The Misuse of Assessment Must Stop.

I have seen an increase of articles discussing teacher resignations, and regardless of location, each teacher mentions not being able to handle the extreme amount of testing plaguing public schools.  I have also noticed an increase of  teachers that are still in the classroom speaking out against testing as well.

In the past four years, I have already done my fair share of speaking out and even testifying for improvements to testing policies during legislative sessions, but I know there is still so much more to be said and even more to be changed.  I am tired of educational stakeholders convincing people that assessments and standardized testing are one in the same.

I take great pride in the fact that I assess my students every day, often two or three times within a given period, because it lets me know what is happening in my classroom.  I am aware of what my students needs are because I use daily formative assessments to gauge their understanding and progress.  But now, thanks to STAAR and our low scores that are typical across the state, I have incredibly less freedom on how I assess my students.

A case in point:  This past semester, I taught a unit over Lord of the Flies.  I have not actually taught this book since my second year of teaching in 2004.  I looked back through my files and remembered having my kids go outside and actually try to use magnifying glasses to burn grass to show how hard it is to start a fire with nothing but Piggy’s specs.  They wrote journal entries about what survival skills mean to them and what they would do if they were stranded on an island.  We had a whole class debate about whether it is more important to build shelters or to hunt for food, mimicking a conversation between Ralph and Jack.  I had my students do various other projects that involved symbolism and writing persuasive arguments and using the text to back up their positions.

Fast forward to 2015 and my unit for Lord of the Flies does not come close to the project based activities I did ten years ago.  Instead, this year I’ve been doing “close reading” exercises and practicing short answer responses, which require students to write a formulaic response in a ten-lined box, hardly room to express opinions thoroughly.  I was also required to give multiple common assessments starting in September and mix Lord of the Flies into one of the assessments by including a passage from the novel and having students complete yet another short answer response.  Below is how many practice tests my kids have had to take within one semester.  Each test varied in the number of questions, but all contained multiple choice questions similar to those found on the STAAR test.

“Unit 1 Pretest”/common assessment: 9/4                                                                                               “Unit 2″/common assessment: 10/5                                                                                                          “Unit 3″/common assessment:  11/5                                                                                                       District assessment: 11/20                                                                                                                  MOCK STAAR test Part ONE (to be given as the midterm): 12/16 & 12/18.

Now that we are back from winter break, my students must now complete the MOCK STAAR Part TWO, which has taken yet another TWO CLASS PERIODS (3 hours).  In total, my students have already “tested” for almost 720 minutes, or 12 hours, or in teacher time: THREE WEEKS of class since we are on a block schedule.  I’m aware not every student takes the full class period to test, but that just means they have to quietly wait and/or work on another assignment while their classmates finish.  How is almost a month of time spent preparing for a test not count as teaching to the test?  And keep in mind this does not include any other common assessments our district decides we must give before our testing date in April.  It also does not include students who are required to attend “intervention” periods for up to 30 minutes, 4 days a week, working on “English skills”.

What’s more frustrating about these “unit” assessments is that because  Texas has rules against how much instructional time can be used for preparing students for the STAAR test, I am not supposed to count them as major grades in the gradebook.  The district assessment was not even counted as a grade, minor or major.  That means I have to convince my students that it is for their benefit to take yet another practice test, even though it won’t impact their grade.  Now, I’m actually all for not taking grades, but that is not to be confused with lying to my students, which is what I feel like I’m doing.  I am lying when I tell them that trying their best is important.  It’s actually not important because I don’t believe the STAAR test is important.  Thankfully, no colleges or trade schools–or employers for that matter–look at STAAR scores for admission criteria.

A lot of people know I feel about the STAAR test or overtesting in general, and many people have argued that we need something in order to measure student performance.  I very much agree, and believe there are THOUSANDS of ways to do this.  Typically in my classroom, end of unit assessments are a piece of critical writing or a project that a student has chosen to create to show their understanding of a text.  I try to provide a lot of choice so students are more open to actually doing the project, and so that they can take ownership for what they have done.  After projects are turned in, I can tell who understood the subject and who did not.  I know who just didn’t do it because they were lazy versus having a real issue with comprehension.  I know I know these things because I see my kids every other day and see what they do in class.  I also generally know what’s going on outside of school, and how that may or may not be impacting their performance.

