In 2002, Tyler, an eighth grader, changed my teaching life and improved the education of more than a thousand students who came after him.
When I started teaching, I used what I found in the file cabinet: novel units with easy-to-copy study guides, quizzes, and tests. There were textbooks in the room, so I used them, too, with similar resources that came neatly organized in a shiny box (with a handle!). I plugged along for five years, barely keeping my head above water, teaching six different classes in an eight period day along with a bonus study hall, also known as High School Babysitting 101. I taught Advanced Grammar (with no teacher’s edition), Creative Writing, English 9, English 10, American Literature, and one other class that thankfully escapes my mind.
Then, I taught sixth grade for one year, doing the same thing. Novels. Worksheets. Quizzes. Tests. But the projects I assigned were fun! We used crayons and scissors and tic-tac-toe boards and shoe boxes and hangers! What kid wouldn’t love my class? They weren’t reading the pages I assigned for homework, but, man, the projects were colorful! Hundreds for everyone!
If it sounds ridiculous, it’s because it was. I knew it. But I didn’t know how to stop myself. No one else thought the way I did, and I didn’t know where to go for help. My discomfort grew, but my teaching didn’t. My awful practices continued, but my energy and enthusiasm tricked everyone into believing that amazing things were happening in my classroom.
The following year, I taught eighth grade. And along came Tyler. It was a sunny spring day. We were just finishing up our fourth class novel, Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher, which I had dutifully read aloud to my students each day so (this time!) I would know they had read the book. My teaching had improved a little bit, as I had implemented a Reader’s Response journal that I had heard about somewhere, and I began conferencing with my students about the book. They had amazing insights about, and our class discussions were rich.
But then, because of my department’s expectations, I had to give my students the same old objective, circle-the-correct-answer test. On this, the last day of the “unit,” my students were sitting in rows, correcting each other’s tests (welcome to teaching utopia–instant scores!). After putting the percentage on the top of the first page, students handed the tests back to their owners. Tyler, red-faced, raised his hand high.
“Yes, Tyler,” I said.
“Why is number 6 false?” he asked.
I explained the answer. He still fumed. I went on answering other students’ questions. Tyler’s hand shot up again.
“Yes, Tyler,” I said.
“Why does it matter that I know the exact location of this event? Can’t I love the book without knowing this?”
I had never been challenged or questioned before and immediately became defensive. I stood up straight and gave my best teacher answer, something about having to evaluate whether the students were close readers and could remember details so I could see if they had been paying attention throughout the book, knowing, as I spoke, that everything I said was a bunch of crap. Tyler unhappily accepted my answer, but he stopped pushing. I was the teacher, after all. I must know better than he.
I couldn’t sleep. I had to do something. Two days later, I apologized to Tyler for my craziness. He was right. It didn’t matter.
I never gave an objective test about a novel again.