Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Teaching with the Test

Felix Chronicles #4

In which a teacher reacts irritably to a ridiculous question

A dreary Friday afternoon. Outside a cold rain washes away the snow, exposing the icy black gunk that has accumulated on the curbs and walkways around campus. Most of the kids don’t particularly want to be here, and I don’t particularly want to be here, either. There are a few eager beavers, though, because this is the last class before a test and I’ve put aside a little time to field review questions.

“What format will the test take?” asks the ever-anxious Ellen.

“Twenty questions,” I reply. “Fifteen IDs, five true/false.”

“No multiple choice?”

“No, not this time.”

Yessssss,” Susan says. So strong in other ways, she’s a relatively weak test-taker.

“That’s different than you usually do,” Ellen observes.

“That’s right.”


“Because I want to mix things up a little. I try to give you all a variety of assessments, so that you get a chance to show what you do well and so that maybe a few of you can show you do just about everything well.”

“Like me," says Joey. He’s not serious.

“Exactly,” I reply, not serious, either.

“Do we need to know dates?” Becky asks.

“I dunno. What do you think?”

“What do you mean, what do I think? Don’t you know?”

“What I want to know, Becky, is how well you’ve figured out what you think that I think is important. By which I mean not whether you can regurgitate the fact that the Homestead Act passed in 1862. In a way, I’m testing your judgment. Your ability to literally make an educated guess about what really bears remembering. You think of the test as the final product, and in a way it is. But for me, it’s the studying that gets prompted by the test that I care about. You taking the time to digest the material.”

“Are you saying we’re supposed to read your mind?”

“In a way, yes. Becky, do you think I want you to know that the Homestead Act was passed in 1862?”


“Brilliant. And why do you think I want you to know?”

“Because it’s important?”

“I look at her with exasperation.”

“One reason is that the Homestead Act passed during the Civil War," Alec says.

“That’s right.”

“And because, like you said the other day, it was one of those laws that the Republicans wanted to pass for a long time but couldn’t because of the logjam in Congress. They wanted to give free land to promote free labor, but the proslavery people didn’t want that. One the war came, all the Democrats left and so the Republicans could get their way.”

“Not all Democrats. Southern Democrats.”

“Southern Democrats. Right.”

“Not bad, Alec. You see, Becky?”

“See what?”

“That Alec knowing that the Homestead Act was passed in 1862 is kind of like a tightly packed suitcase full of clothes. You memorize that fact, and once you’re asked about it a whole lot of relevant information pops out. A mini-wardrobe, as it were.”

Becky looks at him appraisingly. "You got a sensible pair of pumps in that suitcase, Alec?”

“Nope. I only travel in high heels.”

Lisa, too serious for joking, is looking at her notes. “Let me get this straight: Andrew Johnson was impeached, right? But not convicted.”

“That’s correct. Like Bill Clinton.” I’m about to say “Remember him?” and realize that they probably do, but barely. They were young children when Clinton left office.

Lisa is looking down again. “And the thing they got Johnson on was the Tenure of Office Act?”

“Right again.”

“And that said?”

I review the circumstances surrounding the 1867 law. As I do so, I realize I’m a little fuzzy on some of the specific provisions. But, thankfully, I’m not pressed on them.

“What were the Black Codes?” It’s Kim. We’ve entered a kind of free-fire zone where I’ll be pelted with random queries. I start talking about the set of informal and formal segregation that emerges in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. Kim scribbles away and then stops.

“But how are these different than the Jim Crow laws?”

“Well, the Black Codes are like the forerunners of the Jim Crow laws. The constitutionality of the Black Codes were in question. But once the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson ruled—"

Lisa interrupts. “That’s the separate but equal thing, right?”

“Right. After Plessy, Jim Crow was etched in concrete with the justification of separate but equal, even though it was almost always separate and unequal.”

A pause. There’s still a good fifteen minutes left of class, but I’m thinking maybe we could call it a day and a week. I’m just about to do so when Susan raises her hand abruptly.

“There’s something I don’t understand,” she says, still thinking as she speaks. “You said the other day that the Fourteenth Amendment grants civil rights at the Federal level.”


“But not at the state or local level.”

“Right again.”

“So, like, how did this actually work? I mean, did African Americans get to vote for president but not, like, governor? Were the elections held the same day? What happened when black people showed up to vote? I’m having trouble picturing this.”

So am I. Partly because I’m already halfway out the door. But, again, the limits of my knowledge are clear to me, and I’m now remembering something I always seem to forget—that these review sessions tend to be depressing in what they reveal about the shallowness of my knowledge. I’ve actually wondered the same thing about the scheduling of elections, but have never looked into it, and am mad at myself for the lack of follow-up. I could safely say that given the variety of places and circumstances, that voting arrangements varied a lot. Or I could simply say I don’t know. But then I have an idea. It’s a little risky, especially since I’ve made missteps with Susan before. But then I decide: I'll go for it.

“Hey Susan, I say, with a tone I inject with a dollop of levity, will you shut the hell up, please?”

First a pause, then laughter. Susan imperceptibly draws back and then gets that I’m kinda joking. “Okaaaaaay, she says.”

“You’re asking all these questions, but they’re beside the point, okay? Because, look, if you’re a Negro voter and you show up at the polls and are told to recite the Declaration of Independence backwards and pay a poll tax, who exactly are you going to complain to? Local officials? Give me a break. You might want to sue your town, but then you’d have to get a lawyer. And who’s gonna take your case? And if someone is actually foolish enough to take your case, do you really think your suit will ever make it to court? And if it does, do you really think that any judge will rule in your favor? And if that judge does, do you really think anyone will enforce the ruling? And if anyone tries to enforce that ruling, do you think that person any more than yourself will actually survive the experience? Which goes back to the faulty premise of your question: that you would have ever showed up at the polls in the first place. That, of course, is ridiculous. So like I say, Susan: Can we stop spending time trying to imagine silly scenarios?”

“All right,” Susan says. “I get it. Thank you so much, Mr. Cullen.”

“You know, I’ve really had it with you people and your stupid questions. Class is over. Get the hell out of here, okay?”

Becky is giddy. “Really?”

“Yeah. Really. Now get out of here and have a good weekend, dammit.”

Photo by Nina Freedman