¿La importancia de los exámenes?

Mi hijo de nueve años volvió de la escuela 2 veces durante la última semana destrozado. Es la época de exámenes (9 weeks testing), y el pobre, acostumbrado siempre a sacar notas muy altas, había sacado dos “B”s. Era inconsolable, aunque le aseguramos que lo amamos mucho, y si había hecho su mejor esfuerzo en el examen, estábamos satisfechos y siempre orgullosos de él. Desafortunadamente ésta es una lección que todos tenemos que aprender algún día—que no siempre vamos a tener éxito en la vida, incluso si hacemos un gran esfuerzo.  Esto acepto, aunque sea difícil ver a mi hijo sufrir. Sin embargo, también sé que la presión que sienten nuestros hijos por hacer bien en los exámenes—una presión que vienen de los administradores y los maestros mismos que a su vez también sienten presión de arriba, y de los padres—es inapropiada y creo que la lección que realmente aprenden nuestros niños no es la que queremos enseñarles.  Para ellos, parece que lo importante no es lo que han aprendido y cómo lo pueden aplicar a otras situaciones, sino lo importante es la nota que sacan en un examen calificado automáticamente que nunca les explica el por qué de su calificación.

La verdad es que me molesta mucho el énfasis que tenemos hoy, a cada nivel educativo, en la importancia de los exámenes, especialmente de los exámenes estandarizados como los SOL de Virginia, o el muy controversial “Common Core” que se está proponiendo en muchos estados, apoyado por nuestro Secretario de Educación Arnie Duncan.  Una crítica muy astuta de este empuje hacia más y más exámenes es Diane Ravitch. Ravitch ha apuntado las injusticias de los exámenes (y del movimiento de Charter Schools en muchos estados) y ha declarado que el problema más grave que confrontan nuestros alumnos en los EEUU es la pobreza.  Según Ravitch, hasta que solucionemos esto (y hay más niños viviendo en pobreza que cualquier otro grupo demográfico en nuestro país), no vamos a poder solucionar los problemas en la educación pública.  En los recientes exámenes de Common Core en el estado de Nueva York, solo 30% de los alumnos aprobaron, pero para los alumnos de ESL, solo 3% aprobaron, y para los alumnos con discapacidades, solo 5% de ellos aprobaron. Ravitch, en un ensayo que escribió para CNN ha dicho “American students take more tests than students in any other nation. Our dependence on standardized testing has become excessive.” Estoy muy de acuerdo con esto y mucho de lo que dice Ravitch y otros. Pero hay otras razones por las que rechazo nuestra obsesión con los exámenes. Además de mi ya mencionada experiencia como madre, mi experiencia como profesora al nivel universitario ha influido mucho mis opiniones.

Tener estándares es importante para asegurar que todos los alumnos tengan acceso a la misma información y que todos lleguen a cierto nivel, pero como declara Ravitch, los estándares no pueden solucionar todos los problemas de la educación. En mis propias clases, los exámenes que doy sí siguen ciertos estándares (objetivos) establecidos por el profesorado. También evalúan ciertas destrezas importantes identificadas por las organizaciones profesionales a las que pertenezco. Pero los exámenes que compongo yo siguen estándares sin ser estandarizados. A diferencia de los maestros de las escuelas K-12, yo tengo control sobre los exámenes que doy. Uso los exámenes como una de varias maneras de evaluar lo que ha aprendido el alumno. Siempre les digo a mis alumnos que los exámenes son importantes para mí, pero también son importantes otras maneras de demostrar su conocimiento, como por ejemplo los ensayos, las presentaciones, y en la misma participación diaria en las discusiones en clase. Además, veo los exámenes como otra oportunidad de aprender para el alumno, parte de un proceso de aprender que durará mucho más que un semestre.

Aunque no voy a poder quitarle a mi hijo la presión que siente completamente, espero que en nuestro intento como sociedad de mejorar oportunidades para nuestros alumnos, no frustremos a ellos tanto que se rinden y pierdan su deseo de realmente aprender.

 

Culture Clash: Down Syndrome, Disability Studies, Medicine and the Power of Research

This blog is about research and its impact on the the average person. Not the impact of my research (which is doubtful!), but how others’ research has impacted me and my family. If you know me, or have read some of my blog posts that mention it, you’ll know that I have a young daughter with Down Syndrome (DS). Even before she was born, I was interested in how the disabled and disability have been viewed in our culture, perhaps due to growing up with two first cousins who were disabled. Later as a graduate student and young professor, I was struck by how negatively disability was portrayed in the literature I was reading and teaching, where it was largely a symbol of a deteriorated and stagnant society (think Lazarillo’s cruel master the ciego, of Pacual’s abused young brother in Cela’s tremendista novel Pacual Duarte or of the tragic Blasillo in Unamuno’s San Manuel Bueno Mártir). My discovery at a Modern Language Association (MLA) convention a few years back of the existence of “Disability Studies” spoke to many of my personal and professional experiences of disability, and it is a field I have followed with interest. Like me, many in the field have both scholarly and personal interests in it, such as past MLA President Michael Bérubé (who also has a son with DS).  Recently I have noticed some interesting and provocative connections between Disability Studies and an issue much in the news, blogosphere, and social media, with great resonance for me as both a parent of a child with Down Syndrome as an academic interested in disability studies–a possible cure for Down Syndrome..

