We teach students who didn't pass the Analytical Writing Placement Exam, and our task is often to undo these habits so students can learn how to really, truly read. They're employing test-taking strategies they've learned all their No-Child-Left-Behind lives. When standardized test scores come attached with high stakes, teachers are forced to arm their students with speedy decoding in lieu of critical thinking. Unfortunately, such teaching will only be perpetuated under the Obama administration's Race to the Top program. Faced with tests that could determine whether our students graduated, my panicked administrators encouraged me to teach tricks. "If a writing prompt is three questions long," my department head told me, "make students turn each question into a statement. Statements should become topic sentences." If the students followed the format, the essays would read like a series of nearly identical paper dolls. Passing paper dolls. Under such pressures, students can't be prepared for college-level work.
John Lawhead (ICE/GEM), sent this comment to the GEM listserve:
[The article] mentions college teachers trying to undo what's been taught in high schools that are obsessed with teaching test-taking strategies. Truly it's making idiots of us and getting worse.
In New York many teachers counsel students to agree with the critical lens statement no matter what (in Session Two of the ELA regents). The model student papers provided by the state rarely do otherwise. That means the critical lens essay involves parroting a statement you've never read before, agreeing with it and earnestly supporting your interpretation of it with two works of literature.
The theme of the essay is determined by the statement. In 10 years there's never been a critical lens with the word justice or even happiness.
Over the last two years about half of the statements had to do with appreciating heroes or characters with uncommon virtues. They've included phrases like "the strongest man on earth" (June 09) "the real hero" (August 08) "greatness" (January 08) "what does it mean to be a hero" (June 07). This may or may not be an invitation for teachers to assign books about great men, rugged individuals (free-market enterpreneurs?),etc. Maybe it's just a softball theme to improve the scores. But calling the critical lens critical is hypocrisy!