Sunday, April 24, 2016

Thoughts on Testing

Over the last couple of weeks, my students took the new state test, a test only in its second year of implementation and which the state is considering getting rid of already. The M-STEP is a test I am not allowed to see, but it is administered with the goal of measuring the effectiveness of my teaching and the effectiveness of my school district. I tried my best to predict what kinds of questions they might ask my students. I tried to clarify the various terms that might be used for a single concept so that students wouldn't miss a question because they were unfamiliar with the vocabulary of the test. I increased the amount of informational reading in my classroom and have had students writing in response to nonfiction articles on a regular basis. These are all things I've done in addition to the reading and writing workshop approach I've worked to implement for years.

But I still can't tell you with certainty that my students will be successful on the state test. 

About 19 years ago, I went to work for a small Michigan school district where I was to administer the old state assessment for the second time in my career (I had taught in another district the year before to cover for a teacher who had taken a leave of absence).  Only 45% of my students had passed the state assessment the year before I arrived at my new school district. After having been in my reading and writing workshop for the school year, 80% of my students passed the state assessment. I considered this significant progress and felt certain that not only was the test fairly closely aligned with my teaching, but that I had successfully created a classroom climate in which students felt confident in their literacy skills and had tried their best when the state test came around. I did not teach to the test. I was and am still passionately opposed to doing that.

In the 19 years since I administered that state assessment so early in my teaching career, I have worked diligently and conscientiously to improve my classroom instruction. I've been selected as a Fulbright Memorial Fund Scholar. I've completed 30 graduate hours above my masters degree in education. I've participated in the National Writing Project Summer Invitational. I've presented research at a national convention for the National Council of Teachers of English. I've provided professional development in the teaching of reading and writing to teachers from numerous school districts from multiple Michigan counties. Every year I read multiple professional books in order to increase my understanding of student learning. I've spent thousands of dollars out of my own pocket towards professional learning experiences, and I have implemented new strategies from my professional reading and professional development every year to try to improve my classroom instruction.

And yet, when you look at my students' test scores, it appears that not only have I not grown as a professional, I have gotten significantly worse as a teacher. Does that make any sense?

I feel a great sense of failure. The idea that in order to appear to be an effective teacher, I really must teach directly to the test has been weighing heavily on me this past week. But in order to truly be an effective teacher, I can't allow myself to do this. That isn't authentic teaching, and it doesn't take into account the real needs of the human beings I work with every day.

I'm tired of reading published resignation letters from burned out teachers across the country, but I can relate to their frustration and feelings of inadequacy and defeat.  Even so, I'm not going anywhere. As hard as it is to feel like I'm drowning in the failure of the educational policies of the state and federal government, the kids I work with are human beings, not data points, and they are worth my continued efforts to grow as a teacher.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Lighting Out for the Territories

 “Stories are like spiders, with all they long legs, and stories are like spiderwebs, which man gets himself all tangled up in but which look pretty when you see them under a leaf in the morning dew, and in the elegant way that they connect to one another, each to each.”
― Neil Gaiman - Anansi Boys


“Stories are webs, interconnected strand to strand, and you follow each story to the center, because the center is the end. Each person is a strand of the story.” - Neil Gaiman - Anansi Boys


Yesterday afternoon, after carefully considering various modes of transportation, my friend Rob departed for a parallel universe. Perhaps the horse he asked his wife to bring him in his final days appeared at last, or he caught the plane he believed he'd missed, but I prefer to imagine him transported through space on the back of a mechanical Hoopoe, arriving safely on the moon Kahani.  The Sadness factories are far behind as he lowers himself into the steaming waters of the Oceans of the Streams of Story and sips pure strands of narrative, renews his subscription. He's only stepped out for a bit to renew his subscription.

 I met Rob, a brilliant writer and a teacher, ten years ago at Bard College. We were in a week long summer writing class together called 'Thinking Through Narrative".  I have to admit that on the first day, as I entered the small classroom and looked for a seat at the heavy wooden table, the long-haired hippie who was already sitting seemed possibly dangerous. It would have been okay had he only been smiling with all his teeth, but this guy was giggling as he watched other writers come in. I selected a seat a safe distance from him. He turned out to be one of the most important mentors I would ever have. 

A few lessons learned/reinforced by Rob:
1. Read widely. Sometimes it's difficult when you're burning in schema. That shouldn't make you feel stupid.
2. Life is full of absurdities, and the best response is to laugh at them.
3. Even when you feel powerless, there are still ways to protest oppression.
4. Nitroglycerin left "safely" in a snowbank on a warm day is not really safe.


