous for their children.

Is it possibly for schools to address the concerns while still maintaining respect for both cultural attitudes towards parenting and education? Also, how can schools run by European and American faculty and administrators become more sensitive to the ways in which Asians view education and parenting? Perhaps the answer is to engage in more cross-cultural dialogue so that both sides actually talk to each other and learn from each other-- taking one side or another seems to be a recipe for disaster, as it will inevitably alienate half the school's population.