A Lesson From Ms. McGreevey's 3rd-Grade Class

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Sharon McGreevey teaches 3rd grade at the Menlo Park School in Metuchen, N. J. Ms. McGreevey is a very good teacher. She regards the optimism and enthusiasm that so characteristically energize her 22 8-year-olds as the positive and binding force for her class. So Ms. McGreevey strives to approach all lessons in ways that reflect and build upon the optimism and enthusiasm of the children. It never occurs to her to measure a child in terms of limitations. Indeed, every classroom experience is treated in terms of possibilities and good reason.

Ms. McGreevey has been aware of the anxiety created with the administration of the California Achievement Test to the children each year as the school year is coming to a close. And so she explains to her class that the CAT is used simply to help each and every youngster improve in their studies. She avoids making a big deal of the test so as to relieve the anxiety of the children.

This year, Ms. McGreevey tried something new. The day after the test, she asked the children to take out their crayons and use their drawing paper to express themselves in answer to the question, "How did you feel about the CAT?"

Although she was well aware of the tension created by the standardized test, she was astonished and disturbed by the stark emotional intensity of the children's drawings--depicting feelings that had never been expressed in their class discussion or writings. When she showed me the drawings, an uncanny association came to mind. A few years ago, following an international symposium I had organized, a Norwegian colleague presented me with a book, Edvard Munch, 1863-1944, containing vivid color plates and biographical sketches of the artist's life. Incredibly, some of the children's drawings--with their expressions of mouth and eyes in mask-like faces framed in swirling purple background--made me think of Munch's "The Scream" and of some of his other haunting paintings that reflected the fear that had plagued the artist from roots of childhood tragedy.

Now, I am not comparing the impact of the CAT or that of any other national standardized test with the kind of childhood terror that affected Edvard Munch as the result of the loss of family from tuberculosis. But at the same time, we cannot dismiss the fearfulness felt by an 8-year-old in facing up to a test that presumably will make an assessment of the educational worth of his or her young life. Ms. McGreevey's art assignment reveals this problem all too vividly. It also reveals something else. Standardized tests exert enormous coercive power over the curriculum as well as over children, teachers, and school administrators. Focused on the basics and that which is most amenable to the multiple-choice format for computer scoring, the tests tend to reinforce a skill-drill and error-oriented curriculum, while driving out or negating a curriculum rich in generative ideas and the expression in childhood experience.

The visual arts are essential for the development of the mind's eye, which is used in all walks of life. The first-rate scientist as well as the carpenter must be able to draw, sketch, and diagram and to make sense of these representations by others in the same field. But of no less importance is the development of the mind's eye in visualizing what might be from what is given in ordinary life experience. It serves to make ordinary life richer and even extraordinary in a personal way. Why is it that children love to draw, paint, and build things? The answer should be obvious.

America's schools have become a veritable testing caldron. We have even surpassed Japan in nationalized testing. At the last governors' summit on education, President Clinton promoted an even stronger system of national examinations for children and youths. The tests are already for high stakes. Each year, millions of youngsters must submit to these tests. In some places, the stakes are for preschool and kindergarten admission. Teachers are under pressure to teach to the test. School administrators press teachers for higher test results while the administrators themselves are under pressure from school boards, the media, and the community.

Ms. McGreevey refuses to prep her children by teaching to the test. She knows that this will take away valuable time from real learning. She knows that many of the outcomes of the real learning experiences will not be measured by the CAT, and she knows full well that the most valuable function of education is to instill in children the desire to go on learning.

Vol. 16, Issue 05, Page 36

Published in Print: October 2, 1996, as A Lesson From Ms. McGreevey's 3rd-Grade Class
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