Monday, February 1, 2010

Multiple Choices

In which we see Ms. Bradstreet try to build confidence

The Maria Chronicles, #37

Maria is not surprised when Olivia comes to see her during a precious free period, though she has been momentarily distracted by the student newspaper, which has announced the return of the principal, back from a semester on maternity leave (Maria has barely met her). Olivia's visit was presaged by her mother, who sent Maria an e-mail the same day she returned Olivia's exam, a disappointing 70%, on the heels of 72% last time. "Don and I would like Olivia to come see you, so that we can understand what the problem is," Olivia's mother, Alice, had written. "We'd like to know what steps Olivia must take to improve her semester grade."

Maria finds messages like this, which she gets at least once a year, to be very irritating. There's often a subtext that weak student performance is somehow her problem, that Maria is failing to "get" a child, not recognizing and/or arranging the class and its assessments to maximize the child's performance. As if there's a secret password or routine that Maria is withholding. Tests aren't everything, of course. But just as there are kids like Olivia, who don't do well, there are others like Willie, who routinely ace them. Or Derek, after failing last time, scored a 98% this time (no signs of cheating that Maria could observe). For reasons that remain obscure, he decided he wanted to do well.

"Hi Ms. Bradstreet," Olivia says, courtesy mixed with listlessness. "Would it be OK if we talked for a minute about the test?"

"Sure, Olivia." Maria puts the student newspaper aside and swivels toward her. "Here, pull up a chair and have a seat."

Olivia sits down and puts her backpack at her feet, rifling through it to pull our her exam, which she hands to Maria, along with a stapled collection of pages that constitute her notes. She puts her hands, face down, in her lap, and looks up. "Here's the thing: I studied so hard for that test. Like ten hours. You can ask my parents. They drilled me over dinner all week. It's just . . . " Olivia looks away and looks down. "When I get in there I suddenly freeze up. I hope you believe me. I know this stuff. It's just when I see 'all of the above,' or 'none of the above,' or 'A & C' I just lose all my confidence. My dad says . . . . "

Maria looks down at the exam. She can see a couple cases where Olivia had the right answer, erased it, and chose something else instead. When she looks back up she sees that Olivia is silently crying. "Oh honey," she says, grabbing a few Kleenex off her desk. She hands them to Olivia, who is, with some difficulty, regaining her composure.

"Let's get a few things straight, Olivia. First, I know that you studied for this test. I could tell from the way you were talking in our review session earlier this week. Second, I know that you know this stuff." Maria does not know this for sure, but is willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. "Actually if I had to guess, you probably studied too much, not too little."

Maria turns from Olivia momentarily, hits a few keys on her laptop, and looks at an electronic ledger. "Look, Olivia, while your performance on the exam was not awful -- you're certainly in no academic danger here -- I understand it's not what you want. Taking tests is clearly not your thing. Other things are. I see here you got a B+ on the colonial history essay, and I have you down for an B+ in class participation. So you didn't do well on a couple tests. Maybe you'll never do well on my tests."

"I don't do well on anybody's tests."

"Whatever. I would never make that the only determinant of your grade. I would never make it the primary determinant of your grade. It's just one thing. Other kids find tests come to them relatively easy. Or are just too shy to say much in class. That's OK, too. The important thing is to have a variety of assessments, so that I can see who's good at what." (And, Maria thinks silently, to see who's good at everything.)

Olivia nods. But Maria thinks it's because she's trying to be agreeable, not because she feels much better.

"All this said, there's nothing that says you can't improve at test-taking. You can. You absolutely can. And there are things we can do. The thing is, Olivia, you know the information, but you have trouble using it. That might come with practice." Maria has an idea. "You ever see those SAT II or AP History books?"

Olivia nods.

"Maybe you can pick up one of those and practice answering the questions from the period we're studying."

Olivia nods again. Still no sale.

"Here's another thing," Maria says, flipping through the stapled collection of notes. This is a lot of material. Your goal should be to distill all this. Reduce it. I'm not sure how well I could memorize a stack of information like this."

"I try to write down what you say in class. It's hard to keep up with you."

"Then don't even try. Just sit back and take it all in. Maybe you can relate what you learned over dinner."

"I couldn't do that. I'd just be too afraid I was missing something important."

"Well, how about this: Can you tape our classes?"

"Tape them?"

"Yeah, tape 'em. You could get a little hand-held recorder or something."

"I could probably use my iPod. My brother has a microphone he puts on his to practice his singing."

"There you go. Why don't you give that a try?"

Olivia shakes her head. She's buying in.

"I don't know if any of these approaches will work," Maria says. "But they're worth a try. Maybe one of them will click and stick. I don't see how you have much to lose. The important thing to keep in mind, Olivia, is that you're really doing fine, whether or not one of these techniques turn out to be helpful. Keep up your class participation, do a bang-up job on the History Day project, and I'll bet you could still end up somewhere solidly in the B range. But I do think that trying to meet the challenge you have with testing is worth trying to meet head on, at this moment, anyway. Sound good to you?"

"Sounds good to me."

"Alright, then."

Olivia stands up. "Thanks, Ms. Bradstreet."

"Hey, no problem, Olivia. Keep your head up. And be sure to have a look at that reading about Chief Joseph and the Nez Pearce. We're going to be talking about Native Americans this afternoon."

"I will. Thanks again." Olivia leaves. So Maria will salvage a good half hour from this free period. She begins diagramming a slate of lesson plans for the next week.

Poor kid, she thinks as she works. I suspect there's a lot of parental pressure. But I can't let them get to me, anymore than I want them to get to her. It may not be my fault that she's a weak student (and, let's face it, that B+ on the colonial history essay was a gift). But I really should try to help if I can. Even if I don't really know how. It's important to keep trying.