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

How and Why I Redesigned My Classroom

Last school year, I started playing around with student choice regarding classroom assignments.  I teach 10th grade English in Texas, and that means A LOT of STAAR testing prep for my kids.  After the test last spring, I decided to give as much freedom as possible the last few weeks of school.  I noticed a significant increase in engagement and productivity from even my most reluctant students.  Toward the end of the year, I began to ask my kids about my classroom space and what changes I could make to it for it to be more student-friendly.  A lot of them told me they would get rid of the desks, bring in comfortable seats, allow people to stand or spread out on the floor, and have space to move things around.  I took a lot of notes and did more research on #flexiblespaces over the summer.

I traveled a lot during the summer and before I knew it the school year was banging on my door, ready to begin when I was not.  I was disappointed I hadn’t followed through on the research I had done but decided I could work with what I had in my room. I began to rearrange my classroom by stacking all the extra desks around the walls of my room, because I was afraid admin would say no to my new approach.  I wanted to make sure I had desks readily available for testing days, so I stacked them and covered them up with sheets (not aesthetically appealing but it got the job done).  I made 5 groups of 6 seats; one traditional desk with chair attached, one comfy chair (discarded rolling desk chairs, stools, camping chairs purchased from Goodwill for $5, etc.), and 4 portable stacking chairs that almost every school keeps in closets for assemblies and classrooms.  Then in a corner by my bookshelves, I brought in extra pillows from home and body pillows purchased from Target ($10).  I brought in rugs purchased from Ikea and some from home.  My room for the first week of school looked something like this (before and after)

(I also purchased about 15 clipboards from Goodwill ranging from 50 cents to $2 each so kids could have a solid writing surface.)

I was ready for the first day of school and loved my new students’ reactions to my classroom!  Many admitted they were surprised I had no desks but all of them said it was a good thing.  My kids from last year that stopped by to visit were mad that I went through with my idea AFTER they’d left my class.  They asked if I would teach English 3 so they could have me again and enjoy the new arrangement.

On the first day of school, my classes sat in groups for the first part of class and had small discussions about their summers and our new principal and school rules.  Then we easily moved into a large circle to have a whole class discussion about the school year.  My students responded to an exit ticket about first impressions/reactions to my classroom and this is what a few wrote:

“I’ve never had a teacher that did something like this to their room.  I’m excited to come back to class.”

“I really like the different options of where to sit.  I feel cramped in desks all day.”

“This was the first class all day where I actually felt relaxed and didn’t mind talking about school stuff.”

“Please don’t change your room!”

I knew that I was on to something good and decided to keep the arrangement, but not before getting more feedback from my current students.  After our first week together, I asked them to tell me how they like the set up of my room or what changes needed to be made.  Again, I got multiple responses that said they felt more relaxed and ready to work.  But I had a few that said they actually prefer to have a desk because they feel more productive and enjoy “normalcy” as one kid called it.  I also realized a lot of students in my co-teach classes that are high-needs require a more structured environment with traditional desks.  Because I teach both advanced and special education classes, I compromised; I kept one pod of traditional desks for one group and then had tables available for all the other groups.  In order to cut down on my own spending, I created my very first DonorsChoose project.  I asked for portable tables, durable camping chairs, giant bean bags, and large throw pillows.  As of today, my kids at all levels still enjoy coming to my classroom, know my expectations, and do their work.

 

My most recent update to my classroom was for myself.  I want a standing desk but know they are pretty expensive, and wanted to make sure I could adjust to not having a traditional desk.  Again, I used what I had in my classroom and made my own:  standingdesk

We almost NEVER use the textbooks in my classroom and they added the perfect height to my computer and keyboard.  I have been using this set up for two weeks now and can attest to the decrease of shoulder and neck pain and the increase of productivity and alertness.

I haven’t enjoyed being in my classroom this much since my first year of teaching.  It’s been a nice way to rethink how I teach and what works best for both my students and myself.

How Might We…#MakeSchoolDifferent ?

