Diving Off the Cliff’s Notes

By Dana C. Lamb

I have recently begun listening to radio as part of my morning routine. Since my daily commute is only four minutes door-to-door, I really don’t have the need for drive-time radio like I did when I lived in Connecticut and worked in New York City. Listening again, I became reacquainted with that familiar useless banter. You know what I’m talking about: the humor behind the stuff that you don’t typically think of until someone points it out to you. Things like ice cube trays, the return of the rotary phone, and the mating rituals of penguins.

Last week’s chatter was about Cliffs Notes. If you were a product of American schools in the last fifty years, you know exactly what these books are. They were the bright yellow and black nuggets of salvation hidden in the back corner of the bookstore, long before the trademark yellow and black Dummies brand came out. Cliffs Notes saved many kids from failure, including me. All the ambiguities of symbolism, theme, motivation, and other elements of required high school literature were brought down to the bottom line in an easy-to-understand and concise manner. It’s like having your own personal attaché through a foreign country. I had such an appetite for reading in high school, but it seemed I could never make heads or tails out of the required reading for my junior high literature class. Thank God for Cliffs Notes.

So, my name is Dana Lamb and I have admittedly purchased Cliffs Notes. However, let it be known that I did not feel good about buying them. I just believed I was too dumb to understand classic pieces of literature, and therefore I knowingly used a cheat (help?) method just to beat the test. I was terrified to fail and I couldn’t pass without help. (My high school junior high English teacher only furthered the lack of understanding with Freudian conjecture and regurgitated stories of her mud-soaked days at Woodstock.) I hate to admit it, but Cliffs Notes were the only saving grace to passing Junior English in 1985. Required reading in the right hand, Cliffs Notes in the left.

The radio hosts then began remarking about how students only read the Cliffs Notes instead of reading the actual book. WHAT?? What a brilliant idea! Why didn’t I ever think of that in high school!? Do you know how many countless hours I could have saved myself trying to understand thousands of pages of literature like Moby Dick or Beowulf? You mean I could have simply read the abridged, easy-to-understand version, gotten what I needed to pass the test, and had a lot more time to practice my Totalphone skills or crimping my hair?? This was a stunning revelation! But then I realized that this exact scenario is a metaphor against everything I believe in as an educator.

My uninspiring time spent in high school Literature failed miserably at forming me into a dedicated fan of the classics. Even with advanced education, and a quarter century of maturity and life experience, I still gravitate toward books on metacognition, educational policy, musician and teacher biographies, entrepreneurship, or even a flimsy one-dimensional piece of poolside fiction before I dare reach for a classic. I remember in my early twenties, I did pick up Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights in my quest to be more worldly, and I have to admit as much as they were a bit tedious to get through, I actually enjoyed them. I remember savoring Wuthering Heights and wondering why I couldn’t have enjoyed that book in high school when I actually had to take a test on it. What quality experience, what depth of knowledge, what world perspective could I have gained at an earlier age if I was just allowed to enjoy the experience, as opposed to viewing a piece of literature as a grade-based requirement? This got me thinking about testing, the purposes of testing, and at what student expense is this testing costing everyone that cannot be measured in dollars or achievement.

Recently, I have spent a fair amount of time helping to write and refine state tests in elementary music education. I am so honored to have the opportunity to be a part of the development and improvement of these tests because I am hoping that this will give music educators an opportunity to show how relevant and vital music education is to public education. As I sat and considered every question, every possible measure of the children in music in Georgia’s classrooms, I thought about what these questions were really measuring. Is it enough to know that 90% of the students know how many beats a quarter note gets? Can we ever measure what that understanding can lead to? I learned the basic quarter note once upon a time and it unlocked a lifetime of potential in my own life as I now have a viable and successful career as a music educator and professional songwriter. If a child can identify a quarter note as having one beat, does that mean that they, too, could be a successful professional musician, or does that simply mean that the teacher got the job done and is worthy of a new contract? Or, is this just busy work so that we can extrapolate data to verify the health of our education system? Tests are only worthy if we know what and why we are measuring what we are testing.