As I look back on the years we've known each other, I realize we never stopped Thinking through Narrative.  I have miles and miles of saved emails with responses to responses embedded into even more embedded responses (this was/is to become a book). Conversations with Rob were exhausting. "Have you read this? Have you read this?"  I had to take notes to keep up with all of the reading I hadn't done. My bookshelves now house the works of Mikhail Bakhtin, Louise Rosenblatt, Paolo Friere, Jonathan Kozol. Ruth Vinz (Rob's mentor), Italo Calvino, and so many others. I began reading the work of literary theorists to better understand the philosophical foundations of my discipline. Rob encouraged to consider the "why" behind the "how".



I can't look around my classroom without finding evidence of Rob's influence, from the books we both liked reading with kids to the sometimes bizarre music I still force kids to write journals to (Rob's passion for music surely equaled his passion for reading and writing).  Our stories are connected by common threads. 


At the end of his life, Rob told his wife that he was going to a parallel universe. He told her to look for the signs he would leave so that she could find him again. But I think he's been leaving signs all along. That's how writers get to be immortal.



Monday, February 22, 2016

I'm Doing This Wrong

In anticipation of the state test coming  up in April, I've spent some time over the last couple of weeks teaching my students how to write effective argumentative pieces. They've studied a cartoon crime scene, gathered evidence, written claims, developed warrants to explain how their evidence supports their claims, and practiced writing this all up in essay form. From there we moved along to writing arguments of policy, and they practiced gathering evidence from informational text to support a claim, brainstormed possible counterarguments to their claims, and practiced weaving all of that into an essay. 

I made sure they knew what I was up to. I told them I didn't want them to get clobbered by a test. I didn't want them to feel stupid or frustrated or unprepared.  I gave them topics I thought would be interesting to them, even though the topics on the test might not be engaging.  And they seemed to trust me and my intentions. And they tried. Some of them were quite successful. But for too many, this was just an exercise, and all the detail and voice and passion they'd developed when they were writing topics completely of their own choice disappeared.


A week and a half ago, I learned that my friend, Rob, who was diagnosed with cancer in August, will not survive.  His wife, Mary Ann, a brilliant writer and artist, has kept friends and family informed of Rob's progress through regular emails, but more importantly, she has been documenting their increasingly heartbreaking story through blog posts. She is writing to navigate her way through an unfamiliar landscape of pain and loss. Her words comfort those of us who read them, and I am reminded that writing is a survival skill.

If it is true that we read to know we are not alone, then we write to make sense of the world. This is what Mary Ann has been doing, learning through written narrative those lessons no one wants to talk about.

I'm writing this because authentic writing, like Mary Ann's, inspires writing. I'm writing this to prepare for the loss of a friend. I'm writing this to remind myself that I have more important work to do with my students than preparation for a test. It's time to get back to the good work.


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Time to Disturb the Universe

It's the week before Christmas break, and everyone's tired. The kids are restless and unfocused...except for the eighth graders in my school, who are preparing for the annual O'Dellmer III project.  O'Dellmer III is an Earth-like planet inhabitable by humans, and the kids, who hope that their team will be selected by NASA to colonize it, must create a government system to protect its new citizens, select green energy sources to construct there while protecting its environment, and share their plans with their grade level in a multimedia presentation.  Christmas may be coming, but the kids are still focused on learning.

While students work in small groups, spread across three adjoining rooms, I wander from place toplace, listen in, ask questions, and answer a million questions. Some students have chosen a dictatorship for their planet. "It's easier because you don't have to have a Preamble to your Constitution," says one student, "or even a Constitution."  "But assassination is also easy," replies another boy. Although these two are not working in the same group, a lively discussion about the relative advantages and disadvantages of different types of government ensues.  "Communism looks good in theory, but I don't think it's ever worked," observes one boy.  In the end, the first student has decided that his planet will have a government modeled after our own.   The reason for his choice?  It's the most familiar, and therefore, the easiest to work with (he IS still a kid). 

Others are debating the laws they'll have for their planet and the rights they'll reserve for their citizens. They're thinking deeply about their own personal values and trying to decide how best to create a world where they would want to live.  Some students share their idealism and attempt to create a system of government that they hope will result in world peace. Others declare that world peace is impossible, that conflict and violence are inevitable.  Everywhere I turn, I find thoughtful discussions and students using excellent problem-solving skills.  (Yes, they are normal eighth graders, and they do come up with weird middle school ideas, like growing Dorritos as major crops, having a jello-like substance for terrain, domesticating dinosaurs and using them for transportation,etc., but the point is, they are meaningfully engaged in school work.)