A few days ago I was challenged by a fellow Tweacher (@mrsvannasdall) to share my thoughts on how to #MakeSchoolDifferent.  If you check out my previous posts, you’ll learn very quickly that I am a high school teacher in Texas.  And for the past four years in Texas, public school teachers, students, and administrators have been punched in the face with STAAR testing.  During this turbulent time I have been teaching at a Title 1 school, and have ended each year vowing to quit the profession unless major changes are made to our system.  Each year small but positive changes have been made so I’ve been holding on.  When I first started speaking out against the testing system we use, some people would ask me, “Okay.  So get rid of testing. Then what?  How do we make sure students are learning?”  And I used to cop out and say, “I don’t know.  But I know what we’re doing isn’t working.”  Well, after being asked the question enough times I started to look for the answer.  And I think there are at least 5 ways to #MakeSchoolDifferent and get away from the emphasis on standardized testing.

1.  Let’s stop pretending that a typical school day makes sense in comparison to “the real world”.  There’s a big push for “college and career readiness”.  Colleges allow students to choose their schedules and decide what days to attend class, so why can’t public schools do the same?  Research study after research study shows brain function in young people hits its peak between the late morning and early afternoon hours.  So why do we force kids to get to school ready to “learn” between 7AM-9AM (much less teachers)?  I guarantee there would be enough teachers willing to work a “swing shift”(think 10-6/11-7) if given the option, while others would still prefer the traditional early hours.  Why not have both?  I know of private schools that have morning schedules and afternoon schedules.  I would bet there are at least 50 qualified applicants for every teaching position that becomes available.  Maybe if public education was funded properly, districts would have more money to pay more teachers and have the ability to adopt a more flexible schedule.

2.  Let’s stop pretending that athletics needs to happen before, during, and after school.  Considering I live in Texas, this will definitely rub some people the wrong way.  In a recent meeting, I heard someone say, “If it wasn’t for football and no pass/no play, I wouldn’t be here.  I wouldn’t have gone to school.”  While some people agreed and said, “Oh yes, many of our students are the same way,” it made me cringe.  Where did that “football mindset” come from?  Perhaps from growing up watching older siblings or father play, but more than likely from watching Saturday college games and Sunday NFL games as a kid, and wanting to be the successful player.  In no way am I saying that it’s not okay to have goals, but what goals should we be emphasizing?  Why can’t athletics be an after school or weekend activity to allow students more time to work on academics and fine arts during the school day (going back to our school schedule)?  Coaches could be allowed to be just that:  coaches.  And we all know THAT coach that should not be teaching (notice I said THAT and not ALL).  So many people want to compare our students’ national scores or our education system to Finland.  What professional football (not soccer!) teams do they have in Finland?

Talking about THAT coach makes for an easy transition to my next point:

3.  Let’s stop pretending that when students say someone is a bad teacher that they just don’t like them.  In our end-of-the-year survey distributed by administrators last year, we were asked for suggestions on how to improve the current evaluation process.  I suggested adding student input to teacher evaluations.  I truly believe students are being honest when they say a teacher is bad because I have seen bad teachers in action.  On the flip-side, I would also say it’s worth investigating if kids are saying a teacher is “so cool” because “they don’t care about anything”.  I’ve peeked in classrooms of the names I repeatedly hear in both situations, and have seen the disorganization, heard the yelling, watched the cellphone being pulled out, and stacks of redundant worksheets being used.  Now is that to say that a bad teacher is hopeless?  Absolutely not.  It means they need help.  And they need help because ultimately it will help the students.  Students want strong teachers.  The students will be the ones in the classroom day in and day out, and we should listen when they speak up.  It’s important to show that we value their opinion.

