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A Class in Its Own League
Going through grade school, junior high, and high school, I distinctly remember the California STAR (Standardized Testing and Reporting) tests. Every student does. At the beginning of each year, teachers outlined specifically what state standards would be covered in class and precisely when we would cover them. In essence, the entire year was already planned out in August and falling behind on the schedule was unacceptable. The teacher’s primary focus in almost every class from third to eleventh grade was to “teach to the test.” Week by week we methodically made our way through the standards. When it was finally mid-April we had a week of STAR testing. Then a few months later the students and schools received their results. Based on student performance, schools received a certain amount of state funding.
However, one class I took my junior year did not fall into the “teaching to the test” category – American Studies (commonly referred to as Am Studs). Am Studs was a special Advanced Placement English/ History class combined into a double block period. This class was famous at our school and had a reputation as the most challenging class offered. Just mentioning the phrase “Am Studs” was enough to make kids shudder, and surviving the year in Am Studs was considered a feat. Our teacher, Mr. Schulz, had been teaching for years and did not care about state tests; he ran the class exactly how he wanted to.
On the first day of school, I was a little nervous for his class, and my peers and I walked in not sure what to expect. Then Mr. Schulz addressed the class in his booming voice, “Welcome to Am Studs. This will be the hardest course you have ever taken; the first week will weed out the weaklings.”
I was frightened; I did not want to take the class, but something in my mind told me I had to. I quickly understood Mr. Schulz’s class was run like boot camp (I know this to be true because I have actually gone to military camp). He was our commander, and my fellow classmates and I were his plebes. He split us into six companies composed of three or four students each. He explained that the companies would compete against each other for bonus points throughout the quarter. These bonus points were highly valuable and could easily raise your quarter and semester grade if your team won. Then as commander, he quickly exerted his rule over us.
“Repeat the Code of the Honor Student after me: 1) know the value of education- both historical and classical...,” he said.
The Code of the Honor Student contained the mission and core values of our army. It consisted of five rules, but his favorite by far was the fifth rule: life isn’t fair. He told us to write down the code and to memorize it. Then we chanted it over and over and over again until it was burned into our memory.
As the weeks went by in his class, we learned primarily through reading literature from different time periods in American history and by doing group projects. We held our own version of the 1912 elections where different groups campaigned for Taft, Wilson, Roosevelt and Debs. We had mock trials of the famous Lindbergh, Sacco and Vanzetti, and Scopes trials. We completed a spy project, which turned the whole class against each other and echoed the feelings in America during the Red Scare. And we produced KVFD radio broadcasts from the Great Depression era, complete with our own performances of Woody Guthrie songs and commercials from the time period.
In addition to our large projects, we had an event called “Fat Friday” every Friday (or Thick Thursday or Wide Wednesday depending on what was the final day of the school week). Each week a different team was responsible for bringing food for the entire class to eat during Fat Friday. The first part of the event was relaxing, but the second part was competitive. As a way to drill our vocabulary words into our memory, each company competed brutally against each other. Prized group points went to the winner of the competition. By the end of the year, the cumulative vocabulary bank was five hundred words. During this event, representatives of each group nervously held a coffee can with beans inside it and sat on the edge of their seats.
“Keen insight!” Mr. Schulz cried.
A student furiously shook his can. “Uhh acumen,” he hesitated.
“In the can!” Mr. Schulz responded. “In the can” meant that the student responded too slowly and he lost points. The poor student sat back in his chair while his group glared at him because he failed to earn points.
“The next word is worth two points. Two points now. Ridiculously mournful, sorrowful,” he decided.
The sound of shaking coffee cans filled the room.
“Lugubrious!” another student yelled.
“Coooorrect!” Mr. Schulz erupted. “Two points to the Jane Addams group.”
The game continued, and Mr. Schulz gave definitions while the groups competed to answer with the correct vocabulary word. When the bell rang to signal the end of class, the group winner received bonus points and had bragging rights for the day.
Throughout the year, we went on learning in this unusual manner that consisted of group projects, quizzes and competitions. When it was time to take the STAR tests in mid-April, Mr. Schulz told us not to worry about the tests because we had not truly prepared for them. We took the tests and life in Am Studs went on. No one worried about how they did. Soon the school year was over, and we held an end of the year party to celebrate our survival of Am Studs.
Some people believe that teachers cannot be creative and also effectively teach state standards. They believe that students in classes like Mr. Schulz’s will not be prepared for the state tests, and schools will lose state funding because of poor performance on the tests. To them, the best way to ensure state funding is to sacrifice creativity in the classroom and systematically teach state standards. However, Mr. Schulz was direct proof that this idea is simply not true. When our results came back in August, everyone had excelled on the STAR tests even though he never directly taught us specific state standards. In fact, we did better than students who were in regular English and regular history classes.
Although Mr. Schulz’s class was by far my most challenging high school class, it was the best class I have ever taken. I am convinced our educational system needs more classes like Mr. Schulz’s because his method of instruction is far more effective than simply “teaching to the test.” In his class, we combined textbooks with “outside the box projects” to learn. His drill sergeant mentality engaged the class and made learning enjoyable, albeit nerve-wracking at times. The effect of this was expanding our knowledge in a way that “teaching to the state test” could have never done.