Friday, March 27, 2015

Why I Keep Cartooning

Mr. Fitz for March 28th, 2000: the very first strip.

Tomorrow marks 15 years since my little comic strip about teaching, Mr. Fitz, began running in the Daytona Beach News-Journal. It's hard to calculate exactly how many strips I've drawn since I have occasionally had to put re-runs in the paper, and at one point (I don't even recall when) I switched from being in the newspaper 5 times a week to 6 times a week, but I think it's reasonable to say that I've probably drawn more than 4,000 Mr. Fitz comic strips. This anniversary, like the strip itself, undoubtedly means more to me than it does to anyone else. But nonetheless, I'd like to ruminate on why I have drawn and continue to draw the strip for this long. 

Ever since I was about six years old, I wanted to be a cartoonist. As I have related elsewhere, I learned to read so I could read the funnies. I grew up on Peanuts and The Wizard of Id, and when I was in high school and college, and as a young adult I had the privilege of reading Bloom County, The Far Side, and Calvin and Hobbes first-run on the printed page. I dreamed I'd get syndicated, make lots of money, and sit around drawing cartoons all day.

Life had other plans. 

I tried a drawing a couple of other strips that ran in my hometown and college newspapers, but the syndicates weren't interested. I think maybe I didn't really have enough to say--there was no personal voice to the strip, or not enough of it. 

I ended up in teaching, and about 7 years into the profession wound up having a chance to run a comic strip in one local newspaper. I proposed a strip about teaching. I would say the rest is history, but I suspect I won't end up in any history books. In the end, the rest isn't history-- the rest is learning. I have learned a lot over the last 15 years. 

I have learned that practice may not make perfect, but it sure makes for growth. I think the writing itself was fairly sharp from the outset, but the actual visual quality of the strip--the lettering and drawing--was very uneven. Fifteen years of fine-tuning have developed my talents, and I think my drawing is a lot better now than it was. I may look back on what I do now and think it looks amateurish too, but it's still better than when I started. When I tell my students that you have to practice something a lot before you get good at it, all I need to do is show them a year-2000 strip compared to a 2015 strip to prove my point. 

I learned that sometimes, to paraphrase John Dewey, having to say something and having something to say actually go hand in hand. My great editor at Scholastic, Gloria Pipkin, once asked me if I ever suspected, back when I started the strip, that it would become so political. I had to say no. I just knew I wanted to write about the joys and frustrations of teaching in a way a general audience could enj. One frustration began to stand out among the rest--our country's obsession with standardized testing. It so was antithetical to everything I stood for as a teacher, that it just started finding its way into the strip more and more. And that's the thing-- having to come up with five or six comic strips a week means I had to say something, and saying something that often eventually leads you to find you have an awful lot to say. Over the past 15 years, I have touched not only on testing, but on student motivation, reading, writing, proofreading, scripted curricula, student "baggage," student motivation, and teacher depression, to name just a few. I have learned about my own attitudes toward teaching by drawing the strip, and I truly think it has made me a better, more thoughtful teacher. 

I've learned that you can educate people in a variety of ways, even through a newspaper comic. I've had quite a few people outside education tell me they understand what's happening in schools and in the teaching profession better because of Mr. Fitz's misadventures. 

I've learned that when you create something, you never know where your creation will lead you. The comic strip has led me, directly or indirectly, a variety of experiences: being my district's teacher of the year 11 years ago; being in contact with teachers as far away as New Zealand; receiving emails from Ray Bradbury and Lois Lowry, who both appreciated me referencing their books in the strip; having a cartoon on the cover of the magazine Voices from the Middle; being featured on The Washington Post's "The Answer Sheet" blog by Valerie Strauss, and writing two books for Scholastic Professional books for teachers, each containing about 100 cartoons.

I also learned that speaking up about things can either get you in trouble, or get you ignored. About halfway into the strip's run, a series in the strip got me in a little hot water, and combined with what was happening in teaching at the time, I actually went through a period of depression. I almost ended the strip. It took a long time, but I finally realized that the adage "Depression is just anger without enthusiasm" was very true in my case. I realized that I was actually very, very angry about what was happening to schools. I no longer worry about getting in trouble. Bring it on. People ask me if I ever get in any trouble for the strip, for being so pointed in it. I have to say, these days, no. And I'm actually kind of bummed about that. Drawing the strip has taken me up the ladder in the stages of moral development, from "I don't want to get in trouble" to "I follow a higher code."

