This article, "What I saw surprised me", on the barbaric use of computerized standardized testing in Belfast, Maine, an atrocity soon to be states-spread across the nation, reminded me of a biting short story I wrote some time ago (read below).
Before anything; this is a disclaimer, offered epigraphically, of what is at the moment, after Nicholson Baker, the size of my thoughts: the story that follows, while admittedly stretched and eccentric, remains hypothetically sound and plausible. It is meant to provoke. It projects a possibility that, at this time, cannot be dismissed as radical speculation or ignored out of dismayed sentiment.
Inexplicably hypnotic, student 3612-M09-10029 blandly wipes his forehead, the tips of his exhausted fingers reaching each corner of his eyes as he tries to regroup following what by now must have been the one-hundred-eighty-fifth time the cursor on his screen has flashed on and off. A warning that his score for this day’s third assessment will be much less than required, each blink of the cursor, as timekeeper, is a reminder of his father's dogmatic veneration for the all too clichéd motto––perhaps more forgivingly, his too often unsolicited fatherly advice––that time is money. It’s not only that his score will decrease with each flicker, an additional second wasted before submitting an answer, but with each blink, each moment of disappointing hesitation, is the stark realization that his father will have to purchase the online course yet again after failing it on two previous occasions. Even with Pearson’s 33% off price tag for students with disabilities, he knows all too well that his father will lecture him once more, if not punish him with the additional remedial courses he’ll be forced to repeat as part of the course packet Pearson readily makes available.
He snaps out of it and reads the prompt again. It was so deviously simple: “unapologetically describe and detail the irony in the fact that Pearson course iView (perspectives on US sociopolitical history) was first implemented as a required course in the year 2020”. It almost begged a backhanded response, some stoic jab at how asking a question about itself, about its foundation, even further pathetic, should be the entry on the program’s accompanying online dictionary for the word narcissistic. The required answer was more obvious than that, less salty, and meant to hint, and only just suggest, like some far flung undertoned whiff, at Pearson’s tart wittiness. This was, as the video portion of the lesson told, the bloom and charm of the style of the “complimentary” form of writing––the latest addition to other normalized genres like persuasive, expository, and compare and contrast, all of which were packaged together in an online writing credit program sold as an addendum to courses like iView, eKnow, and noThink.
Two hundred cursor blinks, as the entire screen subtly darkened; a feature, as advertised, designed to conserve energy while marking the final one hundred blinks before the assessment generates some recommendation, an EPS (Entry Point Support) to get you writing something, anything, you can submit to receive at least the base amount of points for each question. This, too, was in bold text on the side of the program box labeled SPED Edition.
With a few more flashes of the cursor, time melting away, he shuts down the eLearning pad he’s had since his parents registered him with the Department of Education. Every click, every input, every single strike of the keypad he’s ever made on each online course he’s ever taken, recorded and analyzed by the central processing computer overseen by the tech people at the DOE. The results of the data, quarterly generated and released to his parents, a barrage of percentages in DOE jargon detailing his rate of success as compared to his age group, percentile ranks compared to his peers living in his same district, along with a list of recommended online courses, available for immediate download from the DOE Course Store, tailored to the results the data yielded, and specific to the national Common Core standards he has yet to exhibit competency rates, the sour reality that someone, more than just anyone, was cashing in on the flood of downloads registered every three months. His father called it tuition; archaic mockery he thought; cynical, considering the root of the word, as far as the 15th century, stood for custody or guardianship. The cost of maintaining an updated eLearning pad, by now some lionized babysitter, charged to keep him busy and out of the way. It was no coincidence, he managed to swallow, that business ran parallel to busyness.
Once a year his parents would receive his PTCs (Potential and Target Careers), whipped up by Pearson and the DOE, a list of careers his data projected and strictly recommended. With each course repurchased and attempted once more, trimming thinner, elusive and deeply felt as an exponential reduction, were the possibilities his first PTC detailed: computer network architect, information security analyst, computer systems administrator, by now watered down to some petty job in online customer service or in eTeaching. Tragic, he figured, and after half a second brushed away the thought that it was criminal with equal measure, that the same objective that so casually filtered his future would be word for word the only thing allowed for him to offer others; the teacher’s job by now a duplicate of the news anchor’s.
