Tuesday, September 30, 2014

These Tests


Today we administered a school-wide writing prompt to students in grades nine through eleven. Students have roughly ninety minutes to read the passages and write to the prompt. My district has mandated three such practices prior to the spring assessment that will be administered state wide. Students in tenth grade must pass the test in order to graduate from high school in the state of Florida. For the first time such standardized tests will count as up to thirty percent of a students' final grade for English.

I serve the students in my class. I serve their parents and my community. While I would love to protest the test, to walk out of my double-wide portable, to walk down the three cement steps leading to the door, to walk in the street that even now construction vehicles travel as they renovate our campus, while I might enjoy that moment,  that fist-in-the-face, forget it protest, that would not serve the twenty-six students sitting in my classroom. Walking out or opting out on  students would not help them. Lee County attempted  to opt out of state required tests but rescinded their vote just days later. While I do believe we must fight against the misuse of standardized tests, we must take that fight off of our campuses and out of our classrooms.

It feels like a lose-lose situation some days. I could rave about the narrowing of the curriculum. I could rant about how the misuse of tests creates a "working class" of citizens in our state who have not educational opportunities beyond a test they cannot pass. I could wax vitriolic,  but I won't. Not today.

I am committed to the twenty-six students sitting in my room during testing. Today, I can manage to frame the situation as a learning experience.

So today, I wrote. I got a copy of the passages and the prompt. After I read the testing script aloud (in my best imitation of Professor McGonagall because our shared laughter released a lot of tension), after I circulated and made sure students had gotten started, I too wrote.

I annotated the passages--judicial opinions no less. I made note of the mode required by the prompt. I planned. I charted. I wrote and wrote.  I cited textual evidence. I embedded direct quotations. I used parenthetical references. I worked hard during my writing time. I spent an hour and ten minutes of the ninety we were given writing and revising. 

I emailed my essay to district personnel and asked for it to be scored with the rubric the district provided. If I get it in a timely fashion, the feedback will be useful. We do not have anchor papers. We have never used this rubric as a faculty.

As a teacher, if I am to do right by the twenty-six students in my room  and the fifty-two parents behind them, then I need to learn as much as I can as fast as I can. As a citizen, if I am to do right by the children in my state,  I need to engage in the political process. I need to vote.I need to speak up. Outside of the school day, I need to write letters, call law makers, share resources.

I need to invite people in power into my classroom and get their eyes on students. (Is that even allowed? Surely a school board member or the members who serve from our district would be welcome on our campus. We'll see. I'll have to ask.) As a parent educator I keep thinking that the glass could be half full. I imagine that if law makers knew more about students, classrooms, teaching, learning, assessments and testing they may revise current policies and practices. Of course, that likely depends on the businesses in which they have personally invested. Charter schools are big business in my state. The issues are complex much more so than I want to address today.

These tests may have been created during the eleventh hour. These tests may be a money-making machine for those in power. These tests may damage public education. These tests may guarantee a working class for the service industry in my state. These tests may be used for despicable purposes under the guise of good intentions. These tests may limit the freedoms of those recently achieving citizenship. These tests may be unfair. These tests may punish those at lower socioeconomic levels. These tests may do all of that and more.

No matter now. No matter at this instructional moment. I must show students how to succeed on the assessments others demand.  To do any less would be akin to saying students can't. That is not a judgment I am ever willing to make.

Slice of Life is hosted by the team at Two Writing Teachers. Head over to serve 
up a slice from your day or help yourself to seconds.




Sunday, September 28, 2014

Overcome Obstacles

I'm reflecting on summer reading through the first quarter.
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Yesterday I got up early and intended to write all morning. I had finished my first cup of coffee, had put in a load of laundry and was just scanning social networks before I got started when I heard the trumpet alert from my cell phone saying I'd gotten a text message. My friend Beth was heading to the American Mud Race. She was meeting up with folks from Camp Gladiator, a boot camp we've done together, but she didn't have a specific race partner.  Sure, when the going get tough, the tough get going, but going it alone is an obstacle not many over come. Knowing the race was near my house at a local track, I called and said I'd join her. Last minute, no plans, just get dressed and go.

