Book Summary: ‘Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire By M. Fontaine

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We Won't Get Fooled Again

My class performs well on standardized tests. Later in this chapter, I will share a few things I do to help my students prepare for such tests. But let’s be clear about something: The testing obsession that has swept our nation’s schools is detrimental to helping children reach their potential as students and human beings.

“This is your life on the line!” Mr. Intense is screaming at Lucy. “Your future depends on this! Sit down, shut up, and let’s be serious!” Lucy is nine years old and about to take a state math test.

I witnessed this. Lucy later told me that what frightened her most was the fact that her teacher was so out of control, he was actually spitting at her.

Standardized testing has become a nightmare in our schools. Teachers have become so overwhelmed by testing demands that they no longer have enough time to teach their students the subjects they are supposed to master. Students have become so burnt-out taking the tests that they no longer care how well they score on them. Among the situation’s many sad ironies, perhaps none is more profound than this: Despite the fact that standardized testing was conceived to help our children succeed, in practice it has only contributed to their failure.

I am not opposed to tests. We need to assess how the kids are doing. But the current system of testing is broken. We are spending so much class time giving so many tests that the kids do not care anymore. The fact that they rarely see the results of their work only adds to their indifference. In April 2005, for example, my fifth-graders were given the all-important, end-of-the-year, this-goes-on-your-record Stanford 9 test from the state of California. The children did not get their results until October! They never get to go over their answers to learn what they did right or wrong. They get percentile numbers that mean nothing to them. It is ironic that the people most obsessed with testing children do such a poor job of creating conditions in which the kids will perform well. In fact, many respected educators speculate that testing companies do not care if the students perform poorly. These testing services have capitalized on failing schools and made a ton of money exploiting our fear of failure. Consider the following:
Every week, my ten- and eleven-year-old students take a test in spelling and vocabulary.

They take a weekly state-dictated math test.

They take three state-dictated science tests a year. That’s four to six hours down the drain.

Many take English tests to prove to the district they are proficient in their new language.

They all take four district-sponsored literacy tests per year. These tests each take approximately ten hours of class time.

They take four district math tests every year. These tests consume between one and two hours each.

They write three essays for the district every year. Each essay can take up to an entire day to complete, and the children never see the results.

At the end of the year, the students spend two weeks taking the California State exams.

If you have come to the conclusion that our system of testing is insane, imagine how our children feel. The fact that more children are not running for their lives is a testament to their courage.

How to Study

Many years ago I heard an interview with the Great One himself, hockey champ Wayne Gretzky, that had a profound influence on me. Gretzky spoke about his relationship with his father and, in particular, how his dad helped him develop his work ethic. When Gretzky was a child and would ask permission to go outside and skate, his father’s “yes” was conditional. Gretzky was not allowed to simply go and skate around. He had to go to the pond and work on a specific move or shot. He learned at an early age to practice effectively and not waste time. It was a habit developed as a youngster that helped him become the greatest hockey player of all time.

The same is true with studying. I teach my students that how they study is far more important than how much they study. They learn that in order to study effectively they need to “create the conditions of the test.”

The classic example of misused energy is the manner in which many diligent students study for a vocabulary test. They make flash cards. They write a word on one side, its definition on the other side, and test themselves when they have time. For some children, this seems to work. But I’ve encountered far more who do poorly on the test and moan, “But I studied!”

They did study, but not effectively. The test required them to write words and their definitions out on paper. Throwing flash cards did not create the conditions of the test. It’s common sense, and our kids need all the common sense we can give to them.

Let’s say the kids have a math test coming up. Before we head home for the night, we always take a moment to discuss the evening ahead of them and the manner in which they will study for the test. As I give very little homework, we usually have a conversation that sounds something like this:
Rafe: Okay, munchkins. You did a great job today. Who remembers what’s happening tomorrow?

Erick: We’ve got a math test.

Rafe: Is that all?

Erick: It’s a test on integers.

Rafe: And since you don’t have any homework, you’re done for the night, right?

All: No!

Rafe: Tell me how you’re going to spend your evening. Are you going to look over your math book?

All: No!

Rafe: Why not?

Soo: Because we won’t be looking over the book tomorrow.

Rafe: That’s right. What is going to happen tomorrow?

Soo: You’re going to give us problems about integers, and we’re going to write them down and solve them.

Rafe: Exactly, Soo. Who can tell me some things you are going to do tonight?

Edgar: I’m going to do page 265. It’s a review of the entire chapter.

Rafe: But we’ve already done that. It’s not due.

Edgar: I’m not doing it because it’s due. I’m doing it because the problems are similar to the ones you’ll give us tomorrow. I need to create the conditions of the test.

Rafe: What music will you listen to while you do the problems?

Edgar: None.

Rafe: But Edgar, you love music!

Edgar: I do, but there won’t be music playing during the test tomorrow. I am going to do the work in the same environment as the test.

Rafe: Jacob?

Jacob: I’m doing page 262. It’s the one with problems about subtracting integers. I missed some and need to practice.

Stephanie: There are more of those in the practice workbook. You could do them.

Rafe: That’s true, you could. Valeria?

Valeria: And you can make up your own problems.

Rafe: What will you do tonight if you don’t understand a problem? What will you do when that happens?

Randy: We can call a friend.

Rudy: We can call you.

Jessica: We can come in early tomorrow and ask you for help then.

Rafe: You certainly can. And I think you should stay up and study till midnight.

All: No!!!

Rafe: (With mock shock) Really? Why not?

All: We need to go to bed early. Sleep is important. We’ll do better on the test if we’re feeling good.
These are children who study effectively. They are prepared and relaxed. And they score well on tests.

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