Great Reading Must Be Felt, Not Standardized


I made my classes cry today.

That sounds terrible, but if I’m honest, I knew it would happen and meant to do it.

I teach in an urban district and most of my 8th grade students are African American and/or impoverished. We’re reading Harper Lee’s classic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” together, and the kids were loving it.

Until today when we got to the verdict in the Tom Robinson trial.

Jaquan closed his book with wide eyes.

“What the heck happened?” he asked.

Other students in the room murmured their agreement.

“They found him guilty!? What the F!?”

“I hate this book.”

“This is so freakin’ racist.”

I let them go on for a moment.

Frankly, it was the reaction I had been expecting.

It happens every year around this time.

Until this moment, my kids were really into the book. They were enjoying the case and excited by how well the defense attorney, Atticus Finch, had proven that Tom, a black man in the 1930s South, is innocent of raping a white woman.

But even last night I knew what was coming. The next day – today – I’d have to go and break their hearts when they read what the jury actually decides. Some of them were bound to be crushed. And today they were.

For those who haven’t cracked this book open in decades, let me recap.

There is no physical evidence that the crime actually took place. Moreover, because of a crippling injury as a child, Tom is physically incapable of perpetrating the crime in the first place.

In a world where black males could be tortured and killed just for whistling at a white woman – like Emmett Till – it’s clear that Tom is the victim, not the aggressor.
It seems like a slam dunk case. Yet the all-white jury finds Tom guilty, and ultimately he is shot 17 times in prison after losing all hope and trying to escape.

It’s no wonder that when we read that cascade of Guilty’s from the jury’s mouths today, my kids couldn’t believe it.

Some of my best students closed the book or threw it away from them.

So I let them express their frustrations. Some talked about how the story hit too close to home. They have family members in jail or who have been killed in the streets by police. One girl even told us that she’s never met her own mother. The woman has been locked away since the child was an infant, and because of a missing birth certificate, my student hasn’t even been allowed to visit.

“Mr. Singer, when was this book written?” one of the girls in the back asked.

“The late 1950s,” I said.

“I thought you were going to say it just came out.”

And so we talked about what the book has to do with things happening today. We talked about Eric Garner. We talked about Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray.

At a certain point, conversation ceased.

My class of rowdy teenagers became quiet. We could hear people stomping in the hall, a movie being shown a few doors down.

There might have been a few tears.

I knew it would happen.

Last night I debated softening the blow, preparing them for what was about to take place. When we read “The Diary of Anne Frank” a month ago, I made sure they’d know from the very beginning that Anne dies. It should have been no surprise to them when Anne and her family are captured by the Nazis. It’s scary and upsetting but not entirely unexpected.

However, with “Mockingbird” I just let events unfold. And I stand by that decision.

It’s frustrating and painful, but my students need to feel that. It’s something I can’t shield them from.

It’s not that they have never felt this way before. Many of them have experienced racism and injustice in their everyday lives. But for this book to really have the desired impact, they need to FEEL what the author meant. And it needs to come from the book, itself.

A book isn’t just sheets of paper bound together with glue and cardboard. It’s a living entity that can bite. That’s the power of literature.

I can’t in good conscience shield them from that. They need to see it and experience it for themselves.

Writer Flannery O’Connor put it like this:

“I prefer to talk about the meaning in a story rather than the theme of a story. People talk about the theme of a story as if the theme were like the string that a sack of chicken feed is tied with. They think that if you can pick out the theme, the way you pick the right thread in the chicken-feed sack, you can rip the story open and feed the chickens. But this is not the way meaning works in fiction.

“When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you experience that meaning more fully.”

This is what our policymakers either misunderstand or forget when they demand we assess understanding with standardized tests.

The meaning of a story is not expressable in discrete statements A, B, C, or D. We wouldn’t read them if it was.

Every person is unique. So is every reaction to literature.

You can’t identify the meaning of this story on a multiple choice test. You can’t express what it means to YOU. All you can do is anticipate the answer the test maker expects. And that’s not reading comprehension. It’s an exercise in sycophantry. It teaches good toadying skills – not good reading strategies.

Perhaps that’s why Common Core encourages us to shy away from complex texts like “Mockingbird.” We’re told to focus on short snippets of fiction and to increase our student’s diet of nonfiction. Moreover, we’re told to stay away from narratives like Anne Frank’s. Instead, we should have our children read from a greater variety of genres including instruction books, spreadsheets, recipes – just the facts – because as Common Core architect David Coleman famously said, “No one gives a shit what you think or feel.”