For instance, one of my students this year was required to retake the English 1 STAAR exam in December for a third time (he failed the original spring test and summer retest).  The week before the retest, his nephew died in a tragic accident.  He came to me after the test and told me how difficult it was to stay focused, and that he didn’t think he did very well.  This is a kid actually has a physical disability, comes to class every day wanting to work, asks for help when needed, is one of the most creative writers I’ve had in a while, and now he feels bad because he thinks he did poorly on a test.  As his teacher, I could care less if he fails it.  I can measure his progress in so many other ways, and that test SHOULD NOT BE the only way that lets me know if he’s learning.

Unfortunately, the STAAR test will remain the determining factor for all Texas students until change is made.  That change will not happen until more people start to realize that when the news reports start quoting statistics and numerical data to show what schools are “exemplary or failing”, that they’re actually talking about individual students from a wide variety of backgrounds that each have specific educational needs, and that standardized testing is not the answer if we want to assess our students, teachers, and schools fairly.

 

 

New Year: New Class Culture Approach

I’ve always believed building healthy relationships with my students is vital to their success in my classroom.  I take time to get to know their names, usually on the first day of classes, and work on getting to know their interests and passions throughout the year.  However, over the past few years I’ve realized that I usually end the year feeling like most of my students know me pretty well and vice versa, but I’ve realized they sometimes hardly know each other.  Sure there will be a handful of kids that have close friendships in class, but there have been numerous times I’ve told a class, “Oh yeah, so and so is not here today”, and multiple students will respond with, “who?”  Considering we spend almost an hour and a half together two to three days per week, I think students not knowing each other is unacceptable.  This semester I have challenged myself (and therefore my students) to increase class culture with the goal of having students leave my class feeling more connected to one another.

To start this process, I turned to an old technique used by teachers from early childhood education to college level courses.  I downloaded a clock template and made plans to devote at least 20 minutes for our first day back for students to find their new “clock buddies”.  In each class, I asked my students to be completely honest with me and raise their hands if they’ve ever ended a school year without talking to everyone in class at least once.  Every hand went up.  Then I asked if they’ve ever ended the year without knowing everyone’s name in class.  They all raised their hands again.  I told them I wasn’t okay with them ending our year together like this so we would use our clocks to make some changes.  I was happy that no one seemed to complain.

I will be honest and say that when I tried this with my first class, chaos ensued, mostly from lack of proper planning on my part.  I had seen this activity done in professional development sessions before and assumed I could handle it.  After my brief introduction and discussion, I passed out the clocks.  Luckily my first class only has 14 students, so it was easy to manage them even after confusion erupted.  For the first few minutes, everything went fine.  Kids were walking around and asking each other to be their partner for a specific time.  But then I started hearing the same thing, “Wait, I already have you on here.  But I need a 2 o’clock!”  “I need a 7 but already have them on here and not her but she has her 7 o’clock filled!”  Before I knew it, the whole class had two to three open time slots and we couldn’t figure out who didn’t already have each other or who did.  I started laughing and said, “Hold on, let me do some research real quick”.  After Googling “clock buddies instructions”, I realized my mistake and that they needed much more direction instead of just “fill up all your time slots!”

I thanked my students for participating so well and for being my guinea pigs since they were the first class to do this activity.  I even had a couple of sweethearts try to figure it out and give suggestions of how to fill the missing time slots.  Instead of trying to use the clocks we had, I told them we were going to recycle our first set and use the instructions I found after they returned from lunch.  They  didn’t seem to mind, mostly because my error worked in their favor to do something fun twice in one class period.

When they returned from lunch, I passed out new clocks and told them we would only fill out numbers 1-6.  I explained the expectation was that they listen to and follow instructions, and to not write anything until I said to do so.

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Following the instructions I found made the process much easier, but I still added my own steps as I saw necessary.  To begin, I had everyone stand up.  Then I said they had to partner up with someone from the OPPOSITE side of the room.  I stood on a chair so I could easily see the whole class.  I made sure everyone was partnered up and then announced, “Okay.  This is your 12 o’clock partner.  Exchange names.  Make sure you have the correct spelling and know how to SAY each other’s names.  Then ask your 12 o’clock what their favorite color is and why.”

I repeated this process for each time slot, making sure the kids picked someone from opposite sides each time since they tend to still flock to their friends.  I also ADDED to the questions they had to ask each other.  12 o’clock partners had to discuss favorite colors, 1 o’clock partners had to discuss favorite colors and music, 2 o’clock discussed animals, and by the time we made it to 6 o’clock partners they were discussing favorite and least favorite classes.  I disliked the fact that I had to cut off discussions for the sake of finding new partners; it meant students were actually talking and getting to know each other a little better (even if it was orchestrated).

