Monday, March 31, 2014

Standardized Tests: The recipe for creating passive and shut down students

In teaching writing to Middle and High School students,  I've found that with growing frequency, students sitting with pencils or pens over sheets of paper will jot down a sentence, maybe two, then look up and ask "Am I doing this right?  Did I write the right thing?"  English teachers can't really teach writing, we can only guide kids to get in touch with their thoughts, get them down on paper and take steps to elaborate.

Writing is hard work anyway, but when a student is immediately filled with doubt, and doesn't trust his own ideas or thought process - a teacher's task in helping a student coax those ideas out to deliver them to the page is extra arduous.  The teaching becomes helping kids to first trust themselves to be willing to take a risk with a beginning sentence, before even approaching the craft of writing. I've turned into a writing therapist. "Go ahead and write it, even if you think it's wrong. You've got to start somewhere. You can always edit that out later. Trust yourself."

I find the same disturbing trend when we have Socratic Seminar or fishbowl discussions.  We begin with student composed questions about the novel we are reading - I put the question out there, and the students, sitting in a circle, uncomfortably stare back, many, like deer caught in the headlights. I give appropriate "wait time" - then frequently, say: "Somebody throw the first pitch. Offer up an idea. Don't worry about saying the wrong thing.  Get it started!"  Finally, after a minute or so, a student  steps up (often trepidly) and gets the discussion started.  Clearly, we need to have more of these discussions, so I include them as a regular classroom practice, in spite of time constraints, to give as many students as possible to  hear their own voices and often, once they begin, some of them are able to take the idea baton from another, and run with it.  But, such an effort to get them to speak, and to write!   Maybe an idea is well-grounded, maybe not, but offer it up kids, say it.  Give us something to work with here.

For students to collectively have such self-doubt at ages 12 and 13, an age where verve and an exploratory spirit are natural characteristics and necessary to growth-  is a troubling symptom of something or someone putting that self doubt there.

I sure didn't put the self-doubt there. Nor do most English teachers.

The something that invites a kid's self-doubt is the standardized testing culture that had accelerated with No Child Left Behind and is further amplified now with Race to the Top Even teachers and administrators who reject these tests as viable assessment tools find that the encroaching  Culture for Testing is creeping into their schools and classrooms more insistently, like a paralyzing virus in a science fiction movie.   

Tremendous energy and resources are fed to test prep and standardized tests, which are filled with the reading of passages that are in no remote way meaningful to students' experiences or prior knowledge.  The questions invite no conceptual understanding, or even a gutsy try: They are focused on the scavenger hunt of finding micro-facts within the passage.

Any child who happens to think differently, interprets a passage differently, or, has her own connotation of a word or phrase - runs the risk of getting the answer(s) wrong. (But wait a minute, doesn't our real life culture emulate those who "think different"?  What kind of mixed message is being sent?)

As one of the crustier, more voluminous passages in last year's ELA exam was all about striking gold in the Klondike - I watched my students, bent over this passage, puzzling over, I imagined, the word Klondike. To many 7th graders, the connotation of the word Klondike is, cream wrapped in a thin layer of chocolate.  I got distracted myself, thinking about the package of Klondikes we had in our freezer at home.

I'm going out on a limb here to "play" with this test passage topic:  Hypothetically, if we were having a "regular" discussion about the Klondike gold rush - (a stretch, because it had nothing to do with the novels or contemporary social issues that we discussed and wrote about in my "regular" curriculum) as we were focusing on close reading - we'd approach the word Klondike, as my kids knew it.  Ice cream.  My question: In what ways does the Klondike gold rush connect to Klondike ice cream?  Why do you think the people who created the ice cream bars chose the name Klondike?

The Common Core touts what "it" refers to as "close reading" as a standard, and we had a number of sessions when as a group, we engaged with what that might mean. (I used Francine Prose's excellent book Reading like a Writer as a blueprint for approaching this.)  We worked with denotation and connotation - and how our experience as individuals affects the way we might think of a word like Klondike.   Once my students (by January) had mostly shed their fear of saying the wrong thing, we had great fun with word talks.

But---back to the test: The actual Klondike passage was so long and onerous to read, that nobody had time to read it closely, or thoughtfully, and complete all the micro-fact answers. I'm willing to bet that lots of students had to try to back away from their distractions to be able to finish the test.  Most of my students did not finish it.

