A Champion is Never Alone #AprilBlogaDay

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines champion as “someone (such as a team or an animal) that has won a contest or competition especially in sports”, but also as “someone who fights or speaks publicly in support of a person, belief, cause, etc”.

The second definition really stands out to me since later today I am trying to do just that:  speak publicly in support of a belief-at yet another House of Representatives Public Education Committee Hearing.  My belief is that SB 149 should be passed in time to help our current seniors in danger of not graduating because they have not passed all of their STAAR tests.  You can scroll through my archive starting this past January in case you are unfamiliar with how Texas places more emphasis on testing than it does on its students, and why this bill was created in the first place.

My personal champions throughout this process have been the folks from the grassroots groups Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment and Texas Parents Opt Out of State Tests.  Both of these groups have provided an incredible amount of essential information for anyone impacted by the STAAR tests and have each sent people to testify on behalf of our state’s students and teachers.  Without their continued support, showing up to the Capitol would be way more difficult and lonely.  Three out of the four times I’ve recently testified, I have been the ONLY high school English teacher to do so.  I know representatives from both groups will be at the Capitol later today and that always helps calm my nerves.

I believe testifying publicly is the best way to be a champion not only to my students past and present, but to my colleagues as well.  What I’d like to make clear is that I am only ONE person, and that the fight for better, quality assessments is far from over.  The STAAR Wars started more than 3 years ago, and fighting for SB 149 is just one battle among many.  I am aware that many parents and teachers have made the effort to contact their State Representatives, but I would still love to see 200 of them at the Capitol today.  I know from past experience that’s probably not going to happen (still hopeful it will) but it’s okay; I will be there regardless because I told my kids I won’t give up until a decision is made, and I know they’ll be with me every step of the way.

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Learning, Connections, STAAR #AprilBlogaDay

One 3-day weekend and I’ve already slacked in keeping up with the #AprilBlogaDay challenge, but I’m combining THREE posts in to one short and sweet post to make up for it.

Day 3’s suggested prompt asked:  What is a teacher’s most important professional responsibility outside of the classroom?

When I read the prompt, I knew my answer immediately:  I believe the most important professional responsibility a teacher has outside the classroom is to keep learning.  And while I know teachers learn things from their students almost daily, I believe this learning should be active learning.  This could be by way of attending professional development, taking graduate classes, participating in social media educator chats (#edchat), or by just carrying out self-initiated research.  Regardless of the method, the intention should be to absorb as much information as possible and keep your brain thinking about what could be next whether it be in your classroom, community, or culture.

I’m combining Day 4 & 5’s prompts because I think they’re easily related:

4: Think about a moment in your teaching experience where there was a “connection” between you and a student or group of students that resonated beyond content

5: What practice, tradition, instructional strategy or anything else “must die”?  What needs to stop in order for Education to move forward?

Recently, I think one of the biggest connections I have made is showing my students that I am one of many people trying to change things regarding our state testing system, and that their voices matter.  You may or may not be familiar with the viral videos that various Texas teachers/schools made in order to get their students “pumped up for STAAR testing”.  The videos were basically parodies and involved teachers singing and dancing to popular songs with lyrics changed to address the upcoming tests.  I showed my kids the videos, and many of them said the videos actually made them sad.  When I asked why, they said it’s because teachers are making light of something that students must take very seriously.  Now, keep in mind the original audience for the videos were middle school and/or elementary students, and I teach high school.  While I truly believe the intention behind the videos was positive, it just didn’t sit well with my students or me.  So I made my own video and posted it to a popular facebook page and then eventually to YouTube.  When I showed my students my reaction to STAAR, many of them thanked me, some even stayed after class and asked for the link address.  I’ve also received many encouraging messages from parents, students, and teachers from across the state.

This year more than ever, my students have watched me fight for better assessments, and know that there are conversations happening that could impact their future.  I think being honest and keeping my students informed has been the strongest connection I have made as a teacher.

That being said, I don’t think it’s a big surprise when I say I believe that the “tradition that must die in order for education to move forward” is that we must stop putting so much emphasis on testing and start placing more emphasis on teachers and students.

I do believe there is a place for assessments in education, but they should be daily and formative, not high-stakes like the 5 tests our Texas students must pass in order to graduate.  I find it very ironic that our state colleges and universities DO NOT consider STAAR scores when making admission decisions, so it is beyond me why they should determine anything at the high school level.  There has been so much talk about holding schools and students “accountable” for their learning and that they must be able to “show what they know”, and yet we are not holding Pearson Education, Inc. accountable for a flawed testing system.  I think it pretty much goes without saying that testing is not the only way to show what students have learned.

As mentioned in my previous posts, the STAAR tests have undergone significant changes (some say improvements) in the past 3 years, and students have done their best to adapt to the changes.  Texas students have basically been used to test the tests, and instead of receiving compensation, they have instead paid with their time, energy, and stress.

