Sunday, September 26, 2010

What do you know?

My children are smart in ways that can’t be tested by multiple choice questions and it scares the hell out of me. I’m not worried because they know more text language or because they have been exposed to more episodes of television shows via their computers than through the TV set. I’m not worried because they are aware of more hatred and violence, sexuality and drug use than I was at their age. I’m worried because of balloon animals.

My elder daughter, just becoming comfortable as an angry teenager, was helping out with my younger daughter’s birthday party. We went shopping for party supplies and she insisted that we buy the long, skinny balloons and the pump so that she could make hats and giraffes for the younger guests. I humored her, figuring that she saw someone on Top Chef or Cops making balloon animals and convinced herself that she could do the same. I bought the balloons convinced that this 7 dollar object lesson would serve everyone well. The party began as scheduled. Cake, pizza, candles, and manicures and makeup treatments. And balloon animals – real honest to goodness balloon animals. I have no idea when and where she learned to do this but it struck me (and I’m sure parents everywhere have faced this same paradox) that this is a child who can’t remember her math lessons from day to day and who struggles in science and social studies. My other child is much the same; she can reel off lyrics galore and retell an entire movie’s plot line without taking a breath, but she can’t spell.

The children, it appears, are not idiots. Anyone who knows them sees how they have sharp wits and make insightful comments. But when those tests come around, they both flounder. As an educator, I fear that my children will fail at the conventional testing schema and will be pounded down by the system which values numbers and data over whatever it is my kids seem to have. I worry about high school (can my kids handle the volume of work when they struggle with the elementary and middle school demands?). I worry about college admissions (SAT’s can’t measure what my children have to offer). I worry about their finding a direction in life. I worry. Now, I know that as a father, it is my job to worry and that I’m not going through anything particularly unique. But I see as a teacher that students have to be able to take tests, memorize formulae and somehow develop an understanding of something more practical and somehow elusive than balloon animals.

I’m not sure how we can check for “knowledge” and sometimes I’m not even sure what knowledge is. Does it somehow have something to do with geometry, chemistry and history? Sure. Does it have something to do with coping skills, working well under pressure and memorization? Yup. Is it somehow bigger than all of those things and, in a very important sense, immeasurable? Absolutely. Find me someone who can remember, understand, and DO and I’ll show you a person who has something to contribute to the world, no matter his standardized test scores.

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