T-shirts, tornadoes, and other lessons we can learn from the Class of 2004

by Jim Lang

One of the fun parts of teaching high school is taking the occasional trip down memory lane to reminisce and laugh about the good ol’ days. It’s what we teachers do when we want to avoid grading the stacks of papers that clutter our desks or ignore the streams of data we’ve collected to demonstrate our highly effective status.

So, it was in the spirit of needing a few laughs that an English Department colleague and I spent a few minutes this week remembering – and laughing about – the Floyd Central Class of 2004.

Those who graduated from FC ten years ago will remember some of the reasons why that class remains etched so clearly in our memories. This was a class of students who could ace their tests while wearing the infamous “Real Men Are Measured In Yards” t-shirts. These kids were dedicated to service and helping others, yet still found the time to construct a wooden bell tower in the front of the school as a prank. This was the class that endured their six-hour graduation ceremony in the middle of a tornado by recording the entire event as a “news report” that included interviews and fake weather reports.

Yes, even in the face of impending doom the Class of 2004 was laughing. They were smart, generous, moral, creative, and yes, a little sneaky. They weren’t perfect – no class is — but more often than not, they managed to make a difference while still having fun. They were serious about their learning and commitments without taking themselves – or school – too seriously.

And perhaps that is why I remember that class so fondly. Because aside from the specific students in that class, that time – 2004 – represents a time when Hoosier educators also worked hard but refused to take school too seriously.

2004 was a time when we tested, but not too much. It was a time when we valued “competence” over “competition.” We collaborated and shared ideas without the need for prescribed professional development sessions. We trusted that a teacher was qualified, competent, and trained enough to make instructional and curricular decisions in his or her classroom without having to collect and record data or lesson plans into a template. We understood that academic growth and learning could – and should – be measured by means other than through test scores and data because too many of these “objective” numbers are easily manipulated and rarely tell a complete story.

And by the way, that is true of much of the data that seemingly demonstrates that our schools are more effective today than ten years ago.

Because here’s the truth from a veteran Hoosier educator – while much has changed since the Class of 2004 grabbed their diplomas in the midst of a tornado, many of our schools, while still special, rigorous, and incredibly effective, are not any more effective than they were ten years ago.

Today is a different time, and education in Indiana has drastically changed, largely due to the myriad of legislative changes that have forced schools to move in a different direction. We measure success differently now. We track scores. We worship numbers. We test more than ever.  We seemingly have an AP or IB class for every subject under the sun (except, apparently, for journalism and media, perhaps because we’ve been emphasizing those higher level critical thinking skills all along). We stress over lost time due to snow days because our students will not be sufficiently prepared for their ISTEP, AP, or IB tests. And this stress occurs partially because we now tie teacher and school effectiveness to student test scores, and partially because we test far too much.

We have been conned into believing the lie that improving standardized test scores and voluminous rows of steadily increasing numbers demonstrate academic rigor and success. We have been conned into equating “competition” with “success.” We have been conned into taking “school” more seriously than any true critical thinking or learning by our students. And my fear is that our students and their parents take “school” — this combination of test scores, class rankings, weighted grades, and grade-point averages — too seriously as well.

Of course, we educators have also bought into the con. We spend an astounding amount of time and energy simply documenting our “success” to remain “accountable” to our administrators, while those same administrators spend an astounding amount of time and energy documenting our schools’ “successes” to remain “accountable” to an intrusive state government that is too incompetent to even choose a set of academic standards for Indiana. Yes, we have become highly effective at jumping through hoops.

So, as I laughed about the Class of 2004 this week, I was laughing about more than just their ability to embrace the absolute fun of high school. I was also remembering a time when it was easier for me to do so, too.

There are those who would argue that education has improved so dramatically since 2004, that our schools perform better and that our students are more prepared and “college and career ready” than ever before. They’ll whip out their data spreadsheets or dramatically point to lists of improved test scores and arbitrary letter grades assigned by the state as proof of our success, as demonstrations of our rigor and accountability.

Highly effective hoop jumping at its best.

I’m not really a “numbers guy” – I never have been. When I measure my own success as a teacher, I think about who kids are when they enter my journalism or English classroom and who they are when they leave. If I have done anything to help them become the people they are destined to be, then I have been a successful teacher. And if they have impacted me or have somehow shaped my classroom or their school for the better, well, that’s real education – that’s real rigor. It really is that simple. And I can tell you that my students were as prepared ten years ago as they are today, and that I was as “effective” then as I am now. This is true of most educators. The only real “change” has been how we choose to define and measure success.

It’s important to measure success – and it’s important to be accountable – but not at the expense of also enjoying learning. So while some claim we’re better or more effective now, I reflect back to 2004 and argue that our schools are not better – they’re just remarkably different. And while others may point to arbitrary sets of numbers to prove their point, I’ll point to the Class of 2004 to prove mine.

The Class of 2004 was as “college and career ready” as the Class of 2014 soon will be. Their successes in furthering their educations, finding careers, starting families, and shaping their communities as much as they did Floyd Central speak for themselves. And while I am certain that the Class of 2014 will be just as successful and just as special, I also know they will not be more so.

So, while we continue to debate how to improve our schools, we could learn a valuable lesson from the Class of 2004 – that it is as important to enjoy and laugh about the high school experience as it is to learn, and that the value of real learning cannot ever truly be measured.

Because at the end of the day, if you can laugh your way through a tornado, you can conquer any other challenge that high school is supposed to prepare you for.

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