In order for education to move forward in Texas, SB 149, HB 742, 743, & 1164, all of which reduce the stakes tied with testing, must pass, and the STAAR tests must be addressed properly for what they are:  a major mistake.

Sometimes Scores Don’t Matter. #AprilBlogaDAy

Today’s challenge was “One Thing You Did Today That Will Impact Someone’s Tomorrow”.

Today I allowed my kids to talk freely about their frustrations with the STAAR test they took yesterday.  I told them to refrain from discussing exact questions/prompts, even though a quick search of the hashtag #STAAR yields tons of pretty funny examples.

Instead, they focused on how confused they felt for different questions that they all swore up and down had more than one correct answer.  They also talked about how the writing prompt felt like something an elementary student would write about and made them feel almost belittled.  I know it had to do with dreaming big, because one kid said he wrote about his dream to graduate even though this STAAR test might keep him from doing that.

Overall, they felt they did okay but are still pretty worried about what score they will get.

I let them know that we probably will not get the scores until the last week of school, and that I won’t be able to see what they wrote for their essays, so there’s no reason to worry about how they did.  I also told them that I don’t care what the scores are because it doesn’t reflect everything else we’ve been doing all year (writing, reading self-selected books, having great discussions about real world issues and books) or what we will do in the last two months of school.

I let them know that I care more about how their “This I Believe” essays turn out, because it’s something that we’ve been writing since the second week of school, and I’ve watched them grow since then.  I care more about what they decide to research for their “Passion Project”, in which they must discuss their their community, their future, and how they can positively impact both.  I care more about if they know how to represent themselves in a cover letter and realize they should start considering what qualifications they can list on a resume.

I just hope they believe what I said and feel better if they are worried about how they did, because this test will have no impact on how I view their ability to read, write, or learn.  I hope they remember today when the scores do come in.

April Fool’s Day *aka* STAAR English 2 Testing Day #AprilBlogaDay

I’ve decided to participate in a blog challenge and hope I can keep up.  Today’s challenge (Are You Where You’d Thought You Be?) is difficult because I’m not where I was HOPING to be by this specific time in the school year.

If you read my previous posts, you’ll see that I’ve been visiting the Capitol quite often regarding our state mandated tests known as STAAR.  To say the least, I have H U G E issues with this testing system.  My hope was that by today, April 1, 2015, our state legislators would have listened to the various testimonies given to pass SB 149, which would throw a life line to seniors that still need to pass one of these tests in order to graduate.  I was ecstatic to find out the Senate passed the bill 28-2, and sent the bill to the House on March 18th.  I honestly believed that would be plenty of time for our State Representatives to review and at least vote on the measure before the English 1 and English 2 testing dates this week.  There was even a hearing on March 24th, but the House failed to address the bill.  They FAILED to give almost 20K seniors the hope they could have really used this week before taking what they assume will be the test that determines whether or not they graduate.

So today, April 1st, I watched a handful of seniors go into their testing room with lots of preparation (considering they’ve been enrolled in a STAAR prep class since August) but with little hope.  I spoke with one after and asked how he felt.  He said better than he had “all of the other times” he’s taken it but he’s still not sure if he passed.  He thought he passed the last retest in December but didn’t.

What I can’t understand is what is the point of making someone take an assessment more than 3 times if they repeatedly fail it?  Especially if they’ve been attending weekly intervention meetings AND a testing class listed on their daily schedule?  It’s all they’re going to remember about their senior year, much less the other three years they spent in high school, and that is really unfair.

What’s more unfair is that the test they’re being required to take this week isn’t even the same test they took (and failed) two years ago.  Two years ago, when the Class of 2015 were sophomores, the English 1 and 2 STAAR tests were spread over two days, with writing tested on one day and reading tested on another, and the tests lasted 4 hours each.  The students had to write three essays plus answer multiple choice questions for the writing portion.  The reading portion consisted of about 5 reading passages with multiple choice questions and then short answer responses.  During this administration, field testing was being allowed and comprised about 20-30% of the entire exam.  That means an entire essay, short answer response, and about 15-20 multiple choice questions did not even count for the students’ final score.  So much field testing didn’t sit well with parents and educators in 2013, so TEA (Texas Education Agency) decided to reduce field testing and also combine the writing and reading tests into one test given on one day.  So, in the spring of 2014, students who had previously failed either the reading or the writing test were then forced to retake the ENTIRE newly combined 5 hour test.

Basically, the Class of 2015 has been treated as the STAAR test’s guinea pigs, but at the end of the day, we are still talking about KIDS.  Kids who have been trying their best to keep up with a constantly changing assessment, and who are being punished when they fail a test that is flawed in so many ways.

I sincerely hope the House votes on SB 149 soon, and that Greg Abbott signs it as law before it’s too late for the Class of 2015.