There is a scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where Harrison Ford is standing on the ledge overlooking a canyon that he must cross. There is no bridge, and it seems like an impossible test. The thing is...there is a bridge, but he can’t see it until he takes his first step out into the nothingness. Indy spends a bit of time debating what to do, and of course, being scared. Finally, though, he decides to take the first step because others are depending on him to do it. When he makes that choice, the viewer sees a sense of calm and resolve override the fear. It’s like he has made the decision that benefits of what MIGHT happen outweigh the certainty of staying where he is. Once he takes that step, a bridge appears before him and sees the way across the divide.
I think most people can relate to the fear of standing at the precipice of something unknown or new or different and not knowing what the full plan or outcome may look like. It’s scary. BUT...once you step off of one ledge and see that bridge, you get a little braver each time you stand at the ledge of another unknown opportunity, chance, or idea. After all, the only way to get better at flying is to practice jumping out of the nest over and over again.
I have had the opportunity lately to work with some pretty amazing educators who are standing at the edge of a scary, yet exciting ledge of opportunity. This past month, I got to watch some teachers take a leap, and I am thrilled to see the bridge appearing before them.
This is a hard time of year for teachers and students. The stress of STAAR is overwhelming, and it is times like this that we tend to revert back to what we know...the comfortable, the safe. That typically comes in the form of test-formatted practice packets. But is it really safe? If our students hate reading because they think you have to answer questions after everything, is it really safe? If they can underline a title and write a sentence beside every paragraph, but they would rather stick a fork in their eye than read a book….is it really safe? If they can answer a question on a test but cannot articulate how they are affected by what they are reading...is it really safe?
Like Indy, we have to weigh the benefits of what MIGHT happen if we did things differently against the certainty of what IS happening by doing what is comfortable for us. For these teachers, that meant taking the leap of NOT doing test practice for the next three weeks and focusing on helping their students make decisions about real reading. It meant changing the homework that they were sending home to reflect REAL reading skills and ways to discuss books with their parents. It meant honoring the reading choices that their students made and helping them to develop their own ways of processing and remembering information rather than dictating strict “strategies” that only apply (semi-successfully) to one genre--test reading.
I truly applaud those teachers who take that leap. It is hard to let go of the false sense of security that test prep offers. I’m not saying there isn’t a time and place, but every day from September-May is not the time and place for it. If we are teaching our students through real, authentic reading and writing, we can prepare them for a test as it approaches. It is so much easier to transfer true reading and writing strategies to a test than it is to try and transfer test strategies to real reading and writing. And let’s be clear...there IS a difference between authentic reading and writing strategies and testing strategies.
I’m not going to say that every student whose teacher decides to take the leap is going to pass STAAR. I KNOW they won't if they only get test prep packets. What I will say is that there are more important things than a passing score on STAAR that the students will gain. What if that struggling reader actually finds a series of books that he is interested in and READS this summer? What if that student who could care less about school finds an outlet in writing and decides to keep a journal or write a blog? What if that kid who only wants to read comic books and graphic novels is told it’s okay and that he IS a reader even if he is not reading novels? What if that student whose home life is hell finds an escape through a book and sees some new possibilities for life? What if that ELL student is able to share audiobooks or read to his brother and sisters or parents? What if students groaned that writing time was over? What if they begged to come in at lunch so they could read one more chapter?
To me...that’s how I know when what we are doing is working. It is possible. It just takes one little step into the unknown.