4.  Let’s stop pretending like we all haven’t made up grades because we had to have a certain number in by a certain time.  (I watched a teacher last year give students a grade for having a BINDER, and he didn’t teach AVID).  There is a large conversation starting about the purpose of grades, and I’m with the growing group that believe it’s time to rethink grades.  I recently read Salman Khan’s One World School House and agree that how we measure student growth and achievement needs to change.  However, it’s extremely difficult to have the “growth mindset” Khan mentions when our kids are so heavily driven by competition.  I would write more about this but instead I’ll just use links to show I’m not completely crazy.

5.  Let’s stop pretending that the teacher has all the answers and should have complete control at all times.  Thanks to SXSWEdu, one of the hashtags I like to follow on Twitter is #dtk12chat.  It focuses on design thinking and new ways to approach teaching and learning.  There are even some suggestions for “disruptive education”, some of which I’ve tried in my classroom, and my students LOVED the ideas.  I’m at the point now where I want a completely flexible classroom space, and want to do away with the desks that are permanently attached to chairs.  I want my students to have options from everything to how they use the space to create, to which assignments they work on, to what topics they study.  I’ve started with the latter and in just 4 weeks saw an improvement in attitude, inquiry, and product from some of my most challenging students.  One of my kids could not believe I was letting him write about any current event, even if it was about the NBA playoffs.  I set some guidelines but just giving him the option to choose his topic was huge.  It was some of the best writing he has done all year.  I’ve asked my students if we could get rid of the desks, what they would want in my classroom instead.  Overwhelmingly each class said that I still needed chairs or something soft to sit on, and moveable desks or clipboards to write on.  They said having freedom to stand up or sit/lay down would be helpful, too.  Just having this discussion, even though it was hypothetical, was so insightful and a lot of students kept the conversation going by talking about how they would “do school”.

Ultimately, students want to learn, and I think we should #MakeSchoolDifferent.  (Sorry for the lackluster ending this took way longer than I thought it would).

  

Why I Didn’t Blog for One Month (even after signing up for a daily blog challenge) #AprilBlogaDay

I hope anyone that actually reads my blog doesn’t think I just gave up a month ago.  I signed up for the #AprilBlogaDay challenge and was pretty excited to be connected with like-minded educators.

However, I bit off more than I could chew, as some teachers are known for doing.  I feel like it’s part of our make-up and why we sign on to do what we do in the first place.  We know we can’t save every kid, but we’re going to try regardless.

So, the past month I decided to give myself time to reflect inwardly because I realized writing and tweeting was actually adding more stress to my already pretty stressful semester.  Keep in mind that on top of teaching full-time, I am also taking two writing-intensive graduate classes at Texas State University.  I’ve been working on an article for publication as well as my first official grant proposal.  Simultaneously, I’ve still been tracking multiple bills that are being discussed at the Capitol, some of which are extremely beneficial to Texas students and teachers, some of which could be potentially detrimental.

Being so aware of possible changes, both positive and negative, made me even more aware of just how much I care about teaching and even more about my students.  I decided to focus what energy I had left to making the final nine weeks of school as productive and rewarding to my students as possible.  I completely threw out my traditional lesson plans for Lord of the Flies and Julius Caesar and decided to make my classroom more student-centered.  Luckily, I have access to a cart full of laptops, so implementing change wasn’t too difficult.  Instead of reading a novel together, watching the corresponding movie clips, and ending with a final project, I resolved to let my students have more freedom in their assignments.

Because this is the first time I’m doing this in my classroom, I set up some expectations and provided assignment choices.  I didn’t just tell my students to “Go learn something! Yay!”  Every student was expected to participate in self-selected reading (SSR), practice grammar, write current event article reflections, and analyze poetry.  I gave them a “menu of assignments” and gave them a due date three weeks away.  Each day we met I tried to allow for at least 45 minutes (if not 1 hour) to be used to work on their choice of assignment.

The only portion that still had uniformity was poetry because it involved watching “Dead Poets Society” and completing reflection questions and analysis of the poems discussed in the movie.  We watched 15-20 minute clips over two weeks at the beginning of every class, and then students were given the rest of the time to work on the daily reflection/analysis activities along with their other assignments.  Meaning once the film clip ended, I did not say, “Okay, now everyone work on your Dead Poets assignment for today and turn them in before the bell”.  Instead, I gave them a full three weeks to complete the questions so they could come back to it at any time.  I had a few students take the papers home and ask their parents what they thought of the movie and the questions, but the majority of the kids did the work in class.