When we got to the 4, 5, and 6 o’clock time slots, we did start to have a few issues of people not having a new partner, but I simply started asking who has been with the partner-less person and who has not.  I split up partners to make new ones, which is why it is important to keep reminding students NOT to write anything until given that instruction.

After establishing 1-6 clock buddies, I told students to take a picture of their clocks just in case it falls out of their folder.  I made the clocks on purple paper to make sure it’s easy to find in their folders that stay in my classroom, but if you know students well, you know students always find a way to lose what you want them to keep.  I explained to my kids we wouldn’t use the clocks every day, but that we would be using them often for different reasons.

The next class day, I planned for students to use their clocks to find new seats.  As they came into class, I greeted the first few students by telling them to get their folder, get their clocks and sit by their 5 o’clock partner, and to pass it on.  By the time the bell rang for class to start, only a couple of students were still pairing up and finding a new seat.Screen Shot 2016-01-10 at 12.52.38 PM.png

Immediately I noticed a change in my room.  The students that always sat next to each other were no longer sitting next to each other.  And if they were, they still had at least one different person sitting next to them.  Before I started class, I told them to ask their 5 o’clock how their day is going and let them talk freely for 2-3 minutes.  I noticed my shyest kids sharing, even if it was quickly and quietly!

We continued on to our silent reading portion of class, and after reading, I again had students specifically share with their 5 o’clock partner:

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Again, even though this is orchestrated, students who don’t normally talk to each other were talking to each other, and this time about books!  And, again, if you know teenagers, you know they don’t always stay on topic.  I didn’t mind that their conversations veered off topic so long as it was after they met my expectation.  Their veering off topic actually meant they were talking about things that were interesting to them, and therefore getting to know each other.

We are moving into our second week of classes and I plan to use the clocks to find new seats again this week, but using a different number.  Pretty soon my kids will figure out this will be a normal thing, and I hope to have to provide less instructions.  I am excited to see how this impacts class culture in each class period since they are all so different, and I will post and update at the end of the semester.

Picking Sides

I try to avoid inundating my kids with STAAR test prep nonsense, but next week they are required to take a mock exam that requires them to write a persuasive essay.  In my opinion, the topic is pretty lame:  “Is it better to dream big or be realistic?”  So today I had my students practice persuasion techniques by having an “open carry” debate.  We do live in Texas, and this new law just went into effect last Friday, and it’s something a lot of them have very real and very strong opinions about.

I started the lesson by clearly defining what open carry means for our debate (not necessarily what the law specifically states).  I allowed students to ask any clarifying questions to make sure they understood what we were talking about when we mention open carry.

Then I used a resource from ReadWriteThink and just used white-out to remove “kairos” since we focus more on logos and pathos in STAAR writing.  Remember STAAR only allows 26 lines for an essay, so it’s hard to incorporate all persuasive strategies (but not impossible). For this review I wanted to reinforce the two strategies I feel like my students use and understand the most.

We reviewed the definitions and then I made 3 large columns on the whiteboard labeled:  KEEP, ?, and STOP.  I emphasized that I was using the verbs “keep/stop” instead of just “agree/disagree” because I wanted to students to work on convincing others of their position and persuade them to take action.  I then had my kids write their names in the column that best fit their current position regarding open carry.

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In each class, I had at least 2 undecided and almost an even number of students on the opposing sides. I had a feeling this would happen so it made my lesson work even easier: I told the “keep” and “stop” sides it was now their job to convince the undecided students to join their side by creating sound arguments that had either logical and/or emotional appeals.

I allowed each side just 5 minutes to create their argument since time was running out. While the two sides deliberated, I talked with the students in the middle. I asked why they were undecided and what kind of argument might change their mind. From the three classes that participated, I had at least one undecided student from each period tell me that they would have to hear a solid example of why open carry is safe or unsafe.

Again, because of the limited amount of time remaining, I only gave each side 3 minutes to present their positions. My “success criteria” on the board simply said: be respectful, be patient, and speak loud enough to be heard. My students did a great job of trying to incorporate both logical and emotional appeals. One of the strongest opposing arguments I heard was that open carry could possibly cause a young child to think it’s always okay to carry a gun and make them more inclined to go touch one if they see it in public. They mentioned that a kid might accidentally make someone else’s gun shoot in public because they think it’s a toy. I saw a few people react to that with faces of “I hadn’t thought about that”.

