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The Point

Singer and songwriter Harry Nilsson observed in his 1971 album “The Point” that “a point in every direction is no point at all" and "if everyone has a point, then I must have one too.”
    I had the pleasure of judging several students a few weeks ago as part of a district wide scholarship competition in written essays and face to face interviews.  While the questions were pretty basic (what do you like and dislike about school, what’s your favorite subject) some of the answers were not.  I remembered an old Art Linkletter show called “Kids Say The Darndest Things” and, after the interviews, decided that not only was Art right, but that one viewpoint always missing from the “how can we improve schools” debate was that of the students.  They are, after all, the subjects and the central focus of the debate on school improvement, and their contributions could add a perspective not usually considered.  Their job for now is to be students. Their daily work experiences make them experts in what works and what doesn’t, and, once they trust you they aren’t afraid to tell you what they think.
    The four students I chose to interview after the competition were not scientifically selected.  All are highly successful academically in their respective schools and included one 5th grader and three 8th graders. All four attend public middle schools in central Georgia and I did receive permission from their parents, Principal and the District before meeting with them a second time.  All were only a few days away from moving on to a new grade and new challenges, and for the sake of anonymity let’s call them Sally, Tom, Jane and Harry.  I recorded the interviews and transcribed them.  The quotes are actual and not paraphrased. Their individual and collective vocabularies are exceptional.
    I was particularly interested in their views about what they liked and didn’t like about school in general and specifically their thoughts on the Georgia Milestones tests and the Georgia Performance Standards.  The GPS are Common Core standards renamed by the GABOE.  I interviewed them both individually and in one group of two due to schedule constraints.  (Theirs, not mine.)  I have included (at the end of the article) the questions I asked.  I will not attribute any one answer to a particular student, but will include their comments in quotation marks.  Two of them said what they enjoyed most about school replied “the environment.   The atmosphere is important because I like to be around happy people but I dislike how school is often taught because not all students learn the same way and everyone is not wired the same way. We don’t get asked about our opinions very often because kids will usually say what they think and not just what you want to hear.”  Three of them enjoyed math class the most and one chose PE.  All are in music and believe that music classes “expose them to other cultures” and “it’s fun.”  All four believe that music helps them with other classes, primarily because “it’s like another language”, “requires concentration and teaches responsibility” and that “practice pays off.”  All four believe that PE should be offered to every student as an everyday choice.  PE is often rotated with art, music, drama or computer lab and students don’t often get to participate for several weeks at a time.  
  They all believed the school day was too long, primarily because the only break they get from classes is lunch. They thought the “no talking” rule in the halls was “kid stuff” and was a missed opportunity to “decompress for a few moments before beginning the next class.”  One commented that “socialization with my friends is important to me, and we don’t get any time to do that.”  They also thought an hour for classes was a little too long and it was hard, even for good students, to concentrate for that length of time for six classes every day.  All four suggested a little down time at the end of the day to do homework, talk quietly or review what they had done that day instead of the “extra learning time” that generally adds new work or concepts rather than a review of old ones.  
    Each of them expressed frustration with standards being posted each day for every class, and mentioned “we don’t have time to process new things before moving on,” “the standards prevent us from exploring what might be some really interesting stuff,” “teachers seem fixated on the standards and sometimes cover the standards just be able to say they covered them rather than make sure we really learn them.”  One also observed “a lot of my friends say the same things - that it’s difficult to keep up when we don’t really discuss things in detail, we just cover new stuff and quickly move on.” “I don’t really understand why we have to have standards for the whole country just for a few kids that move to a different state or school.  Learning should be geared toward the majority of kids in a school and not just a few that move.”  “I think the standards inhibit learning and exploration in my classes.”  Yes, an 8th grader said that.  I’ll just leave that right there for you.
    Their favorite teachers all seem to have common characteristics.  “My favorite teacher has a comfortable classroom and we don’t have to sit in rows every day and just listen. There are couches and we can move our chairs if we want.  She makes us a part of the discussion and acts like she is interested in what we say and ask.”  They also noted “my favorite teacher knows our names and the class feels safe. I like her approach.  She is not confrontational or intense and she makes it clear what she expects us to do.”  One of them noted “it’s easier for me to learn if I can relax a little more.”  “I don’t like worksheets or packets teachers just hand out.”  “I like working with other kids, especially the ones that might have trouble understanding something that I can already do.”  “I like the teachers that seem as if they like me and know me and care about me.”  (Perhaps one of the questions in the hiring process should be “do you like kids?)  “I like all my teachers, but some are more genuine and likable than others.”  One of them also noticed “we can tell the difference in some teachers when an administrator walks in the room to observe.”  Indeed.