In spite of all our attention to close reading, from September to March, under my guidance, my students were not prepared for what awaited them.  As a teacher, I didn't get it "right." For a few moments,  I had a complete flash of identification with my 125 students who had felt the discouragement of not "getting IT right".  Fortunately, I'm an adult with a Masters in Education and Arts (where "the right answer" doesn't exist) background, so that identification quickly passed and I went back to my usual quirky thinking patterns.  I have empathy for new, young teachers who don't have the kind of resources or experience or backgrounds that veteran teachers have.  These teachers are being conditioned to solicit the "right" answer from students. Their careers are at stake.

To sum up this anecdote - there is no opportunity for authentic close reading on these tests. The tests lie, the CC "standards" lie.

You can't get it "right" as a student or a teacher when the test game is rigged this way.  You can never get it right when you have to leave who you are and what you know at the door of the classroom on test day.

When students are conditioned in this way, year after year after year to "get the correct answer" - is it any wonder that they are blocked in their writing, and afraid to throw an idea into the discussion circle?  What are our students being groomed to be?  Compliance is now valued over originality and risk taking.  

Like my students, I felt demoralized after these tests were completed.  Who wants to play this game anymore?  

The day when the last exam had been collected and packaged, one of my most conscientious and curious students approached me and said "Ms. Willis, can we get back to our novel discussions now?"

I said "You bet. It does seem a long time since we looked at the novel together."

"Julie" sighed and said "We're used to these tests. We've been doing the test prep and tests since 3rd grade."

The resignation in her voice was haunting and something I will never forget. The growing sense of alarm I had felt over the passivity and compliance of most of my 125 students- was addressed in her comment. I understood that these kids had been conditioned just to get through the tests, and to put as little of themselves into the whole process as possible.

They have been taught over the years by the test culture that it's easier to be silent and comply than it is to take a risk and put some of your real self out there - in writing - or in discussions.

For some kids, many kids, it's easier now, under this test cloud, to be invisible, or, just let somebody lead you through it.  It's okay to be a sheep.

This is frightening.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

New York City Parents Assert Themselves: Opting Kids out of Standardized Tests

                                         The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss, picture by Crockett Johnson. Harper&Row 1945

"We didn't know that we had the right." says a mom from Brownsville, Brooklyn, who is opting her third grade son out of the state tests.

Other parents from all NYC boroughs are now realizing and asserting their rights, and keeping the needs of their children front and center, as they opt their children out from these tests that are irrelevant, archaic, and skewed systems of measurement.  Precious classroom energy and resources - (our teachers, their curriculum, and our children) are diverted from learning to weeks of mind-dulling test prep and the disruptive testing schedules. 

In the past, The New York Times seems to have taken an ambivalent posture about the problem of obsessive testing in our schools across the country during this past decade. This obsession has been ratcheted up with the introduction of the Common Core, and the same old rigid ELA tests, (that leave no room or time for thoughtful writing responses) with the same dull micro-fact reading passages -- leftovers from the failed No Child Left Behind.  These are recycled now and being as passed off as "Common Core Assessments". 

At last, the Times is recognizing that parents and schools are demanding that discovery, passion and excitement that accompanies concept learning be the learning experience for children:  Not these tests.

Here's the article:

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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Who are these new educational data companies really serving?

                                            The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss, picture by Crockett Johnson. Harper&Row 1945

Remember when you were a kid and you first discovered that you could buy stuff? And your Mom or Dad would look at the thing you wanted to buy, and he or she would say "Sweetie, I don't think you really need that. You should spend your allowance on something you really need and want." 

It seems like the biggest growing industry in our country now is the selling of data packages - and it's linked arms with the education "reform" movement. And as school begins to imitate science fiction,
here's something that resembles a Ray Bradbury invention: "Knewton" (How about that name? Catchy title? Calculated?...) calls itself "the world's leading adaptive learning company" ("Mom, do schools really need this?") They design and sell data systems to the education industry, so educators
can "better measure student achievement." 

This chart or graph or thing shows "granular understanding of knowledge." The purveyors would like us to believe that this is the answer to everything.  I don't understand how this chart shows how a human student is doing in class, but it does looks like something jokey from a Monty Python sketch that we would laugh really hard at.

Who would benefit from this data measuring system? Administrators? Teachers? Parents? Kids?

Oh! Right!  Knewton would benefit.

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Monday, March 24, 2014

Boys with Heroic Names

                                           The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss, picture by Crockett Johnson. Harper&Row 1945

Deep in the Bronx today
in a school mostly forgotten
except at test time
the third grade exam
was administered
to Tristan, Calvin and Axiom
in the faculty room
with its stained furniture,
odors of discouraging
Tupperware lunches, and
teachers' frustrations over
hazy causes and ancient battles lost-

The whispers 'round school -
High Stakes

Eight year old lives in the balance:
to lose and hang with humiliation?
Or to:
slash the head off this test, only to have
another grow back in its place?

