Teaching with Heart
The score that the tenth graders get the first time they take something called the CAHSEE—a California-issued standardized test—determines the amount of state funding the school as a whole receives.
The pressure, created by bureaucrats who have no idea what actually goes into a school, is crippling on this school filled with kiddos from the least-affluent families in LA.
Because I’m the best chance the school has to get those kids to perform well, Linda, the school principal, assigned me these kids—the ones who have been socially promoted since fifth grade.
(You are entitled to your judgment about social promotion, but, please unless you have worked in a school, keep your opinion to yourself.)
In my preppy, Manhattan childhood high school, anyone performing in less than the 90th percentile was deemed a dummy. These inner city kids are at the other end of the bell curve.
I teach some of the time in Spanish.
I’m not fluent.
Pero, puedo hablar
(I am able to speak)
Y es muy importante que ellos ven que yo estoy “trying really hard.”
It flips the classroom.
Very shy Katherine O., who fled Venezuela with her family, has been living in Los Angeles for three years. It empowers her to correct my Spanish and teach me.
A month in, I bring up to the class the idea we can negotiate with Linda.
“After all, she wants you to do well on the test. I wonder what it’s worth to her?”
(I clear this with Linda ahead of time.)
They love conspiring with me, especially when they think it’s against the administration.
Sofia, a shy Asian girl with a Hello Kitty backpack, has the winning suggestion: “hamburgers.”
I start the next class with a five-step picture tutorial, on how to draw a hamburger, projected on the digital whiteboard.
And, we practice it at the start of each class. Until, soon enough, most no longer need the tutorial. I’m scaffolding learning and proving to them that they can memorize sequences.
Which is all math is.
It’s Mid-March, the day of the test.
Before they arrive in the room in which they will take the multi-hour test, I draw six images on the whiteboard
- a star with the letter “t”
- the letter “E,” a lemon, and the number “8”
- a sketched bird
- an electric plug
- a check mark
- a heart
These cryptic reminders of test taking strategies I’ve taught them are in plain sight of Memo (short for Guillermo), the school vice principal charged with making certain no cheating happens. He doesn’t know what they mean, but the kids know these pictographs are Rabbi Brian’s six tips for standardized tests.
- Start — even if you don’t know why you are starting, just start the problem. You’ll never succeed otherwise.
- Eliminate bad answers.
- A word problem: If Pricilla the bird flies 60 miles south and 30 miles east and you are asked for the name of the bird, give the name of the bird. (In other words, make certain you are answering the question they are asking, not the one you think they are asking.)
- Plug in the answers because if they are going to make you take a multiple choice test and put the answers are there. Try plugging them in and see if you can’t get one of them to work.
- Check your work.
- I love you.
Two days days later, Memo pulls me off the hall.
“I’d like to show you something.”
He ushers me into his tiny office.
“Trouble?” I ask.
“Not at all.”
He unlocks a bottom drawer and removes a plastic box with stack of standardized tests. He hands me one on the back of which on which the number 17 is written out 5 times followed by a thick line and the sum 85 calculated at the bottom.
As I realize what I’m seeing—a kiddo, uncertain of their multiplication skills — on a test meaningless to them— put in that much effort.
“Wow,” I say.
“Wow, indeed,” Memo responds and smiles.
Linda is true to her word and takes us for burgers.
That year, Jane and I decide to move our young children out of our LA life, and I tell the LA Leadership Academy I’m not returning.
“The board wants a rundown of the curriculum you used for the CAHSEE class,” Linda tells me in one of our final meetings.
I say nothing and exaggeratedly stare at her.
“Tell them it’s this,” I smile as I point to my heart.