But there was a bonus—the district was in the middle of cutting elective positions, so if our courses weren’t elective then neither were we. It sounded like a win-win. In order to legitimize the decision they began district wide testing, but teachers were told not to worry. Students would magically know the answers because the new curriculum was that good.
The people who told us this knew these things because they had written the curriculum themselves.
In October I gave the first district test, and a freckled student, older than most, scanned the paragraphs of Spanish text and said, “I can’t do this.” Then he laid his head down on the desk.
When I opened it I too realized he couldn’t do it. Heavy on reading comprehension, it was an A.P. based test—and it had been paired with a dumbed down curriculum so we could save our jobs.
I looked around my room. A petite African-American girl chewed on her pencil, wide-eyed. Another girl with blonde hair extensions and elaborately painted nails flipped through, stopping momentarily to glare at me. Out of twenty-four students, six were special education, none of whom had accommodations for Spanish but all of whom had trouble reading. Every student felt like I’d betrayed them. They weren’t prepared. They might not graduate.
“Look, I know it’s not fair, but please try.”
My class average on the test was forty-two percent.
I tried to ask my superiors for guidance, but instead they asked me if I was faithfully teaching the curriculum. If I really taught it the way they wanted, they said, my students would be fine.
I scoured the curriculum for content, threw out their teaching methods, and used my own.
In my class students did read-pair-share activities. I simplified the speaking and writing rubrics and gave out laminated copies, then taught students how to self evaluate. We made “Reading Strategies Note Cards” which listed steps to take before reading a difficult passage. I incentivized by requiring a daily grade for completing the steps—even if they missed all the comprehension questions. Comprehension would follow, I explained, and it did.
We used markers, chalk, and foldables, and I bribed students to do boring grammar exercises by letting them create their own Spanish Pandora playlist for our class. And then I pretended I didn’t hear what Pit Bull was singing.
When my department head inquired about my curriculum usage and my forty-two percent I asked about her daughter—that woman could ramble on for hours.
When my curriculum director asked if I was teaching the curriculum I inquired after her son, deployed to Afghanistan. Later I made sure to email her about a lesson I knew she’d love and invited her to observe.
When my evaluator commented on how awesome the curriculum was I smiled and asked how his new all vegan diet was going.
I was literally months behind in the curriculum, but I couldn’t betray my students or my conscience.
Even so, students started to learn to read in Spanish, as well as communicate. I plugged their knowledge gaps so they could place out of Spanish one in college, or at least breeze through it. If I couldn’t prepare them for the wrong questions I would sure as hell prepare them for the ones I knew would be coming.
The sit-down with my evaluator was infuriating that year, but I smiled and nodded at his criticisms and then highlighted the positive of what we’d accomplished—it had been no small task, and I refused to be ashamed.
And then I asked if he preferred almond or soy milk.
After finals my department head informed me that her tests must had been scored incorrectly. None of her students had passed the reading comprehension section.
“And they should have, because I taught the curriculum,” she concluded.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “How’s your daughter?”
Jessica Eddings-Roeser is a writer with several years experience teaching under-privileged students in the Texas public school system. She’s taught English, Language Arts, ESOL, Creative Writing, College Reading, and Spanish levels 1-4AP at both the middle and high school levels. She founded and ran an adult ESOL program for her church, and contributes to the AVID program at her former high school. Currently she is at home with her baby and writing during naptime, but dreams of volunteering to teach creative writing in the Texas juvenile prison system. Maybe she’s crazy… she has an MFA in fiction.