Students Today Need More Stories, Fewer Tests
Part of the story goes like this: "For your penance," the priest tells the person going to confession, "take a feather pillow to the highest building in town and rip it open. Let all the feathers fly out into the wind."
Many of the elementary classrooms I sat in as a child were crowded ó with more than 50 students and one teacher. One way teachers maintained order was through stories. Theyíd tell us stories and we would ó most of the time ó listen quietly. We liked stories, and they were better than arithmetic.
But the stories did more than keep us quiet. They were teaching tools that imparted lessons, and now we can recall both the story and the lesson.
Teachers today probably do not tell stories as often as my teachers did, and there are reasons.
During the presidential debates, President Bush claimed that his No Child Left Behind was a success, while promising to do even more if re-elected.
As you might expect, not everyone agrees with the president. "Many Left Behind" is a new book with essays by seven writers who say that "the No Child Left Behind Act is damaging our children and our schools." I, too, have problems with NCLB. Even though President Bush increased federal spending on education to record levels, that was still not enough to do what the law demands. As usual, the mandates outweighed the funding provided.
In addition, NCLB works best with robotic, rather than innovative and creative, teachers. Remember the Robin Williams movie, "The Dead Poets Society?" Well, the Williams character is too erratic to be an effective teacher for very long, but some of that craziness should be present in every school.
Kids used to complain that schools were trying to make them all the same, cookie-cutter students. Now the government wants to produce teachers in a cookie-cutter way. No Child Left Behind has no room for the wonderfully weird or eccentric excellence.
Thatís because the cornerstone of NCLB is more testing for more children more frequently. Those tests determine if the school is making Adequate Yearly Progress. If the tests show that progress is not being made, an improvement plan must be developed and students have the right to transfer out of the failing school.
But what the tests tell us about the education of students is about the same as what an insurance companyís actuarial tables tell us about being alive. Itís not nothing, but it sure isnít everything.
In this atmosphere, where kids are vessels to be filled with knowledge that can be poured out during an examination, story telling can be a very inefficient approach.
Too bad. The Summer 2004 edition of American Educator has an important article about research over the last 30 years indicating that "there is something inherent in the story format that makes them easy to understand and remember." Author Daniel T. Willingham talks about The Four Cs of stories: causality, conflict, complications and character. Put those together correctly and you have a story.
Willinghamís essay is optimistic, arguing that teachers can use stories to teach their material and has some very good suggestions about how to do it.
But I am skeptical. Creative teachers will surely incorporate stories into lessons that will help their kids pass all those tests. But other teachers will stick to drilling home the answers, using workbooks and "teacher proof" lesson plans.
Just like the kids, teachers know they are being judged by test results, so they wonít take a chance trying to weave a narrative around what their kids have to know.
But if they did, their students might, more than 50 years later, remember the story and its meaning.
"Thatís all I have to do, Father? Tear open the pillow?" "Yes, and come back here next week and weíll talk again." And so the person did and returned to confession and told the priest that he had torn open the pillow.
"Good. Now all you have to do to be forgiven for your sin of gossip is to gather up the feathers you spread into the wind." That story about spreading rumors and the futility of recapturing words did not make the 56 kids in the class good people. But we learned, and didnít forget, what we should be.
More stories and fewer tests ó thatís what kids need.
Jerry McGovern, the Press-Republicanís coordinator of Newspapers-in-Education, taught for many years in New York state public schools. He writes about his various experiences in education, as well as about current educational issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 565-4126. This column is the opinion of the writer and not necessarily of this newspaper.
Press-Republican (Plattsburgh, NY)
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