Testing, Testing

Screen Shot 2013-10-23 at 6.41.18 AMIt’s a common misconception that the Hippocratic oath says, “First, do no harm.” It actually says, “I will take care that they suffer no hurt or damage.” If teachers had to swear by this oath and face consequences if they didn’t adhere to it, very few would be able to walk in on Monday morning and administer the PARCC test. Even trying to haphazardly prepare my students, all of who are several years behind grade level, feels harmful.

Next week, our school will begin a month long slog through the PARCC testing fiasco. Each grade level will be tested for a week, then there’s make ups, and the SBA science for 7th grade, and the SBA in Spanish Language Arts for students who’ve been in the country less than three years, and the LAS LINKS testing Spanish proficiency after we’ve just finished the WIDA ACCESS, oh, and end of course unit tests. There is little time to teach any more.

Yet, for ESL and Special Ed classes that are created at ability-level rather than grade level (meaning there are multiple grade levels in a class), I’ll spend the next three weeks without all my students together. Our learning is on hold while each week a different grade level isn’t in the room. Do I go on and re-teach each group? Do I create separate projects each week? There are no books to consult about how to approach teaching during testing when it lasts a month!

Here are other considerations.  We have no access to Internet sites like Discovery Ed, streaming for short videos from Youtube, or other educational sites like Brainpop during the testing. There’s no access to Ipads, computer labs, or laptops during testing because we have to conserve our broadband. Luckily, we’ve managed to keep the library. At one point, there was talk we wouldn’t even have access to the library for three weeks.

But surely there’s something to gain, right?  The information we receive will be so beneficial, so noteworthy, there’s no doubt we’ll see the great affects of this testing. Learning will be transformed and misconceptions cleared up–at least that’s what we’re told by the company and government officials who push them.

In reality, we don’t even see the PARCC scores until November, which makes them inconsequential. We don’t have the same students by that time. The kids have no consequences—except if you’re in high school and you graduate with a certificate of completion rather than a diploma, which means many of my students will drop out long before that’s a possibility.

But, I’m going to tell you a secret: I think kids learn more after the testing is over than any other time of the year. Why? There’s no pressure. Teachers start doing these amazing projects that are tied to learning but are fun. (Some might say, why don’t they do that all year long? They do on a small scale, but there’s not enough time and too much pressure to prepare for practice tests, drill students on vocabulary, complete common assessments, and take practice tests). Everyone relaxes, and it’s when you’re relaxed, you feel comfortable enough to learn. There’s joy in the students because no one is talking about tests. A colleague said in a meeting the other day he had less stress when he used to go to crime scenes and autopsy bodies than he has now as a teacher.

I’m heartened by the rumors of protest—though I realize what a headache this causes those who’ve done their best to prepare and manage the testing—because it means students are actively participating in their education, they’re as fed up with this system as some teachers are, and they want to see change, too.

Yet, I would remind them and especially their parents, none of this will change as long as people who are elected into office continue to tell voters they care for students while underfunding education at every corner, or as I witnessed on Monday, February 16, at the Roundhouse, as long as politicians extol teachers with grandiose speeches, and in the next motion vote Skandera (a person lacking any education degree or any classroom experience) into a legitimate position as Secretary of Education, thereby supporting the unfair, punitive evaluation system, which will ultimately link teacher pay to the tests.

To steal a line from Yeats, right now in the government and the PED, “the best lack all conviction while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.”

Who really profits from all this, you wonder? Pearson, the UK based company who created PARCC, makes over a billion dollars a year. In fact, they make roughly three-fourths of their profit off the US alone. They probably spend a little of that money to promote a UK soccer team or two, the most American of sports. Isn’t it great that your tax dollars could be helping a UK soccer team win the Champion’s League?

Do you root for Man U or Chelsea?


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Prospero Año Nuevo!


As a brand new year heads toward us, I found an article about creating a Love List. Courtney Carver on her blog bemorewithless writes about how to avoid the guilty feelings of undone resolutions. She suggests making a list of things you’d love to do, rather than use deadlines. By writing down things you love to do, you’ll increase the likelihood you’ll actually follow through.

My friend over at PoMoGolightly posted about Carver’s list, too. She’ll be painting postcards throughout the year because she realized she usually puts up her paints during the school year when she gets busy. If you go to her website and add your address, Bev will paint a postcard and send it to you sometime during the New Year. This way, she’ll continue to do what she loves throughout the year. Perfect idea!

