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NCLB Outrages

Guilt, Government, and Grades: Musings from the Shore of the Main Stream

Some words of advice about NCLB: Rise up. Refuse.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Chris begins his final column
with an explanation of how he came to be a member of this VM team. It almost matches mine! In 1999, as a new editor, I wanted to distinguish VM from other literacy journals and one way, I decided, was to not only address students’ cognitive development but to also consider their emotional and psychological development. Who, I wondered, did I know who was not only a respected therapist but was also a name familiar to teachers? Chris Crutcher met both criteria. The part I remember best about our conversation the day I asked him to become a columnist was his immediate response: silence. I suspect his first thought was that I wanted him to write a column about being a writer. When I explained that I wanted him writing as a therapist, as one who could help us all understand the reasons adolescents sometimes
respond the way they do, he began to ask
questions. I knew he was hooked. I hope that at
some point along the seven years of this editorship, you’ve noted that Chris’s column always follows the Editor’s Message. There was a reason for that placement that I hope was transparent, and it has to do with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: Before we can ever get kids to focus on cognitive needs, we must attend to their emotional and psychological needs. With deep gratitude, I thank Chris for helping us do just that.]

by Chris Crutcher

December, 1999: Kylene Beers told me she was going in for surgery—one sentence before asking me to contribute a column to Voices from the Middle during her tenure as editor. Is it possible Kylene knew my mother? Same style.

At any rate, I reluctantly agreed, not because I
wasn’t honored to be asked, but because I knew
the history of my lifelong battles with deadlines (I have yet to hit one; they leave the space open right up to printing day), and I wasn’t sure I’d have anything to say worth reading. The “worth” part remains unclear, but the kids passing through my arena of influence in the therapy world and in the writing world kept inspiring me, and the Bush administration’s push on “No Child Left Without Life Threatening Test Anxiety” and “No Teacher Left Unthreatened,” provided grist.

It has been an honor to occupy this platform.
It has been an honor to travel around the country meeting teachers and students who use my books in the classroom and as voluntary reading, hearing responses and bringing my responses back to this column. I leave with mixed emotions about the state of public education; with nothing but admiration for teachers who daily meet the challenge of balancing education and mental health for kids who look to them to help make sense of the world; and with mild contempt for those teachers who have lost their fire or who categorize kids as “good” and “bad,” and treat them accordingly.
Alice Miller said, “All behavior has meaning,” and it’s our job to discover that meaning. All kids do things for reasons.

I’ve taught myself a trick or two—to judge how
I’m coming across—when I present to middle and
high schools around the country. I can expect
louder laughs, bigger groans, and generally more
involvement from middle schoolers, which tells
me they’re still soaking up as much stimuli as they can and responding to it, whereas high schoolers are pulled back some, processing some of that information they spent those middle school years gathering. Middle schoolers are accessible. I salute those of you who make yourselves accessible back to them and who take advantage of that to educate and to embrace. I’ve said before and I’ll go to my grave saying you have the tougher job; you have in your hands their hearts as well as their minds.

I leave you with a few cautionary statements:
“Zero tolerance” is the dumbest idea I’ve ever
heard of. It has no place in education or in working with kids in any capacity. Any administrator who has a zero tolerance policy in his or her school should get minimum wage,
because they don’t have to do the thing we should be paying our administrators the big bucks to do—make common sense judgments. Pointing a bread stick at a teacher and saying “Bang!” is not an act of violence. Putting a thumbnail-sized G.I. Joe pistol along with an action doll in a backpack does not constitute bringing a gun to school. Think of the people you know in the world who have zero tolerance and ask yourself if you want them babysitting for you, much less setting school policy.

The censorship thing is important. Kurt
Vonnegut once said, and I’m paraphrasing, that
one of the hard things about standing up against
censorship is the crap you have to stand up for.
Those of us who fight censorship aren’t naďve
enough to believe that anything that gets printed is worth reading. What we believe is that ideas are better talked about and addressed than hidden. We don’t believe that every book should be on the shelf of every school library, or that school libraries should have all the same books as public libraries.
We’re aware of space considerations, and of the
fact that schools do something different from public libraries, and that school libraries are there to augment classroom education, among other things. What we object to is choosing books because of personal philosophy or arbitrary moral standards. There are students who are well adjusted and students who are barely hanging on, and many in-between.
We need to serve them all, and we need to be accessible to talk about the issues that arise
in some of the more troubling works. Censorship
is a slippery slope, as much a social studies (Constitutional) issue as it is a language arts one. And in the end, your decision about it leads to acting through fear or acting through love of the truth— the small t truth that is a part of your students’ lives.

Contributors to this last Kylene Beers issue
are looking at how education has changed in the
time we’ve been at the helm of this journal. I’m
sure advances have been made; I know a bunch of
people who are contributing heroic additions. But I’m afraid if I left education now, I’d be leaving it in worse shape than I found it. As I’ve said before, no child is being left behind because no one’s going anywhere. I don’t think teachers are going nowhere. I think on an individual basis, heroic things happen every day between teachers and kids. I think teachers save kids’ lives every day of the week. But none of us can swim upstream forever and that’s what this philosophy requires.

That particular program/philosophy has done
more to harm kids who don’t float down the
middle of the main stream than any philosophy I
can remember. Somehow we’ve come to a place
where we think it’s more important for kids to do well on tests than it is to express themselves. Let me—in case you were wondering—establish myself as the wussiest, most liberal, airy-fairy feelgooder you have had the disgust to meet in print, but self-esteem, that overused, girly, psychobabble term, is the most important commodity we deal in—for ourselves and for our kids. The simple fact is, when we feel good, when we aren’t scared or worried that we aren’t good enough, we do good things. When we feel good about ourselves, we learn. When we feel good about ourselves, we teach. Our culture is thrashing in the throes of a punishment mentality that has hit education like a level 5 hurricane. Administrators and teachers are to be punished if kids don’t score high on their standardized tests. Kids are to be punished. I’m
here to say one more time from watching as a
teacher and a therapist for the past thirty years, punishment doesn’t work. It changes behavior more quickly than other forms of motivation but has almost no staying power. It's a lazy way of motivating. And studies are coming out that say even when
schools do successfully teach to the test, it has no influence on college entrance tests.

So as I leave this column, I ask one big thing
of you. Rise up. Refuse. Don’t jump ship on any
kid because he doesn’t fit the mold of an administration that refuses to use the best minds in education to inform itself. Teachers, get together and remind your administrators that you are the experts in your field, that you spent good money on an education that would point you toward the best materials and strategies to deal with not only the intellectual, but the emotional and psychological elements of your students. You have the toughest job in our culture, and you can’t do it when your hands are tied by leaders so ill-informed that their beacon of light is the bell-shaped curve.

And thank you all for your time, your attention,
even your criticism, and your passion to pass
your best on to the next generation.

Chris Crutcher, well-known for his acclaimed books for teens that include The Sledding Hill
(Greenwillow, 2005), King of the Mild Frontier: An Ill-Advised Autobiography (Greenwillow, 2003),
and Whale Talk (Greenwillow, 2001), is also a respected child and adolescent therapist in Spokane, Washington. He can be reached at Stotan717@aol.com.

— Chris Crutcher
Voices from the Middle


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