I have learned that speaking up is worth it, even if you don't ever sign the "standard rich and famous" contract, as Orson Wells puts it  in The Muppet Movie. It's worth it if you get to have a positive affect on even a few people. I have had people write to me to about how the strip gets them through the day, helps them keep their sense of humor, helps them keep their sanity. I've see the strips posted in workrooms and bathrooms (such an honor!) around my district. I've been told by teachers how they've used the strips or my books in class. Perhaps most rewarding of all was when my series about Mr. Fitz's bout with depression (I think perhaps my favorite of all story-lines I've done) appeared on The Answer Sheet. The comments made me realize I'd tapped into something very real, and very deep, and that I had perhaps helped some teachers out there realize they were not alone. 

I learned that being good (and I do think I write a good strip, or I wouldn't be doing it) doesn't always mean being successful in the way the world values success. The syndicates have turned me down 4 or 5 times. I'm not generic enough, I guess, for an international market. (So why am I read in New Zealand?)

I am as capable in my darker moments of self pity as anyone. Sometimes I think, "Wow-- you haven't had a real, substantial raise as a teacher in a while. You hardly make anything off the comic strip. Everything you do is undervalued. Why are you even doing any of it?" Well, perhaps I'm capable of self-delusion as well as self-pity, but in my better moments, I realize that I really am counter-cultural: I do the things I do for their intrinsic value. I make enough to sort of scrape by, even if I'm not rich. I have appealed to people to become a Patron for Mr. Fitz on the Patreon Website, and I'm making a bit more on the strip than I used to (I'm up to $55 a month-- it helps pay for frames and pens!). Feel free to contribute. But please don't tell me, as one person did, that all I do is ask for money now. 

I guess I have decided to teach (see my last blog) till I retire in seven years, or they throw me out for being my un-standardized self. How long will I do the strip? Good question. My wife has put up with my nearly constant drawing for 15 years now, and is endlessly supportive. (Thanks, Andrea!) When I started the strip, my kids were in Kindergarten and Preschool; now they are in college and approaching high school graduation. I have drawn my way through their childhoods, which has had both its benefits and its drawbacks. But overall, I think it has enriched our lives, since the strip has also chronicled parts of our family life in a unique way. 

Jeff Bowen, I guy who went to my alma mater, Stetson University, appeared in a staged reading of a musical, Stargazers, that I co-wrote with my friend, Brett Templeton. He went on to co-write and star in a musical, title of show, that went to Broadway. Near they end of the musical, they sing a song about being happy if their play is "Nine People's Favorite Thing." In the end, I'm pretty happy if I'm nine people's favorite thing. You know, everything's a paradox: I do it for love, but let's be honest, if even 1/4 of my 4,233 fans on Facebook pledged a dollar a month--I'd probably keep drawing till I dropped. 

What I'd love to be able to do, in the end, is get back to where the strip started: writing and drawing about real teaching and learning. Sure, Big Education Reform has given me a boatload of material over the years, but my fondest dream is to finish the strip with our public schools in better shape than ever. I'd like to see us really investing in kids rather than focusing on endless rounds of useless assessments. I'd like to finish the strip by writing and drawing about the humdrum humor of everyday classroom silliness because the endless assault on our public schools is finally over. 

So who knows where this journey will end? I'm still learning, I still have things to say, the strip still serves as a form of therapy for me, and for my readers, and I'm producing it more efficiently than ever now that I type the lettering rather than drawing it by hand... So will I hit twenty years? Who knows. But I'll miss it when I stop.

In the meantime, I just went to Quality Quick Print and got copies made. 200 more empty frames just waiting to be filled.... As it says in another show, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Sunday in the Park with George: "White. A blank page or canvas. His favorite. So many possibilities."

Mr. Fitz for March 28th, 2015.

Why I Keep Teaching

In recent years, it has become common for teachers who are leaving the profession prematurely to post letters or videos online explaining why they are leaving. I completely understand their sentiments and their reasons. I have almost been there myself. My wife and I at one point started a business that would be our exit ticket from teaching in the public schools, but we were too busy teaching to really get it going, and lacked the financial resources to make the jump away. But something else kept me from jumping away as well: I actually believe in public schools. 

And I began to realize that not only did these teachers' heartbreaking letters not seem to make a difference to the powers that be-- I began to wonder if the powers that be were actually happy to see these wonderful teachers leave the profession. 