I won’t be painting any postcards, but hopefully, I’ll be reading books, writing poetry, learning more knitting stitches, and playing with the boys. I’d also love to take an online Spanish class in the fall, but I don’t want to add deadlines or put too much pressure on myself. There are no real surprises on this list, but perhaps this means I’m already doing things I love.

One nice thing about children is that they tend to only want to do what they love. When we toasted the New Year with sparkling cider, the boys said they want to roller skate and play soccer in 2015.

What would you put on your Love List?


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The Polar Express


Last week, we took the boys to The Polar Express in Durango, Colorado. Dressed in superhero and ninja turtle pajamas, we climbed aboard the train, which was decorated with boughs of holly and lit with twinkling lights. Ribbons and ornaments adorned the greenery adding to the festive spirit. After hot chocolate and listening to a reading of the book The Polar Express, we ended up at the North Pole where we saw Santa, who boarded the train and handed out bells to the children.

Javi jumped up and down and told us it was the best day of his life. Kiki, ever the skeptic, couldn’t quite believe we went all the way to the North Pole. Like the little boy in the book, he had his doubts. He thought it would take a lot longer to get to the North Pole. When he told Javi this, Javi seemed confused. He asked Kiki, “Why would they lie?”

He’s right; we were deceptive. But isn’t it fun to occasionally suspend belief? To believe in the magic that sometimes actually happens in the world? We spend so much time facing difficult realities as adults, it’s nice to remember a world before we had to deal with these things, before it seemed impossible to reach the North Pole on a quick train ride.

We ate our cookies, sang carols, and danced with the elves as we returned to Durango. After a snowy walk back to the hotel, we returned to our normal everyday lives.

When have you suspended belief?

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Starting Over


A few months ago, I started knitting. I’m making all the rookie mistakes and dropping stitches like Hansel and Grettle’s crumbs. Though it’s mostly relaxing, at times I feel frustrated.

The other day, I talked to a woman about a shawl I’m making. I told her I started changing the color every few inches, but I wanted to learn to seed stitch, switching from knit to purl every other stitch. I explained how I went ahead and just started changing the stitch in the middle of the shawl. Now that I’ve practiced, I’ve become more proficient. I thought it might make a funky design with the different types of stitches spread throughout the shawl.

She said once she learns a new stitch and has practiced for a while, she pulls out what she’s made and starts over. For a few days, I couldn’t bear pulling out the stitches and starting over when I’d worked so hard. But last night, I grabbed the end of the shawl and yanked it out. I knew the shawl would look better if I just started over.

This won’t be the only thing I’ll be redoing. I learned last Saturday I didn’t pass my National Boards. I’m going to have to really think about whether I’m going to pull out the dropped stitches of my work and start over. If I decide to do it, I’m sure I’ll grow, but for now, the idea of starting over just feels overwhelming.

What have you ever had to start over?


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The Waiting Game

Screen Shot 2013-05-02 at 5.54.12 AMI know how to prepare for the end times (though I haven’t done it—our house has little storage for all that water and canned fruit), or a zombie apocalypse (again, I haven’t followed through, but I’ve read a lot of articles), yet I’m not quite sure how to prepare for knowing if I passed the National Boards or not.

The folks over at the National Boards sent an email titled “Prepare for Scores.” There are so many other titles I could use: “Prepare to Throw Up,” “Prepare for a Nervous Breakdown,” or “Prepare to Be Devastated.”

I hate to wait, and the email said they’d send another email with the release date. Then, they’ll send an email that the scores have actually been released. It’s like they’re great big bullies with your report card dangling over your head, and even if you jumped as high as you can, you’d never reach it.

I’m left playing the waiting game, which in this case means hunkering down with a bag of Oreo’s and a bottle of wine every night. Is that so wrong?

How do you wait?


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The Sandlot


For the past few days, I’ve walked the boys to a little park down the street, and they’ve played soccer. Neighborhood kids riding by on bikes have seen us and called out, “I’ll be right back. I have to ask my mom!” They return decked out in shin guards, long socks, and jerseys.

