Slice of Life Tuesday: What Independent Reading Looks Like in May

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Slice of Life Small LogoMany observers still do not realize what it takes for a teacher to offer independent reading during school hours. There are so many standards, so much curriculum, so many activities and projects to do before the school year ends. Many teachers ask, “How am I supposed to do independent reading, too?” I have employed a three-step process for the reading class in May that prove my students have learned the standards and can read independently during school hours.

Step One: Just Do It! Let’s face it. Tests are over. Students and teachers alike want to get down to the true business of learning now. I expect my students to “show what they know” in May. We have learned how to choose books, find a place to read, read with stamina and purpose, and talk about books with friends. My assessment? Their grade? “Read during reading time.” Period. Also, let the students CHOOSE. It’s important. They won’t have the teacher over the summer, and they need to know how to read on their own. Plus, assigned reading is boring (to students). They know what they like now. Let them live their own reading life.

Step Two: Keep it up! Teachers must be able to keep up with the times, especially in the classroom library. Our school library closes many days before school ends, so I must be willing and able to provide good reading materials for students all the way until the last day of school. My favorite way to gather books in May is through Scholastic Book Club bonus points and clearance sales. I save my bonus points (usually) until May, and then restock the classroom with fresh finds for students to enjoy as they wind down the school year. (Note: Garage sales start in May as well. Teachers can find reading books economically at these sales, although many titles are worn out. At least you can have them in the classroom for a little while! The public libraries sometimes have “Friends of the Library” sales in May, too. Check it out!)  IMG_4317BookStack030816

Step Three: Give a grade. Yes, I give grades in reading class in May. Don’t be afraid to assess independent reading time. Students must show that they remember and use the mini lessons, strategies, and standards that we spent all year learning. Grades are based on choosing a just-right book, finding a place to read, reading and talking about their choices, and conferring with a teacher. I’ll never forget the time (a long time ago) a student was recommending a book to me, and I missed the main character’s name during the conference. I asked, and the student replied, “That dude who was…” (I didn’t say this out loud, but I thought, “Dear! Unless the name of the main character was “Dude,” I’m pretty sure you didn’t read the book!”) My students know (this year) that 1) I’ve read the books (most of them), and 2) I will ask about theme, how the setting “sets” the mood of the story, how and why they think the characters change over time, and how many stars they would give the book (or “two thumbs up”). They know I love to read and I want to share reading time with them.  It’s supposed to be fun, but it’s still school.

Hint: As a reading teacher, the teacher is also responsible for reading during reading time, and sharing good books with students. Passion is powerful! (Lucy Calkins said that.) Read a good book today. What do you say?

 

What Are We Going To Do About The Test? A Teacher’s Message

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It’s February, and as a parent of a school-age child, you may have heard that you can opt out of state standardized testing. According to the No Child Left Behind Act, states must provide standardized testing, and the media, school leaders, and fellow parents all have advice for you: the test is deceptively important, the test is unduly difficult, the test is exorbitantly expensive, the test is illegally used to evaluate teachers, the test is unfairly deciding your child’s future, etc. Whatever you have heard, you have parts of the information. You will never have the whole story. None of us have the correct answer for you. You must decide whether your child will take part in the testing, but here’s why I think it’s okay for students to go ahead and take the standardized test:

1) Educational experiences end with assessments. After you study, there is a test. You have to prove yourself. I recently took another certification test to add to my teaching license. I passed with no points to spare, but I passed. If I had not signed up, paid, and took practice tests on the computer, I would not have the certification. I’m not happy about the experience (especially the money part), but at the same time, I did get what I wanted by making the effort and doing my best. This also goes for sports activities: you try out for the team, you practice, and you win (or lose) games/meets/championships. Are you happy you’re on the team? Are you a better person for having the experience? Sometimes it’s better to participate than be left out. Another life-changing event that comes to mind is the driver’s license. Even if you don’t take a driver’s education course, you must pass the written and driving parts of the test to receive a license to drive. If you don’t take the test, you remain unlicensed. Why not try?

2) The standardized test, in my experience, does cover the state standards. Every year, I teach concepts of reading and writing: theme, point of view, characterization, grammar sense, writing “on-the-fly” to persuade or inform. Even though I don’t see the questions in advance, I do teach so that students will learn skills that will improve their reading and writing over the course of a school year. I’m not so concerned about the actual test score number, but rather if the child understands more about reading and writing than before I taught him/her. All I want for my students is the best.

3) Well-meaning, educated, caring people do understand that the test is a snapshot. No one test can show everything there is to know about a student. It’s impossible. A score is a number, a piece of data that we should use as such, along with many other factors, to form a picture of what a child can do at any one point in time. Teachers, parents, and even public leaders won’t remember a child’s test score from sixth grade when that child graduates from high school, but we will celebrate a wonderful accomplishment during the graduation ceremony.

