Moving Beyond “Standard” In Our Schools

The only thing standardized testing accomplishes is producing standard students. The world needs exceptional students, not standard.

This thought has been on my mind all day. It came to me while my wife and I were talking about our kids this morning, and getting them ready to go back to school.

See, we’ve been lazy. We’ve spent the summer focusing on things like fun, making memories, and just enjoying time with our children in general. Now that school is almost upon us, we’re trying to get the kids back into the academic swing of things because we don’t want them to be behind before school even gets started. In fact, NPR ran a story yesterday on closing the summer gap, and all of this has got me thinking:

It really sucks that kids have to be such slaves to the test.

Because that’s what this boils down to, really. Kids are being tested in the fall, the winter, and the spring, all because we’ve decided that measuring their retention levels is the most precise method of determining their learning capacities.

The truly crappy part is, it’s not working so well. According to a report from the BBC, the United States ranks 28th (tied with Italy) in world education rankings. That’s not as bad as two years ago, when the US ranked 36th in the world.

I feel strongly about this issue because, for two years, I taught an adjunct class for Grayson High School students. It was a social sciences class that focused on world religions and philosophy, and what I quickly discovered was how woefully unprepared my students were for a lifetime of critical thinking.

Of course, no one likes to be made to think. As George Bernard Shaw once said, “Few people think more than two or three times a year. I have made an international reputation for myself simply by thinking once or twice a week.”

But that wasn’t true of the kids I taught. I had some of the smartest, most capable kids the school could throw at me, and yet many of them weren’t skilled in thinking their own thoughts. They were exceptional a parroting back to me whatever I said, but when pressed for their own insights, most struggled to come up with anything to say.

Now, you might be saying, “Well, duh – they’re only teenagers.”

And to that I reply, “You must not have teens of your own or ever remember being a teenager.”

Because if there’s one thing that’s true about teenagers, it’s that they have opinions. On everything. Often very strong ones. But you most likely hear those opinions outside of the classroom, because individuality in thought isn’t often on the agenda in class. And why is that?

Because teachers have to teach to the test. They don’t have the time to teach kids to think, critically or otherwise, because we’ve tied their hands. Their job security, their salaries, even their professional reputations are directly connected to how well their students perform on a stupid test. I’m convinced most teachers would like to try and do things differently, but we’ve stacked the deck too much against them. Survival depends on getting kids ready for the test.

Now, about here is where I should go off the rails and call for all standardized testing to be banned. I should bang my angry fists on the table and decry the evil test-taking machine that has consumed public education, all while calling for a return to “the good old days”.

Except we need to test kids. Progress that can’t be measured isn’t progress.

So what do we need to do? For starters, I think we need fewer standardized tests. I can’t remember the entire alphabet soup that kids have to face–CRCT, ITBS, COGAT, CIA, OMG–but we’re cramming more tests in to the exclusion of other things.

If we could back off the number of tests, then there would be time and space in the day for teachers to inspire kids, identify their unique traits and encourage them to develop their gifts.

You know, the stuff teachers are gifted at doing.

And if teachers could do that, then we’d see a dramatic shift in the kids. More creativity. More individual growth. Connections would get made between disciplines, ideas would spark out of seemingly unrelated things; heck, we might even see an improvement in student behavior because the days wouldn’t seem quite so pointless.

But we have the system we have, right? I know that for the foreseeable future, my children will have to prepare themselves to take an endless battery of examinations that will determine their future while not necessarily preparing them for it. That’s why my wife and I work hard to supplement their school education with other types of education.

Like a summer spent on things like fun, making memories, and just enjoying time being children in general.

What do you think, parents? Where do you stand on the standardized test? What would you like to see change in the school system?

Sound off in the comments below, or on my Facebook page.

Into The Deep Blue

deep blueYesterday afternoon, I considered that my opening line for a talk to some at-risk students at Project LIFT might just be throwing up on the lovely blue carpet. It was a deep blue, like the far-out part of the ocean that people always warn you to avoid unless you’re an expert swimmer or have a boat. I’ve always been one to get nervous before speaking – and it’s probably more akin to anxious excitement than nervous dread – but I was especially amped up yesterday because it was a new experience for me. Sure, I’ve spoken to hundreds of youth over the past 15 years, but it was almost always within a church context, almost always on a passage of Scripture. This was different. This was me speaking to a theme, trying to inspire kids with tough backgrounds and even tougher realities to overcome the hardships before them and aspire for something more.

Sure, we were meeting in a church, but I was doing something new. And I knew I would either nail it or fail miserably.