National Public Radio recently put out a call asking teachers why they choose to stay in the profession, and published an article with many teachers' responses. I was too busy teaching to respond, though I did enjoy reading other teachers' responses. My short answer found its way into my daily Daytona Beach News-Journal comic strip (above), Mr. Fitz. Yes, I teach for the students. But that is a very simple answer. Here is the more complex answer. To answer it, I must address two different stake-holders: my students, and the education reformers themselves.

Why do I stay in teaching? 

To my students and their parents I answer: for the same reasons I entered teaching. What I say at Open House every year still holds true. I got into teaching English because I love reading and writing and want you to love them too. Reading and writing have saved my life, enriched and transformed my life over and over again. I want you to experience the power that reading and writing can have for you. Of course they can make you more employable, more ready to go to college. That should almost go without saying. But the real reasons to be educated run deeper than college and careers. Reading and writing are for life: now, before you enter college or the workplace, and for much later when you leave the work place but still, if you are fortunate enough, have many years left to live. 

I want you to experience the power of reading and writing and excel at them. I work towards this goal, even when you resist my best efforts, even when you are rude to me, and act like I am the enemy. I keep on going because I care. 

Lest anyone should accuse me of being soft or sentimental, understand that if you love something you will want to do it well. The main reason people don't excel at what they do is because they don't care about it. When you don't care, you go through the motions. You phone in your performance. You do things to get them over with. 

That, apparently, is what education reformers want us as teachers to do. Go through the motions. 

And so now I address the people invested in "education reform"--a term I use loosely. After over 10 years of No Child Left Behind, education reform has become the new status quo. I include in this list of "reformers" anyone who is in favor of our obsession with standardized testing and curriculum and all the baggage that goes with it: politicians on the Right and the Left; the people who have promoted No Child Left Behind and Race To the Top; the testing companies like Pearson and AIR; organizations like Students First, and the people who run them, like Michelle Rhee; people who claim school choice and competition will make public schools better but know it will actually gut public schools; philanthropists and business people like Bill Gates who have no education experience (and may have never finished college), but who throw their own money at the problem in destructive ways; people like David Coleman who want to rewrite all classrooms in their own image; legislators and governors who have made test scores 50 percent of my evaluation; curriculum and textbook companies who think scripting teachers is a good idea; local politicians and school board members who claim to listen and then treat teachers with a staggering lack of respect; district personnel who buy everything the state tells them "hook, line, and sinker" and support us for all the wrong reasons; media outlets and news providers who keep the "bad teacher" narrative alive and well;  writers of letters to the editor who condescend to teachers and tell them they have it easy... (Did I leave anyone out?) 

To all these people, a large, often wealthy, and intimidating group, I say: 

Do you really think what you are doing is making things better in education? Then you are suffering from a self deception and delusion on a scale I can't fathom. It seems to me that even you would have to admit that if your "reforms" actually made sense, your brightest, best, most accomplished teachers would welcome them. But I'm going to tell you, they don't. 

I will only speak for myself here, but all your education reforms have made me depressed and demoralized, in poor health, and ready to quit. Education reform has attempted to undermine and destroy every single thing that makes teaching a worthwhile profession. Many of you say you want to "run the schools like a business." Well, if I were behaving like a sane employee, I would take one look at this profession, at the lack of respect, at the lower wages, at the lack of autonomy, at the wrong-headedness of every single thing being forced on us as teachers, and run the other way. In fact, I think that's what you're counting on. Despite claims to the contrary, I think you actually want good teachers to leave. We're too much trouble, not compliant enough.

Since teachers leaving the profession seems to have had no effect on you, I have decided to stay. But let me make this clear: I am staying not because of you, but despite you. 

After 23 years, and with 7 left to go before retirement, I am staying, but on my terms, not yours. 

I am staying in teaching despite the fact that our entire system is obsessed with standardized tests.I am staying despite the fact that these tests have little-to-no validity, narrow the curriculum to only what's tested, and are set up to make kids fail; despite the fact that the results of the tests are mostly beyond my control but are now 50% of my evaluation; despite the fact that the tests have changed from year to year and the cut scores and results have been arbitrarily tinkered with; despite the fact that testing now takes up about 1/4 of the school year in my class; despite being exiled and sent to a portable for several weeks so that my class room can be used for computer testing; despite the fact that the testing actually interferes with the real teaching and learning I know needs to happen for my students. I don't teach to the test: I teach against it. I tell my students that the test is meaningless drivel. Surprisingly, this usually results in them performing better. They don't feel so stressed about it.

