It’s only a test…but it could be more, you know

Lately my wife has been kind of worried about me.  We usually have a drink after we finish up our after-work-work and the other day she said, “You know, the way you talk lately, it seems like you’ve hit some kind of wall in your teaching.”  Which is exactly how I feel.  I’ve hit a big wall.  I think if I could step back a little and look at that wall, it would be covered in graffiti.  Maybe a nice red, green and black color scheme. And once the colors came into view, if I took a few more steps back, I would probably be able to read the words, “reflective teaching can hurt!” in giant loopy letters.
But right now there is no wall.  There is only my computer.  And if I finish up in the next hour or so, a drink with my wife.  On Valentine’s Day.  A rainy valentines day.  It rained all day today.  It rained all day yesterday as well.  So I was pretty sure that my students wouldn’t stick around for the STEP interview test practice.  But two students did.  They were waiting for me in room 403.  They were flipping through the notes from their last practice session.  Flip, flip, flip.  And right off the bat I felt guilty.  “Sorry guys, the answers aren’t in there.  I made a mistake,” I wanted to say.  But I wasn’t sure.  So I sent Mi-Chan outside so we could do a run-through of the test and see what happened.
Now the STEP test is made for the Japanese market, so I’m not sure how much teachers in other countries might know about it.  The written part of the test is pretty standard, with some vocabulary questions, dialog transcript based questions, and reading and comprehension exercises.  There’s also a listening section which is actually pretty uselessinnocuous as it only tests students ability to listen for specific information.  But my students rarely break a sweat when thinking about the written test.  It’s the interview portion of the test that makes them crazy.  And why?  Certainly not because of the content.  A typical STEP test question for the pre-2nd level (high school second year) might be something like, “Do you think Japanese young people watch too much TV?” or “Are Japanese people losing interest in traditional arts?”  And basically you only need to put together two grammatically correct sentences to receive a passing grade for each question.  But Japanese people have been told over and over again that they just can’t speak English.  If you Google “Why are Japanese people bad at English,” you will actually find page after page of articles which deal with this issue as if it is an issue.  Whereas if you type in “Why are French people bad at English,” only the first two hits actually have anything to do with French people’s perceived English deficiencies.  And if you type in “Why are Chinese people bad at English,” none of the first page of hits has anything to specifically do with Chinese speaker’s inability to handle English.  So while there might be valid reasons for lower level ability in Japanese learners of English (which I’ll take up in another post some day), there is undoubtedly the very real issue of self-confidence, or complete lack thereof.
Knock, knock, knock!  That was Mi-Chan banging on the door.  So I cleared my throat and doing my best impression of an official STEP test tester invited her into the room.  Mi-Chan had diligently studied her notes and answered every question I asked as if orally dotting a series of ‘i’s. 
Then I asked her, “Do you think people in Japan work too much these days?” 
Mi-Chan thought for a second and said, “Yes.  I know many people who work too hard.  They are working for 10 hours a day.” 
This was exactly the kind of answer I had been helping my students put together over the past week.  I looked at Mi-Chan.  Her shoulders were up.  She was looking over my shoulder.  When she finished her answer, she didn’t relax her pose.  She didn’t lean back.  It was like she was waiting for the next tiger to pop out of the door in the arena or something. 
“Mi-Chan,” I said.  “I’m sorry.  I made a mistake when I was teaching you how to answer these questions before.”  I explained that I didn’t want perfect answers.  I just wanted her to tell me how she felt and what she really thought. 
Mi-Chan hesitated, but finally she said, “My father works too much.” 
I nodded.
“He works every day.  I never see him.”
Pause.
“People need relax time.  Seriously, I think everybody need more relax time.” Mi-Chan looked at me, waiting for the next question of the test.
“I think so too.  I’m sorry your father has to work so hard,” I said. 
And then it happened.  Mi-Chan leaned back in her chair.  Her shoulders drooped.  And we talked about what it means to work too much.  I recorded it all.  We went over how to use the phrase “time to ~.”  We practiced three more sets of questions.   And Mi-Chan used language that she rarely has demonstrated in a classroom environment.  Probably my favorite answer of the day was in response to the question, “Do you like to stay in luxury hotels on vacation?”  Mi-Chan thought for a moment and said, “I can’t stay in luxury hotels.  I don’t have enough money.  If I were rich I would stay in a luxury hotel.  I think everybody wants to stay in a luxury hotel.”
The other day I wrote that even standardized testing can be an affordance.  I still believe that.  But more than that, practicing for standardized testing can be a humanizing endeavor.  Maybe, as teachers, that’s our job, taking the dehumanizing machinery of a standard test, and making it human, teacher to student, question to question.  I know that with the three students I practiced with today, just by giving them a little more space to express what they wanted to express, their English ability as measured by richness of vocabulary and complexity of grammar showed marked improvement.  And maybe more importantly, they laughed or sighed or shook their heads in a way that wasn’t just about answering a question.
It’s 11:00 PM.  It’s Valentines day.  Time to have a drink with my wife.  She’s right.  I’m bumping up against a wall lately.  But it’s probably a wall I should have bumped into a long while back.  And it’s only the first of a long series of walls I’m going to have to find my way over.  But tonight is Valentine’s Day.  Hope yours was filled with love.

