Untested: Growth That Tests Can’t Measure

Favi called me over to her desk one recent afternoon, leaning forward over her notebook urgently. “I have to thank you,” she said. “You remember how you told Raymond that writing is a way to deal with being upset? Well, I took that advice, too. But I don’t wait to be upset. Every day, I write about a quote. & I really have to thank you. It makes me feel…lighter, if that makes sense. I just feel better every time I do it.”

New York’s school year is ending, & tests are bursting into bloom around us. MOSLs, field tests, the NYSESLAT, all sinister roots winding their way to the towering trunk of Regents exams. It’s a tough time of year, to put it very, very lightly.

Times like this, when my students are emotionally manic balls of stress that ricochet through outbursts & mood swings, when all of their self-esteem & confidence plummets & they find themselves forgetting the most routine of behaviors, when they are bleary & cranky from lack of sleep, or surly & defensive, or on the verge of tears after the slightest frustration, it is easy to feel like I have taught them nothing. They certainly feel as though they’ve forgotten everything. During an after school session, a student working on an essay for another class told me he didn’t want to work with that other teacher, because asking questions was embarrassing there. He knew he would be reprimanded & told, “You should know how to do this! I already taught you this!”

“I know I should know,” my student told me. “I just forget or maybe I’m not sure. Sometimes I ask the question even if I have the right answer, just to check. I don’t want to get it wrong.”

That feeling of I’m not sure & I don’t want to be wrong so I have to ask while I still can seems a direct result of excessive testing. It’s an intense anxiety, one that even self-confident students will suffer through as exam after exam crashes upon them, like so many waves.

But there’s so much more than the test. Tests. The growth & gains my students have made this year can’t always be measured by one test, or even four, or even more. I need to make space to celebrate those moments, so my students can join me in recognizing that increased confidence, stepping outside of their comfort zones, playing teacher, asking questions, & writing independently are huge accomplishments.

Like Favi’s discovery of the healing of journal writing, many of my students have achieved in ways these tests can’t & won’t measure.

There’s Ivy, who began the year so fearful of writing that she did not trust herself to put down more than a  sentence before asking me to read it and tell her if it was “right.” How many hours a week she sat in our classroom after school, tears threatening her eyeliner as I reminded her to write down what she was thinking. “It isn’t going to be perfect, but that’s good. Nothing is perfect.” I can’t pin down Ivy’s exact turning point, but somewhere this year, her anxiety eased up a little. She took risks writing down her thoughts without triple checking her ideas against her classmates’ opinions. She wrote whole paragraphs before asking me to look, & didn’t crumple when I asked a question about her work. & after a reading response activity of drafting coming to America poems, Ivy returned after school to proudly present me with a second poem, one she had simply felt inspired to write. I was so proud I wanted to shout, especially when she handed the poem to me & said, “it’s not perfect, but I like it.”

This school year has held so many of these moments, demonstrations of learning & development that will not be assessed by a formulaic written response to a standardized test prompt. Students reading aloud for the first time, finishing a book independently for the first time, writing in English for the first time after months to years of anxiety & fear. These huge accomplishments do not mean that they will pass their exams, though, & in the end, they will be made to feel like none of these achievements matter.

I’m left with two areas of tension, knots I need to work at as I prepare for next year (next week, next day). One: how do I honor & value students’ growth throughout the year in a way that allows them to honor it, too? Beyond reflective writing & portfolio building, beyond conferences, beyond inspirational speeches; how does the recognition & celebration of improvement become a core piece of our classroom? Two: How do I continue to build a classroom environment that helps my students do the things they have never before done, and extend that safe, productive feeling beyond our walls? It is invaluable, the work I put into creating a classroom that encourages students to take risks & push themselves, but that needs to continue happening when we are apart. How do we create a class environment that allows students space to achieve great things both inside the classroom & out?

This is my favorite place to be as a teacher: holding the tensions in my hand, learning their shapes & textures, feeling for a starting point. What do you think? How do you honor students’ growth, & encourage them to keep growing independently? 