I decided that nailing it was the preferable option. So I pushed my anxiety aside, kept my Whatchamacallit candy bar in my stomach where it belonged, and I started telling a simple story about a boy, his kinship with a pencil, and the journey of discovery they made together. (If you’re interested, here’s the PDF: Project LIFT – The Boy)

If you’ve ever spoken to teenagers before, you know they can be a tough sell. They’re smart, they’re savvy, and if they think for a second that you’re flim-flamming them, they’ll shut you out and move on. The students I spoke to yesterday were no exception. But as I went along with the story, trying my best to weave in humor and add in improvisational moments based on their responses to me, the most amazing thing happened.

They stayed with me.

Now, here’s where years of youth work comes in handy. To the average person, a teenager who is “staying with me” might seem a lot like a distracted, disinterested person. They rarely keep eye contact, they tend to shift in their seats, and every so often they’ll look up or down or around the room to see if maybe a magic fairy has flown in to grant wishes. It can take some getting used to. In fact, you really have to simultaneously speak to them and look for the cues that they’re with you: a smile, a subtle nod of agreement, leaning forward in their chair at a crucial point, tapping their neighbor on the shoulder and gesturing for them to pay closer attention. All of those signs were present yesterday afternoon, even as my talk soared past the fifteen minute mark.

I wrapped it up after 25 minutes, and the best thing in the world happened.

They wanted to ask me questions. Which means they had listened and heard something that piqued their interest. I even got asked two of my favorite questions: Have you ever thought about being a teacher? and Have you ever thought about doing stand up comedy?

(In case you’re wondering: yes to the first and no to the second.)

Afterwards, the folks who invited me to speak (without ever hearing me, might I add – brave folks) told me that it was the first time they could remember that the kids had ever sat through a presentation without having to be redirected.

“That never happens,” one worker said. “They actually listened to you.”

Yesterday, I took step beyond the familiar boundaries I’ve always known, and the ground beneath my feet was just as firm. I’ve always been told – and believed – that I was a good preacher; yesterday was the first time I’ve been told I was a good speaker. There may not seem to be much difference, but for me, there is. And since you might be asking yourself, “Self, what is the difference?”, I’ll tell you:

A preacher comes with a built in audience. A speaker has to earn one. God has always been gracious to me because He’s always provided me with a platform to speak from and people to speak to. I’ve never taken it for granted, but it’s always been built in for me because of my involvement with a church. Yesterday He showed me that he could open doors beyond a church (never mind that I was physically inside a church) and that I could earn the right to be heard. He showed me that He could do more with me than I’d imagined.

The best part of the day, however, the part that just made me fresh-from-the-oven-chocolate-chip cookie gooey inside, was when I got into the care with Rachel to leave. She silently grabbed my hand and said, “Good job.” I kissed her hand and said thanks. But then she added this, and I knew things were going to be okay:

“I loved hearing you speak like that. You really seemed to be in your element. It was awesome, and the kids really enjoyed it.”

One journey ending, another beginning. Into the deep blue we go.

30 Minutes to Change a Life

ImageThis afternoon, I’m going to speak to a group of at-risk students in Roswell. How I got the gig is through a friend of mine, Sarah P. Zacharias; Sarah is someone who also loves working with students, and she is involved with a mentoring program called Project LIFT. She recommended me as a guest speaker, and we worked out a date for me to come and address the kids.

Today’s the day.

And I’m scared. I’ve struggled with what to say. How do I start? Should I be funny? Is what I’m thinking of actually funny, or just a lame middle-aged man’s idea of what he thinks students find funny? What can I say that would be meaningful? What can I say that isn’t saturated with religious overtones (this is an after-school, non-religious program)? What do I wear? Do my sneakers smell? And why does Wile E. Coyote keep chasing after the Road Runner? Can’t he just go vegetarian and save himself some hassle?

Like I said – it’s been a struggle.

But another friend of mine gave me some advice recently. He referenced the TED Talks and said that the average TED presenter is told they have 18 minutes with which to change the world. So, my friend suggested, if you had just a few minutes to say something to change the world, what would you say?

I extrapolated that to my afternoon session: I’ve got 30 minutes to maybe change a life. What do I say?

Well, off the top of my head, I can tell you what I don’t want to say. I don’t want to talk about negative things. I mean seriously: if you only have 30 minutes to change the world, do you really want to burn 10-12 of them enumerating things that suck? Not that I’d cold open with a laundry list of things that are horrible about the world, but sometimes, when trying to motivate people, we drift into the negative because that’s kind of our default. We tend to see the hardships in life much more clearly (or at least it dominates more of our view) than the blessings.

People know the world sucks. What they need to know is how to fix it. So, in 30 minutes or less, how do you teach someone to fix the world?

I can’t even get my kids to sit still and eat dinner for thirty minutes.