For SSR, if we were not watching a movie clip, I still projected a large 15 minute timer at the beginning of class and read my own book in front of the class.  However, instead of saying “everyone must read now”, I simply said: “If you want to use this time for SSR because you know you won’t do it otherwise, or you’re just ready to read, then please do.  If you’re ready to work on something else productively, you may do that but you are not allowed to distract those of us who are reading.”  Thankfully, the majority of my students used the time to read, and a lot of them kept reading after the 15 minute timer since they are allowed to use the remaining time however they want.  They just had to be sure to finish the required number of reading log entries by the due date.

Last year I started using NoRedInk.com but I was creating assignments and quizzes for my students.  This year I realized there is a “practice option” that allows students to work on actually mastering a grammar concept without a grade.  I typed up a list of grammar items that the practice section covers and told my students they had to practice every section at least 3 times before May 29th (end of our grading period).  Now this part is tricky because just because a student practices does not mean they master a section.  I can tell this by the red, blue, yellow, and green dots used on the site.  However, my goal is to expose students to as much grammar as possible without making it feel like a punishment, so I am actually grading on effort instead of the “scores” they get.  I have a few ESL students that I know have attempted sections multiple times, but still get a blue or red dot.  That to me means more than a green dot showing mastery.  Since getting good grades is so engrained in our students, many of them keep practicing even after they meet the requirement, and many of them have reported they are now more aware of errors in their own writing.  I haven’t had students tell me that when I used to do practice sentences and grammar quizzes, either online or by worksheets.  This site also covers MLA citations, and it has really helped my students understand I’m not being crazy when I talk about correct punctuation for quotations.

The most challenging part of this approach has been getting my students to write substantial article reflections without plagiarizing the entire thing.  I gave my students a list of websites to choose from and also said they could use any other source as long as it was appropriate and reputable.  Within three weeks, students had to choose two articles and compose two 250-word reflections using either Google Docs, Kidblog.org, or by simply handwriting it.  In the future, I am going to assign the reflections on Google Classroom to help streamline the grading process.  I got my inspiration for this assignment from Kelly Gallagher’s “Article of the Week”.  However, since I’m experimenting with choice, I did not provide the articles, only resources to find articles.  My students have become more aware of the world around them, and we have had meaningful conversations from topics ranging from the riots in Baltimore, to the earthquake in Nepal, and to why a NASA spacecraft recently crashed into Mercury.  I have learned that prior to my class, my students don’t have much exposure to MLA writing, something that is crucial during upperclassmen classes and, of course, in college.  As of today, if they’re keeping up with their work, students have written four article reflections.  I have watched the majority of them improve from copying and pasting portions of an article and calling it their “summary paragraph”, to picking two relevant quotes and discussing their perspective of the topic.

This shift in choice has definitely changed my role as the “teacher” in the classroom.  I’m now more just a facilitator, making sure my students are somewhat on task (some of them take a long time to explore sites for THE article they want) and answering questions as they come up.  However, if you look at my gradebook, most of my class averages are now around 70%.  But I don’t think this means they aren’t learning, and I’ve tried to communicate that to my students.  I know I can’t just get rid of grades, but I do want to instill the idea of a “growth mindset”, and hope my students realize failing isn’t always a bad thing.

I would love to write more on this, but I’m also working on my FINAL final for the semester, and still have a mountain of assignments to check since everything was due this past Friday.  I decided to update my blog as a “break” from the other work I need to do.  Time to make time for myself again…

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.

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.