Numb; remote paralysis, like paper with no use for paperweight, kaleidoscopically floating just at the surface of the desk, like the glow around his ePad’s power button, attenuating, he dims, knowing time, this very moment, is not the only thing fading.
Ask a teacher or a parent about their day and you can be certain you will hear the story of a story told by a child. Children, I am sure you will agree, are organic storytellers because they speak in "story"; that is, in a manner of speaking, that story is their language.
Some children like to tell simple short stories: these are quick tales, maybe as brief as a sentence, not necessarily in haste or lacking in detail, but they are told for brevity or because they are in need of some immediate reaction or reply. Some children tell longer stories with, perhaps, too many details, with tenfold exaggeration, they go off on a tangent or two, and they include sufficient rambling to fulfill enough excitement—to insert, of course, the standard of thrills and the required ups and downs any good listener would have come to expect from a simple but well told story. What is added to a longer story, besides length, all the details, the embellishment, the sidebars, and the wordy roundabouts are just special effects meant to border and declutter the center or the point of the story; because like with a pile of toys, when playing children know well where to place each object in relation to the crowded and busy pileup at the center. And as such, children also know well the measure of a good story, and they know it stretches flexibly between simplicity and the fabulous.
Now children don't just tell stories—they also seek them, for they understand the image and the substance in stories. When listening to a story they know, children seem to always recall the details adults forget, and so they know how to ask for more and, if you pay close attention to their telling body language, they definitely know how to ask for less. Even with untold stories, children seem to know just when you perform a story well or when you probably should have said nothing.
Children, you may understand, live in stories, and they get that idea a lot better than we adults do.
So when children tell us stories, when they tell us what they see or what they hear or what they think, we have to listen, we have to pay attention, for their stories, "matches struck unexpectedly in the dark", are the reminders that we adults seem to unwisely obsess and prefer complications.
Here then, a recent story written by a 10-year-old in my classroom; a short and uncomplicated story—"It went beyond everything. I just couldn't understand what made it so special to me anymore. Because this thing was simply an old, dirty, ugly, broken, misplaced, and hardly even fuzzy stuffed animal. But yet, I chose her as the favorite anyway. And as an honor for being such a big part in my life, I gave her an ironic name: Pretty."—a lighthouse, you may see, beaconing back at the shore.
When on a leisure walk down busy Broadway plan to be bumped into. And if, say, it were a warmer February Tuesday around noon, you might as well wear a helmet and brace yourself. Bumped you will be—without hesitation—and with each point of contact you will grow less impelled to avoid it because you will see it is in all possible meanings unavoidable. So how does one prepare? How might you best be equipped to confront the inescapable violence in leisure walks?
Three things you must do: remain willing, keep guard, and be reflective.
In willingness, you must be open and flexible to the contact; accept it, respond gently to it, adapt to the contours of the place of impact and purposefully, like Tai Qi practitioners, become the mold for the sudden pressure and return the energy to the place it came from. Be proactive or reactive, but surely interact. Know that if you are willingly more flexible you will experience less pain.
You must stand your ground; be alert and protect yourself; anticipate what is near but look far away to the horizon, for these bumps are never without the possibility of danger. Be prepared to block and defend from what could potentially be offensive and irritating. Shield yourself and stand firm, for dealings with aggravation require fortitudes you must posses in advance. It is imperative that you make regular training of defensive strategies; in retreat firm doubts are helpful, and so, too, is the ability to redirect your stride and seek shelter. When it comes to this kind of walk—in leisure—there is no shame in rerouting.
And lastly, reflect: understand that what occurs is just as much a part of the space you occupy as it is a part of you; neither is to be solely blamed for what follows your travels down broad ways. Being open and inviting but cautious and reserved is the dance you do amidst the many partners you will encounter on your leisure walk. And like all protuberances, you may want to consider in deeper thought, swellings and bulges must mean something in the context of interminable fluidity.
Reflection like this is necessary because you will be predictably bumped by the unwanted: the hasty walker who intermittently jogs; the lane switcher, always in some desperate attempt to advance if even inches further ahead than others. As if being raced, or perhaps chased, he drags along his items in a blur. Consider yourself lucky if this bump pauses to apologize, for it is usually the case his agenda is not shared with you—and you are left, post bump, pondering what in the world could have been so pressing to forgo an explanation for the brief but painfully abrupt contact it has caused. You look back only to catch a glimpse of the vile character in pursuit of his next victim. And you scowl, maybe scoff, perhaps just grin; with a slight sideways shake of your head you disapprove before turning to continue your stroll. Be on the lookout, for uninvited bumps are usually twofold and, nonchalantly, they often return. While on your leisure walk, accept that it is not an oddity to repeatedly suffer unwelcomed bumps, and in reflection, become better disposed and inclined to endure the collisions.
