What We Talk About When We Talk About Assessment

Yesterday, I asked students to read Raymond Carver’s original draft of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” which he had tentatively titled, “Beginners.”  I asked them to look closely and carefully at the elements Gordon Lish erased from the story, from the homelessness and anorexia in the opening paragraphs, to an abortion and the link between suicidal thoughts and alcoholism in the dark conclusion.  Whenever I ask students to read Lish’s edits, I am usually rewarded with a unanimous response:  Lish’s version is better.  The writing is tighter.  The minimalist voice adds to the dramatic action.  Mel is a better name than Herb.  I ask them why.  We discuss that ‘Mel’ feels tougher, more independent.  Herb is softer, more insecure.  I ask them why.  Maybe it’s as simple as consonant and vowel sounds.  We talk about mono-syllabic words and impressions of strength.  But one thing never fails.  There are always at least a few students who prefer Carver’s multi-dimensional characters.  To those few, I ask them why.

Sometimes, they struggle to answer.  But that’s okay.  I want that.  I ask them whether Lish should have omitted his revisions when Carver wrote him begging for his stories back in order to save his life.  “Now much of this has to do with my sobriety and with my new-found (and fragile, I see) mental health and well-being” Carver wrote in 1980.  “I strongly feel I stand every chance of losing my soul and mental health over it…I’m still in the process of recovery and trying to get well from alcoholism, and I just can’t take any chances…” he continued.  But Lish published them anyway.  I ask students whether it would be better to remove this famous story from the history of literature to protect the life behind the story.  Then I ask them what right I have to edit their essays.  Again, I want them to struggle.  I want them to understand how complicated a story can be.  It can implicate lives, desperation, and it can have its own elaborate history buried in its revisions.

When we talk about assessment amongst teachers, often it gets lumped into looking like a test.  Through my own instructional inquiry, I’m slowly starting to unpack the power of the Socratic method in the classroom.  I can guide student discoveries by asking questions, allowing them to laugh when they are uncomfortable, then asking them to reflect on the laughter.  It may sound funny to think of asking rhetorical questions as a sort of assessment.  It may sound even funnier to think that watching them struggle to answer is the equivalent of passing a multiple choice exam.  But if they’re not struggling to answer, then they’re not yet falling down the rabbit hole.

After teaching the class on Carver, I had a vivid dream that I traveled back in time and met Raymond Carver himself, ironically in a bar.  The year was 1981, and he was dashing.  I realized upon waking that my dream Carver was much more akin to a romantic Hollywood lead than the true Carver’s physique.  He was very tall, and he wore a pin-stripe suit.  I told dream Carver that my students had preferred his version, that “Beginners” had meant something to them.  I could tell it meant something to him, hearing me say that.  He scrawled his name, Ray, and his number on a bar napkin in beautiful, flowing cursive.  I could feel my heart still beating as my alarm went off.

As I sat in seminar today, I couldn’t quite blink Carver away.  He was like a heavy ghost pacing back and forth across the classroom.  As we discussed backwards design, and the numerous approaches to assessment, I couldn’t help but marvel at my dream.  Teaching had brought me so close to a man who meant so much to me, but whom I would never meet.  I have admitted in this blog before that sometimes,  for me, reading feels a lot like dreaming.  Sometimes, I get all confused. In this instance, reading Carver’s story had allowed me to meet the sad, sweet man, who spent so much time thinking about love.

Anyhow, I kept thinking about Carver, and I found myself traveling back more and more to times I had struggled through my own education.  I recalled my preschool teacher who had called my mother in for conferences out of concern because I wasn’t learning the alphabet.  “You need to have her tested for a learning disorder,” said the forceful kindergarten teacher, Mrs. May, a tenured teacher at Santa Rita Elementary.  My mother was (and still is) a child psychologist.  She confidently said her part.  She was adamant that I was capable of learning the alphabet; I just refused to memorize abstract letters that held no connection to the real world.  I just didn’t see the point.  I have always been a stubborn learner.  I have to be motivated or else everything just bounces off me.  My mom connected letters to animals, and then asked me to recite the alphabet.

“Do I have to?” I whined.

“Just do it once,” my mom reasoned.  “If you do, I won’t make you do it again.”  And I did it perfectly, all 26 letters.

Then there was the map test in 4th grade.  We had to write in all 50 states and all 50 capitals.  We had to keep taking the test until we passed it.  I simply couldn’t do it.  I couldn’t memorize all those abstract names.  They didn’t represent real places to me.  I got so anxious about the test itself, that even the sight of my father’s map placemats at the breakfast table sent me into a cold sweat.  I failed that test miserably.  The first time I got about 12%.  I did make my way up steadily, but each time I took the assessment, I was losing a little bit of my confidence.  I made it up to 36%.  Then 55%.  Finally, in the end of the school year, with the box air conditioner kicking on and off and class gerbil eyeing me between dioramas, I did it.  I passed at 73%.  But rather than a wave of relief, I felt crumpled.  I refused to look at a map for a long, long time.  I never really learned directions or geography.  That part of my brain shut down because I was unbearably anxious.  Now, as an adult, I rely on my iphone to navigate the city of Chicago.  I still don’t fully think I can do it.  So, in a very real way, that childhood assessment determined a large part of my adult life.

We have spent a lot of time in the tenure process reflecting on our best teachers, and our most memorable learning moments.  But it is important to look back at the painful ones too, as I wonder whether there are times when assessment misses the mark.  I wonder if I create this kind of fear in my own students.  I would hate to think that I might have that kind of power.  I look back to Raymond Carver, avoiding eye contact with me in his pin-stripe suit across the bar, and I wonder if he too, felt the burn of an assessment that didn’t do him justice.  Lish may have been a brilliant writer, but he was a horrific teacher.  And although Carver wasn’t exactly his student, when he edited his manuscript, he edited a large part of Raymond Carver, the man.  As I mark up student papers in red pen, I wonder sometimes if  I might be missing the point.  As I mark up run-on sentences and fragments, I worry sometimes that I’m not listening to what the sentences are really saying.  And they’re right there.  Right in front of me.  All 26 letters.

 

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