What we teach when we teach things like confidence

For the second year in a row, I taught a before-school mock trial class to a group of 16 Rosa Parks fifth graders.  I taught the class with a former student of mine, James Stevens, and my daughter Rachel, who is in 6th grade and is an “alum” of the program.  Two other Longfellow 6th graders helped us out during the 16 weeks, as we taught the kids about persuasive argument, trial advocacy techniques, and the basics of our criminal justice system.

As it did last year, the class culminated in a mock trial presentation at the U.C. Berkeley School of Law moot courtroom, in front of an audience of 80 relatives and teachers, a jury of 12 kids, and a retired Alameda County Superior Court judge. (Some great photos here.)  After the trial, which was last week, the parents presented each of us coaches with a framed “word cloud” that represented the most common phrases the kids used to describe what they learned in the mock trial class.  Here it is:

Mock trial word cloud

I found this gift extremely touching, and I am proud of the impact we had on these kids.  But I am sharing the word cloud here because what struck me as I looked at what the kids said they learned – and what their parents were thrilled they had learned – were things like “confidence” and “public speaking” and “bravery.”  Many of them apparently told their parents that the mock trial class made them “feel smart.”  These are all qualities that parents want their kids to develop in school, and in life.

This is what I mean when I (and many others) talk about teaching what cannot be assessed on a standardized test.  We want our kids to emerge from elementary school, among other things, confident.  Confident in their intelligence, and in their ability to articulate their beliefs, to speak in a room full of people, to apply what they know to a new situation.  We want them to love learning, so they stay in school, explore their passions, feed their curiosity.  We want them to know how to work as a team towards a common goal.  When we focus too heavily on the results of annual standardized tests, when we make them “high-stakes,” we send a clear message to parents, teachers, and principals that the most important thing to teach is what is on the test.  And that relegates to the sidelines a lot of other traits and skills we want our children to develop in school.