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.