Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Testing Limits

The Slice of Life Story Challenge is hosted by the talented team at Two Writing Teachers.
Link up your slice on Tuesdays all year. Thanks, Stacey, TaraDanaBetsyAnna and Beth.

It is difficult to write about testing. I have a lot of skin in this game. Daily skin. Skin I care about sits at desks, logs into computers, stands and watches: teenage skin and middle school skin and teacher skin and administrator skin. Still, Tuesdays, I confer with readers and writers over pieces students write in their journals. This last month of school choice reigns. Students are practicing writing--argument, analysis, response, narrative--they choose. Today, one student wrote about testing. This student's writing  reflects the pressures we all feel during testing season.

One of two pages of journal writing for this week; the student did eventually come to the conclusion
that though stressful, students need to stop worrying and consider that everything will be fine. 
My student called this "exam month" and he's not exaggerating.  While many students feel the pinch of End of Course Exams (EOCs) or Advanced Placement tests, our school has been testing students since October (state assessment retakes and district required progress monitoring among other tests this fall and winter).  Still, May wins the most test month even though, for my English classes,  our state-mandated reading and writing assessments finished in April.

Now students are taking state-constructed EOCs for core content classes (math, science, social studies), Advanced Placement exams--even college readiness exams like the PERT. A streamlined testing schedule went out in our emailed community bulletin recently.

The course of exams students must take looks simple. Many tests collar specific grade levels and do not affect all ninth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth grades on the same day. However, each day during any given week proctors are actually administering several tests as students who missed an exam one day must be scheduled for make up sessions within the testing window.  Today, students logged on to the computerized testing site to take exams for Biology and AP US Government and Geometry and Algebra I and Algebra II .-- the latter math exams were all make up sessions. These EOCs affect students' final grades and course credits, so opting out is not an option for students who want to earn a standard high school diploma. 

On any given day during a testing window, students, any where from 1 or 2 to 12 or 25 are testing.  Staying the curricular course and maintaining instructional momentum is challenging, especially if several of your students missed a testing session (or two) and now must make up tests. Under such conditions there are bound to be knowledge gaps if some students miss content and do not make it up.

The Florida legislature recently amended Senate Bill 7069 which will affect future testing. In February, Education Commissioner Pam Stewart  recommended cuts to testing; politicians have echoed the sentiment since. One line in the  statute calls for a limit on the number of hours students will be testing. According to SB 7069, the district may not schedule more than "5 percent of a student's total school hours ... to administer statewide,standardized assessments and district-required local assessments." Long over due, limits on testing time sound good. What does "5 percent of student's total school hours" really mean? Does it include time spent administering make up tests? Or time spent troubleshooting technology troubles?

Students have 7 classes that are 47 minutes each every day except Wednesday. Wednesday's classes are 37 minutes each. Each week students are in all of their classes for a total of 1, 575 minutes (or 26.25 hours). Students are in my English classroom 225 minutes a week (or 3.75 hours). The school year runs 36 weeks, so students' seat time in English class is 135 hours. Five percent of the total number of hours students are in my class works out to 6.75 hours: more than one week in English class of our 36 weeks together can, by law, be given over to test administration. Does that mean that each subject gets one week to test?

Are we sacrificing 7 weeks to tests? Have I really, by law, lost nearly an entire quarter of the school year? 

When I think about instructional hours and hours spent testing, I can't ignore instructional hours lost because of testing disruptions. Tests in my state are, by law, computer-based . In order to give computer-based tests students have to be moved into and out of classrooms that are equipped with technology.

To improve access to the required technology, our district built four new computer labs and provided the school with upwards of ten laptop carts. We have close to 3,500 students at school; you can imagine the access we need when all tenth The laptop carts, fortunately or unfortunately, are securely stored in teachers's closets and classrooms and can be used for authentic instructional purposes when not required for testing. In order to test, teachers must vacate their classrooms so that the securely stored laptops can be used for testing.

I know one teacher who will be in her room just two days for the entire month of May. How many hours is that? Such collateral damage may be too complex to simply count. Sure, if we teachers plan ahead and pack appropriate resources and supplies, minutes need not be wasted. The truth is, minutes, class periods, days are endangered as the testing schedule takes over.

Too much is too much.  As John Oliver said, "here comes the monkey." It's no wonder students are hitting their testing limits. Learning is too.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Remembering Joan

The Slice of Life Story Challenge is hosted by the talented team at Two Writing Teachers.
Link up your slice on Tuesdays all year. Thanks, Stacey, TaraDanaBetsyAnna and Beth.

It was late at night the phone rang. Maybe it was four-thirty in the morning. I don't remember which of the mavens called me. It could have been Rosalie or Zirot or Cathy, even Mary though she taught French and not English.  We sometimes shared a cup of black coffee and a cigarette back when we all smoked. It could have been any of the smokers who called even the Russian teacher could have, would have. It doesn't matter now who, but that the caller was kind, gentle.

