April in New York City public schools (and probably many other school districts around the country) brings with it not only warmer temperatures and budding flowers but also the controversial and time-consuming state tests. This year, for the first time, the tests (and all the drama attached to them) hit home, my home.
My son, Oliver, is a third grader in a public school with a significant opt out movement. (I believe that approximately half of the families opted their children out of the tests. You can read more about NY State tests and Opting out here.) As we neared the beginning of April, I found myself feeling unsure of what to do. Should he take the tests or shouldn’t he? Ultimately, we chose for Oliver to sit the ELA tests out.
At Oliver’s school, all of the children opting out were given instructions to report to the cafeteria first thing in the morning. His teacher prepped him and others to bring books, projects, etc. with them. The morning of the first test, Oliver walked around apartment gathering materials to bring with him: an assortment of books (one in progress, one he hadn’t started yet, one graphic novel, one sports magazine), sudoku, and playing cards. He was ready.
The second morning, he gathered some additional items and approached his back pack with a big stack of books. Puzzled by the volume of books he was planning to carry with him in his back pack, I asked him what he was working on. He explained that he told various friends (who were also spending the morning in the cafeteria) that he would bring them specific books. Another child (someone whose name I had never even heard before) was going to bring him the second book in a series that he had been reading. A full-fledged book sharing, lending library has been established.
I was amazed. One of my biggest worries about opting Oliver out of the tests was that he’d be bored sitting quietly in the cafeteria all morning, and that very situation (the unstructured, self-directed time in the cafeteria) is yielding something special – a shared love for books, reading, and an opportunity to be social readers.
Testing ended, and Oliver was happy to be back in his classroom full time. As the weeks have gone on, however, a piece of that reading magic that he discovered in the cafeteria has remained. We’ve begun referring to Oliver’s bookshelves in his bedroom as “lending library #2.” He regularly comes home with notes written to himself indicating a classmate’s name and the book he/she wants to borrow. At the same time, he and some friends have started pursuing book clubs that matter to them. I got an email from his teacher one day asking me (on Oliver’s behalf) if I could find two copies of a particular book at my school’s library for Oliver’s book club.
As adults, we all know that reading is social. A good book makes us want to talk. A good book makes us think of friends who would love (or hate) it. What I love about Oliver’s experience is that he and his peers discovered the social nature of reading out of a truly authentic experience – having time on their hands and looking to help each other find ways to enjoy it. So rarely today do kids have opportunities in schools where they have empty chunks of time in which they can choose how to fill it. There is so much thinking today about student / learner centered learning, yet it is often countered by requirements and schedules that oppose such an environment. Never would I have imagined that Oliver’s opt-out experience would have offered him opportunities to negotiate his own time and interests in meaningful and purposeful ways.
If you are interested in further reading or ideas pertaining to student / learner – centered environments, you might explore the following: Teaching Kindergarten: Learner-Centered Classrooms for the 21st Century, the blog Investigating Choice Time, the Project Approach website, and pertaining to older children, a somewhat recent article from The Atlantic Magazine “What Happens When Students Control Their Own Education?“