You will also be bumped by the familiar: if not the well known, or the déjà vu bump, you will surely be knocked by the ordinary even if just vaguely so. In some hurry or not, this bump may rest with you; it may stand there, after impact, and initiate interaction. It could also just as well tread over you, for familiar bumps are casual and unceremoniously habitual. Intimate by routine it feels no obligation to explain at the point of contact what it pays heed to. It can be pleasing if you expect nothing from it, but it can be disappointing if you hope it won't be. With a simple nod this bump can last just seconds—like some recalled bump you acknowledge and then it passes as you wave it away, with interest you turn toward it and you gaze as it goes. Or, it may invite you to stop longer, to shorten your walk, to take an unexpected detour you will have to risk if it seems to you significant at the moment. Embrace it, for all you know this one bump can be of the ordinary but out of the ordinary. But be careful, for this encounter, although familiar, can bring surprises you are not ready for. Like the unwanted bump, you may find the familiar pressing if not nagging. Be observant, carefully so, for this bump often masks its uncertainty. Stand firm if you need to, move on if you have to, but welcome it again as you usually do, without dismissing its extraordinary potential.
Finally, you will also be bumped by the entirely new: this bump can be enthusing, full of impending hypotheticals and of promises that can soon materialize; for the most part, new bumps can be stirring. As a result, upon this bump a smile may stretch from the corners of your lips, and perhaps your mouth, as if readying to speak, slightly widens, too; an occasion to immediately respond to this bump is always a possibility, sure, but so is appearing rash if impulsively voiced. Contrary to the unwanted and the familiar, the new bump comes in unknown shapes and sizes in pursuit of time. It may be obvious to want to pay more attention to the larger or the longer ones, for these can offer much desired moments to silence boredom—or, even if anticipated and standing firm, they can bring on much pain and injuries that scar—but forget not the smaller ones that likewise merit your full attention following the moment of impact; some of the best stories are told on a single page.
But do participate and do indulge in the temporary violence, and allow yourself to be bumped for as long as you remain willing, for as long as you take precautions, and for as long as you can muse, because when on a leisure walk, like strangers in haste shuffling on and off city sidewalks, epiphanies are clumsy creatures.
I was recently asked to speak in Spanish, my first language, about my work in the classroom and, measured by my own standards, within two sentences, I knew I would fail miserably. I will tell that story in a little while. First, I want to say something about language.
I have always been absorbed by language. Maybe it's the musician in me that finds tone inflections mesmerizing, the game of vowels chasing consonants thrilling; like how emotional modulations wow me, the cadences and harmonic chording of questions so clearly distinct from propositions absolutely bewitch me; the rhythmic snaps of lips, the overtones from the shifting shapes of the mouth—the physicality of it all—is just music to my ears. And if the language is foreign and my mind finds the leisure to spend on sounds divorced of semantics, the more rare the language the better, well, I turn spellbound.
I am also religiously etymologic, or is it etymologically religious? See, do they even mean the same one way or the other? Fascinating. Meaning also stuns me, and whichever order of the phrase it is I am trying to describe, I am a devote practitioner. As if on a Sunday at church, I go seeking for words and I read their histories, and in minutes, fringed with imagery, their stories become exotic myths, heroic legends; words becoming the one true immortals full of promise and brimming with unmatchable bravery. How words live on, even under the nailing pressure of newer, more popular words, or when they seem wrenched to be defined even inches from different than before, is like a crucifixion and resurrection of its own. Yeah, I think the coming of words can be just as moralizing.
I mean, take capacious for example. When was the last time you used that word? Born in the 1600's it describes something that is able to take in more. Now, with the help of nifty Google technology (“to google” surely will stand the test of time, right?), if you track the use of “capacious” in publications from its birth to this decade, it shows a steady decline up until the 1850's and then it practically disappears just one hundred years later. And here it is, resurrected just at least for this point-making sentence: language is capacious.
