OPINION: Asking students to show teachers the way forward

imageBy Sujata Bhatt, a teacher at Grand View Elementary

I am not in the infamous LA Times database, but, as a teacher in a Title 1 Program Improvement LAUSD elementary school, I have an enormous stake in the conversation about teacher evaluation and education reform the LA Times articles have begun. My students’ stake, however, is even greater; the discussion may alter my working conditions, but it changes their futures.

At the end of the year, I ask the students in my class to write me a letter, signed or anonymous, telling me what was memorable, what was not, and how they’d improve things. It’s not a data-based, objective evaluation, but it is, nevertheless, important because it speaks to what students find meaningful in school. Here are some of their voices:

“My favorite project was the water cycle. We got to make a colauge [sic] and have fun with it. We got to make it out of newspaper, cotton, magazines, and more. We learned about precipitation, evaporation, condensation, and more.” – Odalys

“I liked acting out the Revolutionary War. It was fun because everyone got to be a character…We got to act out all the taxes King George and Parliament made. It was fun making a timeline.” – Paulina

“There were many things I liked about Room 25 this year. I like all the fun prodjects [sic] we have done. I like how you teach us on the smartboard, all kids should experience it. My favorite part of Room 25 is the tables and how you get to know your tablemates and become a team with them.” – Justin

Almost every student suggested I include more projects and experiments next year:

“What you should change is language arts to do more experiments and projects.”– Rosaisela
“You should do even more prodject [sic] with acting.” – Brahlee
“You should not work with text books next year. You should act out experiments…” – Bryan
“Make more videos and fun projects.” – Anonymous

Not one student suggested more testing. Endless testing kills the desire to learn. Here’s Andrew:

“LA [Language Arts] is the hardest because it felt like their [sic] were a sextillion test [sic]. I know that even you Ms. Bhatt are sick of these test [sic]. You are lucky because you did not have to do it [sic].”

There are some who will look at all the ‘sics’ above and see failure. The CST certainly would. I know I could have taken another half hour or more out of creative teaching each day to do additional spelling and grammar drills. Most of my students improved on the CST, but with more drilling, they certainly would have improved further. The enormously profitable test prep industry has proven that this is the case.

But what would have been lost in this scenario? Projects, experiments, videos, teambuilding, acting, collages: the forms of learning students valued. These are the forms of learning that engage their curiosities, that inspire them to stay in school and contribute their talents to the world.

As Arturo said, “We learn more by activities.” I value my students’ voices. I believe they need to be heard in this conversation. Education reform is too often instituted from the top down, and teachers and students are as low as you can go in the educational hierarchy. This must change for real change to be effected.

So, as I face a new year, should I follow the testing model or my students’ suggestions? As I like to ask my students, “What would you do?”

BIO: I’ve been teaching at Grand View Blvd. Elementary in LAUSD since 2002. It’s the only elementary school I’ve taught at (first interview and first job offer). I went into teaching after I had a child; I found I really enjoyed experiencing the world with children. I am a produced playwright (East West Players, Mixed Blood in Minneapolis, Sacramento Theater company, etc.), and I found that theater and teaching had a lot in common. They both are forms of performance and play. Teach a child through play and he or she will be open to learning almost anything.

Prior to teaching, I was an academic with a specialty in medieval history (ABD, U Michigan, 3 year post-doc at the Society of Fellows at Harvard). I didn’t enjoy teaching undergrads and found academia too isolated from social change, so I never finished my doctorate.

At Grand View, I’ve taught 1st through 5th. I usually loop with the same class for three years so that I get to know the kids and families, and create a real community.


  1. Real, dedicated, and passionate teachers like Ms Bhatt should set the rules instead of bureaucrats at LAUSD. She ignited in her students a thirst for knowledge that is worth so much more than a “Advanced” score on the CST. Testing doesn’t belong in Elementary school because you’re not testing what really matters.

  2. I agree with most of what she said, however, students MUST know how to read a textbook and they must be assessed. I don’t agree with value added and I think the CST should definitely be more diverse in types of assessment given, but students have to be able to navigate text, even if they don’t like it.

  3. Thanks for your comments. Barbara, I agree that students must know how to read, but does it have to be a textbook at the elementary level? I think it’s more valuable to encourage children to read to follow their curiosities–reading as a way into the world rather than as an end in itself. Elementary textbooks and readers are dreadfully dull and often only include excerpts of stories.

  4. I agree they should read other items than a textbook. I think textbooks should not be introduced until middle school because their structure is too cumbersome for the young reader.

    I think they should read short novels, primary sources and other items. Some textbooks are horrible but there are some great ones out there. Unfortunately, with the advent of standards, textbook quality has declined significantly.

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