Thursday, June 18, 2015

Eyes on the Prize

The school year is finally over and as a teacher you begin to reflect on how the year turned out. It’s easy to think that the only measure of success is the test scores, but I know that is bogus. Yes, success can be measured by academic achievement and “data”, but it also is measured by much more qualitative measures: mindsets like perseverance, skills like problem-solving ability, and other not-so-simple things like motivation and confidence. I bind myself to these stories and not to test scores because a score does not show the whole picture, nor is a score alone enough to propel a student out of poverty into their dreams. 

One of the more qualitative measures of success I tried to build into my students this year was a long-term vision for their future – recognition that success is a LONG process and therefore every day matters. Today matters for the job you want or the car you want or the NBA game you want to attend, whatever it is. So I repeat things to them over and over and over. I say, “you want to do well in 3rd grade so you can go to 4th grade, and 5th grade, and 6th grade, and 7th grade, and 8th grade, and 9th grade, and 10th grade, and 11th grade, and 12th grade, and college.” (I’m actually pretty good at saying that very fast now.) We also talk a lot about what that future is going to look like: how knowledge gives us power and power gives us choices. Choices – freedom – that is the prize we work towards every day because poverty is not just a lack of money; it is a lack of options. This is a long chain of events a long way in the future for a 9 year old to grasp and work towards, but I think it’s important because when they get it, they become responsible to themselves.

The problem with building these qualitative measures is they are exactly that, qualitative. I cannot give a test and receive “data” to tell me exactly, to what extent, each child has grown their own personal long-term vision. Luckily however, you sometimes receive little glimpses of growth breaking through the concrete.  For me this glimpse came the day before the big End-Of-Grade (EOG) test with my students, when I gave each a chance to write down their worries about the test and put them in the “worry box” (a.k.a. “where worries go to die”). Reading through their worries after class most said things like, “I’m afraid I won’t pass and won’t get to go to 4th grade with my friends.” This is a legitimate concern because of the way the law is written in NC, but one kid in particular struck me. He wrote, “I’m afraid I won’t pass and I won’t get to go to 12th grade.” This kid – who so often at the beginning of the year said he didn’t care if he failed or not – has just proved his long-term vision to me. He wasn’t thinking about 4th grade. He was thinking about “4th grade, and 5th grade, and 6th grade, and 7th grade, and 8th grade, and 9th grade, and 10th grade, and 11th grade, and 12th grade, and [hopefully] college.” His eyes are on the “prize”. His note made me simultaneously extraordinarily proud of him and also kind of sad because I could feel the added pressure he felt for the upcoming day.

The next day after the test I had the kids write a reflection about how they felt. This student again proved his mindset when he drew two accompanying pictures with his writing. Both pictures begin with him sitting at a desk taking the EOG. From here though he imagines two different futures based on his test score. In the first set an arrow is drawn to him buying a car and then another arrow to a picture of him getting paid $100 bills. “This,” he tells me, “is me passing the EOG and getting to choose out any car I want when I get a good job.” His eyes are the prize – choices, opportunities! However, in the second set the arrow from him taking his test points to two stick figures behind bars in what he calls “EOG jail”. From “EOG jail” an arrow points to my student crying when his boss tells him, “You’re fired.” When you see this it is hard not to cry at the reality, or at least the fear, of it all. Study after study links 3rd grade reading success to high school graduation rates and high school dropouts have a much higher rate of incarceration than those who graduate. It’s not hard to put the two and two together. At this point you begin to wonder if teaching your kids to have a long-term vision was actually a good idea. Maybe it’s too much. Hope seems so far away for some of the kids. The test seems too big. It would be easier if we only had to plan for next year, not the next ten.

Yet, I cannot give up on the long-term vision. Kids need to know what they are working towards and so do we as peacemakers need this too. Our work will not happen overnight or even over the next year.  We need to keep our eyes on the prize. We need to teach each other and encourage each other to have patience, perseverance, and the determination. We need to remind each other that this year, this moment, matters for “next year, and the year after, and the year after, and the year after, and the year after, and the year after…” until we reach our goal. Sometimes it is hard to understand why we don’t reach our goals right away. Perhaps we feel too much pressure but only with our eyes on the prize can we “Hold on! Hold on!”

So please, dear readers,

Hold on, Hold on
Keep your eyes on the prize
Hold on, why don't ya
Hold on, Hold on!

Jennifer Arnold

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