Wonder World > Teaching Journal
End of Year Reflections in a World of Testing
May 29, 2015
Joseph Addison once said, “Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.” I have always known that reading should be an integral part of my classroom. It was what took me away from the here and now when I was a student to far away places, put me in the mind of others, gave me perspective and wisdom. When I first started teaching, I couldn’t wait to implement independent reading with my students, to develop and nurture a culture of readers. I just knew I could teach them literacy skills that would help them be more productive citizens, better students, and more thoughtful people. Somehow along the way, that got lost. I think it all started when I realized that my students weren’t going to be judged on their ability to read well and I wasn’t going to be evaluated on how well my students enjoyed English class.
As an eight-year high school teacher who serves predominantly at-risk students, I have certainly felt the unending pressure standardized testing places upon the school, the teachers, the administration, and the students. My school was labeled “persistently low-achieving” (PLA) for the first seven years I taught there, based almost solely on test scores and “ineffective leadership”. We are just now climbing out of that status. After Senate Bill 1 was passed changing the accountability system in Kentucky, a new leadership team was installed, over half the staff was replaced, and the student population shifted a bit to include fewer Special Needs and English Language Learners. I taught 10th grade for years, so while it was on my radar that my student test scores were a significant part of the overall percentage ranking for our school, I never felt so pressured that I couldn’t teach in the way I felt would best serve students. To be honest, I never felt like the scores really mattered because mine were usually flat or went up a bit and nobody made a big fuss about it in my formal evaluations. After all, I am Nationally Board Certified, I work many long hours to serve my students, and I don’t think anyone felt that the scores didn’t rise because I didn’t do my job well enough. Overall, my school began to see gains in scores at the 11th and 12th grade levels. Administrators attributed that to the community of teachers that my new leadership team had helped build, the initiatives we had implemented to assist students, and the professional development we had invested heavily in using grant money for school turnaround.
Then, I began teaching 12th grade English.
You see, I never really understood what CCR meant in practical terms. It means, at least in Kentucky, that every single 12th grade student who graduates high school should meet the predetermined scores of 18, 19, & 20 on the English, math, and reading portions of the ACT test (respectively). It means that career readiness is a bonus, and those students that are eligible can demonstrate this through skills-based assessments as well. It means that as a senior English teacher, I am responsible for ensuring that all students who haven’t met those benchmarks do by the end of the school year. Period. That is ultimately how we are all measured, after all, by the public, the parents, the media. Year one of this pressure, I felt good, like I could help them all, change the world, innovate, provide differentiated instruction in any number of ways, etc. My teaching partner and I worked well together, designing and implementing common assessments, helping each other when needed, trying new things. Our scores lagged. We made measurable progress and helped many students reach benchmarks, but still fell short of the percentage in our school’s goal.
This brings us year two of 12th grade English. Sometime around October of this school year, I began to feel the strain of classroom management issues with at-risk students, pressure for students to perform, and lack of new ways to help them reach those benchmarks. I hadn’t taught any reading other than non-fiction outside of AP Literature and Composition in over a year. The reasons I came to work every morning became more and more unclear. I began looking for new opportunities, a career change, to take me out of the classroom. I focused on my adjunct English course, college students in certification programs that really seemed to value and respect what I had to offer them. I really wasn’t sure what I was doing to help any of the kids I was teaching. My administration was supportive of innovation, but I wasn’t feeling up to innovating. Standardized testing goals were sucking the life out of teaching and learning in my classroom. They were strangling me.
Then, luckily, I got an email about a cohort for Nationally Board Certified teachers that would foster communication, collaboration, and affect change in the classroom. It sounded cool, and I knew I needed a boost. I didn’t really know how I would find the time to do it, but I applied and was accepted. The cohort, Classroom Teachers Enacting Positive Solutions (CTEPS), immediately changed my mindset about teaching 12th graders. The lightbulb went off when I started examining problems of practice, collaborating virtually with teachers at all levels from across the state, and planning. We engaged in professional development, planned projects, researched best practices, and got excited about helping kids. We used our National Board experiences and made collective commitments. The cost was covered for us to come together in person at the Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teaching and Teachers (ECET²) Regional Conference in January where we celebrated good teaching, presented our projects and ideas to other amazing and motivated educators, and confronted tough issues in education together.
I was so inspired by the message of hope and empowerment that I went back to my classroom, spoke to a few of my team members to create a new plan, and addressed my students in the most honest, heartfelt way I could. I told them the very next Monday that I was done with test prep. I told my students that they are so much more than test scores. I told them that I want to feel confident that I am preparing them for the futures they have chosen to pursue, whether that be college, a career, or both. I told them that from that moment on, we would focus on challenges they face academically and socially, create individual plans to address those challenges, and connect our learning to the plans. I told them that we would have fun, that we would read books, analyze the things we read, write and discuss these things, and question in authentic ways. I could see them sigh with relief. I actually observed a release of the tension in their postures. I knew I came to work for the right reasons that day.
