Wednesday, January 27, 2010


In which we see Ms. Bradstreet explain the life of facts

The Maria Chronicles, #36

"OK, kids, as you know we have an exam tomorrow. So I've put aside some time for review today. I'm the human jukebox. Pick a topic and I'll sing."

"What's a jukebox?" Mia asks.

Oh my God, Maria thinks. These kids, Mia in particular, are absolutely determined to make me feel old. "A music device from the paleolithic era," Maria answers. "iTunes for dinosaurs."

Vanessa, hand up, has no interest in ancient history. Maria acknowledges her knowing she'll get a change of subject. "Can you tell us exactly what we need to study for the test?"

"No, Vanessa, I cannot tell you exactly what will be on the test. That would defeat the whole point of giving you a test."

Maria hears the harshness in her voice, a harshness that's a function of the question and who's asking. Time to calibrate if she can. "Look," she says, "I know that for you this test is all about getting it over with and getting a good grade. Studying is a means to that end. But for me, the teacher, studying is the end. My goal is to have you go over the material we've covered, go over far more than I could ever want to actually ever test you about, in the hope you'll actually retain some fraction of it. Since you don't know which of any number of possible questions I'll specifically put on the exam, you in effect have to overlearn. To keep the whole thing manageable, I'm putting temporal boundaries on this -- the Civil War and Reconstruction -- but within that I'm hoping you'll cast as wide a net as you can manage."

"I get that," Olivia says dejectedly. "But I always do terribly on tests. I always seem to study the wrong thing."

"I understand, Olivia. Some of us are better at this than others. By 'this,' I don't simply mean the ability to memorize a lot of information. It's about developing judgment about what information is most likely to matter."

"Do we need to know dates?" Denise asks.

"What do you think, Denise? Do you think that I think that dates are important?"

"Some, I guess."

"Can you give me an example of a date you think I would like you to know?"

"Like when the Civil War ended?"

"Yes, Denise. That's correct. That is something I would like you to know. Do you know why I'd like you to know?"

"Because it's important?"

"Yes. But why is it important?"

Kenny jumps in. "Well, it's sort of like a math problem. If you know one thing than you may be able to figure out others. Like if someone says, 'the most important blah blah blah after the Civil War, it gives you a ballpark idea of when it happened. After 1865."

"That's correct in a blah blah blah kind of way, Kenny." Some laughter.

What about things like laws and amendments," Mia asks. "Which of those do we need to know?"

They refuse to let this go, Maria thinks. And why is it that the girls always seem to be the ones who are most insistent on pinning me down?

"Well, again, Mia. Can you give me an example of, say, an amendment that you would think I would want you to know?"

"The thirteenth?"

"Brilliant. Now let me ask you this: do you know when the thirteenth amendment passed?"


"Right. And do you know why that's a fact worth knowing?"

"Because it's at the end of the Civil War, before the actual end of the Civil War." Willie says. "Actually, President Lincoln signed the bill in February, before he died. I'm so glad he got to do that before he died in April. I think it was very important to him."

Maria is moved by the depth of Willie's feeling for Lincoln. "And why do you think so, Willie?"

"Because of what he said at the Gettysburg Address in 1863," she responds. "'A new birth of freedom.' The Civil War, which began in 1861 to hold the union together whether or not there was slavery, ended up holding the union together by ending slavery."

"How about that," Maria says. "You see how Willie strung together some dates to make some sense of the Civil War?"

A nod or two. They're not impressed. Well, I am, Willie.

"How about the battles? What do we need to know about those?"

"You mean like the way General Robert E. Lee won the Battle of Antietam?"

"Wait a second," Ali interjects. "Lee didn't win at Antietam!"

"Who cares?" Maria says. "What difference does it make who won stupid battles whose names it's impossible to keep straight?"

"Because Lee lost."


"Well, I'm not sure Lee really lost," Kenny says. "I mean, he did have to retreat from Maryland. But McClellan, who had his battle plans, didn't destroy Lee when he had the chance. Lincoln was pissed off at him."

"Oh dear," Maria says in sing-song distress. "You mean we're not just talking about facts anymore? We're actually going to have to interpret them, too?"

They don't seem amused. Is it because they don't understand her? Or that they dislike her sarcasm?

"Emancipation." It's Derek, in his customary spot in the back of the room near the window.

"Excuse me?"

"Emancipation," Derek repeats, pointing at the clock.

"Touché, Derek," Maria says, shaking her head. Just when she's about to write him off, Derek will say something that hints not at his fierce intelligence -- that's evident to anyone who pays the slightest attention -- but at his willingness to deploy it, to use it. Derek failed the last exam. But Maria knows he need only decide to ace this one.

"Send me an e-mail if you have any questions," Maria says amid the shuffle of exiting students while a line forms in front of her. Her role, she knows, will be more to soothe than inform. Maria hates the adversarial dimension that's built into testing kids, and it troubles the progressive educator she thinks she is. It's just that she's never quite figured out how to substitute for students having at least some retained information. The facts alone are never enough. But she doesn't know if you can do much of anything without them.