But, if we eliminate the negative and stick with the positive – that is, if we focus on things that move us towards a better world – what are the essential things? Well, naturally, I’d say a relationship with Jesus Christ. I think the only hope we really have of ever changing the world begins and ends with Christ changing us. Until we have His heart, His Spirit, and His power, our best efforts will be dust in the wind. But, if we speak and write and act according to His will we can see the world tilt on its axis. The past 2000 years have shown us at least that much.

Unfortunately, I don’t know if I can be that overt. But if I can’t proselytize, I can certainly use Christ as an example. So what about the life of Jesus can I point to that suggests how we can change the world?

Well, there’s sacrifice. That’s always a good one. There’s leadership – He certainly knew how to train the absolutely worst candidates for the job to become the best in their field. There’s compassion. Honesty. Integrity. Courage. Solitude. Wisdom. Guts. Gentleness. Appropriate anger*. Friendship. Vision. Mission. Hope. Determination. Obedience. Intelligence. Critical thinking. Storytelling. Understanding. Creativity. The list could go on.

*My favorite thing I’ve seen recently was a t-shirt that read, “When asked, ‘What Would Jesus Do?’, always remember: flipping over tables and taking a whip to people is a viable option.

But what was the key thing? Something that can be reproduced in every human being, regardless of religious affiliation?

My friend John Njoroge, of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, shared it with me a while back when telling me about a message he had to deliver. It’s found in John 13:

Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God.

Put simply, Jesus knew who he was and what he was meant to do.

Maybe this resonates with me because it’s my reality right now. I’m discovering at 37 that knowing who you are (your talents, passions, likes, dislikes) and what you’re meant to do (the things that you feel you must do in order to truly live) is the core of being able to effect change. Too many of us waste away, not knowing ourselves, not knowing what we are supposed to be doing with our lives, not even daring to ask ourselves the questions. We succumb to the idea that a life of domesticity – that is, a life where we simply work, pay bills, do a few fun things, then die – is the life we’re meant to live.

But even a life like that begs to be lived fully. Sure, you may never quit your job and move to Nepal to serve as a sherpa, but that doesn’t mean your life should be devoid of growth and change. That doesn’t mean you should see yourself as a person who doesn’t matter.

And this isn’t some pie-in-the-sky, we-are-all-precious-little-snowflakes garbage either; I’m not encouraging the pursuit of some stupid fantasy life. I’m encouraging the living of life to the fullest. To do that, though, you have to know yourself. You have to know what you can do, want to do, and where to find the meaning in between. You also have to know if you’re willing to live with the risks that come from embracing that future.

So that’s where I’m going to go this afternoon. I would rather teach a group of kids that pursuing their dreams of being whatever they think they can be matters, rather than stand up there and encourage them to be good little boys and girls. It’s like C.S. Lewis said: “Aim for heaven and you’ll get earth thrown in; aim for earth and you’ll get neither.” By knowing who we are and what we’re meant to do, we can avoid getting caught up in the expectations and demands others would place on us. We can choose wisely where to invest our lives in order to make the most impact.

Thirty minutes. Not a lot of time. But knowing who I am and what I’m supposed to do, it’s time enough.

The Nakedness of Feet

ImageThis weekend, I was privileged to be the speaker for Crossroads Church of Walton County’s Hero Weekend, a two-day discipleship extravaganza complete with muddy obstacle course and hyper teens.

It was awesome.

Of course, it’s natural for me to feel that way – I love working with students. They’re exhilarating. They’re exhausting. They’re full of questions. They’re full of awkward silences. But it was also awesome for another reason: the theme lent itself to the perfect intersection of my nerd tendencies and my Christian faith. I simply cannot remember the last time I enjoyed developing sermons more. There was something so wonderfully fulfilling about writing messages that combined themes from superhero comic books and the life-changing truths of the Gospel.

I’ll post my first two messages tomorrow and Wednesday (I think they’ll translate just fine), but I wanted to take second tonight to write about something that happened at the closing service on Saturday night. The topic was serving people, and I took the kids to John 13. In that passage, the Lord of all the universe, the God who spoke man into existence, knelt down on his knees and gently washed the dirt from the toes of his creations.

I read that passage to them, and spoke only briefly. Then, I told them what the real sermon was going to be: the students would take off their socks and shoes, sit awkwardly in their chairs, and let their small group leaders wash their feet.

You’d have thought I asked them to naked mambo in the parking lot.

Some kids immediately grabbed their shoes. Others looked nervously around. Still others silently mouthed “I can’t do this” to me from across the room. I gently but firmly told them they had no choice: as Jesus says in that passage, “If you don’t do this, you have no part with me.”

Soon enough, there were naked feet everywhere.

Now, I know what a lot of people say about this age group being an over-sexed, over-exposed generation. I routinely shake my head at the stories about sexting, SnapChat, Omegle, and other horrible ways that teenagers put their private parts into the public domain. It certainly seems that they aren’t shy.