    Technology was a common issue.  “Our computers are old and slow and always seem to crash or need repair.”  “We have Smart Boards but sometimes they aren’t very smart and don’t always work well.”  “We can check out laptops and iPods from the library but sometimes they don’t work because the internet is pretty slow.  “The internet always seems to go down just when I start doing something interesting.” “Our teachers don’t usually let us use our own phones during class except for maybe the last five minutes of a class or at the end of the day.”  They also said that almost every student has a phone and “it’s usually better than the stuff we have in school, but we don’t get to use them much.”  We hardly ever use them because some kids would just play games or text.” “I like using the Kindles in class but we don’t get to do it enough.”  All of them liked it when teachers had background music when they were reading or studying or taking a teacher made test.  “I like the music in the background and it helps me relax, but my teachers tend to like old stuff that we don’t really know.” “One teacher plays the same Christmas music for the whole month of December.  I know every Rudolph song there is now.”
    There were several observations about the Georgia Milestones reviews that “go on forever.”  “We spent the entire month of March doing test review. Some teachers even commented their jobs depended on us doing well.  That’s a lot of pressure on them and on us.”  “Some of the teachers told us we had to try really hard or we wouldn’t go to the next grade.”  “We had ‘March Madness’ test reviews and that meant no new stuff, just reviews every day. It can get pretty boring.”  “I think the test and all the reviewing gets in the heads of students and teachers and stresses everybody out.  It’s just one test.  I don’t see why it should count so much when not every kid tests well or might just have a bad day and fail.”
    There were several other observations about testing.  “Some kids don’t try very hard and seem to think they will be passed anyway.”  “Not everybody’s Lexile level is high, and some students just don’t do well.  I don’t think one test is a good way to judge teachers or a school.  What about all the other things we have done the rest of the year?”  “Kids talk about the tests a lot, but only to each other. We don’t think it’s fair because a lot of the stuff we learn is not on the test and a lot of things we’ve never seen before are on it.”  “The tests don’t seem to be about what we are really learning.”  “I don’t think test scores reflect how my teachers do their job.  Some of the best teachers have students that don’t pass.  It’s possible to have one bad day and still be a good student.” “I’ve never taken the tests because my parents think they are not fair.”  I asked this student how promotion occurs and the response was “my parents meet with the Principal and they talk about my grades and my progress every year.”   Each of the four also mentioned that “not every parent expects their kid to do well like mine does.” One of them said “we know who passed and who didn’t.  Kids know stuff adults think we don’t notice, but we do.”
    All three 8th graders said “if money were no object, I would buy a new laptop for every student, new computer labs and a smartphone for every kid (because computers are for teachers but kids know how to use their phones to do just about anything.)”  Other purchases mentioned were new PE equipment, a dedicated art room with plenty of space to display student work and a music room with a lot of different instruments for kids to play.”
    After listening to their answers, I remain convinced that 1) we don’t listen enough or ask enough to discover what our students have to say, and 2) their honesty and observations are insightful, intelligent and need to be a part of any conversations about what does and does not work in education. I will leave you with one final quote from these delightful students; “It’s not the school that makes it a good place, it’s the teachers and students that go there.”  Amen and amen.
Jim Arnold
I used the same list of questions for every student:
What do you enjoy most about school?
    What do you dislike?
What is your favorite subject.
    I noticed you are in music classes?  Why?
    Does music help you with other classes?
    Should every student be given a chance to take PE?
    If you could, what classes would you add to your school day?
    What classes would you eliminate from the curriculum?
    Is the school day too long, too short or just right?
    Do standards in every class improve learning for you personally?
    Do standards in every class improve teaching?
    What are some of the things your favorite teachers do that makes them your favorite?
    Describe some of the technology available in your classes.
    Are you allowed to use cell phones in classes?  If so, in what ways?
    Do you stress over GA Milestones?
Do your friends or classmates worry about them? Do students talk about the tests in general? If so, what are some of the comments you have heard?
How much time do you spend in classes preparing for GA Milestones in the fall?  In the spring?
    Do your test scores reflect how good your teachers are?
    What do your test scores on the Milestones say about you?  About other students?
    Do a school’s test scores tell you how good or bad a school is?
    Do all students try their best on GA Milestones tests?
    What do you read for fun?
    What motivates you to do well?
    How much time do you spend on homework or studying each night?
    If money were no object what would you buy for your classroom or school?
    Do you have any questions you would like to ask?

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