An Interview with Kumar Sathy: Who is this Chicken Nugget Man and Why does he have a #2 Lead Pencil?

Jan 15, 2013 by

attack-chicken-nugget-man-georgia-crct-adventure-kumar-sathy-paperback-cover-artMichael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. First of all, before we torture any more kids, could you tell us about your background, and education and experiences?

Honestly, it all started in the 4th grade for me, when I got a 40% on the reading comprehension portion of the California Achievement Test. I couldn’t stand reading, but it turns out, that was because I thought the reading passages we read in school were what reading was all about. It wasn’t until I explored silly, entertaining fiction, that I enjoyed reading and started to do quite well on those tests. After that, I studied Biopsychology undergrad and tutored elementary school students in reading with the America Reads program for four years. I then joined Teach for America as a second grade teacher in inner-city Atlanta. We had a scripted reading program where I had no academic freedom and not only had to read from a script for instruction, but I had to hand out stapled black and white booklets as reading material to first and second grade students who were already losing what little interest they had in reading. Outside of that scripted reading time, I started anonymously writing my own silly stories to share with students and they ate it up. I had never seen my students laughing out loud during silent reading time before, so that was a real treat.

I taught for a few years, and then got my Masters in School Administration. It was when I was ordering books as a school administrator that I realized my calling. There were no engaging standards-based materials for students, especially students reading on a lower level. There were either high reading level nonfiction books, high reading level engaging fiction, or extremely dull low reading level books.

I set out to create a high reading level, high interest resource as part of a nonprofit project. I’m currently putting the finishing touches on Part 2 of the Attack of the Chicken Nugget Man: A National Test Prep Adventure and compiling a free online resource for strategies and materials that move teachers, parents, and school administrators beyond test prep.

2) Now, we could laugh at all this standardized testing, but MILLIONS of tax dollars are spent on these tests. Your thoughts?

There’s no doubt that a lot of money is spent on these tests, but just because tax dollars are spent on a program doesn’t necessarily mean that it is wasted money. I don’t take a pro- or anti- stance on standardized testing. I think the issue is more complex than that. Yes, we have veered far off course from the original intentions of standardized testing, and yes, these tests have played a significant role in several incidents of extreme negligence and injustice in our education system, but I don’t believe they are the root cause of our problems. It is the way these tests are valued, interpreted, prioritized, and incorporated into instruction that is the problem. I believe that engaging, differentiated, standards-based instruction is, by nature, test preparation.

Good teachers see standardized tests as just a step in a long process of quality instruction, not the goal. It is when we shift our goal from quality instruction to test performance that we miss the boat. When district officials and administrators allow test prep to take priority over social studies, science, art, and writing instruction, the resulting drop in academic performance doesn’t occur because tests are evil. It occurs because we have chosen to shift our goals, despite our instincts, training, and better judgment.

When we make goals like that, educators and school administrators grip the standardized testing steering wheel and head toward it, sometimes losing sight of the instructional and ethical injustices occurring on their watch. Whether you like it or not, standardized testing is the law of the land, and it’s not going anywhere any time soon. Good teachers can make it work, but publishers need to step up to the plate and offer teachers and parents something more valuable than the boring test prep materials that have flooded the market. We can do better than dry, dull, drill-and-kill test prep workbooks that give students tests in order to prepare for more tests on a daily basis. We can do better than teaching kids that reading is just a process of highlighting and answering questions in dry reading comprehension passages. We can do better than teaching kids that education is merely a process of preparing for a test. We can do better than teaching kids that learning is just knowing the right answer to a question. We can make learning, literacy, and yes, even test prep, an engaging and exploratory process, but testing needs to be a step, not a goal.

3) Okay, who is this Chicken Nugget Man and does he have a number 2 lead pencil?

Without spoiling the mystery, I’ll just say this: he’s a misunderstood deep-fried chicken product that is banned from every school in the country. He’s rather smart (although a number 2 pencil is probably bigger than him) so he ultimately teams up with Chris, an equally misunderstood student who is struggling to pass a standardized test. The two keep their friendship quiet, and the Chicken Nugget Man helps Chris develop a love for learning and strategies for success in school, that is, as long as Chris keeps the Chicken Nugget Man’s belly full. And just what does a talking deep-fried chicken product eat? Socks. Gym socks, sweaty socks, girl socks, you name it, he eats them, much to the chagrin of Chris’s now sock-deprived sister.

