Tolkien on Testing

This week my students are meeting a foe more formidable than Sauron, the Nazgul, and Mount Doom combined.  Testing day has arrived, which means they are demonstrating their proficiency in reading via standardized multiple-choice tests.  These are required assessments, of which the data is used for high-stakes decisions such as school funding and accreditation.  As a specific sub-group of our school population, my ELL (English Language Learner) students feel more performance pressure than their native English-speaking peers because they are a targeted population, in terms of demographic data, required under the No Child Left Behind Act

Many teachers choose to prepare their students for these assessments by teaching the required reading elements as skill sets to be applied through worksheets, not leaving much time for novel usage in the language arts classroom.  I prefer to teach my students these skills in context, using novels as examples of literary devices rather than learning about them in isolation.  While some may disagree with my philosophy and argue that it does not “teach to the test”, I choose to let Tolkien serve as my preferred test preparation method.

As my students have proceeded through both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, we have stopped frequently along the journey to note Tolkien’s use of literary techniques, which are the same devices my students are required to demonstrate knowledge of on their assessments:  simile, metaphor, personification, and hyperbole.  Tolkien is a master at applying all of these techniques and provides my students with a plethora of examples on nearly every page.  With paragraphs chock-full of rich descriptions, it is easy to get wrapped-up in the language for its own inherent beauty rather than the message it intends to convey to the reader.

While there are many other ways in which Tolkien can be used to teach essential language arts skills, some of which I may create further resources for on Teaching Tolkien; I have also seen how Tolkien has influenced my students’ confidence level when approaching unfamiliar text.  When they first encountered Tolkien last December, he was met with skepticism and trepidation as they struggled to welcome an unknown writer into their lives.  Initially intimidated by the sheer length of his books, my students doubted their abilities to comprehend and complete these massive works, let alone enjoy them.  I look at my “little dwarves” now and their belief in themselves, which Tolkien has greatly encouraged, and hope their renewed sense of self-esteem will not fade over the summer, but stay with them through every challenge in life.  As they expressed anxiety over how they would perform on this week’s assessments, I reminded them that any children who can read Lord of the Rings can easily pass a simple reading test, and was delighted to hear them empower themselves to tackle the test with mantras such as “Bilbo Power” and “Tolkien Dwarves Unite”, as if they were superheroes engaging in pre-battle rituals.

All this talk of testing also led me to ponder what Tolkien, himself, would think of standardized testing.  Not just a national concern to American education, high-stakes testing is a global concern for all students, teachers, and societies.  Since schools are essentially a microcosm for the values and ideals a society will treasure and uphold once these students enter the workforce, the work teachers do is vital to the lifeblood of a nation.  If we move students away from the value of literacy, which is not a proficiency that can be attained in demonstration on an annual assessment but only through daily applicability in their lives; then appreciation for reading will cease to exist.  Great authors such as Tolkien will fail to be recognized for their significant contributions to the literary fellowship of writers.

If he has a vantage point to view this paradigm shift, I can’t imagine J.R.R. is sitting in his armchair in heaven reading, as my students imagine him, and nodding his head in approval.  As I anticipate his positive influence on their test performance and look forward to commencing Two Towers with them later this week, I only hope that my students and I will never know a time in which books don’t matter.  While we can only commune with him now through reading his books, Tolkien still offers us valid solutions for our modern educational problems. “True education is a kind of never ending story — a matter of continual beginnings, of habitual fresh starts, of persistent newness.”  —-J.R.R. Tolkien.

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2 Comments on “Tolkien on Testing”

  1. John Cowan
    May 28, 2013 at 3:06 am #

    I forgot to mention when I read this that Tolkien was appalled at the idea of his books becoming a “set text” that poor students might have to answer exam questions on! But that isn’t to say they shouldn’t be taught at all, provided the teacher loves them, as you so plainly do.

    • hmrodgers
      May 28, 2013 at 11:07 am #

      Now if there was a standardized test on Tolkien, my students would ace that!

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