The website of the Center on Human Policy, Law and Disability Studies at Syracuse University:(CHP) defines Disability Studies:

Disability Studies refers generally to the examination of disability as a social, cultural, and political phenomenon. In contrast to clinical, medical, or therapeutic perspectives on disability, Disability Studies focuses on how disability is defined and represented in society. It rejects the perception of disability as a functional impairment that limits a person’s activities.

The international and interdisciplinary Society for Disability Studies. sees disability as

…a key aspect of human experience, and that the study of disability has important political, social, and economic implications for society as a whole, including both disabled and nondisabled people. Through research, artistic production, teaching and activism, the Society for Disability Studies seeks to augment understanding of disability in all cultures and historical periods, to promote greater awareness of the experiences of disabled people, and to advocate for social change.

Thanks in part to the work of these researchers, artists, and activists, my child has a better life today than my cousins did.  Unlike 50 years ago, she has the access to a quality education in our local public school,  she is included in her community, and she has the possibility of developing her full potential as an individual. But she also has benefitted from medical advancements, and we owe much of  her success to their research as well. This is the tension all parents of a child like mine live with–between seeing disability as a condition to be cured, and accepting it as another expression of humanity to be embraced–and knowing when to lean towards one or the other position.  Again, from the Syracuse University CHP website:

…disability is not a characteristic that exists in the person or a problem of the person that must be “fixed” or “cured.” Instead, disability is a construct that finds its meaning within a social and cultural context.

This was precisely the surprising parent reaction to the news that researchers from the University of Massachusetts Medical School had discovered a way (although only in a petri dish so far) to essentially “shut down” the extra chromosone 21 responsible for Down Syndrome. NBC News is one of  many that has reported on the recent discovery and the mixed reaction to it..  In an NBC.com article, parents were hopeful for a cure to some of the more frightening medical problems associated with DS such as heart defects and early onset Alzheimers. But many wondered if altering that extra chromasome would alter the essence of the person they loved. Quoting medical geneticist Dr. Brian Sotko (who has a sibling with DS) from the NBC article:

[I]t’s unclear what costs there may be to shutting down the mechanism that creates people who offer lessons in patience, kindness — and what it means to be human. (…) If Down syndrome were completely cured, the world would lose something from the absence of that culture.

It’s that last idea that I’ve highlighted that gets to the heart of the problem for many, and one that has me conflicted–as a mom of a child with DS, as a person who believes in the equal rights and acceptance of all people, and as an academic who studies how cultures represent themselves and their values through symbols.  To what extent is a person with a disability an individual, separate from her disability, and to what extent is she a cultural symbol? This is something my husband and I have come to realize about our daughter. To us, she is an individual, she is our daughter. We see ways she takes after me, or my husband, ways she is like her older sister, and the numerous ways she is her own wonderful self. But to the world, more often than not, she is a symbol.  Some call her an angel, and see in her a message of mercy and tenderness from Heaven (something her twin brother would argue with I’m sure!).  Others see their own fears in her–of imperfection, rejection, loneliness. I’m not denying the importance of these symbols in our personal lives and in our culture.  Symbols can be powerful things, and we humans can’t exist without them. But is there, should there be a DS culture, like some argue for (and against) a deaf culture? Is “curing” DS really just 21st century eugenics? I don’t know the answers to these questions. But I know that my daughter is my daughter first, and DS, although a constant reality in our lives, is secondary. And yet  that extra chromosone is in every cell of her body, in every part of her,and so, for now, DS is inextricable from her.