"We lost Joan last night, Lee Ann."

Lost her? My first thought a literal sucker punch. How do you lose a person? She might be a veteran teacher, but she's old enough to just wander off.

Turns out the caller knew right where Joan was. Her husband had found her late that evening at the bottom of their pool felled by a heart attack while no one was home. Joan was my first mentor, my supervising teacher during my senior internship.

The students I taught during my internship while under Joan's supervision were so smart I felt I needed to go back to school to be able to keep up with them (and her) --so I did. I didn't start teaching until I finished my master's degree in literature and had started on a doctorate. When Joan died, I was a third-year teacher. 

I can still remember the grim catalog I made of the contents of her desk drawers: pens, pencils, post-its, wrinkled gum wrappers, an abandoned prescription, pages ripped from magazines, underthings. I remember boxing her books--tucking a few aside to keep. I still catch glimpses of her, sharp in the margins of Hamlet or Tess. I remember cleaning out her classroom's cabinets--counting out boxes of chalk and packages of pencils, pens, paper, glue--academic ephemera. 

I don't know where we sent her students after she died. I don't remember. I remember the packing and the gathering at her home and our friends and the Tiramisu, her favorite dessert.

Recently a teacher new to our school passed away unexpectedly. We learned of his passing one Monday morning. How difficult. How terrible and wonderful this short life we live. I did not know him. Our faculty numbers above 150 teachers, our campus more than 95 acres--those sound like excuses to me now. Our collegial circles have grown smaller as departments are divided into PLCS. Teachers seem to have less contact across content areas and grade levels. I didn't know him thoughI feel for his family, his friends, his students. I didn't know him, but his passing brought me right back to Joan.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

What Gets in the Way of Pleasure Reading?

We know that two keys to lifelong reading are planning and goal setting. Reading plans may take the form of a bedside book stack, a shelfie, a wishlist, or a virtual to be read list, or a collection of holds in the Overdrive app used by the public library. Anasia has maybe seven books on hold. She is number twelve in line for The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer (Michelle Hodkin's Mara Dyer series is getting a lot of action in my class this semester!).

Reading plans and reading goals walk hand in hand. If you have a stack of books or a list of titles you want to read next, you have goals.

We are early in our fourth quarter and we are reflecting on where we have been as readers and looking to where we want to go next.

Clara's  reflection.
Today, I am most interested in what is getting in the way of students reading. A handful of students are still not carry a book with them. Instead, they sample books during each reading workshop session. They stand in front of the classroom bookshelves and stare at book spines, browsing for something to read during reading workshop. It reminds me of the after-school refrigerator stare; bored, you open the fridge, feel the cool air and stare at the shelves hoping for a treat. Less than ten percent of my current students are still staring into the book fridge--they are picky consumers, but I haven't given up on them yet.

The remaining students, the majority, are off and reading and have been since Dec/Jan. I can barely keep them feed. Their reading appetites are well developed and they are hungry for books. Even though, students self-report reading anywhere from eight to eighty titles this year, some weeks they seem to read less than others. So I asked them what gets in the way of reading?

Students know. They talked about it at their tables and wrote about it on a quick sheet I gave them. The sheet is half-sized so that students can glue it into their reading journals. I asked students to:  set reading goals, assess themselves as readers using our independent reading learning progression (formerly known as a learning scale) and to discuss what gets in the way of pleasure reading.

Independent reading learning progression; entry level begins at the bottom of the page.
Marks show my use of the progression for whole-class reflection and to share my big picture assessment of  the group . 
 They've read an incredible amount this year.

By the Numbers: Books Read by Table and Class Period. Two to four students sit at each table. 

We talk about many of the books they read but not all of them and likely not more than once per book. My goal is to speak with each reader at least once a week. Students can confer more if they need to, but it is impractical and unrealistic of me to think I can see every student multiple times as they read a single book. My readers read too fast for that. Do yours? 

My own thinking is often confirmed by what students say and write. One said it was more an issue of priorities and time management. Another student said, "it's not what gets in the way--it's more like what takes the place of reading." Ah, "takes the place of" that's what's happening as students mature. I have been watching that happen at home in my son's reading life, so I am not surprised that students experience a shift in their own reading habits too. There are only so many hours in a day, so many minutes in class.

For that student and many others in my tenth grade Pre-International Baccalaureate classes, homework, tests and the sheer volume of content knowledge that must be learned, keeps students from reading for pleasure. These students take chemistry, pre-calculus, German or Spanish, Advanced Placement psychology, Advanced Placement World History as well as debate, computer networking, information technology or a host of other electives.

I get it.


I remember my own pleasure reading taking a back seat to course requirements, but I am reader. I always found a way to read.  I know my readers do too.

The Slice of Life Story Challenge is hosted by the talented team at Two Writing Teachers.
Link up your slice on Tuesdays all year. Thanks, Stacey, Tara, Dana, Betsy, Anna and Beth.