They say a true hero knows he's going down
but goes there anyway -

Legs dangling off the chairs
these three
pencils scratching in circles
yawns - stoical chins
and one runny nose
Eyes on questions
and passages aimed to trick
and crush
like the clashing cliffs
Jason and his Argonauts twisted through -

Then - pencils down -
the tests are ziplocked, sealed.
and carted away in unmarked vans
like so much toxic waste.

Ok now, palms up:
the medals for Valor
are awarded
and they unwrap the foil
from the melting Kisses
that had softened in my pocket
from the heat of the morning.

~ Jane Nixon Willis

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Helping Students Stay Strong during Standardized Test Time

                                     The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss, picture by Crockett Johnson. Harper&Row 1945

Unless you’ve opted your child out from taking these - Common Core Standardized Tests loom on the horizon for public and charter school kids. As crocuses and allergies bloom, English Language Arts and Math teachers are expected to fill kids’ heads with strategies for taking the tests. Teachers work diligently, as they are graded on the standardized returns, and with consecutive low scores, careers are at stake.  But, preparing for the content of these mysterious and high stakes tests is always guesswork because students are not being tested specifically on content that has been taught in class. It’s all about thinking like the test maker.  Compassionate teachers try to make prep time less tedious and as commonsensical as they can, but it’s likely that your child may arrive home feeling toasted, stressed out and worried.

The test days arrive. Regular instruction is suspended. Kids are shuffled around to any available rooms for testing. (Last year, my ELA students were delegated to the tech room, -an unfamiliar setting - where they sat on backless stools for 1½ hours at a time.) Walls are emptied.  Guides to solving equations or writing a paragraph are taken down or covered. Conference rooms are stacked with teacher packets and bulky bundled tests that many trees gave their lives for, and where many tax dollars are spent.  I think back to the cupboard of dog-eared class novels, many of them falling apart, even with best efforts to tape them back together.  The tests, in comparison, are fresh off the press, in pristine condition.  A monastic silence in the halls is maintained, the regular schedules are disrupted, and the effect is disorienting for everybody – even teachers and students who are normally cheerful.  These days are about getting through these days. 

What you can do to help your child

Here are the emotional settings that (specifically younger) students tend verbalize as they get ready to while take these tests.  Students in upper grades tend to internalize these concerns more.   

I’m not smart. I’m a “1” or a “2”.

I can’t remember everything we did to prepare.

I won’t do as well as everybody else in class.

I’m afraid I’ll disappoint my parents if I don’t do well.

I’m afraid I’ll let (you) my teacher down if I don’t do well. 

Occasionally a student will say: I’m just going to do my bestThat’s all I can do.

It’s pretty clear that a parent has proactively cultivated that mind set. That student already has an advantage before coloring in the first bubble with his number two pencil:  His parents have done the footwork in helping this child put the test into perspective.  He’s more relaxed and is going to have more mental energy while taking the test.  And he’s probably not going to spend time worrying about how he did when he completes it.  His parents have given him a valuable life skill tool with this mantra, and he gets to practice using it. 

Keeping a Broad Perspective:

Before distributing the test materials while looking out at both sleepy and worried faces, I’d think through what I wished I could say: a disclaimer. The test I am about to give you does not reflect your performance in my class. But then I’d need a disclaimer for my disclaimer:  In fact, even though I’m a public school teacher standing here administering them, I don’t buy into these tests at all, hang in there, and we’ll get back to what we were doing in class.  

What I’d actually tell students:

This test has nothing to do with how smart a person you are.

This test doesn’t show all the talents that you may have. 

It doesn’t show that you are a good friend.

It doesn’t show the kind of learning style you have.

It also doesn’t show how hard you may work as a student.

If you want to know how you’re really doing, look at the assignments that we’ve done together over the school year.

This test is about just doing your best, just for today.

For all involved, it’s like spending a sweaty day down at the quarry chipping rocks.

So, when your child comes home from school after prepping and testing, remember that lots of energy (and funding) is being spent on something that is not the culmination of what he has learned from his teacher’s lessons.  He might appreciate your invitation for him to decompress from the intensity of the day by inviting him to talk about it. Or, he may not want to, and who would blame him?

These unsolicited questions are not helpful:

How’d you do? (He probably doesn’t know or doesn’t want to think about that right now.)

Did you get a “3” or a “4”? (This is a reductive way to look at the work a kid has put into something.)

Did you finish on time? (The test is a done deal.  Is this really that important?)