The light is back in my eyes and my students can see it! The classroom management issues that were bogging me down have dissipated. The students are passing those benchmark assessments a little at a time, now that the focus is on good teaching, a love of learning, reading, writing, and language skills. I am still preparing students to meet benchmarks, but I am not focusing on those benchmarks. I am still not sure how I got to that point, but I am incredibly thankful that I took a leap into professional learning through my National Board Certified Teachers network in Kentucky. If I hadn’t, I truly think I would either be on the transfer list, or considering a full-time job at the local coffee shop. Instead, I am applying to begin my doctoral work in the fall, I have totally revamped my curriculum for the current term, I am mentoring a student teacher and two first-year teachers, continuing my professional learning, and getting involved in legislation that affects educational policy. I continue to attend any conference or gathering that fuels my fire. I share this joy with others and network with others that share my passion.
I am BACK!
February 4, 2015
In keeping with my “English Church” session on Monday, as I have since called it, my student teacher Annie and I have continued to build off the Character Assessment, the idea that students are more than numbers, and the fact that many of them feel unprepared for the demands of postsecondary education or the workforce. Students have written freely about such issues over the past three days for short intervals, shared when they felt comfortable, and we have continued to work toward an understanding of how we can use the last thirteen weeks of school to get them closer to ready.
While I was at the ECET2 Conference on Saturday, I snuck away to heat up my gluten/dairy-free lunch in the Business Center while most everyone else was in the ballroom eating. I did a basic Google search for some article published by colleges and employers in the last few years that identified areas in which students lack skills, either as they enter the workforce or college programs. I printed (free printing!!) four articles, read them, took them back to school with me and developed a quick reading protocol for teaching an informational reading technique while getting the students interested in the specifics of this challenge. It went very well! In each of three classes, students were able to articulate aloud the commonalities in the articles, tie their own character assessments to them, and one student even remarked: “Hey, that’s all stuff you teach us, stuff we do in THIS class!” Needless to say, he got some snaps. 🙂
February 2, 2015
Since the days began to get shorter in the fall, my overall zeal for teaching began to ebb as well. As a predominantly 12th grade teacher, I am charged with ensuring that all of my students graduate college and career ready. That sounds good in theory, just like NCLB did to many, but in reality, this has to be measured in some way. Currently, CCR is measured by standardized test scores. Only. I have had a philosophical problem with this for ages, but have swept it under the rug by telling myself that even if I don’t believe in it, it is the current reality. As such, I have always rationalized test prep and focus on passing those tests by convincing myself that I want students to have opportunities at the post-secondary level that can be given by meeting those benchmark scores and I want the public perception of my students to be positive. Then I had the realization that this was complete and utter crap.
Being a part of the Kentucky Network To Transform Teaching (KYNT3) in the Classroom Teachers Enacting Positive Solutions (CTEPS) cohort and participating in Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teaching and Teachers (ECET2) has truly affirmed my belief that students and teachers are so much more than benchmark numbers. The numbers are currently used to judge and place students, teachers, and schools in rankings that can demoralize and defeat many while inflating and confirming others. It seems incredible that so much can rest on a number. I see the kids as they come back from yet another round of testing without passing frequently, with tears in their eyes, with disappointment on their faces. I see kids give up entirely on school and on future plans because of these numbers.
Don’t mistake me — I want kids to achieve, to persevere, to rise above these challenges victorious, but I also want them to be truly prepared for college and careers. Those benchmarks do not equal success at the post-secondary level and I am afraid that’s what kids are led to believe.
So, what to do, right? Well, after ECET2, I had the brilliant idea to just change everything. I had the epiphany that if I worked to focused on the strengths of the students instead of constantly bombarding them with practice tests and differentiated instruction to address their deficiencies, the standardized test scores would rise naturally. If I focused on delivering quality, engaging, inspiring instruction, the benchmarks will be met. Now I am not naive; I know that students might benefit from some individualized instruction to help them prepare for those tests, but I am simply not going to do that in regular class time. The time has come to research what colleges see students lacking when they get to post-secondary coursework and what the work world has identified as deficiencies in skills. That is what I will teach, that is what we will all learn.
We started today with the VIA Character Assessment, after I explained this epiphany to the students. They were entranced. Kids that hadn’t willingly participated in months worked through 120 questions about their character strengths and weaknesses. We then transferred this to a graphic organizer that I adapted from a tool that The Grove published in 2009 called the Action Plan. Students all identified a challenge they face as students and wrote about hopes and fears surrounding this challenge. We studied a word of the day, an “Americanism” and related it to a random fact about why Mondays are statistically the most common day for suicides. I showed them a quick video from YouTube about dreaming like a child and hoping for a better future. I shared my own character assessment results with them and we discussed and wrote about the implications for being better people and students. The bell rang before we knew what happened.
Today, we shut the classroom door, and got down to the business of assessing where we all are as human beings, identified a challenge in our lives, began thinking through this challenge, and learned a bit in the process of doing all this. I think I have found my passion for teaching again.
October 15, 2014
Tonight began the fourth quarter I have taught adjunct English 101 to medical students at ATA College. These are long days for me — wake up at 5:15 AM, teach 12th grade English and Journalism from 7:40 – 1:10, meet with my PLC, coach cross country, teach adults from 5:30 – 9:30 pm — but they are so rewarding. I have to say, the adults I teach remind me WHY I teach. The hoops I jump through with kids are exhausting; the progress I make with adults is promising. Kids rarely thank me; adults know they need help with literacy and thank me weekly. That being said, I am still not quite ready to come out of the K-12 classroom. I am hoping that Library Media will be the change I seek, opening doors for doctoral work and a new, different interaction with kids and adults.