The American Mud Race is a three mile course filled with obstacles: mud hills, a swamp swim, climbing walls, tire pits and even fire.
The last third of the course with the slide, fire jump and barbed-wired crawl finish.

Summer reading can be rife with obstacles. Access to books, an obstacle about which many have written (Krashen, Allington and McGill Franzen) is just one obstacle.  At my school we address that obstacle by purchasing books students can check out for the summer. Having more than one-hundred copies for check out, helps. However, if a grade level changes titles too often, our budget for buying books cannot keep pace. Some obstacles you just have to walk around.

I walked around a couple of the obstacles during the mud race. I can't do pull ups. Though my rotator cuff repair has held, my right shoulder is not as strong as it once was. I baby it. I am mindful of my limits. So during yesterday's race I walked around the monkey bars and at least one of the walls. I knew my should could not do it without injury.

Some students feel like they cannot do what we ask them to do for summer reading. More often than not though, they can, they just do not want to. Apathy is wall that is hard to scale. Resistance is too. We see it at all course levels. Even in students' social media streams:


Is it human nature to complain or resist being told what to do? Probably.  Could we turn this around by changing how we approach summer assignments? Yes.

How do we overcome the obstacle? There's got to be a way to support students working through assigned texts and choice texts. During the mud race people helped each other.

One leg of the race was a walk through a swamp. Not being able to see what is under the water can be scary. Some might have been thinking alligators, snakes or amoeba. I know I was thinking bacteria. I figured gators would leave a big crowd alone. I was more worried about my friend's new knee (she had ACL replacement surgery last year) than I was critters. People supported each other by calling out the hidden logs and holes. Strangers offered hands and arms to steady those behind them. We shared strategies--swimming or floating through the rough spots worked well. Encouragement and support got us through that swamp.

Pictures from American Mud Race facebook page.
Next time I'll know to bring to the water camera or Dad's GoPro.

If we are going to assign summer reading I am convince that our support and encouragement must start in May. We've got  to get students ready to do the work on their own. We can't just set them free and say "do it."  Assigning isn't teaching. Assigning will not keep students connected to text. It won't enable students to practice the  academic habits we'd like to exercise during the summer.  When we do that students return results that do not meet our expectations.

We are stronger than we think. Especially when we work together--with each other and with our students.

Beth Scanlon and I after the race.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Making Time

The car's wind shield is a water wall. If only it were as soothing as the water wall we saw in a furniture store last Sunday.


The roof pings with  crunchy sounds, fat drops like bugs or leaf crackle. Rain storms the lacrosse field, but the boys play on.


It would have been easy for the coach to call off practice before the rain started. He could have pointed to weather forecasts or the crawling grey cumulus that darkened over the interstate. It would have been easy to use the rain as an excuse to just skip practice, to bail on the forty-minute drive to the field, to forgo the ninety-minute practice, to bypass rush hour for the forty-five minute drive home. But my son loves it. Because he values it, I know it is important. Its important for me to be there for him, to drive him, to make time for it our week.

We make time for what (or whom) we value.  We all have twenty-four hours in our day. How we choose to use our time says a lot about what we value.

One lightning clap and the coach called practice early. Getting home was quite an adventure. Collin put a towel on his lap in the back seat and started his algebra homework. Between problems and picture taking we joked. We crossed the ocean at Ivanhoe.


The wagon throws quite a wake. We made up small craft advisories for the Mini Coopers on the road and marveled at gutter rip tides. The rain delay on the roads gave us time to laugh together: definitely a blessing disguised as inconvenience. Glad I made time for it today.

Slice of Life is hosted by the team at Two Writing Teachers. Head over to serve
up a slice from your day or help yourself to seconds.