Why We Need House Bill 1164

The following is my testimony given to the Texas House Education Committee on March 24th:

 

I am here in support of HB 1164.  My name is Cynthia Ruiz and I teach high school English is Pflugerville ISD.  I’ve been teaching in Texas public high schools for 11 years, have my Master’s in Teaching, and at the end of this semester I’ll have a total of 18 hours of additional graduate level English.  I’d like to think I’m an expert in my teaching field, but since the implementation of the STAAR test, I’m made to feel otherwise.

 

Just within the past 3 years, I have taught over 460 students and have graded upwards of about 3000 STAAR practice essays, and this is what I’ve learned:  the English 1 & 2 Writing Test are not rigorous, they are ridiculous.

 

Assessing students’ writing ability based on a 26-lined essay is not conducive to effective writing instruction.  26 lined essays focus on form instead of content, and they seriously limit students’ ability to fully express themselves and hinder critical thinking and creativity.  There’s been a lot of talk about students being “college and career” ready, and I seriously doubt that higher-Ed English instructors, whether at community colleges or large universities, use 26-lined essays in their classrooms, so I don’t understand why high school teachers are being forced to prepare kids for a writing test that doesn’t prepare them for college level writing.

 

The writing required by STAAR is also irrelevant.  If you want to be able to hire people that know how to write, you need to let them WRITE, and the topics must be relevant in order for students to ensure student motivation.  This spring’s English 2 STAAR prompt was: “Write an essay stating your position on whether learning always has a positive effect on a person’s life.”  I would rather my students write relevant essays about how they can impact change in their community, or research a topic that is important to them.  I would love to be able to teach them how to write proper emails and cover letters.  I’m embarrassed to say my students today are no where near as familiar with MLA, APA or Chicago writing standards, the cornerstones of formidable writing, as they should be, because I have to spend so much time focusing on STAAR writing.  I feel like I should apologize to professors everywhere for how Texas has been “teaching writing” the past 3 years.

 

Further, the English 1 & 2 Writing tests do not provide valid feedback for teachers or students.  I have with me an example of a score report from the English 1 test administered this past December, and it has ONE LINE of feedback on the essay portion of the test.  It simply says what type of essay it is and what score the student received.  It does not say if the student had a strong thesis statement, enough evidence, or anything else that can be used for remediation.  In a previous testimony I mentioned that this past summer was the first time in two years that we received student essays back from the STAAR test, but even then, the essays had no editing marks or revision suggestions.  I still had to take time to figure out what mistakes my students made in their writing.  If I have to make sense of a students performance on this assessment in order to help them, why can’t I be trusted to come up with the assessment in the first place?

 

It’s a widely known fact Pearson Education hires essay scorers off of Craigslist, and it’s also come to light that scorers can grade up to 100 essays in an hour in order to meet their “quota”.  When I grade practice essays using a rubric to provide feedback for my students, it takes me 7-8 hours for about 120 essays.  I’m not a math teacher, but I find it really hard to believe over 50,000 STAAR essays are being carefully graded between April and the end of May when scores are returned to schools.

 

Why are we placing such high stakes into an exam that Pearson graders merely glance at?  Students write these essays, thinking that whoever grades it is going to look at it with as much attention as their teacher does.  I feel awful knowing that  we have been lying to our students for the past 3 years, and it is time to stop and do what’s right for our kids.

 

I am urging you to rethink the STAAR writing exams.  Please remember that you have hundreds of experts at your fingertips in classrooms across the state who are already working hard every day and do not require a multi-million dollar contract.  We are ready to show you there are more effective, less harmful, and less expensive ways to assess student writing abilities.

In Response to “Education News”: “Texas Schools and the Slippery Slope of Sen. Seliger’s SB 149” by Donna Garner 2.19.15

After seeing a question posted on KXAN’s Facebook earlier today asking what readers think about SB149, and after reading Donna Howard’s blog post decrying SB 149 about a month ago,  I’ve decided to respond, addressing the issues mentioned in Howard’s post  (and the comments on KXAN’s Facebook feed).  I know, I know, “you’re not supposed to ‘feed the trolls'”, but because I actually testified FOR this bill, I don’t mind writing about it.

