English II Final Exam

Inside the gym there are 100 sophomore English II students bending over bluebooks and scratching words on their pages, occasionally consulting an outline.  Some chew gum, some have water bottles or coffee mugs, one has a napkin spread out in front of him with a bagel, a small tub of cream cheese, and a plastic knife (I thought that wasn’t allowed.  No one has offered to intervene.)

One student has just risen.  Holding his pencil in front of him, as an offering or an explanation, he approaches a proctor.  They confer in whispered silence, and then the proctor looks around the gym, seemingly at a loss.  He circles his own position once, looking for a way out, and then he shakes his head.  He grimaces sympathetically, and the student’s shoulders drop a bit as he trudges back to his table.  No pencil sharpener in the gym.  Why would there be?  This is not a classroom.  Not made for this kind of intellectual work.  No pencil sharpener.  No dictionary.  No thesaurus.  No white board.  Nothing on the walls.  No atmosphere and no accoutrement of any kind befitting the learning my student and I have been doing together all year.

It is a gym, and my students are out of place here.  The essay they write has nothing to do with what usually transpires in the gym.  They feel it.  I can tell by the way they vacantly scan their surrounding.   Strangers in a strange place.  They are searching for something familiar, some recognizable form to help them make sense of their current circumstances and to reconcile the absurdity of writing an essay in a gym.  It is an anchor they want, something to ground them and to orient them, because they are disoriented.  They sense the contradiction and they feel adrift.  Some of them don’t even know it, not consciously.  They have been inured to the absurdities of schooling after many years of private education.  Writing an essay on the phenomenon of displacement as it influences the formation of identity in Lahiri’s short fiction in a gym, for many of them, doesn’t even raise a question in their minds any more.  Just something that we do at the end of the year.  Fitting and appropriate.  Dulce et decorum est.

But I can see it.  There is a question just below the surface of consciousness.  Why are we doing this – in a gym?  My face and my presence are the only anchor I can offer.  I hope it is enough to initiate the flow of interest and of interesting ideas, to catalyze the emotional, cognitive, synaptic reaction that culminates in learning.  I am not at all sure it is.  It is hard enough to create a space for learning when everything is working in your favor.  Nigh impossible when you are out of your element, blind and in an inert environment.

The inside of the gym is cavernous and cold, not like the intimate, trusting space we have worked to create over the course of year and so many conversations, projects, lessons, so much laughter.  There are no poems on the walls, no books and no bookcases.  No posters of authors urging hope and offering inspiration.  No symbology.  And no story.  No plot line, no connection to previous events, previous ideas.  The gym as a site for an English final exam is as disconnected a space as one could imagine.  A prison cell might be comparable, although even a prison cell reeks of human story, meaning, significance.  It is a place of conflict and pain, of literature, really.  But the gym, the gym is sterile, offering only vast space and the incessant, eternal buzz on 30 industrial lights that hang from the ceiling like huge bats.

If feels like silence in here, but it isn’t.  Not even close.  The presence of more than a hundred people in the room and nothing occurring between any of them is a paradox.  It is false definition of silence.  In fact, it is painfully loud with the buzzing of the lights, the shifting in chairs, occasional coughs, and the squeaking of shoes on the polished hardwood basketball court – and yet there is not one human sound or utterance recognizable as human interaction.  A gym full of inert individuals.  Absurdity incarnate.

The gym has 16 basketballs in a cage, one sitting on top, six backboards, a dark scoreboard, a glossy hard wood floor that squeaks, and some retracted bleachers.  It has a stack of folded mats in one corner and padding affixed to the walls, protection from injury possibly sustained from impact with the wall in practice or in a game.  That, too, is an absurd thought in the current circumstances.  These kids, 15 and 16 years olds, would like nothing more than to get out of their seats, run across the squeaking floor and possibly sustain an injury slamming against the wall.

But the space is filled.  There are 50 tables in five rows, evenly spaced and neatly arranged, four chairs to a table.  They are old, wooden, folding style tables, long used for just this purpose and somewhat abused.  Messages expressing angst and misery from decades of previous sitters have been scratched into their surfaces, sanded out, and varnished over in repeated layers of erasure.  Each table carries with it, carved into its flesh its own history, its own litany of previous experience.

And these kids, even if they are not taking the time to carve something emotional and meaningful into the table top, are adding to the story of the state of high school education in the year 2010 simply by submitting.

And they, themselves, in turn, are being etched by this experience.  As sophomores, they came in here 90 minutes ago, much like the table tops, long used in school for just this purpose and somewhat abused.  They have been scratched and sanded over and revarnished in an effort to make them suitable for the present occasion.  But their minds tell the story, their bodies, the way their shoulders droop, the way this one holds his head in his hands, the way that one stares blankly at the frosted window and the light that filters in.

Kids do astonishing things in school, all the more astonishing because of the adversity introduced by peculiar contrivances like the two-hour sit-down final exam.  The traditional school environment demands resilience and faith and stoicism, not to mention patience and stamina.   And the miracle is that they learn.  Every day they learn, trusting with innocent ignorance that this is the way it has to be.  This is what school is.

But I don’t think so.  I don’t believe that school has to be something kids endure.  I don’t doubt that kids learn in situations like the two-hour final exam in the gym under the buzz of the lights and removed from the classroom and any familiar place of learning.  But I also don’t doubt that they learn not because of all that; they learn in spite of it.  And that is what amazes me most.

I wonder, what would happen if we if we just started over?  What could education be if we aligned our pedagogy and our assessment practices with what we know about how kids learn?  What would that school look like?  Do you think kids could learn more or less because of what school is, instead of quite so often in spite of it?

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