Friday, July 25, 2014

Silly Colleges

Preparing kids for college makes us do stupid things.

This has been a conundrum for me this summer as I create my Freshman English class for this fall: do I teach them what they need to know for college, or do I teach them what they need to know for life? Because they are frequently not the same things, and they are often not even compatible.

Any teacher could tell you (and most average people off the street could, too) that standardized tests are a lousy way of telling you what a student knows or can do. Doing well on a standardized test only proves that you have the knowledge and skills required to do well on a standardized test. Yet, we require all students to do well on the MOMMA of all standardized tests before they can even get a foot in the door to higher education. Why?

People say that's because those are the skills they need to do well in college. But doesn't that just call into question the quality of what they're doing in college if the SAT whiz-kid is representative of what colleges successfully produce?

Final exams are in the same category. I would really like to implement the use of a portfolio to assess my students' learning at the end of each year. Much more useful, much more accurate, of much more value to the student, teacher, parent, everyone. Final exams, particularly as high schools and colleges have come to implement them, focus on bits of information as opposed to overall conceptual understanding. They provide only a snapshot of the student's performance at a particular moment in time, which may or may not be representative of their actual achievement level and certainly doesn't show any evidence of growth. They just stink.

But colleges give final exams, so my college-bound students need to learn how to cram ungodly amounts of informational bits in their brains to spit out on a scan sheet so they can succeed in college. Why?

My daughter had to memorize ten vocabulary words a week last year, words that were purportedly for SAT and college preparation . . . and many of them words that I, a word-fanatic English teacher with a master's degree, had never encountered in my life. Words that she, honestly, would not be likely to read again in her life. And words that she most certainly would never be using again in her life. But she has to learn them to succeed in college? Ridiculous.

And academic writing . . . good heavens. For my online course I'm taking this summer, some of the articles I'm having to read are the thickest, most nominalized, most ridiculously obscure writing I've read in a long time. But this is the way you are expected to write in higher academia. (My professor commented on one piece I turned in that I should rewrite lists with bullet points into paragraphs. Forget the fact that the list with the bullet points is significantly more succinct and clear -- clarity is apparently not the goal here.) So, I can teach my kids how to write for college, OR I can teach them how to write well.

And literature! To succeed in a college literature class, my kids have to be able to tear apart a novel into its various elements, analyze them all, critique them all . . . and I'm not arguing that a certain degree of such knowledge isn't beneficial. I can enjoy watching football much more when I have some understanding of the rules and the strategies and the skills involved in doing what the players are doing. It's the same with literature.

But good heavens -- we kill all the joy of reading! Most of my kids are not going to get literature degrees, but I hope they will be life-long readers. Life-long readers don't label and analyze the literary elements of a novel. They read it! They lose themselves in a story. They let it affect their minds and spirits. They talk about it with their book-loving friends. And they respond to it by changing their interaction with the world in some way.

Our students expend so much energy responding to a novel academically, they have nothing left to respond personally . . . if they even understand that a personal response is an option.

Why don't colleges shape up? Why can't they figure out that the way they do things is ineffective and impractical, so the rest of us don't have to make a choice between what is good for our students' educational future and what is good for our students' future?

Because, people, there simply isn't time to teach it all.

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