Standardized Tests Indicate We Need Time to Reflect and Collaborate on Best Practices

It has been a long time since I’ve posted anything.  No excuses – just busy, like everyone.   I’m lost in the 21st Century, where time for reflection and wonder – that downtime that we all crave – is a little like a mythological, magical place.  You see it around the corner, its promise casting shadows close enough to touch, but you never quite make it there.  This morning, I’ve decided to sit quietly and long enough for it to find me.  Time to reflect is so critical to my practice, both as a mother and as a teacher.  I am long past due and must balance the “stuff” of life with time to wade through wonder and learn from the quiet.

This week, my regular juggling and balancing act (which, like all moms, I do tirelessly, but often not very effectively) was alternately met with wild applause and the crashing of plates all around me.  One evening, my 8th grader looked me in the eyes and, in one of her more tender moments said, “Mom, if you weren’t my mom, I would have loved to have had you as my English teacher.”  Watch a mother melt.  Like all mother/teenage-daughter relationships, we have a tenuous relationship at times, so she completely caught me off-guard.  I was on Cloud 9 for days – not because of what her comment said about me as a teacher, but rather that she was able to find it in herself to be proud of her mom, even though we are at the same school.  She was willing, at least with me, to step out of adolescence for one tiny moment and connect.  Like all teachers, I have students and parents who appreciate my efforts and I’m touched when they find the time to let me know that they feel I am making a difference.  It’s something all together different when that comes from your 13 year old daughter.

Of course, later on in the week, I came face-to-face with my quiet classroom demon:  standardized testing.  As an English department (in a school that is currently in Program Improvement for our Math scores), we decided to administer the mid-year assessment from our textbook.  I was nervous about this.  While we’ve used the textbook a few times, I also have taught core and supplemental literature.  Over the winter break, I went through the assessment guide and was comfortable that I had covered all the necessary standards for my kids to succeed on this test.  We administered it over two days and at the end, I asked the kids if they felt prepared.  Overwhelmingly, the kids gave me a thumbs up, so I was anxious to get my results.  Feeling confident, I took their answer sheets to the scanner.  On a Friday afternoon.

Note to self:  never read the results from a test like this on a Friday afternoon.  My kids bombed the test.  Let me remind you, I have GATE cluster classes with exceptionally bright students.  I was baffled as to what happened.  These are kids who score off the charts on their state standardized tests.  They should have nailed this one.  I started wondering if I should apply to the nearest burger joint.  Clearly, I can’t teach.

I ran every report possible and scoured over the results.  I found patterns and indicators, but nothing substantial.  The kids who participate thoughtfully in class and are engaged, clearly did better – but not well enough.  The kids did much better on the writing portion than they did on the reading comprehension – but that also did not make sense in a classroom full of avid readers.  I told the kids to try their best, but that I would not count these grades on their report cards; the results would be used to let me know where to concentrate our instruction for the rest of the year.  Did that give them an out to trying hard and being careful?  Were they just too cavalier, under my direction?  The graphs and charts only deepened my sense of confusion and defeat.

Then I came home and took the test myself.  I took it while making dinner and checking emails and listening to my children give me an account of their day. Granted, one might say I was a bit distracted but I found the test difficult.  The questions were scripted in a way that prompted second-guessing.  And second guess I did.  Ouch.  As an English teacher, my score was nothing to brag about.  So I asked my engineer husband to take the test.  He had quiet and concentration on his side.  He matched my score. Yikes.

There has been nothing else on my mind most of the weekend.  What went wrong and how on earth do I correct course?  Several hypotheses have come to mind.  I need to use the text more.  I need to formulate tests for my core lit that match the language of the standardized tests.  While that does not mean teaching to the test, it does mean teaching the kids the way to take these tests.  I need to do this throughout the year – not just the couple of weeks before the state testing.  It would have helped had we administered the preliminary assessment so we could see if there was any growth.

