Pentecost – May
The best view of cars turning into our Stoney Ridge neighborhood from Dutchman’s Lane was from the second-floor bedroom window of our family’s Easton, Maryland home. Once or twice a year my grandparents would drive from Upstate New York to see us – highly anticipated visits from the perspective of four young children who would garner undivided attention as soon as Grandma and Grandpa would walk in the door.
We always knew when our grandparents were coming because our mother would turn into a task master as she doled out chores such as dusting baseboards, polishing the refrigerator (really?), and making sure no dust bunnies had settled under our beds. We called it “Grandma’s Eve,” but that just added to the festive mood as we prepared for the moment they would arrive – usually bearing exotic goodies like thick Italian “Tomato Pie,” homemade sesame cookies, small gifts, and pockets full of jelly beans (Grandpa).
On the day of their pending arrival, I would go upstairs and perch at the window. I wanted to be the first to herald their arrival. Often, I would begin my vigil an hour too early, knowing intuitively that my wait might be prolonged, but that I certainly didn’t want to miss them if for some reason my timing was off. Back then, I looked at prayer like story book characters do when they are granted wishes. I thought that if I prayed hard enough, the next car coming down the street would be my grandfather’s. When that didn’t work, I gravitated toward bargaining mode to the tune of, “God, I know that the third car coming down the street will be my grandparents.” When that didn’t work: “God, the next blue car that comes down the road will be them!” With or without my fervent pleas, my grandparents invariably arrived in the allotted time it would take to drive the long miles along the turnpike from their house to ours. Wrapped in childhood allusions of those moments, I like to think I might have thanked God and given the Holy Spirit a high-five before running down the stairs to greet them as they pulled into the driveway.
As I have gotten older, my prayer life has matured, but there are times I still feel like that little girl standing at the window wishing for the next anticipated moments of life. As the wife of a motivated and mission-driven husband, we have spent more than three decades working toward the next step up the career ladder. As a mother, I went from a laundry room of onesies and diapers to gym shorts and college t-shirts while encouraging my child to walk, then run, and then to become independent. I still catch myself bargaining with God as I pray for the safety and well-being of those I welcome and hold so closely in the “neighborhood” of my heart.
Life is filled with cycles of preparation and anticipation. A high school principal’s goal is to guide students from freshman to senior year through a network of curriculum and social challenges. Educators provide opportunities along the way, and we look for signs to ensure us that we are shepherding our students along the right paths. We document learning through grades, tests, and report cards.
What can’t be measured though, is what should not be measured – the gifts our students bring to the community as a whole. These exemplify the gifts of that oft-unrecognized Holy Spirit. After all, during this spiritual time of Pentecost, aren’t we all supposed to be reminded of such offerings of the spirt to include wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and fortitude? My own life experiences have led me to a much deeper understanding of what it takes to work, to teach, to wait, to react, to respond, to lead, to conform…and mostly to pray not for signs and wishes to come true, but rather with the knowledge and with a sense of peace that what is to come will come.
“Take this seriously. It’s a high-stakes test,” I admonished the group of juniors who sharpened their pencils and prepared to take the ACT exam.
As I read from the provided script of instructions, I implored the students to notwaste time, to notuse electronics, to nottalk, to notlook around, to notget up, and to notask questions. My own stomach knottedaround all those negative commands! I remembered being in their seats. I recalled the panic I felt about potentially leaving “a stay mark outside a bubble,” and even worse, mixing up the bubbles causing an entire exam to become worthless because I did things out of order. Would life go on if I messed up that badly? At least we could pray. My friends and I had not been able to do that, out loud anyway, in the public schools I attended.
So, what does it mean to say that the ACT or the SAT are high-stakes tests? It means that the results of these tests are used to assist colleges in making important decisions about whether a student is accepted into a school or his or her choice, as well as determining the value of some scholarships for which students typically apply.
I admit that I struggle with the idea of standardized testing. Too many times, the results are reported to represent an entire group rather than individuals. This is somewhat helpful in determining the big picture of curriculum, but I find the results are most valuable for educators when used to track individual progress of students as they move from freshman to senior year. By analyzing a student’s scores, we can track individual growth. Better than that, we can pinpoint specific areas in which students may need intervention or extra practice.
Because of our past scores, the faculty has been able to focus our professional development on developing strategies to help students dig into complex text. Reading, especially non-fiction text, is important not only in language arts classes, but also in math and science and even the fine arts.
Observations from this past year show that the juniors seemed to approach the test very seriously. They spent more than three and a half hours working through academic sections broken down by reading, language, math and science. Then they dug in for another forty minutes writing an essay.
During their lunch and before they went back to class for the last block of the day, I heard all sorts of comments. Some thought the science was manageable because they were currently taking chemistry; others thought it was difficult because they haven’t practiced chemistry for a year. They all pretty much agreed that the math went from easy to hard without a progression and that the writing was “kind of fun.”
Post testing, I handed out chocolate kisses to the students whose exams I had proctored. When I was younger, my family would go to Hershey, Pennsylvania to visit the chocolate factory. I still remember conveyor belts filled with thousands of perfectly wrapped, perfectly lined up kisses. Every once in a while, a factory worker would pluck a chocolate off the conveyor belt because it didn’t fall into place correctly, or maybe was missing a wrapper.
With this image, I thought of our students taking a standardized test. For the most part, they fall in line and do what they need to do. The data tells a good story, but my favorite moments of teaching are non-standard. I love it when students question instructions and help me to see what I thought was perfectly clear from a whole different perspective. I enjoy watching them solve problems as collaborative teams and in the process navigate the tricky dynamics of working together. I relish the process that permits students to talk, to appropriately use technology, to move around, to ask questions, and even to waste a little time now and then. This is where learning happens.
By the way, the chocolate kisses I handed out to the students happened to be wrapped in all different colors and some even tasted like carrot cake (Easter kisses)! A few of the students took the traditional ones, others the less traditional, and still others didn’t take one at all.