03/11/2011 07:17 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Educating for Democracy: How to Educate, not Just Test

In view of the many controversies surrounding standardized testing and the effort expended on what I and many educators view as a waste of valuable class time, I would like to present several examples in which good teaching and, more important, good learning can take place without emphasizing testing.

I have been using self-publishing as an educational tool for the past decade and have found many advantages in having students see their work in print, especially at a professional level of production.

1. The students feel a sense of "ownership" about their work. For many of them writing a story, essay or memoir that came from their own imaginations or experience is not a commonplace school assignment unless in "creative writing" classes for the "gifted and talented." In my experience as a teacher of writing, there are few students who are unable to tell a story and then write it down as best they can. And unlike most writing assignments, writing for "publication" gives students the motivation to be more venturesome instead of feeling bound to specific requirements or limitations on what they can write.

2. The students become aware of an "audience": not just one person, the teacher, but an actual group of readers who will be aware of the quality of the work. This gives students an incentive to do their best since their work will be "seen" by others: their fellow classmates, family and friends.

3. The process of writing the stories gives students the opportunity to engage in collaborative learning which is a key element in the development of critical thinking. Too often students are limited in their ability to engage with each other in suggesting and critiquing one another's work. Often, if they are put into groups with a more formal assignment, they are limited in their knowledge of literary analysis to do more than say "I like it," or "It's cool!" With their own self-motivated impressions, they are more likely to use their personal experiences and connect them to some critical perception of what seems "real" to them or "makes sense."

4. Finally, since in order to have the finished product published in a timely manner so that it can be distributed at the end of the semester, students must realize that the consequences of their not handing in their work by a definite deadline will result in a far more tangible penalty than a "late grade": exclusion of their work from the book. The methodology I have suggested can be used, I believe, at any grade level once children are able to write their first simple sentences. Storytelling is a basic form of human communication and can have a positive effect on student attitude toward writing which can extend to more formal assignments.

The last day of class might be an occasion for distributing the book to all of the students and having a "book party" in which they could read their essay or story to the rest of the class. This might be a special reward for outstanding effort: recognition of their efforts from classmates. I believe this would be as satisfying to a student as the traditional academic acknowledgement of high grades or other achievements.

Since the cost of the books is relatively nominal: $5-$6, it shouldn't be difficult to persuade the principal, department head or supervisor to either subsidize the project or, more likely, give official permission to assess a "lab fee" for each student for the cost of printing. Of course, there is some hard work involved for the teacher in getting students to revise their work, proofread it and send it out ready for printing within the time needed to be printed and shipped by the end of the semester. But I believe that the educational value of this project far outweighs the effort needed by the teacher to promote a very positive learning experience.

The printing company I have worked with in this project for the last 15 years, Fidlar-Doubleday has been reliable and very cooperative in making this approach an effective teaching and learning tool. (NOTE: This column is not intended as an endorsement of Fidlar-Doubleday, although I am not acquainted with other printing companies that will produce as few as 25 copies of a single book).

Another example of a learning tool comes from David Greene, an educator with whom I've recently become acquainted. He is an associate with a program called "WISE" that was created in 1973 by teachers at Woodlands HS in Westchester.

Here is a brief description:

WISE allows high school seniors of all ability levels to design an individualized, passion-driven project. Projects can be internships, independent research, self-improvement, community service or cultural, artistic and performance-based activities. Topics are limitless because they are individualized. Students discover in themselves skills, strengths and talents they had not realized were present. They receive academic credit upon successful completion.
Students select a staff mentor, maintain a reflective and research-supported journal and make a public presentation. They devote significant time to work on their projects--they research their topics, maintain written daily journals, meet with their mentors to explore and reflect upon project issues, and discuss their topics with one another. Upon completion of the project, each student gives a public presentation assessed by a panel of students, teachers and community members.

WISE programs are designed, run and supported by a collaborative task force of teachers, students, administrators, and community members. In school coordinators manage the day-to-day activities of their WISE program

David Greene adds: "WISE" now exists in over 60 diverse schools across the nation. It is a model program that involves community members in its structure as it integrates students into the community."

I will introduce on my blog over time a number of other examples of innovative programs that are being promoted throughout the country despite the present emphasis on standardized testing. It is hoped that readers will get a picture through these positive examples of the difference between testing and educating.