I stay despite the fact that you want us to turn students into data points and analyze their performance on individual multiple choice questions that don't really show us whether they can think about something for real, but show us instead whether they can think like the adults that wrote the question to try to trick them. I stay despite your attempts to make students feel lousy about themselves. I tell them to ignore their scores and focus on the brilliant insights they have during class discussion, the books they have read and enjoyed without any tests afterward, the writing they have done about topics they care about to reach a real audience.

I stay despite your attempts to kill teacher creativity by making us follow curriculum maps, which are really just documents designed to enforce our use of standardized textbooks and workbooks so that publishers can make money. My best teaching comes out of the interaction between my knowledge of how reading and writing work, my knowledge of how teaching works, my knowledge of my students and their interests and shortcomings, and my own creativity. I create units that tap into universal human concerns (happiness, success, power) and expose students to questions and ideas they need to lead better lives (having a growth mindset, defining success, the power of education). I choose essays, stories, and plays that get them to really think both about what they read and about their own lives and life in general, and that also provide them with models of great writing. I create writing exercises that get them thinking and also teach specific writing skills. I give them freedom to choose their own topics. I let them be creative. (I once had a former student I ran into introduce me to a friend as "the only teacher who ever let me be creative.") I design a school year that builds layers of skills and complex ideas, so that by the end of the year, students read something new and make associations back to things we read and talked about in September. This is what excites me about teaching--what my students and I create together: great shared reading experiences, writing that is compelling, fun, and publishable, fascinating discussions. I stay and continue to do these things, because when I try to just follow someone else's idea of what a lesson or unit or school year should look like, it falls flat. 

I stay despite your attempts to control what I do in the classroom. When you micromanage me, you make me less of a teacher. It is breathtaking hypocrisy to tell us exactly how to teach, and then tell us we are responsible for the results. Whoever controls the process controls the results. If you tell me how to teach, then you are responsible for the outcomes, not me. Of course, I don't do what the system tells me to do. I teach my own way, and get better test results than many of my more standardized peers. A Florida teacher was once asked how she got such great test results. Her answer: 
"By not doing anything you say." Exactly. Very seldom has anyone asked me how I get the results I do, though. 

I stay despite the fact that the education reform agenda takes the kids most in need of enrichment, arts activities, and field studies, and puts them in remedial classes that rob them of their electives. Our most successful students are successful because of the ways people have invested in them with enriching, motivating activities not tied directly to test scores. We need to invest in our lowest students with more enrichment activities, not more test prep. The system you have created is actually harming them. I work against that by trying to create an enriching atmosphere in my class. I run a cartooning club and a drama/play-writing club. I try to make up for what your policies have taken from them. 

I stay despite your attempts to kill student creativity by making us focus on testing skills to the point that arts classes are cut or are turned into just another test-prep class that leads up to a ridiculous end-of-course exam. We really need elementary school students writing about how colors show emotion in paintings? How about actually letting them paint instead? 

I stay despite your attempts to shove new standards and new teaching philosophies down my throat. We were told we were going to be using the Common Core Standards, and that they were so different, they would transform our teaching. Then they became controversial, so my state changed the name but kept the standards. Meanwhile, I quickly figured out that I actually was already teaching the standards in the ways that actually mattered. What I wasn't doing was teaching the philosophies behind the standards. I wasn't telling my students, as Common Core architect David Coleman has told teachers, that "nobody gives a $#!=" about your personal story or your opinion. I have not limited my students to New Criticism when they read. I haven't told them to not relate what they read to life. I have not followed Coleman's "model" lessons, which include close-reading "The Gettysburg Address" without any historical context, or reading "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" and explaining it to your students for several days. I know how to teach, thank you very much, and have 23 years more classroom experience than David Coleman. What I don't have is tons of money and the backing of powerful politicians like Jeb Bush. I will continue to teach my students that their personal stories do matter, but that they must also set them aside at times to write more objectively. I tell them that there is a place for listening to and focusing on the text itself, because you can't connect it to life until you understand what it says, but I also tell them that once you have listened to an author, there are all kinds of ways to look at a text: relate to it personally, or view it through different critical lenses. This approach actually leads to thinking. The approach being promoted leads to disengagement, apathy, and thinking what the teacher wants you to think--if you are even still awake. 

