No standardized test can measure empathy and wisdom

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While teenagers haven’t changed much in my teaching career, engaging them with literature proves more challenging with each new version of the iPhone.

Technology becomes more and more powerful for them, cracked screens and all, yet we measure achievement with old-fashioned standardized tests.  The true art of teaching is evoking enough enthusiasm for reading that they forget to check Instagram.


One way to achieve this is through laughter; when students are laughing about a topic, they are learning. So introducing the author-artist-director Marjane Satrapi by showing them a TV interview she did a number of years ago on the Colbert Report is a sure-fire way to get their attention. As Satrapi and Stephen Colbert bantered about her coming-of-age story in the graphic novel, Persepolis, he warned, “Be careful.  You might start considering the Iranian people…human beings.”

Judging by the chuckles, kids were learning.

Although Persepolis is set during the Iranian Revolution, the story is universal. My southwest suburban seniors saw themselves in Satrapi’s internal teenage struggles as she faced external conflict on Iran’s streets. We defined graphic novel terms and concepts for the gorgeous graphic novel panels in Persepolis.  We analyzed her visual choices, captions, and dialogue.

Still, the best lesson was Satrapi’s declaration to Colbert: “Put the human being in the center of attention” as someone with “hopes and dreams, a mother and a father,” and people would find it “harder to go to war with them.”  The students connected events in the novel to their lives, discovering commonality with a youth from the so-called “Axis of Evil.”  Empathy cannot be counted, as on a test, but it counts.

Thanks to the 2014 Chicago Humanities Festival, my students got to hear Marjane Satrapi live. Many had never been on a high school field trip.  Spotting Satrapi, they shouted, “There she is!”

Satrapi mused thoughtfully that day on the irony of the confused banning and then limiting use of Persepolis in Chicago schools (due to some very gently-treated sex and violence), but also joked as she admitted to being distracted by a shirtless Iggy Pop.  Topics ranged from poignant and moving to hilarious and audacious and back – a wonderful trait of teenagers themselves.

My pride soared when one of my students asked Satrapi about her faith. As a child, Satrapi imagined herself best friends with God and wanted to be a prophet. But she avoided sermons. Her warmth and candor made us forget the blustery weather outside.

How does Satrapi measure success? When people reading Persepolis imagined themselves as the narrator, as “this girl.”  An abstract enemy is easy to annihilate but someone in a mirror is impossible to target.

When a student says, “I can’t believe how much I care about a character in a graphic novel,” it is a drop-the-microphone-and-walk-offstage teaching moment.  Sadly though, in terms of testing, it’s no more than the sound of a tree falling in deserted woods.  No one can rank students by how much they laughed or cared, but that’s what would measure whether schools create thoughtful citizens.

Education report cards reflect standardized test results, but the best lessons cannot be measured with bubble forms.  That is exactly what makes them precious.  This experience will stay with my students long after they forget the graphic novel terms.  These magical moments sustain us until the next round of testing.

Jennifer Schanz teaches English at Oak Forest High School in Oak Forest. The Illinois Writing Project is the Sun-Times partner for the Spring Semester teacher essay series. The essays reflect the views of the individual writers only.

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