Language, full of capacity, confined only by interminable possibility, capable of holding pints past everything, has an ever-expansive quality because it behaves like love.
Be it vertically, in how language evolves over stretches of centuries, or horizontally, like how in the 20th century English has mushroomed across the globe, the resilience of language, like love, is inspiriting. And when you consider the depth it digs within, how from childhood language can seem to expand to reach the deepest corners of our being; even a single word, like a love-full gesture, can seem to hearten you for eternity.
Language fascinates me. It really does. So how could it possibly have failed me?
For all that language holds—the sounds, the imagery, the meanings—it seems to me that it also holds knowledge. There is knowledge in language. It resides there like it does in the hands of a concert pianist playing without a score—muscle memory, sure—but knowledge, too; there in the hands, for painters, carpenters, sculptors, gardeners, basketball players, and more, all alike, hold knowledge in the silence of their hands.
So there must be knowledge in language, too.
And even though I speak Spanish daily, some days even more than I do English, when I was asked to describe what I do in Spanish it was as if I knew nothing. I may be exaggerating a tad; my standards can be high, but in Spanish I sounded unknowledgeable. What grips me is that I know that wouldn’t have been the case had I been asked to describe my work in English.
The epiphany was clear: the knowledge of what I do lives in the language I use to do it.
And as usual, that made me think of schools and what happens in them. Isn’t everything children do in schools one form of language or another? To learn math is to learn how to manipulate and describe the behavior of numbers. To learn to relate to others, to be social, is to learn how to read the codes (body language, facial expressions, proper space, and so on) and to encode your own preferences as you try to compromise or not. To learn music, art, history, science, reading, writing: all languages in need of time to expand, in need of leisure to solidify, and in need of love to settle; all languages in need of hands, mouths, feet, silence, you name it, to hold some part of the knowledge.
Paraphrasing Merleau-Ponty, precisely because we live and we think in a world already processed in words, spoken in words, we lose conscience of everything that is contingent in the expression of those who transform into a word a determined silence.
One question, then; a simple but important question: how could we possibly measure what children know if we don’t allow them to choose the language they wish to use to describe it for us?
And then another question; ethical and democratic, a serious question, a question that overflows from contemplation: why do we pretend to so accurately judge what children know only by what they can find words for?
Chances are that if you pick up a book from our home library it will be one tattooed with markings. An easier bet would be to guess that Givanni was the one who inked it. Like words or images etched onto the telling bodies of the tattooed––walking stories as they are––symbolic and narratively, her ink markings make our books talk. And when they do, I find in them so much to learn.
With each mark Givanni tags onto their pages, our books seem to grow and take on more weight and further meaning than they were previously seen carrying. She has a way to reveal in our books parallel texts: the words in print and the marks in ink like two voices in conversation.
And as in the fingerprints left on glass topped coffee tables her markings in our books confirm their use; they are testimonial proof that someone, at least one of us, was there.
I watch her read. In short time she pauses, looks up, her eyes drifting somewhere chasing after a thought, and with her pen, vaguely, she underlines, the ink turning darker as she reaches the end of what has caught her attention. As if underlining were a running start, with more conviction she then scribbles on the corners of the page––her words and questions releasing, uncovering, making noticeable and fleshing out words in the book she has deemed significant and amplifiable.
Sometimes she highlights with a color pencil, but this marking is different. In this gesture she seems to veil and protect; she screens the text that may seem to her too meaningful to leave behind, like paper suddenly caught stolen by a gust of wind, now crudely tumbling in the air, their owner desperately in their pursuit, Givanni traps and secures the words she believes are in most need of shade and shelter––a sort of insulation to blanket their value, in highlighting she places some other thought of hers on the surface of the page.
Some passages she has read have a second coating, like paint on walls in need of several layers; thicker, millimeters firmer, further secure and more remotely shielded are now the words she will want to recall. A closer look at the cover of the book, its wrinkles, perhaps even the yellow tint of the pages, for sure the dusky smell, reveals that some of her second coatings are in fact second readings. Even further is the value she places on a book she has read two to three steps past many times, re-highlighting is code for “these words must never find themselves lost.” To her some books are just too good to be read just once, and that makes me want to know why.
She rests again and lifts her eyes, now looking further beyond the limits of our apartment wall. And when the tip of her pen meets the page yet again, another thought, another point of reflection materializes on its exterior.