I need time now.  I need time to reflect on my practice and develop ways to deal with this new information.  Does this one test mean that my kids are not learning? No.  It was one test at one moment in time, given at the end of the week.  I need time with colleagues now, to compare and talk and plan.  We need collaboration to make sense of this.

However, Monday will come and we’ll hit the ground, wearing our roller skates.  There will be meetings and students and parents calling on our time.  There will be bells and fire drills.  There will be class periods we need to fill with instruction.  Collaboration will be put on the back burner because it is not integrated into our day in any meaningful way. We will catch conversations and moments here and there; we will piece together a plan as best we can.

Time for reflection is critical.  In Finland, they spend substantial time in collaboration and reflection.  If there is any one way to improve our education, it seems as though this is it: structured, scheduled time for teachers to gather and share, to talk about best practices.  We want to do well by our students.  We need time to reflect and plan.



Posted in assessment, education, failng schools, failure, learning from mistakes, reading, standardized testing, teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Guiding middle school students in Socratic Seminar in 43 minutes: Can it be done?

My eighth graders had their first Socratic Seminar last week, focusing on THE CALL OF THE WILD.  When the kids say things like “Mrs. C, can we do this all the time?” and “I like the book way better now than I did before!” I consider it a rounding success. As corny as it sounds, my first class was so good, I got choked up watching them in action.  The next two classes, not so much – but it’s only November and there’s time to perfect the process of dialogue and collaboration.

I had assigned students a question and directed them to find quotes that would support their opinions.  I also had them develop three “deep-bucket” questions, thought-provoking questions that might nudge the conversation forward.  We went over the language of dialogue and the need to help others get involved.  At the heart of Socratic Seminar, I reminded them, is collaboration, not debate.  Working together towards greater understanding is what is valued, not adversarial posturing.  Then, I randomly assigned them a guiding question and let them prepare.  On the morning of the seminar, they arrived to find an inner circle in which half of them sat, and roughly formed outer circle, where the other half sat to evaluate a partner.  Grabbing my clipboard and rubric, I sat on a stool outside of both to watch what would happen.

The first student started a little tentatively, but courage counts for a lot.  Others quickly chimed in and we were off.  Some students spoke a lot, maybe too much, and it was difficult for some of my quieter kids to enter the conversation.  Some, a little too polite to be successful, would take in a breath and quickly swallow it as someone else started to speak.  Occasionally, these quieter kids got in their two cents with strong voices and thoughtful comments.  One group kept going terribly off course, discussing the book but not the question at hand.  Finally, there were kids who didn’t participate at all (although I was trying to telepathically will them to speak!) and things felt rushed.  There are changes and adjustments I need to make.  My practice needs more, well . . . practice.

The kids had a quick chance to write down how they felt about the experience.  Their comments ranged from “I absolutely LOVED this!  We should do this all the time!” to “I HATED every minute and I never want to do this again!” (although there was only one student with that strong of a negative opinion and she didn’t participate at all).  Most students  said they wanted more time (two groups in 43 minutes was way too much) and many didn’t feel they needed as much time to prepare.  I might not randomly assign questions in the future, but instead may form groups with an eye towards creating a group dynamic that might encourage more participation.  I wonder if there are more ways I can encourage those kids who didn’t participate at all to throw their ideas out there?  Would colored speaking chips help, where you get so many opportunities to speak and then you’re done?  Hmm . . . that seems very artificial, but maybe it would work.  I have work to do.

The benefits far outweighed the difficulties, though.  Students whose voices I never hear, added beautifully to the conversation.  They delved deeply into a difficult text and inched towards a greater understanding of it.  In the process, I learned more about them and I hope they learned more about themselves.  Their learning was complex and deep.  For that, I am truly thankful.




Posted in education, eighth grade, empowering students, getting to know students, learning from mistakes, middle school, Socratic Seminar, teaching | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Weekly Photo Challenge: Windows to look through or reflect on our lives

Do windows allow us to look out or look in?  Are both equally important?  Is it important to view the world even as we remain introspective?  Do window frames allow us to concentrate on a particular view or do they limit our perspective?

