By Dana C. Lamb
This week was the epitome of reward and exhaustion. It was “the week” in the school year – testing week. And, right after that, my production of Little Mermaid Jr. with its massive cast opened and closed their shows. This week redefined “showtime” and all things serious. These two weeks were a true test of performance on numerous levels. There was a high level of emotional investment that required the very best of everything that my students and I had to give. It was a week when my cognitive processing and neurological function refused to play nice in the sandbox after the 18th hour of work. It was a week when my blood type was Starbucks venti affogato turbo caffeine. It was a week of rising to the challenge, raising the bar, going for it and firing on all cylinders, and the exhales that followed. It was, quite frankly, a week.
Let’s start with the testing. If you are not an educator, you probably have no idea what goes into testing procedures. Children are tested for up to a week on Reading, Language Arts, Math, Science, and Social Studies. Teachers are trained on how to administer the test, the adherence of procedures, are sworn to the oath of integrity, and are paired with other teachers so that the test is valid and reliable. Prior to this week, students are taught how to correctly fill in bubbles and how to negotiate a multiple-choice testing environment. We stress the importance of not talking, being prepared, getting enough rest, eating well, good (or perfect) attendance and not being tardy. We then temper that with the encouragement to do their best, quell their wide-eyed fears, monitor that they are in the right section of their test booklet, and then we praise them for a job well-done. Everything is closely monitored, guarded, and secure, and then we sit and wait for the results.
But there is more to this that you don’t see, and that is the heart of the child. They have come up to me and whispered, “Ms. Lamb, do you think I will pass?” Being so careful with their tender worries, I answer it simply with “I know you are so very smart and will do your absolute best.” I am asked if it will hold them back and if they won’t get to go on with their friends. I am asked if it means they will be punished at home if they do not do well. Even the youngest children ask if it will keep them from getting into college if they do not do well. The importance of this one test is not lost on so many children, and therefore many of them are anxious about possibly failing, even those who would never have a snowball’s chance of missing the mark. It is performance anxiety in its highest academic form.
But let’s balance this with what it’s like when our musical was going up. Like the test, we have practiced for months prior to the big event. Like the testing, they either know it or they don’t. The children question whether or not they will fail, and what to do if they forget lines, choreography, or the music. They rehearse at recess and in their cars as they are driven home. Some teachers have even reported seeing students doing the choreography with their feet while they are reading quietly at their desk. They gather their costumes, watch youtube tutorials on stage makeup, and rehearse their songs just one last time in front of a mirror, making sure that they are smiling and that they are maintaining good posture. And just as quickly as it began, it was over and the curtain closed on almost 800 people in attendance, and all ninety of those kids were exhausted, but deliriously proud.
As I write this blog, I need to preface this by stating that I am not the least bit opposed to standardized testing. I think it is absolutely vital to get a school, regional, state, and national snapshot of student performance. We have to measure their achievement in order to maintain or improve our educational system. It is a right, good, and prudent thing create benchmarks for our public education system and to hold both teachers and students to a level of expectation. The only thing I take issue with is the emphasis that is placed on one test as it relates to our worth as students, teachers, and school systems. Just as we are so much more than the information on our driver’s license, our schools and the people in them will always be so much more than one score. It’s a matter of balanced perspective and it’s one that we simply must maintain.
With the idea of balanced perspective, let’s consider these important questions as it pertains to standardized testing and putting on a musical. Which experience do you think best affirms a student’s success? Which experience do you think will be permanently ingrained in a child’s memory? Which experience affirms them more as an individual contributing to a collective environment and their community? From the child’s perspective, which experience is more rigorous and relevant as it relates to determination, hard work, achievement, and what success feels like? Do you think they will be more likely to remember the song they sang or the score they earned? Which experience is more likely to shape and define them as they grow? In twenty years, which experience will matter more?
Success is never an accident. Therefore, I write all of this to reiterate, once again, why I believe that music in the schools is so vital and must be preserved. Quite frankly, I am growing tired of this debate because we should never debate anything that is clearly in the best interest of American school children. Furthermore, the litmus test of what is best for children should no longer be defined by whether or not something is tested.
Instead, children need every single possible opportunity that we can give them to define, plan, and achieve success. How can we expect students to be successful adults if they have not had ample opportunity to practice it on a number of levels in their schools? Our schools are one of the most ideal places to discover strengths and weaknesses, to make the mistakes in the shadow of caring educational professionals who will teach them how to succeed. How can we expect them to discover their talents if we do not provide opportunities for them to discover it for themselves? How would tomorrow’s innovator in medicine or technology, tomorrow’s next composer, or tomorrow’s next leader ever grab hold of their potential if the possibility were never offered to them?
It should never be a question of whether or not music is in schools. We need to change this mindset that somehow the arts are a luxury. While music is not a tested subject, to say that music education is invaluable is an indefensible posture and it is not one that I swallow easily. I have seen where music is the only tether between a child on the brink and their participation in any education. I have seen where music becomes the safe place for the child who can stay one extra hour after school before they return to their precarious life beyond the school walls. I have seen music affirm students who will never be the smartest, the prettiest, the most athletic, or the teacher’s trusted darling. Through music, I have seen children shatter their labels of learning deficiencies, diagnoses, and self-imposed beliefs. Because of music, I have seen the differences that divide children beyond my stage fade like the houselights when they are on my stage. I have seen children remain on the center stage for one moment longer than they should have during their curtain call because it is perhaps the only time in recent memory that they were affirmed for their presence and their contribution. It is not just my job, but my lifework and highest responsibility to make sure that every child knows that they matter and that their success matters.
While we teach, whatever we teach, whomever we teach, the one thing that remains clear is that success is never an accident. And the process of achievement comes with mistakes, but it also comes with affirmation and high fives. At the core, it’s not about the standardized test versus music education or which is more important because that will take a massive paradigm shift in the public education mindset, and one I hope to see before I die. What it comes down to is that every student learns that success is not an accident and that success comes in countless forms. For if every child acquaints themselves with success in our classrooms, what could they do when it’s really showtime?