Frankly, we don’t do a whole lot of that in my class. We still read literature.

Today, even after the blowout, we kept reading “Mockingbird.”

My kids suffered along with Jem and Scout. They reveled in Atticus’s example. They feared where it was all going.

And when class was over, a few of them had come around.

“This is such a good book, Mr. Singer,” one girl told me on the way out.

“Is Atticus going to die?” another asked to which I smiled and shrugged.

Jaquan stayed after the bell to ask his own question.

“Do you think in a hundred years things will be any different?”

“How do you mean?”

“I mean do you think people will still do things like THIS?” he said holding up his book.

I looked at him and swallowed.

“I don’t know, Jaquan,” I said. “But things are better now than they were. We can hope.”

He nodded.

I clapped him on the back and wished him a good weekend.

You don’t get that kind of reaction from Common Core, and you can’t assess it on a standardized test.

Students can’t ask such questions to computer programs.

They need teachers with the freedom to teach and assess as they see fit.

Otherwise, it is not just Tom Robinson that suffers a miscarriage of justice.

We all do.

Fight Corporate Education Reform and Meme It!


Sometimes words alone aren’t enough.

Has this ever happened to you? You’re arguing with someone and just not able to get your point across. You know if you could just show them the picture in your brain, they’d understand what you meant with the force of a bullet. But lacking psychic abilities, you’re reduced to the efforts of your poor twisted, tangled tongue.

That’s where memes make all the difference.

A meme is “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” Though originally coined as a term to describe genes, the expression has expanded to encompass anything that can carry ideas from one mind to another with a mimicked theme.

I know that sounds daunting, but you’ve probably seen hundreds or thousands of memes already. At least half of the images on Facebook and Twitter are memes – Grumpy Cat, Condescending Wonka, One Does Not Simply, Conspiracy Keanu and enough facepalms to break your jaw.

As a meme-maker, myself, I’ve been surprised that some of my efforts have taken on lives of their own. By no means am I a master at the art, but a few of my 50 plus memes have been surfing the Internet on their own for a year or more. I’ll go on a nationwide education organization’s Facebook page and see my little meme staring back at me. “Hi, Daddy!”

I leave you with an experiment. Here is a collection of some of my favorite creations. I’ve limited myself here to memes on the subject of education. I’ve also organized them to some degree based on subtopics.

Please feel free to browse. If you see a meme that you like – that helps make your point about the errors of corporate education reform – you have my blessing to take it. Post it on your Facebook page, in a tweet, on Tumbler, whatever you please. Send my little message off again into the great sea of interconnected webs and communication nets. Maybe one day it’ll return to me.

Happy shopping!







































The Multiple Choice Mind



What’s wrong with standardized tests?

Federal and state governments have been pushing for more multiple choice, fill-in-the-bubble tests in our public schools for decades. Districts, teachers and administrators are labeled as effective or ineffective based on how well their students score on these tests. The whole media blitz of stories about failing schools comes down to this one thing: too many kids aren’t scoring well on their many, many standardized tests.

In an effort to increase test scores, public schools that miss the mark are being stripped of their school boards and given to for-profit companies who promise to bring up those scores but never actually do.

Meanwhile test-making companies like Pearson are raking in the cash BOTH producing the tests and the remedial material schools are told they need because their students aren’t scoring well enough.

And the reason for all these failing grades is obvious to anyone who actually looks at student demographics: the rich kids score high and the poor kids score low. So poor test scores are really an indicator of the almost 1/4 of American children living in poverty. But instead of attacking the root of the problem, politicians and policymakers scream for more standardized tests.

It’s a political scam that’s easy to see. One could oppose standardized testing without even looking at a single bubble sheet. But that would be to miss a perhaps even more pernicious aspect of this whole educational fiasco. There’s something wrong with the tests, themselves, with the whole idea that standardized testing taken to this extreme is (1) a good indicator of student learning and (2) produces sound educational outcomes.

To see how this is true, please answer the following multiple choice question.

Fill in the correct answer using a number two pencil. Please fill in the bubble directly before the letter of the answer choice that best completes the following sentence:

1) A strong emphasis on standardized testing in public education systems is                          to student learning.