Did you answer all the questions?  (The test is a done deal. Is this really that important?)

Did you check your work? (The test is a done deal. Teachers have already reminded students to do this.)

Shouldn’t you spend time on review for tomorrow’s test? (…Really?....)

If anything, these kinds of questions reveal a parent’s anxiety, so now there are two stressed out people sitting at the kitchen table. In showing your own anxiety, you also may be inadvertently showing your child that you place value on this impersonal and inaccurate measuring device – over the teacher’s day-to-day classroom assessments of your child’s progress. Which is a better indicator? Which form of assessment do you actually take stock in?

These tests in no way determine how successful a child will be in the future. But, layered as they are, they can eat away at a child’s self value, and make her question her capabilities, and that does sabotage future success.  The most helpful comment that will reverberate with your child during tomorrow’s test:  I’m sure that you’re doing the best that you can.  

Instead of spending time on a post-mortem--examining the now dead body of the test, this is the time when it’s most beneficial to invite kids to let their brains breathe and to encourage them relax and replenish.

I was trying to daydream, but my mind kept wandering. ~Steven Wright

It’s a healthy practice to help your child cultivate for herself.  As a culture, we don’t seem to value the process of mind emptying.  It’s all about stuffing it with things. Although, many burnt-out adults fork out lots of money to re-learn how to daydream or step back through self help classes; through meditation or hiking classes to lower fight-or-flight cortisol levels, or some class that will help them channel switch from stress and strokes.

When my eldest was a four-year-old in preschool, the mom of one of his classmates wisely introduced to the rest of us new moms the value of ‘stoop settin’ time’.  She had grown up in Brooklyn, and shared that as a kid, when she and her friends got home from school, they’d set on the stoop and hang out without any particular planned or structured activity; they might play tag, or draw chalk people on the sidewalk, they might just chat; the only time constraint being that they needed to go in for dinner in a couple of hours.

We don’t give ourselves much ‘stoop settin’ time’ until we’re old and we can’t move around and we’re forced to sit and air out.   But it is key to mental health – we all need a breather in between.  Although it’s within a young child’s nature to stop and examine an ant colony, or, throw stones into a puddle, kids can be further encouraged to decompress from a packed school day – to daydream, draw pictures, play with the dog, listen to music, or play a simple game. It’s relaxing to set time aside each day to do “nothing.”

Relaxing and replenishing lead to better endurance.

If anything, the tests measure a student’s endurance.  If your child is taught the value of (unplugged) relaxing, and the importance of replenishing her energy, anxiety over the next test will be more manageable, and she’ll have more energy to continuing to sit for the tests, and then move on to more meaningful activities.

The tension-filled rituals of preparing for the tests and the anxiety of everyone involved can skew perspectives.  Sitting outside, looking up at the sky or over at the horizon, playing a game, daydreaming or puttering around are the best therapies for putting the Standardized tests in their place.

Sit in reverie and watch the changing color of the waves that break upon the idle seashore of the mind.  ~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 
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Monday, March 17, 2014

Writing to Reflect Real Life: Why the Personal Narrative is so Important to Students: Pre-K - 12th Grade

As you grow up in this world you realize people really don’t give a sh*t about what you feel or what you think. --David Coleman at NY State Department of Education presentation, April 2011

As one of the architects of the Common Core, which now places emphasis on evidence-based writing and the synthesis of other peoples’ ideas (CC Shift 5), Mr. Coleman dismisses personal writing as frivolous.  His comment above is prefaced by his criticism of the teaching of “the presentation of a personal matter” in schools. On the contrary, the personal narrative is a critical and relevant teaching tool for students ranging from Preschool to 12th grade. To leave massive populations of kids behind in devaluing the written expression of their personal experiences, and to try to divorce public schools from a genre of expression that our culture emulates- -doesn’t make sense. 

The Common Core claims to aim students toward college and employment readiness.  So, what’s additionally peculiar here is that this also architect of the college application process would “forget” that an applying student’s personal narrative is the primary audition piece that Admissions Boards scrutinize.  

Devaluing or eliminating the personal narrative from an English class in any grade runs counter to how students develop as writers and thinkers, and, how our culture  learns and instructs through the personal narrative form.  Let’s remember, Socrates urged all to “Know Thyself.”