I stay despite your attempts to de-professionalize the teaching profession. I have to hand it to you, your public relations smear campaign has been brilliant. The movie Waiting for Superman, various Newsweek and Time covers announcing how bad teachers are, the use of test scores to "scientifically" prove how our schools are failing, the memes that get spread about how lazy, overpaid, under-worked, and ineffective teachers are... It's all brilliant, if you want a demoralized, depressed, downtrodden workforce that will be increasingly ineffective in the classroom. In my district we haven't had real, regular raises or steps for several years, but when we protest, we are condescended to about how we don't know how the real world works. In my own small way, I try to let the public know what is really going on by publishing my comic strip about teaching in my local newspaper and online. I have a small but loyal readership with fans as far away as New Zealand. I am helping people see teaching in a different way. I don't have millions of dollars to spend on my campaign, but I'm doing what I can.

I stay despite your attempts to infringe on my free-speech by telling us what we can talk about with our students. When you tell teachers that there are education-related topics they may not discuss with their students, topics like the Opt Out movement, you are, as I have stated elsewhere, not promoting education. "When you undermine free inquiry and discussion, you undermine the very foundation of education itself."

Reformers and Reformer Supporters: Nothing you do makes teaching better or learning better. You are the enemies of real education. Nothing, absolutely nothing you do makes me want to stay in teaching. But you don't really want me in the classroom anyway. You don't really want public schools to succeed. You want them to fail and close and be replaced by profit-making schools. You don't put students first: you put your own money-driven interests first, your own careers first, testing first. You don't deserve a teacher like me. I stay despite you, not because of you. 

There are still people in the system who support me, who shield me from the forces that would stop me from being the teacher I am. You know who you are. I salute you. But I may not always have you. Someday soon, I may have to keep Teaching Right in the face of opposition at every level, and if you want to stop me, you will have to drag me out of my classroom. But whoever drags me out won't be thinking of what is really good for kids, but what is good for their own bottom line. 

I stay for my students. 

I stay for you, especially for those of you eager to learn
but also for those of you who have been ruined by the system and think you hate learning. If all you've been given so far is test prep, you don't even know what learning is. I am here to show you that learning is more than standards and grades and test scores
Learning is life in all its vast, messy, paradoxical complexity.

I am here for those of you who want to be teachers someday. I am fighting for you to be able to answer your call and teach with joy and enthusiasm and love. 

On a recent planning day when no students were on campus, we recently had an "active shooter drill" at our school. We had to pretend a person with a gun was on campus to harm our students. We were told our options were to run, hide, or fight. 

My wife, Andrea, who teaches at my school, pointed out what an apt metaphor this was for the teaching profession as a whole now. Unless we are going to let the powers that be into our rooms to destroy it with standardization and test preparation, we have three options: run, hide, or fight. Many teachers have run by retiring early or simply quitting. I cannot blame them. I have been to the emergency room with a stress-induced heart attack scare. Many of us have tried to hide: go into the classroom, close your door, and hope the forces of standardization pass you by as you teach the way you know you should. 

But the time is at hand now when I think fighting is the best option. The only question now is my method of fighting. I think the best place to start is to teach well... but that may not be enough any more.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Teaching vs. Testing - Episode 6: Crash!

It's been a busy couple of days, so this is the first chance I've had to sit down and write something. Of course what happened yesterday, on the first day ever of the Florida Standards Assessment, made the news all over Florida. But here's the scoop from my little corner of the educational world.

I arrived fairly early Monday morning and had some breakfast in the workroom (our principal had brought in some Panera bagels). After going to my room to turn on my computer and discovering that my room had already been filled with laptops, I headed up to the conference room. Instead of the usual large, heavy box laden with #2 pencils and testing booklets, I received an envelope with test tickets, a roster for attendance purposes, and a couple other pieces of paper. That and the laptops would be all I'd need.

I created my seating chart and filled out my security log, confirming that I was the person administering the test in room 2-007 (a very cool room number). I then reviewed my "script" including the stage directions for handing out the tickets and the pre-writing papers. It made me look forward to getting my script for The Music Man. Trouble in River City indeed.

Very quickly the morning whittled itself away, and soon the bell was about to ring. I followed my stage directions and went to the proper website, followed the proper links, and put in my password (which is a very subversive phrase--quite satisfying). As my 8th graders shuffled into the room at 8:55, I told them to turn off their phones, label them with post-its, and place in the bag up front. The sign I'd posted announced that no electronic devices were allowed during the test... the test they were about to take on their laptops. Irony.

