Classrooms during state tests are always kind of stuffy. There is some unease, anxiety, and a noiselessness that just doesn’t fit in these spaces that are usually lively and energetic. It’s a little like walking into an empty baseball stadium; it’s not supposed to be that quiet. It feels a little like I imagine some old European liturgical church service might feel, complete with guided readings about the Old-testament style of hell that will be unleashed if some joker kid pulls out a Laffy Taffy in the middle of the math section.
I usually try to do everything I can to remind students that we are human, and we don’t have to take ourselves too seriously. Once I tried to read the directions with my mediocre British accent, which only lasted for a few minutes until a student demanded that I switch back to my nasal monotone and told me I sounded like “drunk Mary Poppins.” I appreciated the allusion.
Occasionally I’ll drop a breath mint on a desk, contort my face when I make eye contact with an exhausted student so that I look like a happy version of Shrek, or I hand someone the box of tissues as if I am a quarterback dropping back for a handoff. It’s all just some act I’ve developed for testing rooms to keep kids from becoming so bored that they start to angrily bang their head off the desks or scribbling violently outside of the lines on their multiple choice bubbles.
We have to do these things. We have to do these things because of all the pressure that grown-ups build up around the few days in April or May when our students interrupt their normal school days to sit in straight lines in rooms that feel a lot more “stuffy” than normal. And we try to blame this on everyone but ourselves: we blame it on big publishing and the money made on standardized tests, we blame it on state DOEs that sit in state capitols and publish reports on how many kids passed, we blame it on principals asking us to do test prep in gym and art class, and we blame it on overzealous administrators and superintendents who are trying to have scores to brag about and schools to promote.
But we don’t usually take the time to look at ourselves and talk about the ways that we can take all that pressure, fair or unfair, and stuff it into that disorganized top right drawer in our teacher desk. We don’t talk as much about how we can keep some of that pressure off of our students’ backs.
That’s what this post is about; about finding ways to try to tell our kids that it is just a test and, while we want them to do their best, no test result is more important than who they are as people.
It reminds me of this time I was proctoring a test a few years ago and we were waiting for all of the students to file into the room. I had a stack of sticky notes and was writing encouraging and cheesy things on notes and sticking them on student desks.
I passed a girl that I knew well that I had taught for multiple years and I could tell she was a little nervous.
“D- You are one of the coolest people in the world. You’re going to pass this thing. I’m sure of it.”
The test started, kids fell into that hard-working, nervous, trance that so often happens during tests, and I noticed that student had put her head down. I walked over and gently tapped her shoulder.
She sat up and wrote on the post-it note that was still sitting on the corner of her desk.
“Boll- What if I don’t pass?”
A rush of an “oh shit” moment poured into my head as I realized that this amazing kid was feeling some of that pressure put on by all the grown-ups in this business. I grabbed another post-it, knowingly breaking a rule of test proctoring that says you can’t really write a kid a note during a test for fear that I am writing some kind of figurative language cheat sheet.
“D- If you don’t pass, nothing changes. You’re still one of the coolest people in the world. And, you rock.”
Moments like that seem to happen every year. There are times when we let kids feel pressure that they shouldn’t have to feel, mostly because we also are feeling pressure that we shouldn’t have to feel. So I have started to think about ways that I can help to work against some of that pressure.
Remember why we’re here.
Our only job is to teach all of the students who are in our rooms. But every year during testing, there are conversations that take place behind closed doors. There are lists generated of students who are on some ever-moving “bubble” or who of students who “might pass” or “will pass.” This isn’t completely evil, it’s just a way to make sure that the students who can pass get some encouragement and motivation. However, the existence of these meetings and conversations implies that we are not giving that encouragement and motivation to every student. And that is something we should push back on with every fiber of our teacher-ness. We teach everyone and try to help everyone be better. It doesn’t matter if that “better” lines up with proficiency or not.
When things feel kinda tense, speak with a British accent.
This one obviously changes if you happen to actually have a British accent. In that case, I suggest you try to take on a thick southern drawl and partner it with hyperbolized hand motions. But that is not really the point. The point is that there are times that you can feel some sense of pressure rising, and it might be worth lightening the mood a bit. It’s why I read directions in different dialects. The state testing people might not love it, but by the time kids are in high school they have heard these directions hundreds of times and are usually begging me to just ignore the bullshit about not cheating and tell them to start. Usually, my attempt at an accent ends with all of us laughing, and then students telling me that I am a huge idiot and me telling them that I think they’re amazing. It’s a good thing.
If you have read this blog consistently, which makes you one of 12 people, then this piece of advice has become kind of redundant. Also, if you are in my department, you have also heard this at least once a week and you have probably rolled your eyes thinking that Mr. Boll is always doing too much with these damn notes. It is, however, the most relationally impactful thing I have done as a teacher and there have been many times that students have shown me how they have saved every note I have ever written them to remind them what one corny teacher sees in them. Just before testing time, I usually write notes to kids that tell them they are great. I try to keep academic ability out of the notes for this time, and tell them some other reason why they are amazing. I’ll remember a funny story about them, or tell them a character trait I notice in them, or just try to encourage them that Mr. Boll is proud of them regardless of whether their tests come back as “advanced” or “below basic.”
Do the Little things.
There is probably a blog post out there about how you should light lavender candles and give students some certain kind of gum or mint that heightens brain activity. There is probably some loose science to back that up. But more importantly, lavender smells a lot better than 15 year olds. Or 14 year olds. Or 9 year olds. So lavender candles probably just make everyone a bit happier. And who doesn’t love a breath saver to take their mind off some kind of boring equation sheet or an equally boring passage about surviving winter weather during western expansion. Those little things matter. I always pair these with the corny Shrek faces, handing off the tissue box in strange creative ways, and drawing really bad pictures of students on post it notes and handing them out in between sections. Anything to make a kid smile, and remember that humanity matters more than filling in bubbles correctly.
In the end, teachers are sometimes the last line of defense and a chance for kids to experience a mature adult to make things normal and consistent. Be the adult, because we can’t always expect our bosses and legislators to do it.