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.