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Bullying has NO EXCUSE — Not in Michigan or Anywhere Else.

Bullying is wrong.  Every time, for any and every reason.  Someone ought to tell the Michigan legislature that.  Michigan residents ought to be screaming it from their rooftops, no matter what their religious beliefs:  BULLYING HAS NO PLACE IN OUR SOCIETY.  Someone MUST protect our children.

Even though I technically benefit from another hour tacked on to my day (normally a reason to rejoice), I am in a foul mood. As I do every Sunday, I started my very, very early morning (why didn’t I turn my clocks back?)  by reading articles about education.  I read them in an effort to improve my practice, perhaps get another idea on how to better the instruction that goes on in my room.  Occasionally, I run across something that needs comment (as you have seen here on my blog).  But this morning, after reading about “Matt’s Safe School Law”  in Michigan that “allows harassment by teachers and students as long as they can claim their actions are rooted in a ‘sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction,’” I am stunned and furious.

Let’s forget for one second that Christianity has been hijacked by the far, far right who seem to shroud themselves and their deplorable actions by saying that they’re “Christians.”  Let’s imagine for one minute that someone indoctrinated by Al Queda was harassing our children because they were “heathens.”  How would the Michigan legislature react?  How would we expect responsible adults to react?  More importantly, how does large-scale terrorism differ?  We’ve gone to war over that. Now, according to this new Michigan law, we are to excuse similar act of terrorism on our children?  Someone needs to say “STOP.”

I have written about bullying before.  Whether our children are being bullied because of the clothes they wear, their hair, their economic status, or their sexuality, we need to step in and stop it.

Last week, I finally received a box I had ordered from .  It is chock-full of teaching materials designed to help promote a more tolerant and peaceful society.  Born out of the United Nations, it actively promotes the rights of every individual, no matter where that individual lives.  Inalienable rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  If you teach, I suggest you order a box.  The materials can be used in the classroom or in school clubs.  You can use bits and pieces of it as it relates to your curriculum and your children.  Every single child, in every single classroom, has the right to grow up free of bullying and harassment.  Period.

Michigan:  do the right thing.  Put children first, not false gods and beliefs.  Protect your children.  Stand up to the bullies who say that their beliefs mandate their behavior.  Call them out on their lies.  Stop their destruction.  FIX this law.

One final thought.  The greatest gift my parents ever gave me was my belief in God – and the belief that God gave me free will.  I am fully responsible for my actions and reactions.  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  Love each other.  Above all, love each other.   Anything else is not just misguided.  It’s wrong.

Posted in "Matt's Safe School Law", bullies, education, education legislation, family, Freedom, Love, news, schools, teaching | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Weekly Photo Challenge: Windows “Sometimes you’ve just got to stick your neck out.”

Meet Toby.  Toby LOVES going for a ride.  Most of the time, he sleeps, curled up, on the back seat. Sometimes, though, the world offers up something special (like cows!) and he’s just got to stick his neck out, let the wind rip through his floppy ears, and bark out his joy.

Posted in dogs, photo, photo galleries, photographs, Photography, Uncategorized, Weekly Challenge, weekly photo challenge | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

A New Way to Brainstorm May Lead to Better Ideas

Classroom discussions are only as compelling as the amount of preparation done by the students.  At least that’s my experience.  Whether I want my students to explore the ethics of the brain surgery Charlie Gordon submits to in “Flowers for Algernon” or the nature of bullying as reflected by Buck’s experience in THE CALL OF THE WILD, I often ask them to explore the topic through a quickwrite first.  I have found that this gives students a platform from which to discuss their ideas.  It allows them to think, unhindered, about the problem.  More students feel prepared to offer up opinions and evidence. More students participate in the discussion, which of course, makes for a more lively and engaging classroom environment.

It turns out that the most successful forms of brainstorming benefit from the same kind of preparation.  Taking time to individually brainstorm creates a wealth of material from which more creative ideas can spring when a group finally comes together.  This has wonderful implications for the classroom.