After both sides presented their cases, I allowed the students in the middle to either pick a side or ask questions if they still weren’t convinced. This is where the debate started to get even more lively, but my students did an excellent job of letting both sides speak without interruption. In each class, only one kid from the middle wound up choosing a new side.

I began to wrap up the lesson by asking the students in the middle to explain why they did or did not change their mind about joining either side. Each time I was told that they just wanted stronger and more believable examples.

I closed the lesson by reminding students how important elaboration is in writing, and that the examples that they provide in their persuasive essay must be well-supported and should appeal to logic and emotion.

My Top Reads of 2015

I meant to post a blog a few weeks ago about my favorite reads of 2015 but never took the time to do it.   I only read 31 books and couldn’t decide on a top 5 much less a top 10.  So here are my top 12 picks, in order only by when I read them this year.

  1.  The Hunger Games:  Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins.  I started 2015 with the final piece of this fantastic trilogy.  I actually watched the first movie before ever reading book one and knew I had to read the books to get more from the characters.  As is usually the case, I enjoyed the books much more than the films.  I didn’t want the series to end and am still not sure how I feel about the ending.  I do think the book (series) sends a strong message that mankind is capable of both great evil and great resiliency.  I did like how family is important in this book, even if there are some loose ends that are not tied up neatly.
  2. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs.  This book is so many things!!  Creepy, suspenseful, sad, gross, funny, exciting, romantic, sweet, inspiring…  I went from being totally scared to totally enveloped by the determination of the characters.  Another aspect that fascinated me is the pictures Riggs uses throughout the story are real pictures he’s collected at various flea markets and thrift stores, and they very much remind me of Austin’s own “Uncommon Objects” store on South Congress.  The story line, characters, and setting are so believable and I’m hoping this series becomes a well-made movie soon.  It begs the question “what if?” multiple times in the story and really made me question so many things and what I would do if this was a nonfiction story.
  3. The One World School House by Salman Khan.  This book may be the “Dead Poet’s Society” of books, and it’s not even about teaching English.  But it is definitely about teaching and that’s why I really, really, REALLY enjoyed it.  I love that it’s also a book about thinking about things from multiple perspectives and understanding that just because something has been done a certain way for hundreds of years (i.e. public education), does not mean it’s the best way to keep doing it.  Many of the anecdotes Khan provides are applicable to my own philosophy of teaching and it really inspired me to keep working at my practice and to never be satisfied.  There is always something more to learn…
  4. Hollow City: The Second Novel of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs.  I actually read book one kind of late in the game and was super excited to find out books 2 AND 3 of the Peregrine series were being released in 2015 so I didn’t have to wait as long as everyone else.  I still can’t decide if this book was better than the first or if it’s just wonderful in its own way and therefore equal to the first.  I was worried that I would lose interest in the storyline but Riggs does an excellent job of creating new conflicts, as well as developing both old and new characters.  One of my favorite quotes from this book is how to deal with loss:  “Laughing doesn’t make bad things worse any more than crying makes them better.  It doesn’t mean you don’t care or that you’ve forgotten.  It just means you’re human.”
  5. The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.  This book was recommended in a Twitter conversation between English teachers.  I can’t remember which teacher tweeted about it, but I remember most of what they said:  “Honest, heart-breakingly hilarious perspective of a teenage boy”.  And it is.  It’s so blunt at times that I could not stop laughing because it’s how I would’ve reacted in the same situation.  It’s heart-breaking because adolescence is confusing and sometimes I’m not quite sure how anyone survives it, especially the kid in this book.
  6. Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher.   I read this book in TWO DAYS because I could. not. stop. reading.  I had to know what happened next, just like the characters involved in the story.  I loved that one of the major elements of the story is an old school Walkman because it helps the reader forget how much we rely on smart phones and technology today.  It’s actually a very frustrating novel in that it makes you want to help the protagonist figure everything out.  But then you’re reminded that sometimes people do things that we may never truly understand no matter how hard we try.
  7. Always Running  by Luis J. Rodriguez.  One of my reluctant readers actually read this book for SSR this past spring and it made me wonder what was holding his attention so much.  He told me in the last week of school that it was one of the best books he’s ever read and that he now knows what kind of books he likes.  I asked if he meant he likes books about gangs and violence (based on the blurb on the back of the book), and he said no, that he wanted to read more books about overcoming obstacles.  So, of course, I had to read it.  I guess what’s hard for me to believe is that the issues in this story still happen in the 21st century.  We have entire school systems that fail our kids every day, and we have teenagers turning to gangs and drugs because that’s what they’ve grown up around.  This memoir sheds some light on what that life is like and also that it is possible for change to happen and for people to survive despite their circumstances.