It’s pretty great to watch six and seven year-old boys run around pretending to juke and jive like Pelé or Beckham or Ronaldo. They make their own rules, call their own fouls, monitor out of bounds, and banter about the legitimacy of their goals. Sometimes they stop to watch planes fly by or check out the rising moon. The other boys can’t tell the twins apart, so they gave the twins the same nickname: “Tiny.” As in, “Give the ball to Tiny!”

After some pretty spectacular play, one by one they were called home for dinner, only instead of hearing a mother’s voice call from down the street, cell phones rang. I heard the same response I’m sure mothers have heard for centuries, “Yeah, yeah, I’ll be home in a minute.”

Eventually, I walked the boys back home feeling like I’d witnessed the movie “The Sandlot” in real life.

When’s the last time you played in the park?


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Can You Hear Me Now?

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A counselor once taught me an active listening technique. During a conversation, each person re-states or paraphrases what the other said to ensure understanding. An example might be, “I feel angry when you forget to feed the dog.” The other person will re-phase, “I heard you say you feel angry when I forget to feed Ladders.” When done correctly, this technique allows both people to vent their feelings and ideas and hopefully hear exactly what the other person is saying and feeling.

In some ways, I feel like active listening is missing in the dialogue about education. Teacher bashing, union bashing, and curriculum bashing gets a lot of media attention. Teachers rarely get a chance to feel heard. In fact, when debates arise, no one turns to me calmly and asks, “You’re a teacher; what do you think?” the way they might address a lawyer or a doctor.

Usually, the person has already made some condescending statement as though he/she knows what teachers experience on a day-to-day level—the stress and pressure of trying to differentiate instruction for every student in the room, the heartache of dealing with students who have little to no home support, the frustration of completing mindless paperwork for an evaluation where the administrator spends more time looking at an evidence binder, rather than watching the interaction in the classroom—and then this person who has no idea continues to argue every point.

I rarely, if ever, argue with other people about their jobs because I don’t know anything about what they experience. Just because people have been a student in a classroom somehow makes them experts in education, even if they’ve never had any experience being a teacher. I wouldn’t let someone whose been a dental patient tell a dentist what’s the best way to do his/her job. But somewhere along the line, teachers have been devalued to a point that the basic respect of listening doesn’t apply.

And I get that there are bad teachers out there. But there are really crappy accountants and doctors and musicians and CEOs and professors and garbage collectors and wait staff. Somehow these positions—including doctors and CEOs who have incredible power and influence over people’s lives—aren’t nearly as vilified. Even with all the debates and conflict associated with healthcare, I don’t think I’ve seen a headline state: “Bad Doctors Must Go to Reform Healthcare.” People would think that’s ridiculous. But insert teachers for doctors and education for healthcare, and it sounds like a rallying call I’ve heard a lot lately.

Teachers can have tremendous influence on students; yet, two other indicators are more accurate predictors of how a student will fair in the world: socio-economic level and parents’ education. I could list a dozen different academic articles, which support this thesis. We want to believe education can be an equalizer for those students who live in poverty, and for a tiny fraction, it is an equalizer.

However, after reading articles discussing the John Hopkins Education study in Baltimore, it’s evident we need to look at education in a brand new way—one in which the entire family and community is educated.

• We need to create space for multi-generational learning, where parents are educated alongside their children on important topics like parenting, financial literacy, and health issues because ignorance in these areas takes a toll on the entire country.

• We need to create programs where 3rd graders aren’t retained just to “do over” the material in another classroom. The students should actually receive one-on-one instruction or small-group instruction isolating the skills students struggle with so they can move on to the next grade level truly knowing the material.

• They should have classes in music, art, drama, and P.E. more than just once in a while.

• We should teach students to grow their own food and learn about healthy cooking to avoid the need for healthcare expenses later.

• We should include a variety of trade classes, not by tracking students, but by recognizing students’ talents and interests in these areas and recognizing the importance of these trades for our country.

• Students identified with possible learning disabilities, should be given diagnostic testing within months, not years.

• Students should receive counseling, receive assistance from a social worker, and receive medical care when they need it.

This is true educational reform, not testing, or driving away teachers because the expectation to salary ratio is so out of balance, or micro-managing teachers, or feeding money to a corporation.

A thousand other teachers have ideas like these and even better ones. The problem? Very few people can hear these ideas from teachers over the criticism and insults flung at them in the media, and in person, almost daily.

Who doesn’t listen to you?

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