When a child gets into trouble, the parent disciplines according to the infraction. After taking the phone away, a mom hears, “You don’t know me at all!” But the parent, over the course of many experiences does know what is best for their child at that moment. Similarly, the state government employs consequences for a school (or even a teacher) that doesn’t “make the grade.” It’s called accountability. I understand enough to know that one test, created by a corporation that makes money selling their product to a state’s school districts cannot decide what my students are capable of. And yet, if my students fail, I fail. I must find out why – reflect and reteach, adjust, and learn from the experience. I want what is best for my students, as well as myself, and my school.

A test is a piece of information. Thinking about testing as separate events that happen throughout life, I relay a message to the parent: help your child see this standardized test for what it is – a data point in a moment of time – and encourage your child to take the test seriously and do the best they can. That’s all any of us should want for our children. The best.

Disclosure: This post reflects my own opinions, thoughts, and experiences.

Testing: Taking Its Toll

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I read more than enough news this week about standardized testing in the country and how the focus on these annual assessments is draining our faith in the American education system. Tonight I would like to share my thoughts on standardized testing, as I experience it from three perspectives: 1) teacher in a public school, 2) mom, and 3) former student who took these tests when I was young. Please be advised, these are my opinions and experiences, and they are not meant to persuade, coax, or otherwise insist that any person agrees with me. I’m only sharing because this is my blog, and this issue means a great deal to me at this time.

1) I am a public school teacher. I love teaching! I love my students, and I work to encourage them to be intelligent, thoughtful, active citizens of our country. In the last few years, I have noticed that the emphasis on testing/assessing started to hinder their performance in school, especially the creative thinking that I once saw. (Every 3 weeks we assess progress, according to the state standards; each quarter we monitor progress and predict; and we participate in state standardized testing in the spring.) Students, in general, are very concerned about their test scores. They want to do well. They know how to act. But sometimes, I look at their faces, and I think, “Oh, you poor things!” I just wanted you to read a book and talk with me about it, and we could recommend our “next-on-the-list” books for each other. We could write whatever we want, and revise and edit for publishing, like real writers do! Students have actually asked me, “Is this for a grade?” or “Is this going to be on the test?” I tell them the truth. “Everything we do is meant to help you to learn. You can pass the test if you are an active learner.”

Parents are under pressure now to help their kids pass the standardized tests, so the school can pass, so the state can pass. Parents want what is best for their children, so they do whatever it takes. The state governments have set up several ways for parents to take control of their students’ learning, including participating in school choice programs, accepting vouchers that lead away from public schools, and opting out of testing altogether. One problem is the parents are being forced to make decisions about education with no expertise in the actual ways that education works. Parents are acting on what they hear from the media. “The kids are not performing as they should, and you should do something about it.”  What should they do? Listen to those who are not educators? Apparently. From my experience, I see more test anxiety in students in the past 5 years, and less overall authentic student achievement, than I did in the first 5 years of my teaching career. I believe the media does have something to do with it.

Another problem with standardized tests is that they are given at an inopportune time during the school year. This year, our state has a round of testing before, and a round after, spring break. I wonder how that makes sense? Schools spend most of the school year focusing on scores students received last year, and instructing with a goal of increasing scores for this year. Of course, I DO want my students to improve and grow, but I want them to learn, improve, and grow all year, not just for spring testing season.

One last problem I have noticed is that state governments have also encouraged school districts to evaluate teachers — reward and punish them —  based on their students’ test scores on the standardized tests. This has caused much havoc, as children are not robots, and they will not perform each test day as the government would choose. It is insane that a teacher may or may not receive a raise, or may or may not be judged as a “satisfactory” teacher based on a few hours of testing in the spring of the school year. Now I DO agree that we teachers need to be held accountable! We should be instructing, and our students should be learning, based on the standards, over the course of a school year. My goal is student achievement. Of course! But I do not see how student achievement can be assessed by only a standardized test. There is so much more to it than that! I remember a slogan from years back: “A student is more than a test score.” It was a goofy campaign, but the message was clear. We want our students to succeed in life, and life is not one test.

2) I am a mom. I NEVER remember my daughters coming home from school, worried about taking “the test.” They did their homework. They did their projects (with little help from me, by the way). They learned to think, write, and research on their own when they wanted to know more about a subject. They knew that their teachers were not to blame for their failures. Yes, sometimes people fail. But we don’t let failing define us; we allow failing to teach us lessons, and we grow.”

3) I am a product of the public school system. I NEVER remember being worried about the standardized tests when I was a student. I do remember our teachers mentioning that they would be coming up soon, and those teachers taught us how to fill in bubbles on the answer sheets, make our best choices, and encouraged us to “try our best.” We knew the material. Our teachers had taught us what we needed to know. I passed the tests each time I took them. I was never a “star student,” but I did my best, and that was all anyone was asking for.

Let us help today’s students to become life-long learners again. As you read the news about testing students, consider what is best for kids, and not what is popular according to the government or the media. Make wise decisions, based on real research from education experts, teachers, and school leaders. Let’s find solutions that will help our students to meet goals greater than passing a test that takes just a few hours out of their lifetimes.