Make no mistake, I am all in favor of testing. I would not have given up valuable classroom time and a week of my summer vacation if I did not believe that I could make a valuable difference in music education on both a county and state level testing. I believe schools must test students for their knowledge, comprehension, and application of key concepts as they relate to ALL of the disciplines, not just the core disciplines of reading, writing, math, science, and social studies. Consequently, what I fear is the slippery slope of “let’s just read the Cliffs Notes instead” approach to testing, and then education in totality. If we adopt an unhealthy focus on test scores, we inevitably and unquestionably rob students and teachers of creating valuable meaning in the process and discovery of education and growth. There truly is no substitute for bonafide quality, and the most frustrating thing about testing is that trying to quantifying quality is far too often like trying to catch Maria Von Trapp’s moonbeam in your hand.

Teachers know that anything worth knowing, anything worth pursuing, any achievement worth working toward is rarely achieved by cutting corners. We cannot measure the quality of education that a student acquires when they engage and pursue it by their own motivation. A bubble test will never reveal the emotional and personal growth that comes when a student believes that they are a successful learner despite learning disabilities and cognitive challenges. Tests will never reflect the true success stories of the illiterate fifth grader who fails to read at their grade level, yet made unprecedented growth in pulling their reading level from a first grade level to a third grade level in that fifth grade year. Tests will never reflect how much a child believes in their own intelligence, or could ever reflect how a student has overcome such incredible personal challenges but maintained their character and integrity when they could have walked away from every opportunity to rise above through education. Just as one wedding photograph cannot summarize a lifetime of marriage, tests are powerless to reflect how student’s lives are powerfully changed through or because of education.

Education is not easy and I will vehemently defend the honor of this profession for it is one of the most noble, most selfless, most trying, and yet most rewarding professions on the planet. But as teachers know far too well, the things that are so difficult, that which yanks your brain and demands personal tenacity are often not best savored until after the experience is over. The meaningful experiences that I take away from my own personal education was not because of the grade, but because of the meaning I internalized and the affirming experiences I had in the moments leading up to its culmination. It had little, if nothing, to do with my test score or my percentile. Some of the best courses I ever took, some of the most rewarding learning I have ever endured, I got a B.

We cannot rely too heavily on that “just-get-it-over-with” Cliffs Notes mentality by teaching only to tests because then we would put too much at risk. Our students deserve so much more, and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that our teachers are capable of so much more. More forms to fill out, more procedures to adhere to, and more legislation will never make our students smarter and more prepared to contribute to economic vitality. I wonder how American public education could transform if teachers were given permission to be the professionals they are trained to be, allowed to be wholly passionate about their work and free from the overemphasized pressure of being judged solely by test results and demonstrable student achievement. I wonder how much we could accomplish if the trained, seasoned, and educated administrators, who are formerly successful classroom teachers, were the ones who educated the legislators about the realities of education, who provided viable solutions as to what could and should be done. I’m pretty sure we became the strongest economic nation, and held that title for two generations, because we were focused on encouraging students to learn, and therefore to be productive and responsible members of society.

I believe our students deserve more than any short-cut Cliffs Notes approach to quality education. I believe that there are parents, teachers, administrators, and economic leaders that feel the same way. I just don’t think I’d be hearing words like “rigor” and “relevance” on a daily basis if they didn’t believe this. It’s a matter of tempered perspective, commitment, and realizing that the strongest and most meaningful things take time to build and grow. We certainly don’t want our physicians, bridge-builders, nuclear physicists, or military taking a Cliffs Notes approach to their careers. Let’s not adopt that same philosophy with the next, and most precious generation.

About Dana Lamb

Dana C. Lamb is not your typical musician. By day, she is a devoted music educator in an Atlanta suburb and is passionate about preserving and maintaining music education in the public schools. She has won Teacher of the Year, is a Grammy nominated music educator, and directs the Educational Advisory Committee for the Muzart World Foundation, most recently giving a speech to over 21,000 in Salt Lake City about the importance of public school music education. In addition to her teaching career, she is a successful professional songwriter. Her song “You Should Dream” hit #5 on iTunes country chart, #7 on Billboard County Crossover album with The Texas Tenors (the most successful vocal group to come from America’s Got Talent), and is the name of the nationwide PBS special that is in a three-year rotation in over 200 markets in the United States. If you wish to contact Dana, she can be reached at dlambsongwriter@gmail.com.
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