( ) (A) essential
( ) (B) modeled
( ) (C) the expression of a standard in relation
( ) (D) peculiar

If you picked A-D, congratulations! You’ve written on your computer screen and may need to buy a new monitor, ipad or cellphone screen, in which case Bill Gates thanks you for playing!

If you chose a different answer in your own head such as “harmful,” “destructive” or “stunting,” then you’ve just shown the biggest problem with standardized tests: you have to pick between pre-approved alternatives. In the real world, we want people to be able to make their own decisions, not just chose from the available options. If someone asks, “Coke or Pepsi?” you should be free to answer “Water.” If someone asks, “Football or Basketball?” you should be free to say “Art.” If someone asks “Democrat or Republican?” you should be free to say “Independent.” But this is not how we are preparing our public school kids for the world. Standardized testing is an effective way to create good consumers, not good thinkers.

From a business point of view, one can see the value of narrowing people’s options. After all, the world is not multiple choice, but advertising is. We are constantly bombarded by false choices and expected to accept them at face value. Turn on the TV and you’ll be deluged by commercials for various energy drinks: Red Bull, Five-Hour Energy, Monster, etc. Nowhere will you find an advertisement for getting a good nights sleep or exercising regularly – things that might actually give you real energy and not just a caffeine boost. One could put it as a multiple choice test:

2) Which is the best way to get energy?
( ) (A) Drink Red Bull
( ) (B) Drink Five-Hour Energy
( ) (C) Drink Monster
( ) (D) Drink Rockstar

The correct answer isn’t even one of the choices. If you can get the consumer to let you frame the question, you can increase your market share and boost profits. Training people to accept limited choices, to accept someone else framing the alternatives is a good business model. Big business doesn’t care how well you can think, only how much you spend and continue to spend every week.

Compare this to our mainstream media. Talking heads get to frame the narrative convincing us there are only a limited number of possible choices in any news story. (Given how much we’ve internalized these media narratives, it’s best to give my examples in the most generic ways possible to avoid political knee-jerk reactions to hot button issues.) Are you with us or against us? Do you believe in science or religion? Are you for country A or Country B? Do you think product X is harmful or do you believe in free choice? Should people be allowed to do Z or are you a bad person?

Life is more complicated than that, but everyday you hear people foaming at the mouth, screaming at each other from only two well-defined view points. Again we could see this as a multiple choice question:

3) Which country do you side with?
( ) (A) Country A
( ) (B) Country B

No middle ground allowed. Rarely do you hear someone say Country A is right about this and wrong about that, while Country B is wrong about this and right about that. And we don’t even question it. Whether intentional or not, this is the outcome of a strong emphasis on standardized testing.

Think about it. Public school students today don’t just take one or two multiple choice, fill-in-the-bubble tests. Standardized testing easily can go into the double digits every year and gobble up months of class time. When kids aren’t testing, their teachers are being forced to steer the curriculum toward more test prep. We’re teaching generations of children that the most important choices – the ones that count – are multiple choice. If something requires you to think beyond the bubbles, it’s not as important.

The result of this decades-long effort to deify the standardized test as the only valid, objective measure of student learning is a dumbed down educational system. Sure, individual teachers and administrators fight against it, but legislators now insist the only measure of teacher efficacy is student achievement on these same tests. So any educator who goes above and beyond and teaches his students to think for themselves actually does himself a disservice professionally. How can students who expect to think outside of the box be accurately judged on their ability to pick between the same canned multiple choices? And if their test scores drop, this educator will be judged “ineffective” and – if he doesn’t straighten up and teach to the test – he’ll soon be out of a job.

The bottom line is simple: we need to reign way back on standardized testing. These test have value to evaluate the most basic levels of understanding, but abused they lead to the results explicated here.

We need to teach our young people to think outside of the box, not inside the bubble. But sadly even the school reform debate is usually framed in this reductionist pattern:

4) Which statement is true?
( ) (A) Corporate reform strategies like standardized tests are the best way to evaluate student learning.
( ) (B) Not all children can learn.

5) Student learning is best stimulated by which of the following?
( ) (A) Common Core and its associated testing
( ) (B) Traditional antiquated styles of learning.

6) Who has the best interests of students at heart?
( ) (A) corporate school reformers
( ) (B) people in the pocket of the teachers unions

The real answers go beyond the multiple choice mind. Our children are being trained not to be able to tell the difference. Can you?