I remind students that complex problems cannot have emotional solutions. I ask them to examine their decisions to determine whether they really reflect their values.  We learn from each other. Everyone who contributes to this project will take away knowledge they can keep. Although I've oversimplified the explanation of the project expectations here, I'm certain it's clear that higher order thinking skills are strongly emphasized.

Another colleague and I sat down recently to design a project-based learning experience for our seventh graders for the spring. We were excited to break down the walls between language arts, social studies, and science, and plan meaningful, engaging learning experiences for our students. Then I had a horrible thought. I pulled up the state testing schedule for the spring, and it looks like our school computers will be reserved for testing for approximately three months, severely limiting, if not completely eliminating, our ability to use computers for student instruction. We're making plans anyway, and hoping for the best.

The test itself is a newly developed assessment which will be given this year only as a placeholder until a new test is developed. The data we receive from it will have no meaning, as it will be a baseline for nothing and cannot be compared to any previous test. But the testing company must make its money, and the state must still have a way to define winners and losers.  I have no idea what's going to be on this one time only test, but I'm positive that none of the skills my students are gaining from project-based learning will be measured. A large part of me would like to tell the state what they can do with their test.  I want to refuse to subject my students to the hours and hours of testing that will replace their instructional time (after which none will feel successful or motivated or even competent).  

But I have too much to lose.  Outside of the classroom, there's no one colonizing another planet and shaping it to reflect their ideals. On my new planet, when the politicians and the testing companies come, we'll lock them out of the building and teach. Who's with me?

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Digital Islands

"We read to know we are not alone."   - C.S. Lewis

At the end of last school year, a parent emailed the seventh grade English teacher wanting to know if and how her advanced children would be challenged in eighth grade English, my class. Using a workshop approach for most of my teaching career, I'm used to differentiating instruction to meet the needs of students working at a variety of levels and abilities in my classroom, but the question made me wonder if I was really doing enough for those advanced readers and writers. Are my expectations high enough for them?

After attending a technology convention last spring, I became excited about the idea of cyber book clubs, and after rounding up my most enthusiastic future students and introducing them to the concept, they agreed that this sounded like a great way for them to read and engage in higher level discussions with others who were willing to participate.  They were not interested in doing extra work, but they wanted something to do that would stretch them as learners.  Over the summer, I set up an account on a website called Collaborize Classroom, and tried to figure out how this was going to work.

To make a long story short, a few weeks into the experiment, I felt underwhelmed by its success. I polled the students to determine whether or not their perceptions mirrored my own, and they sort of did. While they enjoyed going to the site to engage in discussion about books by responding to one another's posts, the students were only visiting the website when prompted to do so. What they said was missing was a more in-depth face to face conversation about  books and reading with other thoughtful readers. I had replaced human interaction with digital interaction, and a sense of connectivity with others was lost.

Really, I should have predicted this in the first place. People are frequently more tuned in to their electronic devices than they are to the human beings who are physically present. But given the choice between staring at a smart phone and reading a book or interfacing with their friends, the type of students I am attempting to challenge are much less interested in the electronic device.

With input from the kids, I've gone back to the drawing board to design something more meaningful for them and for me. Sure, we'll keep some sort of a web presence so that students can create a wall for book recommendations. This is what they think is appropriate and helpful. They understand that good readers always have a "next book" list going.  But time for human interaction in reading and writing circles will replace the cyber book club.While I won't get many bonus points on my teacher evaluation for incorporating technology into the classroom with this project, I expect the outcome will make the loss worth it.  We'll keep tweaking it until we get it right. That's what learning is about.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Miraculous Gelatinous Globs

I work in a germ factory, and the bugs got busy early this year. Watching students sneeze on their desks all day makes me cringe. I instinctively  back away to some place I figure is out of the line of fire, but realistically, I'm sure I'm exposed to everything the kids carry in the door.  They aren't concerned at all with the prevention of spreading their germs. "Mrs. Boswell, can I go to the bathroom? My stomach hurts really bad!" is too often uttered dangerously close to my face, no matter how quickly I try to back up.

And then I get a call from my own kids, college students, and I listen to them sniffle and and cough and talk about their worries and their joys and wish there were some way to protect us all from the ailments, physical, mental, and emotional, life has to offer.

