Friday, February 18, 2011

Shakespeare and Standardized Tests

"Can you give us a quote from Shakespeare?" the girl asks.

Her classmates crowd around, notebooks and pencils in hand, eyes expectant.


Ms. Pavelecky's third grade class is on a quest. They've been reading The Green Book, a science fiction novel about a group of people who have fled a dying Earth for a new planet. One of the travelers has brought along the collected works of Shakespeare.

Ms. Pavelecky wants her students to understand why this old dead white guy means so much. So they're traipsing through the school, asking everyone they meet to give them a quote. They've cornered me in the butterfly garden. Their pencils hover. I'm on the spot.

A quote from Shakespeare.

I think first of the four great words with which Lady Macbeth laid bare her unhinged mind. They have possibilities. Strong, single-syllable Anglo-Saxon words. A swell example of a grammatical "command." The kids would love to hear me say it.

But . . . maybe not.

I shake my head. "I'm thinking of something, but I don't think I can say it."

Ms. Pavelecky laughs. Ms. Bunting thought of that one too, she says, but settled for "Romeo, Romeo."

As my mind's gears keep turning, complications pop up everywhere. A phrase that contemplates suicide? One that pegs life as "a tale told by an idiot . . . signifying nothing?" Hmmm.

As the students grow restless, I latch onto Julius Caesar: "The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings." This one will do. I love its call to self-reliance, despite the less-than-admirable motivation. I say it slowly, spelling out "fault," "Brutus" and "underlings."


As I say the words, they seem to call for explanation. So I start with something I figure will be easy –stars and destiny.

What zodiac signs are you? I ask.

The kids look blank. I feel suddenly old. Has astrology become a relic of the past? Do kids no longer know that crucial piece of information – the sign that they were born under? I look at Ms. Pavelecky. She shakes her head. I don't want to think about how long the Age of Aquarius has been over.

I feel little more successful with explaining "underlings." The idea of a social system placing some people beneath others is unlikely to go out of fashion any time soon.

The kids walk away, and I think about how what they've just done will never show up on a standardized test. They're learning about people, about culture, about the world around them. My halting explanations may have left them with only murky inklings about astrology and underlings, but they've seen someone they know get excited about Shakespeare and the words he wrote. And they have a couple of new ideas they might explore.

Her students have really taken to Shakespeare, Ms. Pavelecky says later. They love his stories, so full of drama, humor and humanity. She's worked hard to help them understand how the power of words can turn tragedy into a thing of beauty.

When they sit down to take that test, in contrast, it will ask them to draw painfully narrow sets of conclusions from badly written stories full of tired clich├ęs.

I'm glad that teachers like Ms. Pavelecky don't spend all – or even most – of their time teaching to those tests. But I can't help worrying about what's ahead, given CMS's current pay for performance obsession. Officials claim that standardized tests won't be at the center of teacher evaluations, but I don't believe it. And if teachers' pay depends on how many test sheet bubbles children can fill in correctly, the pressure to dispense with Shakespeare and focus on test-taking skills will grow.

It seems time to stand up. Perhaps Cassius wasn't so wrong after all.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Herrin Avenue

It's a big night at the quarterly Plaza-Midwood Neighborhood Association meeting, held in the fellowship hall of Kilgo United Methodist Church. All the folding chairs have filled, and board members are busily setting out new rows. A TV crew films residents as they arrive.

Crime tops the agenda. The neighborhood's had some break-ins in recent months, and residents are looking to beef up their crime-fighting efforts.

A CMPD officer comes to the front of the room, and begins to detail crimes, arrests and courtroom proceedings. Most of the news seems to be good. The police have arrested a number of key people, he explains, including the "cell phone bandit" and the four young men who recently burglarized a home just down the street.

The woman who owns that home is sitting on the front row. She has a number of questions, which the officer does his best to answer. As he talks, he mentions that the young men in question live on Herrin Avenue.

Herrin Avenue.

Herrin Avenue is an L-shaped stretch of street that starts at Shamrock Drive, crosses The Plaza, and then peters out a few blocks later when it meets the railroad tracks. On the Shamrock side, it's lined with small brick duplex rentals, most of which have seen better days. A lot of Shamrock students live on Herrin Avenue.

The street doesn't have the best reputation. When we take Parker's friends home, especially at night, it has an eerie feel, with young men standing on cracked curbs and walking up and down the street under dim lights. It's not a place I'd go to if I didn't have to.

But tonight, when I hear the policeman mention Herrin Avenue, I don't think of crime. I think of Lisa Tuggle, a 39-year-old mother who died from carbon monoxide poisoning just a few days ago. The hot water heater in her rented Herrin Avenue duplex had malfunctioned, and she died in her sleep.

Two of her daughters, who had spent the night next door with their grandmother, came home in the morning and found her dead on the couch. Both the girls had gone to Shamrock. When I saw the article in the Observer, I recognized the name, and my heart sank. Yet another tragedy our students would have to come to terms with.

A little later in the meeting, it's time to talk about the school. I'm there with fellow parent Sarah Gates, and we describe all the things we're doing at Shamrock. It's a happy subject these days, because we have so much going on. The audience catches our enthusiasm, and the good feelings reverberate around the room.

As we finish, though, I feel I have to say something about Herrin Avenue. There's a lot more there than crime, I say. Then I talk about Lisa Tuggle and her daughters and all the other families that I know who live there. Our kids are good kids, I note. But their lives are tough, they have to deal with more than their fair share of tragedy, and enticements to crime and drugs often stand waiting just outside their doors.

Shamrock Gardens, in contrast, is a place of growth and hope, where kids are introduced to other worlds and other possibilities. The stronger we can make the school, I note, the stronger that positive pull will be.

The meeting ends, and Sarah and I stay to mingle, talking about programs and property values, handing out volunteer and donation forms. After a few minutes, the woman whose house was broken into comes up to me. She doesn't want that bad experience to leave her hating people, she says. She wants to see the other side of Herrin Avenue. She'd like to work with a Shamrock kid.

It's one of those moments when everything comes together. This is what our efforts at Shamrock are all about. Our kids need her. But she needs them as well. If we can connect with each other, we'll all be better off.

I don't think that volunteering is enough, though. Volunteering helps individual children, which is wonderful. We want every volunteer that we can get, and they should all feel great about what they're doing. But we need more as well. We need more Plaza-Midwood kids to go to Shamrock.

Over the years, we've had a number of neighborhood parents who have come in every week to tutor Shamrock children, while sending their own kids to more privileged schools. Every time I see them, I can't help but think that if their kids – and thus their hearts – were here at Shamrock, we could be accomplishing so much more.

If we can build a broad-based effort, one that brings our neighborhood's families to Shamrock and combines that move with the active support of neighbors who don't have children, then the connections we are trying to build will strengthen.

Instead of touching for brief moments – a morning of "beautification" work, the hour that a tutor and a child sit reading together – our disparate worlds will be linked by broader, more resiliant ties, strengthening the pull away from the dark side of Herrin Avenue. Helping the many parents like Lisa Tuggle, who want so badly for their children to succeed. Helping ourselves as well.