  8. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.  One of my girls asked me to find this book for her because her dad told her she should read it.  I became intrigued when I noticed her reading logs were filled with positivity and discussing “one’s journey”.  I asked her why she thought her dad recommended the book and she said it’s because he wanted her to start making better choices and being more responsible.  After reading this book, I can see that message.  But I don’t know if it’s a responsibility as far as typical teenager stuff like getting good grades, being on time for curfew, etc., so much as it’s about the larger picture and how everyone is connected.  This book reminded me that I still haven’t seen so much of the world but that no matter where I travel we are all the same.  One of my favorite quotes from this book: “When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better, too.”
  9. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.  This book was so much more than what I expected.  I really liked the fact that some of the main settings were in NYC, Los Angeles, and Vancouver.  It made me want to revisit all three places.  The story line is so intricate yet plausible.  It is very human in that it focuses on people’s flaws and insecurities, but also their will power and ability to survive.  I’ve seen it described as science fiction and post-apocalyptic, but I think those terms are too vague for this book.  I was surprised how much of a “TMZ” vibe is given but it’s not overdone, and actually makes you a little grateful that it mostly vanishes in the “new world”.  Two lines that really stood out to me:  “The more you remember, the more you’ve lost.”  “Those previous versions of herself were so distant now that remembering them was almost like remembering other people, acquaintances, young women whom she’d known a long time ago, and she felt such compassion for them.”
  10. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson.  I recommend this book for anyone that has a teenaged daughter or son.  It is a story about rape and how different people react to it, and how those reactions can have enormous impacts.  Just so you know, the rape is not described in vivid details, which almost makes it worse because it leaves a lot to the imagination.  What I really enjoyed about this book is how well Anderson captures how teenagers process different emotions, regardless of how adults may or may not be trying to help them.
  11. The Library of Souls:  The Third Novel of Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children. by Ransom Riggs.  As I mentioned earlier, I debated on just listing this series all together, but the books deserve to be written about separately.  I’m still not sure if this is the final book of the series and really hope it’s not.  There’s still too much I want to know about!  However, that does not mean the third book ends with too many unresolved issues. Rather, I think Riggs did a pretty good job of bringing the conflicts from the first two books to a major culmination in the third.  I had to apologize numerous times for gasping out loud while reading this book in class as my students read their own books.  I had a silly grin on my face at the end of this one; it just made me feel good.
  12. The Martian by Andy Weir.  Holy cow.  I may have inadvertently saved the craziest book for last.  Because really, it’s one that I just haven’t been able to stop thinking about.  I think mainly because I can’t get over the fact this is Weir’s FIRST BOOK.  Like really?  It is that easy??  And it could also be the opening lines, which some may consider inappropriate, that immediately got my attention (I’m not going to write them here since this is an education blog and it involves the F word! #spoileralert).  I absolutely loved how real this book seemed while at the same time being completely incredulous.  I became very aware of just how available clean oxygen is and how easily we breathe.  The book is loaded with all sorts of crazy math and science talk but I never got lost and only felt more intrigued to see if whatever he was talking about was going to work.  There are times when the plot becomes a bit redundant (problem + worry + sarcasm + solution) but it was a fun read nonetheless.  I’ve always had soft spot in my heart for NASA and space travel and this book brought back a sense of childhood wonderment.  I felt like I read a memoir of something that really did happen and I ended the book wishing it was a true story…

Other books I read in 2015 that are worth checking out:

  1. The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls
  2. Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
  3. Dark Places by Gillian Flynn
  4. Spare Parts by  Joshua Davis
  5. Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls
  6. Girl on a Train by A.J. Waines
  7. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  8. Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan
  9. Stormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz
  10. Point Blank by Anthony Horowitz
  11. Tyrell by Coe Booth
  12. Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson
  13. No Choirboy by Susan Kuklin
  14. Compliant by Paige Hill
  15. Paper Towns by John Green
  16. This I Believe edited by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman
  17. Stolen by Lucy Christopher
  18. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
  19. Lord of the Flies by William Golding