A few weeks ago a colleague introduced me to water kefir grains. I had never heard of them before and set about researching them myself as soon as I got home from work. These rather unappetizing-looking little gelatinous globs of goodness mixed with water and sugar create a beverage that works as a probiotic.  Reading as many articles as I could put my hands on, I learned that water kefir is credited with boosting immunity, lowering stress, improving blood pressure and cholesterol levels, clearing up flawed complexions, improving the ability to focus, treating ADHD and depression, improving digestion, preventing some forms of cancer, and even shrinking tumors one already has to name a few of its alleged benfits. These gooey lumps of bacteria and yeast sounded like the cure for almost everything. I had to buy some!

I placed my Amazon order and waited eagerly for the substance that would change my life and the lives of my family members. While everyone else suffered winter illnesses, we would remain immune. We'd be happier, healthier, smarter, stronger, and maybe even better looking. Who knows?

It only took a few days for my grains to arrive, and I started fermenting them right away. The first few batches of kefir water weren't very fizzy, and the drink had a weird, yeasty smell and taste about it. I was disappointed, I'll admit.  But I kept working at it, experimenting with different fermentation times and with different flavorings, and I sent some up to my kids in college.  My batches of kefir water got better and tastier, and I started drinking it every day. After they had had their kefir grains for about a week, my son came home from college, and I offered him a glass of my kefir water, which he enjoyed. And then he confessed that he and his sister had not tried theirs yet. "We were afraid," he told me. And if they ended up not liking it, they weren't sure what they should tell me.

I can't say that I really feel stronger, healthier, happier, smarter, more focused, or better looking since I've been drinking the kefir water, but I am hopeful that drinking something healthy for me will help keep me from getting sick this winter. My students are still sneezing all over everything, and I still cringe, but I've decided not to get sick. I don't really know if the kids are taking care of their kefir grains and drinking the product regularly, but I am hopeful that they are and that it will make a difference for their health. I want them to be happy, healthy, strong, and smart.  Even at my age, I still want to believe in miracles. If not for myself, at least for my children.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Disturbances in the Force

I've been feeling uncharacteristically negative lately, and the reason for my foul attitude finally dawned on me. During the summer, I can easily fit in a variety of regular exercise. Now that my time is no longer my own, it's much more difficult to work in time for fitness.  After school meetings, grading papers, lesson plans, after school meetings, in addition to keeping up a household and more after school meetings makes it very easy to skip the afternoon workout I might have every intention of completing.  The later I get home, the later I'll be up finishing work for the next day. It's a terrible habit, and I've been paying for it. It's time to make a change. 

It would come as no surprise to those who know me that I was never an athlete. Growing up, I read books and practiced music. Running for any respectable distance was simply beyond me, and I have always joked that if you threw something at me, I was most likely to duck.  Regular physical activity came to me later in life, and after experiencing first hand the benefits of increased strength, lower stress levels, and a new sense of confidence, I knew I could never return to a sedentary life. 

As working out became easier, I began to set new challenges for myself. I started distance cycling because I didn't know I could do it. It turns out I can. Two years ago, I challenged myself to try running. I've never understood runners. When I pass them on my bike and observe their tormented facial expressions, I struggle to reconcile what I see with the passion they express when they talk about running. Runners are addicts. Miserable-looking addicts.  Some of my colleagues were trying out the Couch to 5K running approach with considerable success, so I started too.  As an incentive to keep going, I signed up for the Warrior Dash, a 5K race with obstacles.  This would cost me money, so I couldn't back out, and I was determined not to die. It took me well over an hour to get through it, and unlike other people who ran in packs, I did it on my own.  The end of the race required me to leap over fire, and I eventually lost a toenail because of my unfortunate landing, but the confidence I gained from attempting to do something I didn't know I could do was well worth the loss. Besides, a very attractive new toenail grew in within a few months, so that's all good now. 

After developing plantar fasciitis and now arthritis in one of my knees, I've been advised by three different doctors to give up on running. But knowing I need exercise so that I can be nice to people, I have settled on a compromise (which I haven't shared with any of them): I only run downhill.  Perhaps my running days are almost officially over, but I know I'll find some other exercise to take its place. (I must admit here, I never really learned to enjoy running; it mostly feels great when you stop). Whether I'm attending yoga classes, working out at a facility with weights and elliptical machines, or riding my bicycle, working out helps me face the challenges of work and life more effectively.  Working out in the afternoon on my way home allows me to process a difficult day and prepare to go back in the next day with a better attitude. 

No more excuses. I'm packing up my gym bag tonight and scheduling my workouts for the week. Taking time to take care of me will make me more positive and effective at my job, and I'll be nicer to people. The classroom is no place for a pessimist. If you haven't started the habit yet, go out and exercise. Do what you can do. It'll change your life.