Let Us Learn: On MOSLs, Baselines, & Sucking the Life Out of a Classroom

When I started this blog, I wanted to avoid day-of posts, which I figured would be single-drafted blasts of emotion that would splatter an incomplete picture on the page. I wanted to cultivate pause, let my thoughts steep between drafts. But I am, in my nature, volcanic as a writer, prone to explosions of inspiration & lava flows of thought, not so concerned with looking back on the eruption & revising my path. I don’t wish to just spew rage, but I’m on the brink of spilling over when it comes to education in New York City.

From this appalling New York Times editorial beseeching Bill de Blasio not to undo Bloomberg’s good work, to new evaluation systems that put test scores above students, it’s a rough time. This week, I’m losing two days of instruction to administer a baseline assessment sent by the DOE, a “Measure of Student Learning.” My students are losing two days of discovering themselves as writers to sit against a wall of frustration, trading in the authenticity of writing for publication on our newly launched class website to establish a claim about a prompt meaningless to them, their experiences, their passions and interests and inquiries.

The idea behind the MOSL Baselines is that students are given an assessment near the beginning of the school year with no preparation, and then given the same assessment at the end of the year so that growth can be measured. Teachers have been doing this forever, I think. My colleague, who has been teaching for 35 years, commiserated with me today. Like me, he starts each year with a baseline, or diagnostic assessment, or whatever you would like to call it. The key to his baselines, he told me, is that students want to write them. It’s an opportunity for them to introduce themselves, to show off, to divulge information they don’t normally consider sharing for a class assignment. Baselines have always been the same for me – letters of introduction, written responses to provocative image prompts, story endings based on an enticing opening line – the key is accessibility. I want something nearly every student can and will complete, and I can use that to learn so much about my students. I can identify strengths and areas in need of improvement, and from these observations create a checklist of skills and topics I should cover in our class, determine which I should address first, consider which genres would be appealing and which they’re not quite warmed to yet. I can see what students are comfortable sharing, plan out peer groups, delve into a wealth of information, because this is what I do. This is what teachers do. I don’t need someone on some committee to slap together a selection of loosely connected readings bound by an arbitrary writing prompt based on a narrow interpretation of the standards and mandate that I administer it twice a year to my students.

That committee doesn’t know my students. That committee doesn’t do what I do.

Probably the most valuable thing we do in our classroom is question. I found early on that the students I was teaching, in Bronx public high schools, had internalized the idea that having questions was a sign of stupidity, or disrespect. So I put the spotlight on questioning, on the validity of questions. I love questions. In our classes, we discuss questions, analyze them, create tiers of questions (Tier One = “Huh?” is always a great starting point). During  a staff meeting this week, my principal jokingly spoke of how teachers say, “Any questions?” and mean, “Please don’t have any questions.” Not I, sir. I demand questions. In our classroom, it’s not, “Any questions?” It’s, “Ask a question.” Student questions are our core. They drive our discussions, our writing, our reading. They adorn our walls and notebooks. When they’re particularly deep, they make us pause and hum with appreciation. I catch students stroking their imaginary beards.

I’ve gotten a lot of praise for this kind of approach to questioning, from admin and observers. I don’t say this to brag; rather, well, to question. I am constantly hearing about this need for student-centered classrooms, in which students guide and facilitate as much of their own learning as possible, and I am being told that the new standards and the new evaluations highly prize this kind of environment. But the mandated MOSL I gave today left no room for student-centeredess. There was no choice of written response; it was an argument essay. A claim and counterclaim were required elements. The argument was not based on student opinion, either. The prompt was one of those truly impressive feats of bureaucratic doublespeak that managed to be straight-jacket specific and dizzyingly vague at the same time. These were challenging texts to begin with, but were students given the space to generate their own questions and ideas, at least there would be the possibility of the connection, the opinion, and the wonder that foster writing. Instead, the prompt left students bewildered, and even I had to squint and ponder for almost an entire class before I found a few weak threads to tie text to task. In the Writing Project, we talk about “warm prompts” and “cold prompts”; this prompt was frigid.

My colleagues tried to offer me comfort throughout the day. I’m fairly sunny on the daily, but today I couldn’t shake my raincloud. Don’t worry, they told me. You actually want them to do bad on this one! Ha, ha. See, the MOSL isn’t really about student progress, at least not as much as it’s about teacher evaluation. So this test, this very mean test that has nothing to do with what I’m teaching, that removes students from the center and smothers their voices as writers, that wastes days of our time together, is not even for my students. This is where I am disgusted, where all I can see is the exploitation of under-informed parents who are not aware of their students’ time being eaten up, and already bleak morale lowered, by meaningless assessment. All so that it is easier to fire me. Lowering the quality of education so that “bad teachers” can be removed more easily? This is reform? This is creating better education for our students? Creating an attitude among teachers that we want students to fail, so that the numbers look better in the spring? And I can imagine that this practice only encourages more teaching to a test. Giving exams students are unprepared for, watching them crumple under frustration and self-doubt, and calling it improvement?

I don’t have solutions to offer. I don’t know what makes this better. What I know is that I watched 100 of my favorite people in the world deflate today, and we have to continue this tomorrow. The most popular question today was, “Why?”

No one had a good answer.

How do you keep your head up when standardized, mandated testing gets in your way? Let me know in the comments! I need all the advice I can get this year!

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2 thoughts on “Let Us Learn: On MOSLs, Baselines, & Sucking the Life Out of a Classroom

  1. You are so right with these questions. And I remember the same feeling, building such momentum with students, telling them their voice matters, just to have two days of this testing that nobody really checked, to deflate that enthusiasm. Also in regard to removing the bad teachers, this is why we created our service–to work with teachers. There are lots of teachers out there who do not know how to connect or how to teach certain skills, but they are not BAD teachers…lots of them WANT to improve. But a PD on close reading strategies does not help. And often top down directives do not help. So frustrating for so many.
    Keep up the great work. Your students are lucky to have you.

    • Thank you, Tamara! It’s so great to see you on the blog. I totally agree about the “bad teacher” myth – I’ve certainly worked with a few close-minded people who are firmly set in their ways, but they are far from the majority. The teachers I meet from across the country are by and large adaptive and excited to learn. We just need resources like English Teacher’s Friend to make that learning accessible and relevant, not meaningless tests and top-down PD.

      Thanks for your kind words, and thanks for reading!

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