Wednesday, November 16, 2011

They Don't Call It a Number Two for Nothing

Every great society throughout history has had its vulnerabilities.  The Trojans had their horse.  The Romans had their hedonistic excesses.  The Russians had their inequality of classes and the French had all their heavy sauces and thick creamy pastries.  It seems that one of America's vulnerabilities has been under our noses all along, but no one seemed to notice:  the number 2 pencil.

The first writing implement handed to a child is generally the crayon -- that colorful extension of an unbridled imagination and that great waxy smell.  With the crayon the sky can be green, grass can be purple and smiles can be larger than the faces that hold them.  Maybe people would be a little happier if they colored at least once or twice a week.  It's fun.  And don't worry about staying within the lines.  Too many people get hung up on coloring within the lines.  A teacher once told my parents that I had trouble coloring in the lines, but my original artwork was brilliant.

The first pencil most kids use is that thick blue one that makes those wonderfully broad soft lines on green paper with the wide spaces between the lines for big capital letters and numbers.  Suddenly the child's work is grayed a little and the lines within which they colored have become rigid and taught and highly structured so the letter "E" will always and forever have only three lines sticking out of one and not four or five or eight.  This shift from creative openness to unbending lines will, to many, be associated with the pencil.

Without warning the thick blue pencil that felt like something of substance in your hand is ripped away.  The child is told that it is now pass to use big blue.  I have even teachers "actively ignore" kids ridiculing their peers for holding onto the big blue pencil.  Now it is the thin, mousy yellow number two that is introduced.  And like a virus, it grows into the consciousness of society that this by which you will be tried, assessed, judged, measured, quantified, discriminated, condemned.

Thanks to the “No Child Left Behind” act, by third grade the number two pencil is used for the standardized test that will assess little more than the ability of an eight or nine year old to take a test.  It begins the conditioning process that fools our society into believing that standardized tests actually reflect knowledge and predict future academic success.

If it wasn't for the number two pencil, our school curriculums wouldn't be destroyed by being "aligned" to state and national tests.  By changing curriculums to what is being tested sends the message that anything taught that is not covered on the state tests is irrelevant and unimportant. 

If it wasn't for the number two pencil, kids who have vision and drive, but were not lucky enough to live in an affluent area where schools could afford to give them enrichment classes on the tricks to taking standardized tests, could get into better colleges.

If it wasn't for the number two pencil, people could be judged on ability and authentic knowledge and aptitude and not word games and numbers play.

The day I see a standard child is the day I will agree that standardized tests are good for more than just keeping testing services in business, school administrators in excuses and the less fortunate in repression.

The more we rely on the number two, the less likely we will be to find number one.

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