Leap of Faith: Keeping Promises Made to Myself and My Students

Remember that scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? You know, the one that still makes my stomach fall through me, the one that has me holding my breath like I’m 11 years old, sitting too close to the TV, unable to look away or even close my eyes? This one:

Leapoffaith

Indy’s big leap of faith, wherein his only chance to retrieve the Holy Grail and save his father demands that he walk across this gaping chasm of certain death, trusting that, despite all visual evidence to the contrary, there is a bridge and he will not fall.

By the time I was 11 and seeing Last Crusade for the first time, I was well-acquainted with Dr. Jones. I’d seen him fight bad guys, dodge bullets, survive Shortround’s driving skills, live through Spielberg’s extremely racist representations of Indian culture (thanks, by the way, for years of being asked if I’d brought monkey brains for lunch), and not have his face melted off by vengeful ghosts. I already thought he was dreamy and daring. But this scene, this terrifying moment, his determination to do what seemed to me impossible at the time – this was the bravest thing I’d ever seen him do.

Faith is, I think, at the center of bravery. Often I have had students examine and define and redefine “brave.” Their beginning definitions focus on physical strength, fighting, and protectiveness. But as we consider the actions and people that count as brave in our eyes, and share those stories and experiences, the definition of “bravery” evolves. Different groups of students regard the word differently, but many students note that the people we consider brave are admired for believing in things that no one else did, carrying on when situations seemed hopeless. That’s having faith, isn’t it? Believing when there is no evidence to support you, holding on when no one is on your side.

Of course, we can go too far. The line between confidence and a closed mind can be finer than we realize. But I can’t deny that it takes courage to have faith, and bravery requires believing when it is least possible, least convenient. It doesn’t mean not being scared, or never having a doubt. It means facing that doubt, that fear, and taking another step forward anyway.

At the beginning of the year, I made some promises to myself, about my classroom, my students, and my teaching. I’ve tried to be true to those resolutions, but I’m finding myself looking down right now, staring straight between my feet into the yawning darkness below. Because there’s no bridge, not really, no tried and true, foolproof way to get x result by y deadline. There is what I believe, what I know has worked in the past, and what I’ve promised to myself. These are the supports I count on carrying me across the chasm of this school year. I tell myself not to look down, like they do in the movies. And then, like they do in the movies, I look down. I look down because maybe I am not reflective enough and what I believe needs to be updated or reexamined. And I look down because, yes, these things worked in the past, but this is a whole new year, a new group of students; this is not the past, it’s now. And I look down because the promises I’ve made don’t focus on state test scores and Common Core Standards and buzzwords that are repeated and rebranded at every PD meeting. Those promises are about what I believe is best for my students, but doubt is starting to creep in.

It’s testing season in New York City – today starts January Regents Week. January is generally a frenzy of test prep – review packets, paragraph templates, acronyms for testing strategies. Meanwhile, my classroom routines proceed as usual: quote of the week, TED Talk or NPR story, slice-of-life writing, peer feedback days. I try to be the calm center of the test prep oasis, redirecting pent-up energy and soothing rising anxiety, but my own panic clamors. As test practice consumes the rest of their day, am I being too lax? Years of experience have led me to believe that, while students should be familiar with the state assessment, practicing by taking old English Regents over and over does not help them pass the upcoming exam. But what if I’m wrong? What if developing reading and writing skills and independence isn’t enough? I can’t help but look down, hoping that the bridge is still there. Not that looking does much good. The tricky thing about faith is that you can’t see what you’re looking for.

If I could make a graph of New Year’s Resolutions and our attitudes towards them, the first two weeks of January would show a steady climb. Enthusiasm is high at the beginning of year, generally. But around the third week, many resolvers start to waver. And some just plummet. The graph would show a mountain’s downward slope around now, and it’s not because we can’t accomplish our resolutions, or that they’re too hard or unrealistic. It’s that we start to doubt ourselves. We lose faith in our ability to stick to the resolutions we set. Around here, the line of my graph would split. One branch would continue sloping down, but the other would start climbing back up. Because many of us give up when we start doubting ourselves. Many of us can’t recover. But some of us face that doubt, and come back. Some can renew their faith, strengthen their resolve.

I have to believe, like Indy, even when the course I’ve set seems impossible, even when I doubt that I will make it to the other side. My faith isn’t blind, my path is not reckless. But it is difficult, and this won’t be the first time I look down and wonder if I’m actually standing on anything. I just have to decide to be brave, and take the next step forward anyway.