One of the great challenges in providing opportunities for group work is the age-old problem of a few students taking control while others sit back, uninvolved.  No matter what systems are in place, creating a truly collaborative effort is always challenging.  The same students take over the process while other students often take a back seat.

What if we gave individual students time to plan a project individually first?  Time to come up with ideas, sketch out a course of action?  Once students have an idea of how they each would like to proceed, what would happen if we then (and only then) had them form groups where they would combine those ideas and hash out what is most creative and viable?  Based on the research, my guess is that more kids would feel involved and groups might be more productive.  At least it’s worth a try. Stay tuned as I put this into action with a group of fabulous eighth graders.  I’ll let you know what happens.

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Socratic Seminar in 43 minutes or less? Can it be done?

Teaching is so dependent on time.  We have ten months to get through curriculum; there are pacing guides to keep us on track; standards we must assess in a certain time period; kids who show you, clearly, when you are moving too fast or two slowly; deadlines for progress reports and report card. Right now, I’m struggling with how to do a Socratic Seminar in 43 minutes or less.  Can it be done?

I spent some time observing a colleague yesterday who was teaching her seventh graders through a Socratic Seminar.  This was their first time venturing into this strategy for learning, so it was anybody’s guess as to how it would go.  She also teaches the laptop language arts program, which seems to be a far cry from my pencil and paper one (oh, brave new world!), but I was more interested in how the kids talked, discussed, and queried one another. I was impressed.  They supported their arguments and positions, drew each other in, and moved the dialogue along.  Talk about successful.

I have wanted to do Socratic Seminar with my eighth graders for a couple of years now – and in truth, my questioning in class discussions goes down that path.  I love when kids disagree with each other and with me.  Their eyes light up when they can support their positions and get someone to agree with them. However, to set up a Socratic dialogue the way my seventh grade colleagues do, has been challenging.  They have a block of two or three periods – and I have one (it’s eighth grade . . . the justification is that we’re getting them ready for high school – but that’s a whole ‘nother blog).  A 43-minute class period feels daunting.

This observation, as well as a book I’ve been reading and conversations I’ve been having with our 7th grade teachers, have all given me some tools to move forward with this.  We’re about to begin THE CALL OF THE WILD and it seems like a perfect way to get kids to engage with this difficult text in a new way.  However, when I found myself hesitating because I felt like I needed more information (or maybe encouragement), I remembered you, my fellow bloggers.

Have you tried Socratic Seminar?  Have you been able to complete it in 45 minutes or less?  What advice do you have for me?  How do you keep that outer circle engaged and accountable?  Can you split it into two periods on consecutive days without losing momentum?  See . . . I still have so many questions.  What is your experience?  What are your thoughts?



Posted in education, eighth grade, questioning techniques, Socratic Seminar, teaching | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

MINDSHIFT Website offers up News for Educators is a great website for educators that you might be interested in.  I know it was a fun way for me to greet a Monday morning after a Sunday of grading essays all day long.  Enjoy.

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In Education, October is the Longest Month

I seem to have hit a dry patch.  This summer, when I started this blog, I wrote all the time.  My summertime brain had this fabulous freedom to think and make connections.  I also had time to read, so I immersed myself in other blogs each morning before my family got up.  As I sit at my kitchen table this morning, darkness still buffers the day, and I find that I struggle to write.  It’s not that I have nothing to say; it’s that I have too much.  Is this the writer’s dilemma?

Around here, October brings rain.  Of course, the rain alternates with Indian Summer so even though it might be chilly outside, the air conditioner is still running in my classroom, just in case.  Kids sit huddled at their desks, pulling their sleeves down over their hands, trying to stay warm.  They try to harness their thoughts, even through distractions.  I understand; I also feel terribly distracted these days.

October is also one of the longest months in the teaching calendar. Ask any teacher. The honeymoon of the new school year is over; seating charts have to change (I wish I had known not to place several students so darned close together); grades are starting shake down to reality a little bit; and the essays that I cart to and from my classroom to grade seem to multiply all on their own.  Each one takes me a ridiculously long time to grade because I want to read and critique with a fresh mind so that my comments are authentic and helpful.

