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FCAT has serious side effect on learning

Another good teacher can't take it any more.

Kudos to this commentator for a fine piece.

Back in the day, when I attended Howard Drive Elementary, fourth-grade teacher Connie Washburn was pretty much a legend. Washburn wasn't my teacher, but she earned school-wide reputation because of what went on in her classroom.

''I could teach thematically. I could link a novel to science or social studies, and I did that,'' Washburn said. ``When we studied environmental issues, we read an environmental book like My Side of the Mountain.''

Real-life issues, like Everglades preservation, factored importantly in Washburn's classroom.

''I'm a strong environmentalist,'' Washburn said.

Eleven years ago, her students along with another class formed the ''Young Friends of the Everglades,'' an environmental club which still exists today as an outreach program. Membership was open to everyone. (And I have to confess, I still have my club T-shirt.)

Writing was another big focus in Washburn's classroom. The students became authors, each writing his or her own original book from scratch.

Then there was Little House on the Prairie Day, a 15-year Washburn tradition. After students read the novel, they would mimic the way of life on the prairie for the entire day, even dressing the part.

''I had the butter churn and iron and the kids loved it. I had a cookbook and the kids all picked a recipe and brought in that food,'' she said. ``I actually believe that they felt that they could relate to those times.''

The learning didn't stop outside of Washburn's classroom. Students took six field trips each year to places like the Barnacle, the Holsum Bakery, Biscayne National Park and of course, the Everglades.

In 2001, Washburn took a sabbatical from Miami-Dade Schools and spent three years in Spain. She then returned to her classroom at Howard Drive Elementary. But while she was gone, public school life had changed.

''I was here when FCAT came into being, but the intensity wasn't like this,'' Washburn said. ``From the time school begins to March in fourth grade, the main thrust in all instruction is focused on FCAT prep.''

Washburn lasted nine weeks at Howard Drive. Citing frustration with departmentalization and large classes, Washburn transferred to Archimedean Academy, a charter school. Although her class had 25 fewer students, some things remained the same.

After all, the FCAT reigns supreme in Florida public school education: fourth graders who fail the test can be prevented from moving on. Washburn had to make drastic changes to her lesson plans to prepare her students. The time to enjoy all those Washburn curriculum classics was now at a premium. Field trips and in-house presenters were kept to a bare minimum, if allowed at all, until the FCAT was over.

''The FCAT gives teachers two months to read novels -- to really read novels, or to do the things they want to do,'' Washburn said. ``It's not that you can't do those things prior to FCAT, but it would be impossible to do them the way they're supposed to be done.''

With the FCAT behind her, Washburn broke out the Little House on the Prairie books and once again, the students began to formulate ideas for their own novels.

''I saw a glint in their eyes,'' she said. ``I saw enthusiasm in their faces that I hadn't the eight months before. That's when I knew how harmful FCAT is and it makes me very sad.''

It was then that Connie Washburn decided that ''teaching how to take a test'' just didn't fit her professional philosophy. And so, after 27 years, Washburn has left her classroom and is working on getting her real estate license.

But the news isn't all bad. My alma mater, Howard Drive Elementary, is still an ''A'' school. Yes, students across Florida are making the grade.

But I have to wonder, at what cost?

Report Card is a regular opinion column written by Becky Farber, a senior at Palmetto High. She focuses on school issues from a student perspective. To reach her, e-mail reportcardbecky@aol.com.

— Becky Farbe
Miami Herald





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