The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Fourteen year olds sit disconsolate in a fast emptying hall to do the 'SAT' verbal arithmetic exam.

The level of this exam is 'levels 3-5' - that's the lowest level.
The English Language exams only measure level 4 and above. In English, by age eleven, anything below level four is considered sub-literate.

Innumerate. I think of the word and look around the hall. Spot so many of my own students in there.

"Look at the spot marked A on the map, and write down its co-ordinates."

Surrounded by the completed papers of those who've scored higher, and been able to leave earlier, fourteen year olds listen to warm honey newsreader tones of a recorded verbal delivery. They have fifteen seconds to answer before the subsequent question is signalled along the ageing PA system with loud van-reversi beep.

Innumerate children sit, twist, fidget, stare, try to count on fingers and run out of time, try to remember through physical movement the points on a compass, tap toes, drop pens again and again, sigh.

"What time is it four hours after ten thirty in the morning? Say whether your answer is AM or PM."

Pen dropping boy manages four times in one minute. I pick his pen up and sternly reprimand. "Don't do that again."
"It wasn't my fault!" Stage whisper, indignation.
He spends the next four minutes lying in an S shape, bent backwards over the desk behind, arms outstretched and supplicant to the mildewed lights of the hall ceiling.

"If I face west, then turn ninety degrees to the right, twice, what direction am I facing?"

Foot tapping girl reaches a crescendo of rhythm. taptaptap
I and a colleague stare hard at her, throw her The Look.
"What are you looking at me for?" Incredulous stage hiss.

Both children determined that although they have just broken the rules of a state exam, they are innocent.
The evidence before my eyes is wrong. The obvious response to being caught is innocence, and retort.

The examinations officer ignores it. Nothing else happens.

These are the innumerate kids. The illiterate kids, too, mostly. These are all the problems in microcosm of the inner city school.

But not just that. Of their inner city lives.

"What is 83 taken away from 100?"

Today is a microcosm of the future for these ne'er-do-wells.