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Like It or Not, Children Open Their Lives to Teachers : Parents who complain about the invasiveness of the CLAS test fail to realize how much their youngsters reveal about their family life in a normal school day.

August 21, 1994|ADRIENNE MACK | Adrienne Mack of Shadow Hills teaches high school English in the Los Angeles public schools

I should have been more alert when my dental hygienist wasn't her usual friendly self. We were halfway through my cleaning when she commented on an article I'd written in favor of the California Learning Assessment System tests.

She vigorously picked and scraped at my teeth while protesting the insensitivity with which test makers were poking around in children's psyches. Her sixth-grade daughter had cried during the test because there had been a literary reference to a pet, and hers had recently died.

Although I've followed the CLAS debate, I hadn't realized how isolated I'd been from the average parent. My hygienist is a well-educated, conscientious parent who went to her child's school to examine the tests after her daughter came home in tears. She's not a fanatic, and I can't readily dismiss her demand that the CLAS not delve into children's personal lives.

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To her and to all parents like her, it bears repeating: The CLAS test is not designed to uncover your family secrets. But kids respond--they reveal things.

Sixth-grader Mark (a made-up name, like the others in this article) was given the writing assignment, "Describe three places you like to be alone." When he started writing, not even he knew he would write about a cemetery and how much he misses his grandmother. It was a feeling he hadn't even shared with his father. His father, a man I know, told me about it later and expressed surprise. I told him things like that happen all the time. Writing is revealing.

If we want children to learn to communicate orally and in writing, they need to practice, and we can't always control what they'll choose to write or speak about.

In April, a Sherman Oaks teacher friend of mine sat in the back of the room alongside two parents when 6-year-old Stanley volunteered for "show and tell."

"My mother has a Land Rover, but she doesn't like it very much," he said. "She wants to buy another car, but she doesn't want to spend the money. Last week, she left the keys in the car hoping someone would come during the night and take it. But nobody came." Stanley further elaborated on his mother's efforts, concluding, "I'll let you know when someone steals it."

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I suppose I've taken for granted that parents know how much their children share with their teachers. Royce Bellatty, a counselor at A. E. Wright Middle School in Calabasas, concludes her open house speech to parents with the comment: "If you don't believe everything your children tell you about our school and about their teachers, we promise not to believe everything they tell us about you."

There have been plenty of times when I didn't know what to believe. Students talk. They talk to teachers all the time. Revelations are unsolicited and take many forms. Many students consider teachers, like priests, to be sexless nonentities, receptacles into which they can dump their problems. Teachers don't have to go out of their way to learn more than they ever want to know.

Olivia, an 11th-grader, selected spousal abuse as the topic for her research paper--this was before the Simpson-Goldman murders. After she presented her findings to the class she told me, in confidence, that she was worried about her mother. She also worried her drunk father would turn on her. I gave Olivia a domestic abuse hot-line number.

No matter how careful we are not to probe, student revelations come unbidden and unexpected.

At Sylmar High I once chided a student about his missing homework. After class Larry apologized. He and his dad had been living in their car, subsisting on bologna sandwiches. My husband said nothing when I brought Larry and his dad home, where they stayed a few weeks until they could make other arrangements.

Why do kids talk to their teachers? Because we're there. We see your children every day. We notice them sitting off by themselves. When they talk, we don't yell, even when we don't approve of their behavior. And they know we can't ground them.

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I didn't talk about personal matters to my teachers when I was a young student because I had a dozen aunts and uncles living nearby who acted as surrogate parents. Today, kids have so many problems, so many more issues to deal with. Too often there's no adult they feel close to so teachers fill in--reluctantly. Teachers didn't ask for this extra unpaid job. It comes with the territory.

If you don't want your kids to reveal your family secrets, keep the communication open and honest. When parents take care of their business, teachers will be able to go back to taking care of theirs.

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