Tuesday, June 21, 2011

No Ma'am, You're Wrong

I'm attending Advanced Placement (AP) training this week. I was really looking forward to this training to help me integrate some higher level instruction into my classroom. Today I was treated to what I felt was very ineffective form of instruction.

From what I can tell, my instructor has only taught AP students and that it wasn't for very long. In her time as a teacher, she used a diagnostic assessment at the beginning of the year. That is not bad practice. You should always have a gauge of where your students are starting out before you begin instruction. Not all students are the same and it's important to remember that they all come to you at different places.

She gave the assessment on the second day of school, took the assessments home, scored them that night and then passed them back. That seems all well and good, right? As someone who endured her diagnostic assessment, I can tell you, it wasn't. We were given half an hour to simply analyze a text that we all had varying degrees of knowledge about. The text was about five lines total. She graded our analyses, ranging from one page to my three pages, on a scale of 1 to 9. No one received a 9. Or an 8. Or a 7. The highest score, in a room full of English teachers, some of whom have taught AP classes already, was a 6. And it was the only one. It wasn't me.

After she passed back the assessments, she asked for our feelings. Many of us admitted that we felt panicked or worried about the assessment, despite the fact that we are adults with degrees. She felt this was a good thing. She felt that we should feel the panic that our students feel during such an assessment. She only wrote criticism on the papers. She said it was pointless to offer praise when there was none to give and she would rather have the student see their weaknesses. True to her word, our papers only received criticism.

I find several things wrong with this practice. First, if the majority of my students fail an assessment that they should be prepared for, I would assume there was something wrong with the assessment, not with my students. This is not a group of incoming freshmen who have been ill-prepared by a system failing them. This is a group of teachers with at least one degree in English. I have two degrees and I failed this test. I'm going to be blatantly honest. She passed out the assignment, read it to us and I stared blankly at it because I had no idea what she wanted me to do. This wasn't poetry. It was five lines of a short story. We had thirty minutes to write and it took me ten to get started because I had no idea what I was supposed to do with five lines. She said that in that thirty minutes, we should have read the text, analyzed it, wrote a rough draft and then wrote a final draft. She criticized us for all only writing a rough draft. Was the problem really with the thirty teachers in the room or was it with the assessment and the expectations of the instructor?

Second, if my students ever feel panicked because of an assignment, I have failed as an educator. Education is not about freaking students out. It's about learning. I don't learn when I'm stressed out. The more stressed I am, the worse I do on an assignment. For many of my students, school is one of the few safe places they have. Why would I destroy that on the second day of school?

Finally, criticism only does not work for my students. It can't work for my students. Some students thrive under pressure. My students have been told their whole lives that they are stupid in some manner. Why would I reinforce that by not acknowledging their successes and focusing solely on the worst parts? You can criticize without crushing someone's spirit. As an adult with two degrees, three years of teaching under her belt and a plethora of students who love her, it was still hard for me to swallow my failing score. It was hard for me to see the criticism with nothing saying what I did right. It was exasperating, frustrating and painful to see that, and I know I'm good at school. Imagine if I didn't know I was good at school. Am I super excited to continue the school year?

Education is not about tearing a student down so that you can rebuild them in the perfect mold. Education is about taking the student, their weaknesses and their strengths, and building them up even more. Education should never alienate students or discourage them. They get enough of that in the real world without us adding to their difficulties.

I hope the week improves.


  1. Thought it certainly wasn't her intention, I hope you learned quite a bit from what this horrible teacher did to you. These diagnostic tests should never be passed back out to the students. It is not a tool to show THEM where they stand, it is a tool for YOU to know how to best help them get to where they need to be. Like you said, failing something you didn't prepare for is not only stressful but embarrassing. Why should you, as an educator, try to use that against them. Teaching isn't about setting students up for failure; it's about setting them up for success.

  2. That sounds extremely ineffective. I would have been totally crushed. :( Most people thrive on positive reinforcement. I'm sorry you had such a bad day.


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