SB 149 would allow seniors to graduate from our Texas public schools after taking and failing the STAAR tests multiple times in the past three years.  Some students have taken one STAAR test as many as 7 times, which adds up to about 30-35 hours of testing.  Furthermore, the majority of seniors have actually passed almost all of the STAAR tests, and only lack one or two tests to meet the 5 test requirement for graduation.  The number of students have not passed a single STAAR test is extremely minimal, and most likely those students have other issues (attendance, credits, etc.) that would prevent them from graduating even by committee decision.

As a CURRENT, experienced high school English teacher, I know the majority of seniors only need to pass the English 1 or English 2 STAAR test.  I can tell you that the implementation of these tests was severely flawed.  Teachers who were actually in the classroom during the ’11-12 and ’12-13 school years know that the preparation for the test was inadequate. We were only given field test questions that Pearson had already considered “bad questions” as a basis for our instruction.  Furthermore, when test results were released in ’12-’13 when current seniors were sophomores, we did not receive valid feedback.  This was extremely detrimental to students because we had no way of knowing what specific areas to focus on for remediation.  Students retested that summer and failed, and the cycle continued during every following administration of the STAAR test.  It was not until the Summer of 2014 that schools received any kind of adequate feedback and teachers, like myself, were able to finally TEACH TO THE TEST, and our passing rate for the retest increased substantially in December.

Believe me, classroom teachers care about what we teach and even more about WHO we teach.  Research study upon research study will show that standardized testing should not be the only way student ability/achievement is measured.

Anyone that says the English 1 & 2 STAAR is an OBJECTIVE measurement of student academic progress has obviously not been an English teacher in the past 3 years.  The writing required on the test is SUBJECTIVE, and is supposed to be graded on a rubric that takes into account a variety of measures from mechanics to voice.  However, the process for grading English 1 & 2 tests, to say the least, is a joke.  It is a well-known fact that Pearson hires people from Craigslist to grade the exams.  These people do not have to have a background in English (although SOME do), they just need a Bachelor’s Degree.  How is it okay for someone off of Craigslist to determine a student’s graduation status but not the people that have been working directly with the student for hours upon hours?

Also, former Pearson employees have said that TEA sets deadlines for the essays to be graded, and graders have quotas to meet.  Graders can score up to 100 essays in an hour.  It takes me, a highly qualified teacher with a Master’s Degree plus almost 18 hours of graduate English, about 5-6 HOURS to grade 130 essays accurately when we give mock STAAR exams.  If I have to take the time to grade PRACTICE essays, shouldn’t the test scorers be held to the same standard?  I seriously doubt the rubric is used effectively and would bet my salary that students’ scores are flawed.

If SB 149 passes, the graduation committee would look at overall grades in all courses.  Saying that graduates would be allowed “to walk without proving their mastery of important academic skills” is basically saying that no other classwork or projects are capable of teaching students such skills.  It is also a slap in the face to educators.  As a classroom teacher that spends roughly 90-100 hours with a student per year, please believe me when I say I can tell you what a student can or cannot do.  I don’t know when we stopped trusting teachers but it’s time for things to change.  I would challenge Donna Garner to step back in the classroom for one week, particularly in a Title 1 school, within the next two weeks before the test, but I don’t particularly want her near any students.

Looking forward, Texans should be PROUD that their voices have been heard, and that SB 149 was created as a direct result of public input.  There are still so many changes that need to be made regarding STAAR and how students are measured in school. HB 5 was just one small step in the right direction, and SB 149 follows in that regard.   

Thankfully, and again because of public input, SB 149 has passed the Senate and now only needs approval from the House and Governor Abbott.  However, if SB 149 does not pass, Texas schools will definitely be pushed further down the education hill because the STAAR test does not adequately measure “how well students have mastered academic knowledge and skills”, and ultimately, students will be the ones to bear the burden of retesting AGAIN and be labeled a “failure” as long as the test is allowed to be used as a “measuring stick”.