My own two children seem to be swimming along in middle school.  They like their teachers (what a blessing!) and their motivation for hard work and success is strong.  Still, my afternoons are filled with editing this or that, helping them work through a math problem, trying to figure out a science concept, or just keeping them focused.  The distractions are there for them, too.  Afternoons buzz around here with homework and stories of the day; they are punctuated by the dog’s demands and the bird’s attempt at flight inside his cage.  There is a reason mothers are great multi-taskers – just don’t look too hard at what falls through the cracks.

At school, my classes are GATE (Gifted and Talented) clusters and this year the kids are uber-smart.  They challenge me daily to differentiate and guide them to new levels of understanding, all the while reviewing what they have learned before. They also need much guidance in social structure and some of them could use a dose of humility.  It is abundantly clear to me that we do our children no favors when we lavish praise on them just for their innate intelligence, rather than on what they produce.  Focus, tenacity, and self-motivation must be nurtured and expected.  By 8th grade, I’m expecting them to bring something to the party.

So here we are, in mid-October.  Weather changes are afoot and we are all buckling down for a long winter.  I am sure if days were slower, I would be able to focus more clearly on my blog, connecting with other teachers and parents who are also struggling to balance it all.  For now, though, I have papers to grade and children to wake.  The day must get started.  If you find a sec, please let me know how your October is moving along.  October is a time for connecting; it’s a great way to get through the month.

Posted in children, connecting with students, education, family, parent, schools, teaching, writer's block, writing | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Achievement Gap? Could Private Tutoring Be to Blame?

Disclaimer:  When one of my daughters was struggling with her writing and scoring low on the state mandated test, I asked a friend (a teacher) to tutor her.  While I teach, it was impossible for me to bridge the great mother-daughter divide to reach her, even when she was only 9.  The one-on-one instruction, at our kitchen table, was invaluable.  Her scores improved.  The tutoring came to an end.  She came away from the experience successful and empowered.

I wish all our kids had that same opportunity.  Clearly they don’t.  And tutoring is big business – especially in affluent communities where parents start talking ivy league while kids are still climbing monkey bars.  In communities like mine, there are professional tutoring centers lining Main Street and boy, are they busy! Take a look at the article in today’s New York Times on the conflict between a private school and a tutoring center.  $200-600 an hour?  Seriously?

I have never heard of a parent going in for a consult (clearly the tutoring center knows more about what a kid needs than do his teachers), and being told that the child is at grade level and needs no additional help.  Roll out the contract.  Empty your pockets.  Where there are no tutoring centers, tucked away in neighborhoods, there are a zillion private tutors, all cashing in.

The upside?  A good percentage of my students are receiving more instruction than I have time for in my class.  They are excelling, maybe in part because of the fortunes being invested, privately, in their education.  The downside?  The “have-nots” are not.

While I differentiate instruction, give up my lunch hour to help any student who needs it, and I am available for questions via email, I cannot bridge this great economic divide.  Some students are clearly getting more and it’s not necessarily the ones who truly need it.  Achievement Gap, meet the new World Economy.

In a country where the unemployment figures for people of color are significantly more than for whites (11-16% compared to 9%), who has more money for tutoring?  Tutoring becomes third tier in a needs assessment when you’re unemployed.

So as teachers and administrators around the country are pulling out their toolboxes and trying desperately to close the achievement gap (and making great strides in certain areas), the economy is driving a wedge between segments of our student populations and the plethora of private, for-profit tutoring  is exacerbating the situation.  Our schools are not to blame and they can only do so much to counter this.  At some point, rather than throwing money at these centers, perhaps we all should roll up our sleeves and help our own schools.  What would happen if we created a rising tide and lifted all children?  The results might be startling.

Posted in achievement gap, education, New York Times, news, parent, Private schools, Private Tutoring Centers, schools, teaching, unemployment figures | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment