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Evaluate teachers more on caterpillars, less on tests

Submitted by on Friday, 3 October 2008 No Comment

I suspect “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” isn’t included on the New York City Department of Education’s standardized tests.

In which case I’m very glad Big Guy’s kindergarten teacher doesn’t live in New York, which decided this week to make students’ standardized test scores a factor in “measuring teacher performance.”

Too bad for the Big Apple. The road to educational hell is paved with bubble tests, and this is another giant leap down the wrong path.

And too bad for kids like Big Guy, whose earliest exposure to education is built too much around memorization in preparation for the bubble tests they’ll learn to obsess about by the time they’re in second grade.

Sure, Big Guy’s teacher plays the drill and kill game, in part because she has to. Must ram the diabolical DIBELS down they’re throats now or they’ll tank when No Child Left Behind testing starts. Keep those flash cards and sight words coming!

But she also crafts a curriculum that’s exciting, hands-on and — dare I say! — focused on true learning.

Take this month’s lessons, which are built around “The Hungry Caterpillar.”

Simply reading the book crams a mountain of learning in tiny heads.

  • Days of the week: Follow the caterpillar as he eats his way through the calendar.
  • Numbers: Count what he consumes each day.
  • Nutrition: The caterpillar’s feeling fine until he goes on a Saturday bender of cake, salami, ice cream, pie and pickles. But then, who among us hasn’t been there?
  • Life cycles: From egg to butterfly. It stops a step short, because the butterfly doesn’t croak in the end. That’s OK: Big Guy’s only 5.

Eric Carle’s a genius for fitting so much learning in 22 pages — and some aren’t even full pages. Even George W. Bush lists the book among his childhood favorites. Never mind that it wasn’t published until the year after he graduated from Yale. Guess the Ivy League isn’t as tough as I thought.

And Big Guy’s teacher’s pretty on the ball, too, for the way she’s expanded on it.

  • Imagination and the arts: She helped the kids craft sock puppets to act out the story.
  • Literacy and writing: The kids “wrote” their own books, using a combination of the words they’ve learned to write and a variety of pasta shapes to fill in the blanks.
  • Science: The class raised butterflies, starting with caged caterpillars and ending with Monarchs they released with great ceremony last Friday. “It was a happy day,” Big Guy said. “They got to be free. And we got to eat cookies.”

None of which will ever show up on a standardized test. The result, though, has seen Big Guy learn to say “chrysalis,” a word my spell check choked on three times before I gave up and hit a dictionary.

New York United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten got it exactly right when she reminded the New York Times that the test-drive evaluations answer only “a very narrow question” of how a particular teacher’s students do on standardized tests.

I’m more interested in how Big Guy does in the test of life, which requires a bit more than graying in a bubble.

Copyright 2008 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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