Based on the reaction I received to the “Apology from a Teacher,” the firestorm over Tennessee’s failed attempt at online achievement testing isn’t going away any time soon.  As you’ll recall, the state’s Department of Education had to bail out after a server crash, just minutes into the testing process.

This, despite repeated warnings from teachers statewide that “TNReady” wasn’t ready, and repeated assurances from the state, saying “Oh yes it is.” So the online testing, no doubt the wave of the future, will rightfully take place in the future, after the techies-in-charge figure it out.  Until then, it’s back to pencil and paper, like we did in the horse and buggy days.

But no matter how the tests are administered, there’s still this nagging perception that our kids are being tested (and prepped for tests) too much, at the expense of other activities.  One teacher told me her school no longer allows her to engage in Black History Month studies, because “we have to focus strictly on the test.” Others have complained that teachers have very little leeway in creating memorable projects or engaging with their students, because “any minute that we stray from test preps might cost us a point or two, and we can’t afford that.”

This is why I’m grateful for East Side Elementary teacher Marina Meadows, who came up with a creative way for her fifth graders to get in some poetry practice, stretch their writing skills, and share their thoughts on the testing process (and the aftermath).  “We were talking about testing,” she told me, “and how some of the kids struggle with the tests.  There’s so much pressure on them.  We decided they should express their feelings, and relate them to poetry.”  She explained the exercise wasn’t about the test itself, or not wanting to take it, but more about how students often feel they’re being judged by a test score.  “This was a way they could look deep into themselves and celebrate their individual worth,” she said.

She added, “We’ve had many discussions about why it is important that we take the tests, and if we’re going to take a stand about the process, we must do it in a respectful way.” She has sent copies of the students’ work to county education officials and Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

When I read the students’ work, I was blown away.  In our never-ending quest to attach numbers to everything, brag about the top 5, and humiliate the bottom 5, we often get lost in statistics and rankings.  It’s kind of refreshing to step back and acknowledge that these kids aren’t just numbers.  They’re living, breathing wonders, and no two are alike.  As you’ll see in these samples of their work, they’re exuberant, shy, funny, curious, worldly, and innocent.  Each demands, and deserves, some one-on-one time.  I’m glad Marina Meadows is able to provide that.  I’ll bet every teacher would love to find a way to engage in more “face time” and less testing anxiety.  Besides, in my own horse and buggy era, the state tests took us less than a week to complete.  I don’t mean to brag, but we turned out okay.

You’ll see samples of Ms. Meadows’ students’s work below, but let me begin with an amazing young lady named Niya McGhee, who was kind enough to read her poem on camera.  Watch, and listen:

From Lyric King, who told me she has ten siblings:

“I am lovable, because I have an ear to ear smile.  I am a motivator because I can push anyone to do better.  I am not a 50% or less.  I am more than that.  I am an actress who can act out anything.  I am a friend who tells people they are beautiful inside and out.  I am more than a booklet.  I am a person with skill and knowledge beyond belief.”

From Yvonne Hayes, who loves to laugh:

“I am caring because I’ve got of lot of love in my heart.  I am self-disciplined because I control my life.  I am a student who loves social studies, and history.  I am a writer who tells stories like the ones we read in class.  I am all the things a test cannot assess.  What do you have to say about that?”

From Alan Vicente, one of the school’s many Hispanic students, who has a serious demeanor and speaks very softly:

“I am a nerd because I can do math like a mad mathematician. I am a prankster who likes tricking my family and friends.  I am funny because I can always make someone laugh. I am not an F or an A.  I am more than that.  I am more than just a test score.  I am a person that is brave.”

From Ja’Riyah Townsend, who is very outgoing, and will always tell you what she thinks:

“I am tough because I can stand up to hard time.  I am smart because I read.  I am more than progress on a computer screen.  I am a girl with personality.  I am not just a human being with a body for a shell.  I am more than that.”

And, from Jennifer Lopez, who is quiet, but has a smile that is so kind it can warm your heart:

“I am a reader who reads of far away lands.  I am a student who wants to learn it all.  I am a sister who takes care of my brothers.  I am a responsible child who is always in control.  I am more than a check mark.  I am a person with curiosity.  I am not a test score.  I am all the things a test cannot tell me.”

From my brief visit with Marina Meadows and her East Side fifth-graders, I observed a closeness, a camaraderie, and a mutual love.  It’s a classroom made up of a typical sampling of the school’s population: the state report card tells me that statistically, it’s a school where 95% of the students are economically disadvantaged, 63% are Hispanic/Latino, and 33% are African-American.  It also tells me students are meeting their targets in some subject areas, and could use a boost in others.

I know, you don’t have to tell me.  We need some amount of testing to identify what students have learned, and where they have fallen behind.  I just hope teachers can somehow carve off a little time, like Ms. Meadows has done, to look beyond those pesky pie charts and show us the amazing young people who are hidden inside.