Thoughts on "This Is Not A Test" from José Vilson

5 min read

I've spent the last few weeks reading and re-reading This Is Not A Test by José Vilson. In my past life, as an English teacher, I would churn out responses like no one's business. It was a simple pattern - read --> cogitate --> time and caffeine --> pronto! Occasionally, though, the pattern wouldn't work - with books where I got stuck on the corners - books where I kept returning because there were pieces of the conversation (and yes, I see all text as an invitation to a conversation) that I missed. These books - the ones that keep calling you back, the ones that push you - are, over time, the most enjoyable.

This Is Not A Test defies easy categorization - the text is equal parts essay, coming of age story, history lesson, and primer in what it means to teach - and each facet is equally necessary. Reading through the text, I kept returning to the idea that our concept of "normal" derives from what we know, and that we all - turle-like - carry our own "normal."

Vilson describes experiences as a student, a learner, an aspiring teacher, a working teacher, and a teacher-advocate. Often, people describe transitions as a journey from place to place - arriving at one place means leaving another. But as Vilson describes the various stages in his life to date, his transitions are best defined with an "and" - as he moves from student to teacher to advocate, he retains key elements from all these experiences.

In the beginning of the text, he reflects on the his elementary school experience.

As an adult, I once looked in the paper and found PS 140 (the school Vilson attended) on the list of persistently dangerous schools in New York State as of 2007. Even after it was removed from the list in 2009, I couldn’t believe it. In the eighties and nineties I had always felt it was safe and believed I was getting the best education possible.

As I re-read this description, I wondered how kids feel if or when they look at the current school report cards, currently required in all states. What does it mean for a kid going to school now to be able to look and see that the place they go to learn is rated sub-par by the government? Do learners benefit from being told that their environment is sub-par? Who does benefit from this? And for the student, their learning, their school, their normal experience, is what they know.

The text covers Vilson's transition and growth through his academic career, and the non-school experiences that occurred in parallel. These details loop around each other, sometimes connecting in abrupt ways. Some of the strongest writing in the text occur when Vilson addresses issues of race and identity.

Thus, in our school, any discussion about who was “nice” in ball had a racial component. The ball teams we saw on TV were predominantly Black with white coaches. Xavier’s basketball team looked like the coaches didn’t want to let go of their Hoosiers fantasies.

And it's in the details - often dropped in as asides - that the stories unfold. By reflecting on his transitions from student to teacher to advocate, Vilson shows us that education plays out over time. For those who have never spent time in the classroom, it's worth remembering that learning - occupying space in the state of being called "student" - is a process of becoming. The person struggling with subject X in your classroom for Y minutes a day has come from somewhere, and is going to somewhere, and the time you get to share with them may or may not be equally meaningful to all involved. Understanding what passes as "normal" is critical.

The street has taught us not to “snitch” - not because we want to protect the offenders, but because the deaths of people like Amadou Diallo show that even our supposed protectors have something against us.

This is normal.

Understanding the role race, class, and inequity play in defining the career of teaching and the current state of education is an essential element of understanding how to make things better for our students. Vilson's book helps build that foundation, tying together his lived experience, and the experience of his students, against the backdrop of what's currently required in schools.

I survey the students: most of them completed the test about twenty minutes ago. Some heads rest on their graphite-scuffed desks, snores blowing against pencils that drop to the floor. The creatives use the backs of their tests as canvases while the drummer from the school band taps his pencil against the desk to the tune of LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem”

In descriptions like this, against the backdrop of testing, we see students getting what they need, in the cracks between the requirements set in front of them. What would an assessment look like that evaluated the doodles left by students on assessment materials? By including details like this - the "not-test" part of the test - we see students learning, whether we plan for it or not. Our role in that learning is up for grabs. But the constancy of that learning - the never ending processing of experience - is not.

This Is Not A Test is available from Haymarket Books. If you buy a copy by Saturday, May 10, 2014 (the end of Teacher Appreciation Week) you can get 30% off by using the code "NOTATEST" at checkout.