For decades, the educational psyche has always encouraged students to use their own lives for writing and communicating.  How many of us remember Show and Tell as a social time to tell something about ourselves which helped us to figure out who we were among those other kids in our first schooling days?   This is the tomato I grew in our garden…  This is my grandfather’s Yankee cap…

Through her Writing Project, educator and writer Lucy Caulkins embraces the personal narrative as a genre to help teachers help students with the writing process.   Caulkins’ program, developed over decades with Columbia’s Teachers College, mandated by the Old Standards and implemented in schools across the country, now appears to be stranded with the onslaught of the New Standards.  Experienced teachers who know the value of working with the personal narrative have been trying to calibrate it among the new demands of more synthetic and evaluative writing.  But it is in danger of being choked out of lesson plans.

There are abundant reasons why the personal narrative resonates with students of all ages and abilities across the socio-economic school scape. 

In working with urban middle school students living in poverty or learning English, as well as with more affluent students, this type of writing is developmentally appropriate because it solicits the grist of a young student’s life as writing material. 

Children at this age are appropriately egocentric: They organize the world according where they are in relationship to it.  A child who is just learning English, or a child with learning differences can first orally tell about an event in his life.  A partner transcribes the story.  Once on paper, the writer can further develop language and organize the story, as per Caulkins’ drafting process. Other students can more directly deliver their story straight to the page.  The most enduring message that teachers of writing can deliver to students:  A writer’s thought process is as individual as s/he is.  As a writing template, the personal narrative provides differentiation and invites diversity. 

Next:  As they gather the facts around their own story, students are engaged with concrete thinking. These, they categorize, as ideas are organized and developed around this chosen life event. A student’s process is also scaffolded to more formal thinking as students move from ‘this or that happened to me’ – to – ‘what this means to me today’, for reflective and contemplative writing.

Another way that the personal narrative form works is that students without previous opportunities to obtain knowledge of novels, or a strong background in reading, are first invited to look at their organically grown story, which is a solid way to establish experiential knowledge of narrative structure before being asked to analyze other narratives in novels or informational texts.  More privileged students who have been exposed to books are perhaps able to run more speedily with this kind of writing assignment, and can be directed to aim for greater scope and depth. Yet, ask any professional writer: The process is ongoing.

Moving to high school:  Again, we have young individuals developing on the spectrum of egocentricity.  Some of them are still concrete thinkers; others have developed into more formal thinkers.  All of them have even more stories to tell. With critical life choices looming closer, this narrative form becomes even more relevant to teach: College-bound high school juniors attack it with clear intent: This is their audition piece for college applications.  For students moving directly into employment, it is a narrative that reflects and promotes their experience and values.  Sharing personal narratives creates inclusion and builds community:  We listen to the student who reads his story about when, as a camp counselor, he ferried a boatload of children across a lake when the motor suddenly died… The BOCES student on a vocational path relates how he scaled a 60-foot tree…  Another student shares how she learned to navigate Celiac disease, and how it has piqued her interest in studying nutrition.

Students who have been encouraged to explore the landscape of their own lives have a stronger foundation in thinking and writing from which to approach, when it is developmentally appropriate in higher grades, more synthetic writing with its quest for, and, examination of, evidence in informational or fictional narratives. Pushing students prematurely via the demands of the Common Core toward this kind of writing with an “agenda” will make writing seem even more difficult and inaccessible to kids.  It’s an oddly Victorian approach to treat children as miniature adults, and to ignore all of the research and studies that reveal all of the complexity with which children actually learn. 

As teachers, we continuously ask ourselves: What are we teaching that will actually prepare our kids for the adult world?  

Let’s look at the bigger picture: Our culture is saturated with what Coleman refers to as personal matters.  The personal narrative is everywhere, in long and short forms.  It’s on the last page of every New York Times Magazine section, and in medicine, it is becoming more widely used as a way to give doctors greater holistic knowledge of their patients.  It is a treatment tool in the Recovery field.  It won this year’s Academy Award:  12 Years a Slave. The shelves in physical and virtual bookstores are filled with memoirs.  People with a story can now self-publish. The scientific story slam, where scientists relate their own stories of set backs and discoveries is breaking new ground as an entertainment and instructional venue. (See TED Talks.) Think of the impact if schools more fully embrace the personal in the narrative for aspiring STEM students. 

Personal narratives enlighten, instruct and reflect.  They invite identification with pain, joy, hope, absurdity, determination and uncertainty.  They offer escape into someone else’s world. It’s a form that began with every ancient community and still creates bridges over perceived differences. It mirrors the health of a culture that values memory, reflection, diversity, and individuality.

To eliminate this humane writing genre as a primary teaching tool would be an attempt to sever schools from the real world, and make them scarily Orwellian; narrow, colorless, and all pent up.


David Greene writes about how the Reform movement is endangering creativity in teaching.  Read the article here.