Browsing through the pages you may find that some of Givanni’s markings in our books are like trails in forests; like some guide to follow, they can provoke and be inviting but they can also be misleading, perhaps even precarious to pursue. Whatever thoughts and ideas may lie ahead of these markings, maybe pleasant or perhaps disagreeable discoveries, they have an enormous potential to change what you think––to expose what you hadn’t considered before, for Givanni is the kind of reader that builds the road as she walks it.
But for all the analogies above, and the others I could likely conjure, Givanni’s markings on our books are especially an overflow of her contemplation. They are her thoughts, her noticings, the ideas she recovers and the ideas she protects; they are her reflections now surfaced, her point of interest (inter-rest) ignited; so now, looking over our bookshelves I can see a lifetime of books with markings to learn from.
And just this weekend, she bought two more.
Today I made vegan French toasts.
Well, to be exact, I made Chai Spice Amaretto Vegan French Toasts with Toasted Coconut Shavings. I figured that would be the best way to kick off the New Year: a delicious breakfast by experimentation. Well, again, to be somewhat more precise, it wasn’t all trial and error. Like some part of my cooking curriculum, I do have a recipe for it that I began using some time ago. And like all recipes, or instructional manuals for that matter, it is definitive and narrow. As we come to expect, the recipe gives the measurements, the quantities, the times––in short, limits and exactitude.
But today I cooked without the safety net, and it made me think of school. Why? I’m not sure yet. And in the process I even paused to wonder what the author of the recipe would have to say to me choosing to partially ignore him or her.
Maybe, I can suppose, as some sort of unintentional New Year’s resolution, it made unplanned sense to do so. Or, perhaps, I was confident I could improvise culinary poetry for the first morning of the year (not that I was expected to, of course; not exactly). Or, maybe just because when we cook something several times over, when we learn it, we usually expect to be able to do so without the set of details and steps we’re told to follow. All of these are possible explanations, like in multiple-choice questions, but because the French toasts were spectacular, now in hindsight, I can choose the best reason.
It was poetry on a plate. No doubt. For the Chai Spice I probably added more nutmeg than usual. Maybe I used less white ground pepper. I am sure I added more coconut milk than what the recipe called for. And today, my one-teaspoon scoops of nutritional yeast flakes were beyond heaping to say the least. I also know that I tripled the amount of ground flaxseed, and that I probably halved––well, maybe it was more like four-fifths of––the amount of expected vanilla extract. Sorry, I was estimating. And, here’s the kicker, the amaretto was entirely my original contribution. It was sitting there in the pantry, just some of it left over from last night’s Coquito, and why would I not use it to spike up our first breakfast of the year, right? Oh, and I almost forgot. How could I? I served the French toasts with freshly tapped Vermont Fancy maple syrup.
Again, hoping not to sound too immodest, Homer’s Iliad is a text message next to the edible prose I composed this morning!
So why? Why was it more delicious today? Certainly the recipe was made to ensure taste; to secure it, almost. But I could not have made what I made today without discarding its rigidness and narrow advice. And yes, there are also many answers to that question. The new syrup alone certainly made a difference. Maybe with more cinnamon it would taste even better. And if I wanted to, I could try it all again and be more detailed about each difference or each new interpretation of the recipe; like playing from one of Chopin’s piano scores and trying out a new note or two myself (not that I would ever claim to be able to make Chopin’s music any tastier); creating, testing, and then refining. After all, this wasn’t a standardized test.
But part of me does not want to exactly try it again all over. Like children playing out in the yard, a “redo”, or a “do-over” doesn’t mean do the same exact thing again, but rather “start once more”, “pause and then unpause”; “use this time, this leisure, to keep creating, testing, and refining.”
Like some rigid piece of curriculum, recipes are skilled at silencing what they could say the loudest: “these steps avoid mistakes”. When strictly used as “time-savers” curriculum and recipes make the attempt to offer precision and exactitude. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t think educators or cooks could ever do without either of them. But with flexibility and affable time (leisure in the original sense) curriculum and recipes can be just the right guidance we may need to make something spectacular.
Now shouldn’t that leisure be a big part of what schools are for? Better yet, shouldn’t that be a big part of how to use the time of school?
Givanni M. Ildefonso-Sánchez
Copyright © 2015 José Daniel Sandín & Givanni M. Ildefonso-Sánchez
All Rights Reserved