Do Your Best: The Lies We Tell Our Children

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We held a “testing rally” on Friday that was quite possibly the most depressing experience of my year. The purpose of the rally was to get kids “pumped up” and “excited” for testing. In preparation, my students and I created a giant poster saying, “Don’t forget the power of yet!” The poster was a reference to Janelle Monae’s Sesame Street song.

We crammed all 320+ students into our gymnasium while they listened to a small speech informing them that, “This test will decide what opportunities you have in life, and even what colleges you will go to.” A speaker came up and told the children to chant, “I am smart. I will pass!” And younger students stood to perform cheers for the older grades.

As the spectacle unfolded, a queasiness settled into the pit of my stomach. The chanting and cheering was supposed to generate excitement, but it created something of an ominous contradiction to the actual spirit of the school. A spirit of defeat.

Something between desperation and sheer panic oozes through the atmosphere of our hallways. From administrators, to teachers, to the elementary-age children — everyone seems to be overwhelmed by a suffocating type of hysteria that seems more appropriate for D-Day than for an elementary school. Our schedules are upended, teaching and learning grinds to a halt, and children are placed in “holding rooms” where they sit silently for who-knows-how-long doing meaningless worksheets until their name is called for testing.

And this past Friday we all stood listening to students chant in deafening tones, “I am smart! I will pass! I can do it!” And I told them back – “Yes you can! Do your best!” And my words felt hollow.

As the coming weeks unfold, students will finish filling in their bubble-sheets, and they will discover, as they did the year before, that their best really isn’t good enough. And I’ll hand out little goody bags filled with DumDum lollipops and Smarties and a little note that says, “Don’t be a dum-dum, be a smartie!” And in May, as the year finally comes to a close, heart-broken teachers will sit down with 10-year-old children and tell them they must repeat third-grade for a third year in a row. And when they arrive at testing again, one year from now, teachers will tell them to chant it again. “I am smart! I will pass! I can do it!” And we’ll tell them to do their best. And we’ll tell them just to try. And we’ll tell them they really can do it. All that matters is hard work and determination.

And we’ll know that we’re lying.

My school has third-graders barely reading beyond a kindergarten level, sixth graders who are so old they should be freshman in high school, students with learning disabilities who have been in child study for years without receiving help. And as if the school-to-prison pipeline couldn’t be any more obvious, we have fourth graders on “probation” because they failed their test a year ago.

And this past Friday we marched them and all the rest of their friends to the butchergym. And on Monday we’ll pack them into their cagesclassrooms and pick them out one by one and send them to their gurneyschairs. And we’ll experiment on their brainstest them and test them and test them before sending them onto the next laboratorygrade.

And then we’ll hand them off to the slaughterhouseprison.

 

April 11, 2016: A few corrections were made for the sake of accuracy.

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3 thoughts on “Do Your Best: The Lies We Tell Our Children

  1. Kevin D Reply

    Sounds very depressing and hopeless…. What is the answer to this? What can be done? What is a better way?

    1. Traveling Nun Reply

      I think the first step is to stop allowing legislative policy to drive what we do in schools. One big reason behind many of the problems in schools is related to poor legislative policy — something that largely began with No Child Left Behind and has continued until now. Not that the problems will go away just by addressing this one issue, but current legislative policy in many states (such as Oklahoma) make it next to impossible for anything else to change until we address this issue.

  2. LM Reply

    Definitely an overall feeling of powerlessness for everyone! School is getting to be less about learning and more about passing.

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