How’s your faith holding up? What are you doing to keep your and your students’ faith in the classroom? I’d love to hear your comments!

New Year, New ______ : Reflecting on Resolutions for the Classroom

I’ve never been big on New Year’s resolutions.

I’ve gone through the motions in the past, trying to set goals and get excited about the new year, new ____! But they’ve always seemed somewhat hollow – people declaring they’ll give up a habit as strongly rooted as an addiction, or master a skill that others spend their lifetimes honing, just generally promising a complete transformation in who they are and who they have been. It’s not that resolutions are not admirable, or important, and I’m glad that there is a cultural tradition that encourages people to think positively and move forward with goals in mind. I’m just not good at them. 

For one thing, being a teacher, the year doesn’t start on January 1st, for me. It starts in September, and my reflections and resolutions are continual, year-long practices. Also, the goals I do set rarely resemble the specific, measurable – dare I say, S.M.A.R.T.? – goals encouraged by everyone from lifestyle bloggers to Department of Education administrators. My fuzzy goals should not yield success, but generally I find I make more progress with a vague resolution (“I’m going to write more” = this blog not being totally abandoned) than with a clear, specific goal (“I’ll write for 15 minutes each day” = I’ll write once in my brand new notebook and then accrue daily guilt over not writing in it ever again). This approach isn’t really conducive to sharing New Year’s resolutions; when people say “What are you going to do this year?” all I can really think to say is, “Better.” 

But even though I’m not great at resolutions, I do believe in reflection and improvement. So, I’m making some New Year’s resolutions for my classroom.

I will remember to have fun. Not every day. The notion that every single lesson of every single day can be “dynamite,” as they say in New York City, is a foolish one, I believe. Learning can and should look differently, happen differently, as befits content, mood, class size, etc. But I’m resolving to have fun with my students, even if it’s only for a few moments in a class, because I’ve seen the positive effects of fun. I know that when we’re enjoying ourselves, we all feel better, more connected to the class and one another. I know my students remember more when there is room for fun, and that they’re more motivated, and want to come back again. I have the students that I have. They are struggling with a lot, their lives outside of school are rarely stable, and they are more aware than I was at their age of how easy it is to walk out of the door. I want them to know that coming to school is important, but I also want them to know it is enjoyable. I’m resolving to do my part in communicating that.

I will step out of the center. I generally run a student-centered ship. That phrase has become buzzy in recent months, but it’s true. I try to put a lot onto my students, to make their voices and questions and choices a large part of the direction of our class. Looking back on the past 4 months, I see that I haven’t done as much of that as I feel needs to be done. It’s easy to be pressured to make things look good, or to “help” too much. But I’m resolving to step back this semester. I’m revisiting our lessons on questioning, and I’m going to check in with my students more. Most importantly, I’m going to listen to feedback and adapt accordingly, even if that means moving more slowly or changing direction. I’m resolving to remember that I don’t teach English, or grammar, or To Kill a Mockingbird; I teach 11th grade students. 

I will make sure that we learn what matters. I know that there is an overwhelming and harmful focus on test scores in our education system. It enrages me, and it interferes with my job. And I can attend conferences with like-minded individuals, and share videos like this, and like articles on Facebook, and blog here about how a student is more than a test score. But that doesn’t help my students, the ones I have right now, understand that they are more than their test scores. So I’m resolving to stick to my guns and help my students discover what is valuable. That may be communicating through writing, or reading books that move them, or developing integrity, or telling a great story. I resolve to continue creating an environment where those things matter more than the state test.

I resolve to be kind. To my students, to my colleagues, to myself. I will make sure my students know that they can be themselves, be vulnerable, and be honest with me. I will not take out my frustration at the system, or at the teenage brain, on our classroom. I will not avoid colleagues who seek, or need, help. I will respect my own boundaries, though. I’m not going to surround myself with negativity, or indulge someone who disrespects me or my time. I will read what nurtures us, I will write when I can. I will be grateful, and share my gratitude. I will do what I want to do this year; I will do better.

 

What are your teacher resolutions? Share in the comments. Happy New Year!

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!