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"Real Learning" in Regents Week

From June 11th through 20th, high school students all across New York State are sitting for the Regents exams, comprehensive tests that assess whether they've mastered the material in their various high school subjects. As a New York City high school English teacher, I always feel in the weeks leading up to this period and into those ten days of exams like some sort of army general, preparing my company of 10th graders for battle--for a test that may not be fair, will definitely be boring, and is a dubious indicator of what they've learned, but a worthy foe to vanquish nonetheless. For them, the Regents period involves lots of studying, and then sitting for hours on end, sweating over their scantron™ sheets; for me, their nervous teacher, it involves (along with hours-long proctoring assignments) waiting on pins and needles for their scores, which may indicate--depending which side of the standardized testing debate you're on--just how good a military strategist I've been.

In the month before the exam, I was uncharacteristically tough on the kids: While their peers in non-Regents classes got to work on a creative project, the ones taking the test had to do Regents prep, and on several Friday afternoons, only the kids taking Regents exams got homework (a previous year's test to complete). At one point, when I had instructed them to do a packet and not only did no one complete it, only half of them brought it to class at all, I lambasted them: "You guys act like you don't have an exam in a week!" To which one of them muttered, "But Regents prep isn't real learning."

It's a sentiment with which I have trouble disagreeing. Ideally, I tell the kids, everything we're doing in class--reading, writing, analyzing and applying literary devices--should be preparing them for Regents. ("Ohhhh," they say with dawning comprehension, "the 'Critical Lens' on the Regents is basically the same essay you have us write on our final exams!" or "So that's why you asked us so many questions about different types of irony!") But there has to be some "teaching to the test," wherein we go over the rules and strategies for the various sections--I must teach them how to play the game, so they don't go in blind. And that's when I have to keep myself from rolling my eyes at the process. Take the "listening passage" for instance: At the beginning of the English Regents, students must listen to a passage that is read aloud to them, one that they never see, and then answer multiple choice questions about it. It's supposed to be a measure of active listening, no doubt--but when the students ask me, "Seriously, Miss? In college, did anyone ever read you an essay out loud and then give you multiple choice questions to answer right away?" I just shake my head.

I can't deny that it would probably be a much "deeper" use of our time (arguing about whether it's "better" seems to miss the point, since it's obviously best to pass the exam and get it out of the way) if we were to, say, read another short story together, or watch a film and have a discussion. Yet, I also know that the amount of time I spend doing test prep is inversely correlated with the amount of time I'll spend mired in self-doubt afterwards about whether I gave them enough strategies for answering multiple choice questions, or went over the format for the short passage-based essays sufficiently that they'll be able to apply it to any type of convoluted reading they might be dealt.

The night before the English test, I sent my students a mass Engrade message: "I just want you guys to know that I am so proud of each of you," I told them. "You are all hard-working and capable, and I know you will do brilliantly tomorrow." (And then, I reminded them to refer to two literary devices in the Critical Lens, and to take any extra time to check their multiple choice questions.) At the end of the day, they need the Regents to graduate--and as much as I may wish it were otherwise, my legacy as their teacher will be determined not by their understanding of symbolism in Lord of the Flies, or their ability to discuss the conflict between family loyalty and civic duty in Montana 1948, but by their performance on this three-hour test.

Paradoxically, as stressful a time as it is, and as keenly as the students and I, their teacher, may feel that we're each being evaluated on the other's performance, the sense of camaraderie between us is perhaps at its highest now that the year is drawing to a close and we take on this last obstacle together. They send me messages on Engrade for no purpose other than to say, "I love you, Miss!" and attack me with hugs in the hallway upon completing exams (as though it's been more than a day since they last saw me.) And I find myself turning soft-hearted again after the pre-Regents "boot-camp," touched by their kindness, their humor, and their very "kid"-ness in the face of adversity.

While I was proctoring another subject's Regents exam, one little guy had planted his head face down on his desk. "I'm tired, Ms. Garon," he groaned, when I came over to check if he was feeling okay. "This exam is so long and boring."

His friend, sitting a few seats behind, looked at him with concern. Then he raised his hand politely, and I came to his desk, whereupon he handed me a piece of chewing gum (which is, of course, against school rules.) "For Manny," he whispered, nodding towards his friend. "So he can stay awake." Then he went back to finishing his test, and Manny, thusly fortified, did the same.

To those who will evaluate me as a teacher, or our school as an institution, this test will provide cold, hard numbers. But beyond all the strategy, the anxiety, and the boredom, the Regents exam period never fails to remind me that my students are good--not just good test-takers, but good people.

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