This past week, our department was able to take a practice PARCC test in order to give us a peek at what all of our juniors will be experiencing in the Spring. From the the very first question, I knew this was not going to be a successful assessment for my students.
The question reads as follows:
In paragraph 2, what does the phrase inherent aloneness suggest about Helga?
A. She dislikes the company of others.
B. She is uncomfortable interacting with others.
C. She feels that other people are judging her.
D. She is uncomfortable being alone.
When we look to paragraph 2, here is the context the students are given.
Helga stared into the approaching night, glad to be at last alone, free of that great superfluity of human beings, yellow, brown, and black, which, as the torrid summer burnt to its close, had so oppressed her. No, she hadn’t belonged there. Of her attempt to emerge from that inherent aloneness which was part of her very being, only dullness had come, dullness and a great aversion.
When I attempt to answer this question from the standpoint of my students I see the words, “glad to be at last alone,” and I immediately see a connection to answer A; she dislikes the company of others because she is glad to be at last alone. How many of my students will mark answer A without a second thought? A is a powerful distractor. But what if the students go deeper? How many students will take the time to ask themselves, “Why is she glad to be left alone?” This is not what is being asked by the test, but my teachers are always stressing to read between the lines? We all hope that our students will see that she is glad to be left alone because “…the great superfluity of human beings…oppressed her” and the fact that she felt oppressed probably meant that she feels other people are judging her. So I could make a case that the aloneness Helga feels has become inherent because she always feels like others judge her. Answer C is another distractor and quite honestly, my choice after I initially read the passage. So I can make a case for answer A and a reason I would be led to answer C, but there is no specific text that leads me to the real answer B. I understand why B is the answer when you take in the selection as a whole, but when I look to the text for clues, it doesn’t initially jump out at me as the best answer. So when you factor in the student’s individual interpretation of the question, the time limit, the distractors, and the chosen vocabulary, (people described as colors, superfluity, inherent, and maybe even aversion) the odds are definitely stacked against a majority of students choosing answer B.
We know a majority of our students are not ready to tackle the PARRC, so how will we get them ready between now and March? Even the most experienced educators in our department couldn’t help but to once again feel overwhelmed by a new mandate. As I spend a part of my weekend considering this new challenge, it reminds me of my other job in education, varsity girls golf coach.
What do coaching golf and teaching reading have in common? A lot more than you might realize. Golfing and reading are two activities that most of my students spend little time doing on their own. Golf is a “country club” sport; it’s expensive, and it’s time consuming. It is not popular in our community, however our school does offer the chance for girls to be exposed to the sport by joining the golf team. When most girls join as freshmen, they have little to no experience with the game, but that’s ok. We welcome them to the team; we take them to practice; we teach them fundamentals, and they practice how to pitch, putt, chip, and drive at the driving range. Once girls can hit at the range, they feel a sense of accomplishment. They feel like they can golf, and they enjoy practice. Then the first match occurs. The conditions are different; the tee boxes aren’t set up like the driving range mat; the fairways aren’t level, the sand is more compact, there is a lot of water, the greens are faster or slower or sloped. The girls, who have never golfed this course before, don’t meet the “acceptable” score of par on the scorecard. They walk off the course with the same uncertainty that my fellow companions walked out of our institute. So I encourage the girls, and we go back to practice at the driving range. Next match, new course, same result. Now the goal of our program is that the girls will enjoy the challenge of the game and will then seek to go out and play as many courses as their time and financial resources will allow them. Some girls do, and it’s very rewarding to see the steady improvement in their game. However, other girls are only able to golf during our 8 week season, and when they come back the next year, they show no improvement out on the course.
Students, who at some point in their youth learned to enjoy the challenge and fun of reading, should be able to navigate a score close to “par” on the PARCC. However at my school, the non-readers outnumber the book worms. Society has become too fast paced for the slow delivery and delayed rewards of a good novel compared to the instant payoff of social media. It’s not that all students aren’t capable of shutting off the outside world for a period of time each day to devote to a school assigned reading. Many just don’t see the point. Their brains process the text too quickly and journey too many other places during the time they spend staring at the inherent aloneness of the pages.
My classroom has become our driving range. We can read passages, answer multiple choice questions on pre, mid and post, type I,II, and III assessments, and reflect on what answers are right and what answers are wrong. But all these assessments don’t introduce my students to the rewards of reading. Our practice doesn’t inspire them to seek out novels on their own. If anything, this “skill and drill” approach often hides the rewards of reading. So when my students take the PARRC, they will be competing on an unfamiliar course, and when they don’t shoot par, it doesn’t mean that I’m a bad coach or that they are bad players. It just means that the golfers, like Helga, are used to being inherently alone, because the course just isn’t very crowded these days.