But when the rest of you is clothed, you’d be surprised at how vulnerable naked feet can make you feel.

Now personally, I’m not a feet man. I have a strong dislike for my own simian-inspired toes, so I rarely ever go anywhere sans closed toe shoes. So the notion of pulling my puppies out in public is stomach churning. It’s also not surprising.

But if this generation really is as sexual as we are led to believe, then the genuine modesty and shyness I saw on Saturday night was a sign of hope. Maybe it’s because of the group setting; maybe it’s because they’d just gone through a massive mud-covered obstacle course; or maybe it’s because this group in particular is more modest in all things, and so the showing of skin in any form is unusual.

Maybe it’s all of those things. But all I could think was this: when so much of you is exposed on a regular basis, it’s easy for your flaws to be hidden. People tend to focus on those parts that only interest them and you can hide in their selfishness.

Uncover only a certain part ourselves, especially a part that many of us think is ugly to begin with, and those flaws can’t hide. They are brought into focus. Magnified. Highlighted.

We are shown to be what we really are: imperfect.

That was the lesson I wanted the students to understand. We cannot hide in the sight of God. We cannot mask our imperfections. When the Holy Eyes of the Lord fall on our hearts and souls and lives, He sees everything. Each thought. Each desire. Each sin. We are unmasked.

And yet the beauty of this passage is that same God still bent his knees and washed the feet of undeserving sinners; he cleansed the nastiest places of their physical bodies as surely as he intended to cleanse the nastiest parts of their souls.

I think they got it. In complete and utter silence, fifty teenagers sat as adults – some much older than them, some near their own age – slowly made their way around to each one, cascading water over feet. One young person was so overwhelmed, it seemed like a breakdown; turns out, it was – the student had committed their life to Christ.

Sometimes, it’s the littlest things that get to us; sometimes, it’s the tiniest detail that brings our facade of pride and perfection crashing to the ground.

And sometimes, that’s a very good thing.

A Quiet Citizen

EqualIt’s been a big week for expressing your opinion on the state of things in our country. With the Supreme Court hearing arguments on Prop 8 and DOMA, lots of people are making their sentiments known via Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social media. I know in my feeds, an awful lot of people have changed their profile pic to the red equal sign. While my social network isn’t a microcosm of society at large, it does show that things have changed in the past few years.

Of course, there are also those friends who’ve changed their profile pic to a red plus sign, or to a red man and woman. But despite the pictorial tit-for-tat, I’ve not come across any ugly exchanges. In fact, the attitude seems to be detente – each side has stated their case, and the court will decide.

I’m not here to rehash old arguments, nor am I really interested in the issue at all. I think it’s a significant moment in our national history – and I think it likely that the SCOTUS will decide against Prop 8 and DOMA in some shape or form – but personally it doesn’t get me riled up. It actually gives me a headache. Kind of like the Starbucks boycott some people are trying to get off the ground.

So why the post? Well, I’ve been teaching about morality the past couple of weeks. I expected it to be a big deal, a point of discussion for my students that created passionate exchanges and conversations that carried over for days. I pictured a classroom full of gravitas and insight.

Instead, I got a big fat face full of “Eh.”

First, a caveat – I teach this class at 7:30 in the morning, and sometimes it’s all I can do to show up and remain awake. I’m well aware that I’m essentially asking for the moon, but a man with dreams can set his sights high, can’t he? So, the lack of discussion doesn’t exactly surprise me.

What has caught me off guard is that the students I teach don’t labor under the same hindrances as me. Whereas I’m learning a crap ton about what God has to say about morality and its impact and influence on our lives (and how we approach others on matters of morality), my students have a “been there, heard that” look in their eyes that makes me feel like an antiquated dope.

They don’t wrestle with the issue of God’s sovereignty and His authority to determine morality on His terms. They don’t question God’s fairness. They don’t wrestle with legalism or delusions of moral superiority. They understand that their main moral objective is to live obediently, taking a stand with grace and forgiveness when such a stand is called for. They feel no pressure to try and solve the world’s problems; they truly believe that when it’s their turn they’ll do what they can, and trust God for the rest. They wish to be quiet citizens.

And I’m like: dang, dudes. Guess we’ll finish up a little earlier than I anticipated. Good job!

I’m generalizing, of course; there is some push back on certain issues, but for the most part, everyone seems to have the same attitude – that they’ll stand for the Lord when such a stand is necessary, not when someone panics and wants to start a movement. Curiously, they’ve not panicked over the past couple of days. I find that fascinating.

I just saw a Facebook post from Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Seminary, and while I know Dr. Mohler is decidedly pro-traditional marriage, his statement carries much wisdom – a wisdom I find reflected in my students. I leave it with you as a closing statement.

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