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10 thoughts on “It’s only a test…but it could be more, you know

  1. Finding humanity in standardized testing…now there's a lovely idea! Standardized testing isn't going anywhere, so finding ways to incorporate it meaningfully into our instructional practice is making the best of this reality. Thank you for once again sharing your experiences so honestly.

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  2. I like Liz's realistic response. I've been asking myself this question often as of late. Am I teaching English or am I teaching vocabulary? Am I preparing them for life with English, or preparing them for a test of English?Like standardized tests going nowhere soon, I don't think assessment will see a revolution either, thought maybe that day will come, or at least partially. Sometimes, it feels like we need to flip things upside down, and sometimes we have that option, but most of the time we're expected to achieve a goal, or fit a mould. Such is social life these days, and it has its pos/negs.Becoming a big fan of your personal narrative posts, Kevin. Thanks! -brad

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  3. Hi Liz, It's a shame that standardized testing is becoming an ever larger part of the educational experience. Stephen Krashen's (@skrashen) been on a point-by-point take down of the testing and common core standards movement lately. I wish I had his energy. And thanks for checking in on me. Knowing I've got your support is one of the things that makes writing this blog worthwhile.

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  4. Thanks Brad,Yep, I was lucky enough to flip things a little in this case. And actually I got a chance to do it again with three more students today. But I'm pretty sure a supervisor looking in on these study sessions would be really irate (or perhaps just confused). Why was I interacting with the students when there will be no such interaction during the actual test? Why was I providing empathic feedback when the test taker is going to be merely shooting out questions? How will this help the student prepare for the "real life" situation of the test (which is totally divorced from "real life"). Still, I'm going to hold onto this humanistic style of test prep for a while. Maybe even do a cycle of action research around it (maybe using Scott Thornbury's groaner of "me" and "I" counts as a P-value).Your blog was one of the first I stumbled upon and it's been a constant source of inspiration. Glad to know I could return some of that.Kevin

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  5. Hi Kevin,I hate tests. I really loathe them with all my being. I never particularly had this feeling when I was a student, but now I am teacher I can see how utterly worthless they usually are. This is the case for the in-school tests we have to give twice a year to (and especially) tests like TOEFL.However, as Liz noted, they ain't going anywhere. And while lots of people know their limitations it seems they are becoming ever more popular with parents, administrators and politicians.Therefore, as teachers, we need to follow your lead and try to find the humanity among all the nonsense and teach English as well as teach the test. If the imaginary supervisor comes in to your class, tell him that a marathon runner doesn't just run marathons to prepare for a big competition. He has to do short runs, reps, take regular rests and lots of other exercises because one big task is made up of lots of smaller ones (and he will soon get bored/injured if he just does marathons all the time). Another great post.Stephen

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  6. Kevin,I am in awe that we are experiencing related professional struggles teaching such very different disciplines halfway around the world from one another. Looking forward to the next post…

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  7. Hi Stephen,Isn't it strange, how teachers probably hate the tests so much more than many of the students? I don't think I am ever so miserable as when I am checking tests. But TOEFL (and TOEIC over here more so) can turn my whole world dark. Especially when my school is forcing a student with no intention of working or living overseas to take this crazy (and expensive) test. I love you idea about the marathon runner. Actually, I think I'll just print it up in a nice giant font and hang it on the notice board in my room. If my supervisor does ever walk in on a humanistic test-prep lesson, I'll just point to your quote and wish him out of the room (wonder if that will work).Thanks for the feedback.Kevin

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  8. Hello Marijana and thanks for the comment. And I couldn't agree more, the feedback from everone has helped keep my motivation up around this issue. I started to write one more post on what I've done with the testing prep, but I've kind of switched gears and am going to expand it and collect more data and turn it into a more formal paper. I think this is one instance where reflective teaching really worked in an ideal fashion for me. I could work through and issue and help identify some steps for how to better meet the needs of my students. And now I'm moving into an action research phase to see how those steps play out. But I couldn't have done it without this blog, the feedback of teachers like yourself and everyone who took the time to read the post. So thank you. And thanks to everyone.Kevinoh, and the next post should be up soon. Had a wonderful train wreck of a class yesterday. The (terrifying) power of role-playing.

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  9. Hi Liz,I was going to write that its really suprising to see how we've both ended up in this place. But it's not, really. When I found you on facebook and read your blog I remembered that you had wanted to go into teaching. And while I drifted around in social-work and grad school, and tried to avoid it, I knew that I wanted to be a teacher as well. But I am indeed in awe. That I have the chance to finally do what I should be doing, and to enjoy it this much, and to have your support. Kevin

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