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'I had test-itis': While kids are taking PSSAs, this teacher might be writing subversive poetry

A Philly teacher who calls standardized tests "poorly-designed, time-wasting, culturally biased, bureaucratic, anti-critical thinking, money-making soul-crushers" has written a book of satirical poetry about them.

Jesse Gottschalk, a teacher at Lea Elementary in West Philadelphia, dislikes standardized tests so strongly that he self-published a book of poetry poking fun of their effect on education. Pennsylvania students are taking the PSSAs this month.
Jesse Gottschalk, a teacher at Lea Elementary in West Philadelphia, dislikes standardized tests so strongly that he self-published a book of poetry poking fun of their effect on education. Pennsylvania students are taking the PSSAs this month.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

As a proctor for Pennsylvania's standardized tests, teacher Jesse Gottschalk knew the drill: He couldn't have his phone out while his fourth graders were taking the state exams. He couldn't read a book or have any personal items handy.

But there was no prohibition on writing sly poetry about how much he believes over-testing is affecting students. So Gottschalk, a teacher at a public school in West Philadelphia, used a piece of scratch paper and a No. 2 pencil he had handy for his students and went to work:

"These tests make the brightest minds feel not-so-bright/Which answer's least wrong?/(Instead of most right?)," Gottschalk wrote in a poem he called "Bright."

'Tis the season for more poetry.  One million students across the state are taking PSSAs, the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, and Gottschalk, who teaches at Lea Elementary, is in the thick of it. Frustrated by the effects of the testing culture, Gottschalk has written a book of poetry to highlight what he sees as the absurdity of the exams.

His first body of work is Tested Out: Poems Against High-Stakes Testing and Standardized Children, a self-published volume he has promoted thusly: "If you think standardized tests are poorly-designed, time-wasting, culturally biased, bureaucratic, anti-critical thinking, money-making soul-crushers, then yes, this book is also for you."

Testing is ripe for satire, he said.

"A lot of this stuff is ridiculous," said Gottschalk — take the case of the Lancaster teacher who was suspended for feeding his students homemade pancakes during the PSSAs.

Gottschalk's poetry project began two years ago, when he was teaching fourth grade at Cramp Elementary in North Philadelphia.

"I was really frustrated about how central to our lives the tests are, and how much the rules and structures of testing became an entire culture unto itself," he said. So he wrote a single poem poking fun at testing culture and the strict rules handed down to teachers: Cover up virtually any poster or chart that might be construed as giving a child a clue to a test answer; do nothing but stare as your students take the test during the exam period.

The following year, the testing window fell over five weeks. It felt interminable; Gottschalk challenged himself to write one poem every day he gave a test. He put some online, on his blog, and got good feedback. It got him thinking: What if he published a little volume of some of his work? He started a crowdfunding page, and was astonished at the response — he has raised just over $2,000, and the project is close to fully funded.

He wrote poems about having a "severe case of test-itis," and how "Reading and math clearly matter a lot/and few would say music and history do not/But they're harder to test, so of course we don't test them…/Which, in our testing culture, means schools just suppress them." After he exhausted testing, he moved on to students' requests, which is how he ended up writing a poem about chickens on the moon.

Eileen Duffey was one of the first supporters of Gottschalk's crowdfunding project — "I was so excited for him, and about this project," said Duffey, the school nurse at Academy at Palumbo, a South Philadelphia magnet school.

The poems resonated with Duffey, who has worked in elementary and high schools.

"It's traumatizing for those of us who work in schools," she said. "But these poems are a lighthearted way to make a political statement."

This year, Gottschalk is the drama teacher at Lea but still in the grind of testing. He's a proctor for multiple classes, and his room is used for kids who qualify for extended time to take exams. Though students are taking fewer exams this year, Gottschalk still had to cover most of his walls with red and white paper, down to the "Lea Theater" banner and the "drama words" that he tacked up for his students.

"In every class, I had students who were baffled that everything was taken down," Gottschalk said. "They thought that the theater could be a refuge from all that."

Gottschalk, a fourth-year teacher, is involved in the city's small but fervent Opt Out movement advising parents of their right to have their children skip taking the exams. The way he sees it, the stated goal of standardized tests — having a formal way of assessing students' and schools' strengths and weaknesses as a way to know where to put supports for them — gets lost in the dark consequences.

"Testing narrows the curriculum," he said. "It changes what we think of as education. It creates this whole pool of data that does not mean nearly as much as people think it does. The data that is produced is used as a way to do whatever reforms are trendy at the moment."