4) Who are the main characters in this book ? (I can already see somebody in a three piece suit with a stop watch and clip board)

Aside from the Chicken Nugget Man and Chris, there are quite a few characters, but I’ll focus on the primary characters. There’s Smelly Sam, who despite all contrary advice tends to stick things (like sushi) deep into his nose to smell them. There’s Kung Fu Katie, a kindergartener with an anger management problem, Bobby Rough, the school bully who has bad karma (in the form of repeated embarrassing incidents with trash cans full of pencil shavings), Ms. Bubblebrain, the third grade teacher who shouts out the name of disgusting food combinations when she’s distressed, and Mr. Turner, the school principal with an incomprehensible infatuation with strawberry milk. The guy with the suit on the cover is actually a government agent on the lookout for banned chicken nuggets that students might try to sneak into the school.

5) Can you guesstimate how many teachers and pupils and parents actually take all this standardized testing seriously?

I can only speak from my experience in low-income, title 1 schools. In such environments, I’d say we are nearing 100%. I can’t speak to charter schools, private schools, or schools with low percentages of students on free and reduced lunch, but in lower-income schools, it tends to dominate the discourse and lead to quite a bit of anxiety (for grownups and kids). Some teachers go so far as to issue empty threats to students as young as 8 years old, saying things like, “if you don’t pass the test, you will be held back until you do pass it,” or “this test will be on your permanent record for the rest of your life so you need to do well.” Other schools dangle carrots in front of students, (wait, do kids eat vegetables anymore? I should just stick with pizza as the metaphor for pizza) offering treats, rewards, food, and a variety of prizes if students perform well on the test. When’s the last time we gave students a pizza party for being able to write a coherent sentence? As evidenced by the number of middle and high school students who struggle with this very basic task, not often enough.

6) I have to tell you- teachers tell me stories of some kid who is both deaf and blind or a child with autism, being led to some office to have the test read to them. Does this make sense?

All children can learn. That’s my take on it. All children can learn; all children need to be held accountable for their learning, and all educators need to be held accountable for ensuring that all of their students learn. No exceptions. Tests are often modified for exceptional children and I can’t speak to whether such modifications are appropriate for each student because this is a case-by-case situation.

That said, we need to be raising the standards and expectations for students while leveling the playing field when necessary, not just lowering expectations or abandoning assessment altogether.

7) Tell us about some of the awards that this book has received.

In 2010, the book won the Silver Medal for Reading Skills and Literacy and the Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards. It has been quite tricky applying for awards because this book is not just fiction, and it’s not just test prep. It’s in a category of its own: educational children’s fiction, a category I would love to see other publishers break into so we can raise the bar for educational materials in the classroom and teach kids that educational reading can be entertaining and engaging.

8) I am giving my age away here, but back in the early 80’s I can still recall all these tests being given to kids- the ASVAB, the ACT, the SAT, the IOWA tests. Are we getting the most bang for our buck with these tests?

Kids are going to take tests their whole lives, from elementary school to college and career. Until we come up with a better, research-based, and equitable form of assessment to ensure that students, teachers, schools, and districts are performing, a tremendous amount of money will be spent on the standardized testing system. I’m not a policy expert by any means so I tend to focus on the role I can play in all of this.

Rather than focusing my time and energy on discussing education policy, the necessity of testing, and the cost of testing, I focus on trying to make it a bit more bearable, engaging, entertaining, and instructional (tests are not instruction, they are assessment). If more of us focused on how to improve student achievement while co-existing with standardized testing, we will make more progress than if we were to just continue to blame the tests for all of our woes and debate the merits of testing in the first place. This process starts with better resources for teachers, who ultimately know how to teach effectively, but just need the materials and innovative new strategies to make it possible.

9) Where is this so called school located and what transpires at the school?

The first book was set in North Carolina, but then when we went national, that changed things a bit and I never revealed the name or location of the school in the book. The school, which is absolutely obsessed with test preparation, is equally obsessed with the detection and elimination of chicken nuggets, which are banned. The school is set in a country that has declared an all out war on chicken nuggets. Adults operate on the notion that the Chicken Nugget Man is wreaking havoc on schools, but the Chicken Nugget Man is actually a harmless and helpful creature.

There are Chicken Nugget Detectors at each school entrance, anti-chicken-nugget propaganda stories, and bottles of barbecue sauce in every classroom. The silly children try to stay focused but ultimately end up daydreaming and learning lessons the hard way. The teachers try to teach during such episodes as field trips gone awry, explosive sneezes, and an epic example of the domino effect that occurs when students run in the hallway. The principal spends more time chugging strawberry milk than actually running the school. It all culminates in a standardized test at the end of the year, which leads into Part 2, scheduled for publication in summer, 2013.

10) What have I neglected to ask?

Your questions were fantastic, and I’ve been long-winded enough. Thanks for the opportunity!

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