A Guest Blog by Lily Alayne Owen
Lately there is constant discussion about the relevance, efficacy, and morality of the NYS tests. I met someone at the gym a few weeks back, who described the children in her 3rd grade class last year, who had vomited, sobbed, and shown obvious signs of distress. I had heard of these things before, when I read similar accounts on the internet. Before meeting this teacher, I had assumed it was all rhetoric, based on a mere handful of kids. When I spoke with her, I realized that this distress is not an isolated incident, but a widely observed phenomena. Children everywhere are seriously struggling with these tests. Children want to please the adults around them, because they generally want to do well on whatever tasks are put in front of them. Children trust parents and teachers to present them with appropriate challenges and they trust us to help them through those challenges. They don’t expect to be tricked, deceived, or abandoned during a difficult time. What must it feel like to a child experiencing these NYS tests?
It seems that those who are in power in NY State feel that our children belong to them, to be used at their discretion. It also seems that these same people, elected officials, have become drunk with their power and have taken from children the basic rights that all humans deserve and which are increasingly even afforded to animals. Children have a RIGHT to be protected from unnecessary suffering and psychological and emotional abuse. Do politicians and education leaders believe that children are not capable of mental anguish? Do they believe that children are not capable of suffering, of emotional distress, of understanding complex situations? Do they think kids can perform as well in a high pressure situation?
Children are capable of seeing and sensing the shades of gray. They have the same emotional attunement that has guaranteed the survival of our species and they know when the adults around them, particularly the adults to whom they have strong bonds, are struggling. This is a relevant component of empathy. Children can sense the seriousness of high stakes tests, even if they don’t know the implications of these tests. No child should feel responsible for any adult, they should not be saddled with the tremendous responsibility of helping to determine which of their beloved teachers get to keep their jobs, and which ones get fired. The burden of that responsibility would be oppressive to most adults, and it is absolutely crippling to the compassionate hearts and delicate minds of children. It is unconscionable for any adult to put this weight on a young child’s shoulders in the name of education.
Knowingly causing another human to suffer is abuse. When a private individual, a parent for example, abuses a child, the state sees fit to remove that child from his parents for protection. What, then, should we parents do when we see that the state is abusing our beloved children? Should we not take the same action and remove the state's access to our children so that the state, too, can be prevented from harming and abusing our youth? This is what the OPT OUT movement is all about. Parents reclaiming their Constitutional right to protect their children and raise them in the way they see fit. We parents intend to keep refusing until officials and legislators reconnect with the empathy, compassion, and basic understanding of human development needed to contribute in a meaningful way, to a discussion about education. Children are not robots. They are complex, beautiful, disorganized, spontaneous, creative, magnificent little creatures. They are not miniature adults. They are not inanimate objects. Misusing governmental authority for the sake of the profit of private companies is an unscrupulous corruption of power. Doing so at the tremendous emotional and psychological expense of children, is unforgivable.
I find it strange that politicians and government leaders assume that children cannot experience emotional distress in the chokehold of high stakes testing, when they also assume that children in 6th grade are capable of comprehending and manipulating language that is at a 10th grade reading level. Children ARE, in fact, capable of incredible suffering when put in a difficult position.
The job of a child is to wildly engage with life; to conduct a constant series of passionate experiments with his or her surroundings. To try out behaviors, to learn self control, to ask millions of questions, to create hypotheses and constantly test them in dialogue with adults and with their environment. It is the job of children to make mistakes, sometimes huge ones, in the service of learning. It is their job to be imperfect. They are works in progress. Their progress comes from an ever more complicated set of mistakes.
In order to fly an airplane, you can’t just set off in a straight line, in the direction of your destination. You have to aim in the general direction and then you must make a series of corrections of little mistakes as you get closer and closer to your destination. So it is in learning, too. The best we can hope for is that our children will be bold enough to make the essential mistakes in life that will guide them to their greatest discoveries and learning. My hope for my children is that they will have a growth mindset. I want my children to know that people are not born brilliant mathematicians or architects or doctors or writers or artists. Babies are born with potential and children and adolescents hone skills and follow passions, which turn them into great mathematicians, architects, doctors, writers, and artists. And how do children hone these skills? How do inexperienced little people know how to follow their passions in a way that becomes gradually more sophisticated? Their parents. And their teachers.
As a mother I see teachers as one of my biggest allies in life, in raising my children, in teaching them how to be good humans, to help them think critically and be knowledgeable about the world around them. An attack on teachers is an attack on my family, because teachers and schools are simply an extension of parents and family. I hope that this comparison will help people understand why this is such a deeply personal battle: a battle, for which some of us would offer our lives.
In my life, there has been no greater gift, than that of my parents and teachers. As a child my mother educated us in hundreds of fascinating topics during the summer, after school, and on weekends. She dragged me on insufferable house tours, charming architecture walks, to darn near every national park in the United States, and she and my grandmother taught me the name of every flower in our backyard gardens. My mother stocked our house with craft kits and science kits. She took us to musicals and played Dvořák records around the house. My mother taught me what it was like to love learning. She made the world come alive.
When I entered school I found that there were others like her, who were absolutely obsessed with the joy of learning. These special people were my teachers. From elementary school to graduate school there have always been teachers who made my head swirl with difficult ideas and excitement. It just makes sense that when learning is fun, it creates motivation and a virtuous cycle. The intrinsic rewards of joyful learning guarantee that a happy student will never stop wanting to learn and grow.
Now I have my own children, four of them. And they are wide-eyed and excited and making messy mistakes all over the place. Now I watch as they experience the miracle and joy of imagining, hypothesizing, modeling, and refuting. I set out everyday to model for my kids that learning is a lifelong adventure. I trust their teachers to give them room to grow and the courage to take risks as they explore their world. I know their teachers have the best possible knowledge and skills to help fan their curiosity, develop their critical thinking, shape their character, and teach them to find answers to their most burning questions.
Which brings me to the point of this whole post.
Parents and teachers are more alike than different.
We love our children. We want to protect them. We know what is best for them.
Don’t you dare call this Opt Out Movement a Labor Dispute.
This movement, most definitely is a Dispute about Love.