This post was inspired by my cat using the kitty litter. Seriously.
My husband and I have two cats, and one of them - Charles - is a hot mess when I comes to tidy kitty behaviors. We adopted Charles from a local shelter, where a good samaritan had dropped him off. I name this because his behaviors are largely informed by his early months as a stray.
When Charles uses the litter box, he obsessively tries to cover his mess. The thing is, he paws everything and anything in the area, most of which doesn't involve actually moving kitty litter. He paws the sides of the box, he paws the litter box package if it's sitting close enough, he paws the air, he paws the wall….. and a good time later, he leaves; satisfied that he's completed his task.
The thing is, somehow Charles does end up adequately covering up his mess.
However, this only happens after a very long and unnecessarily excessive effort to do so.
What the heck does this have to do with teaching, data, and testing? I've heard or seen Charles engage in this act many times, but today the connection came to me and flooded my head…. when we test kids, we (often/hopefully) have a clear reason for doing so. We want to know if they've learned what we've taught, or we want to know if they can apply one understanding in a certain context, etc. Beyond the classroom, testing can be driven by a desire to ensure equitable access to instruction and content; or even to gauge what investments correlate to outcomes.
The thing is, having a purpose and then an outcome doesn't necessarily mean that everything that happens in between is necessary, efficient, or worthwhile.
Charles' goal is to cover up his mess, and he does so… but at the cost of excessive time and effort. All of his motions are the same; he paws at every surface with the same goal, and yet only some of those swipes actually translate to the desired outcome.
On this random morning, this has become the perfect analogy (in my head), for what we're doing with testing in education right now. It's obviously oversimplified, but in some ways it's not. Anytime I administer an assessment to my students, I'm acutely aware of the limitations.
I'm actually not entirely against testing. And I love using data to inform my practice (and my students' understanding of their work). That said, I'm increasingly frustrated with the Charles effect, if you will… where we are expending a lot of energy (and limited resources) on testing, without meaningfully reflecting on whether we're measuring the right things in the most efficient ways.
When you teach, empathy is ever-present. Sometimes you try to squash your ability to empathize so that you aren't broken by what others endure. Other times, you might find yourself trying to explain empathy to a child for whom such a capacity doesn't come naturally.
As a fifth grade team, Victor and I work to nurture our students' capacity to empathize. Given that we work in a school where our student population is incredibly diverse, empathy is an ever-present factor in our daily interactions. Empathy is not a veiled term to say that some students must pity others or feign understanding; it is a necessary tool for us all to value each other's story, to learn from and with each other, and sometimes, to even forgive ourselves.
On May 5, 2015, I was announced as the 2016 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year. The best part of this day was the presentation of my student-created award. Weeks earlier, I'd missed a day of school to participate in a full day of final round events at DESE with the other amazing finalists. When I returned to 5th grade, my students didn't fixate their reactions on the news that I had been selected as the final finalist; instead, they expressed their disbelief that I could have won an award without actually having anything tangible to prove it.
It wasn't that the children questioned my report of what happened; they were confused by the absence of a visual or tangible representation of what I was saying was true. How could a teacher be recognized as exceptional and just return to the classroom to resume like everything was the same?
Although the state did present me with a beautiful award at the State House Ceremony on June 11th, the award my students created and presented to me during the original announcement will always be my favorite. Not only was it symbolic of their empathy skills, but their understanding that despite all of our guests, their voices mattered, especially to me.