But that extra chromosone has been the cause of suffering for my daughter, and not just from the social stygma of being outwardly identifiable as a person with DS. She has suffered with the unfairness of the difficulties, struggles, and sometimes real physical pain that DS has brought her. Certainly, her suffering has been less than many with DS. She wasn’t born with heart problems or other life-threatening medical conditions that have required surgery and extended treatment. Still, everytime I’ve comforted her in my arms while a lab tech tried to find a vein in her tiny arm to remove multiple vials of her blood, every hour she’s had to spend visiting specialists and therapists instead of playing at home with her siblings, every recess she’s had to miss or cut short for testing at school, every sentence I’ve watched her methodically plan and execute so that others would understand her meaning clearly and every time her frustration spills over when they don’t, every homework assignment that took her an hour to complete when her twin finished in ten minutes–these are all times when my daughter Eva has suffered unfairly because of DS. Things that come so easily to her siblings, Eva has struggled to achieve–from sitting up and walking as an infant, to speaking as a preschooler and learning to read in elementary school. DS sometimes seems like this physical weight on her that makes it harder to move forward, and yet it has taught all of us in our family important lessons about love, patience, and perseverance. The weight of DS may have slowed Eva down, but it hasn’t held her back, and she is happy and thriving and wonderful. We accept DS. It is our reality for now, and we’ll keep fighting for her, and encouraging her,and sometimes pushing her to be her best, whatever that may be.  We have researchers in Disability Studies to thank for helping to change attitudes in our ability-centric culture, making much of this possible for Eva. But its not an either or for me. If medical research can find a way to limit or even eliminate my daughter’s struggles with DS, and prevent that pain for other children in the future, I’m ready to embrace that too.

Eva in my office

 

It’s personal (and professional)

The idea that has inspired me for this week’s #umwdomains topic actually came up in our cohort discussion last time, but it is a theme Weller continues in Chapter 9–the idea of openness, and of mixing the personal with the professional. I’ve struggled with this personal/professional mix. When I first started Facebook, I joined for purely professional reasons–that’s where my students were, and I wanted to connect to them. But then later former students, highschool friends, my parents, my in-laws, my Aunt Bert, my husband’s cousins, my colleagues, my neighbors…everyone joined… and although at first it was fun reconnecting those relationships, I now feel that Facebook is no longer the place for the professional. Its a place where I post cute pictures of my kids and pets, and of my vacations, and maybe links to articles or videos about some issues of importance to me (although I try not to be too contraversial or overbearing, because that friends list is so diverse I’m sure to offend someone, probably a family member). So I thought Twitter and Linkedin might be where I should be professional. But Linked-in is sort of boring, and Twitter is still overwhelming, but I’m trying.

This week I posted on both Facebook and Twitter links to some things that are of great importance to me personally, but also related to my professional interests. Many of you may know that I have an 8 year old daughter with Down Syndrome. My FB friends see many posts of her accomplishments and the cute things she says and does (along with her twin brother, who does not have DS). Disabilities, and the rights of persons with disabilities has taken on new meaning for our family–it’s personal! So two stories really touched on those interests that I’ll share here too. The first is about the Ideal School, in NYC where inclusion is not just a nice term that doesn’t mean much, but a way of learning for both the students with disabilities and the students without:

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

This story really spoke to me, because it really seems to be the “ideal” I have of a school, for my children, but also for my students here at UMW. In this place, individual learning and accomplishment is valued. Diversity and difference is valued. Life skills and social skills are taught along with academic subjects.

The second story was the opposite. Not my dream, but my nightmare:“Man with Down Syndrome who died in police custody loved law enforcement”

This is the fear of every parent of a child with a disability–how will they interact with the world when you’re not there to protect them, and how will the world treat them back? I can’t help but think that if there were more “ideal” schools, more “ideal” education at every level and in the workforce, there would be less tragedies like this one.

And so I’m on to the professional–my ideal education. I want student learning to be deeply engaged, to have personal meaning, to be experiential, to happen in a community of fellow learners, and to be fun. So I did an experiment in class last Wednesday.

The students in my Spanish 320G (a topics course on the culture of service and social action in Spain and Latin America) had read a wonderful short story by Emilia Pardo Bazán, a nineteenth-century realist writer. The story depicts the riders of a Madrid street car traveling from the city center through one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods on a happy Sunday afternoon. The idyllic scene is interrupted by a poor woman and her baby, who are short of cash for their ticket. The wealthy travelers take up a collection to cover her fare, and then shower the extra funds on the woman, who seems not to appreciate their generosity, but instead interrupts their lighthearted scene with too much information about her cad of a husband who had abandoned her for another woman. When the narrator tries to console the woman with encouraging words about how she should look on the bright side, that at least she has her son to care for her in the future, the poor woman reveals her baby’s face and the blank stare of the blind child.

Instead of a typical class discussion on various aspects of the story–themes, characters, imagery–I divided the class into 7 groups and assigned each part of the story to depict in images, each choosing a quote from the story as the image’s caption. I gave them only about 20 minutes to do it, and set up a site on google docs where each group was to create its slide. We immediately had problems–web browsers that weren’t supported by Google, difficulty transferring images saved on Macs–, enough that we had to end class without presenting the show. But when I went back to it in preparation for Friday’s class, I was so pleased by their work, and of how each group really was able to select both text and image that got at the essence of the greatness of Pardo Bazán’s story. I loved it so much that I posted it on Slideshare, even though I’m not quite sure where the images were taken from, and perhaps I’ll need to pull it down if someone questions me on it. But still, as an in-class activity, I loved how this got students to approach literature in some different ways, and then to work together to create something that communicated their understanding. Take a look!