My computer sat thinking for a moment as students divested themselves of their phones. And then the screen on my laptop came up, in large unmistakable letters: SERVER NOT AVAILABLE.

Just my luck. I went out to the hall. The teacher next door was having the same problem. I went back in and refreshed the page. No dice. By the time I got back to the hall a second time, an administrator told me there were issues statewide. We should check our emails.

I checked. The email from the office told us to keep trying, and if we got into the system, we should let them know. Whoever got in would create one big testing session for all the 8th graders testing that day rather than one session for each room.

I tried again, and actually got the website! I emailed the office! I'm in! I clicked on one further link, and on this page got the message again: SERVER NOT AVAILABLE. I emailed the office: False alarm.

A few minutes passed. The students grew restless. I let them start their laptops up and play "Cool Math" online just to keep them busy and happy. It worked.

An administrator came in and told me that our media specialist was now "in." She would run the whole school as one big session,which meant she would have to "approve" each teacher's students as they logged on. Fun! I got the Session code, wrote it on a post-it, an then wrote it on the board. I got all my students off of "Cool Math" and told them it was time to start. I got out my script. It was show time. Almost 40 minutes late-- but it was show time.

I began the script. Everyone settled down. I distributed tickets. I distributed planning sheets. People signed their pledges not to cheat or discuss the test with anyone. Once they logged in, they awaited approval, which came quickly. Our media person was on top of it!

And soon everyone was started. Interestingly, some students had changed their background colors and font colors; most hadn't bothered. For about 45 minutes, all was well. I monitored them as I was supposed to, making sure they were on the right screen, but not actually reading what was on the screen, as I am not supposed to see any element of the test. So looked at the test, but didn't read the test. Makes sense. Sure.

One girl started to write her essay after reading the passages, and couldn't see the letters. How could she make the font bigger? I couldn't remember. I consulted my Training Script from last Thursday to find the answer, but before I could find it, two students had been booted out of the system. Their screens froze. We had to manually turn off their computers and reboot them. As that went on, I found the solution to the font size problem (you can't change the font size, only the magnification). I got the students logged back in, but then they needed to be approved. I emailed the media specialist since I couldn't approve them myself. But she was watching her computer screen, and they were back in.

The 90 minutes was almost at an end. Everyone seemed to have written quite a bit (I didn't look at what they wrote, but could see lots of letters in the text-boxes-- maybe it was just gobbledygook, but it looked good). But I had two students still writing.

We reached the end. I told them all to stop. But now I had to give the two an additional 30 minutes. So the others logged off and wrote their comments into the feedback website. My two students who needed additional time took it. By this time I was starting to need to use the bathroom. I had been trapped in the room since 8:30 and it was now almost 11:30. I emailed for help. None was forthcoming. Everyone was just too busy. Finally, at 11:42, the epic was over and the last students finished their essays.

I wasn't sure what the procedure was for packing up the laptops, so I did it wrong. I was supposed to have all the students log out, not simply close the lid, before plugging them in on the cart. Alas. An administrator finally arrived to check on me and I dashed out to the bathroom and back. At 12:07 my students finally left after a three hour stay in my classroom. One of them said, "That's the most I've ever written!" on the way out.

I realized I had completely lost my lunch--well, missed my lunch. I was told to take my 4th period-- sixth graders-- to the auditorium so I could eat. I did so. I ate, listening to a soothing violin album on my computer to calm my nerves.

I received 4th period back for 15 minutes. I had realized it was actually Dr. Seuss's birthday, Read Across America Day. So I read my students "The Sneetches". Then I got really subversive and read them "How the Dirth Stole Learning", my Dr, Seuss parody/education reform satire that ran in my comic strip in the newspaper and later on The Answer Sheet. I've turned it into a book, too, which is what I read to the kids. I think they were amused.

My 6th and 7th graders, with whom I spent the rest of the day, had all taken the pencil and paper version of the FSA Writing. It had gone off without a hitch. Surprise, surprise. One of my students said that what we'd done in class had helped her so much. If it's possible to feel pleased and horrified at the same time, that's how I felt.

I ended the day reading Dr. Seuss and the Dirth with the rest of my classes and playing a brainstorming game called Face-Off. I thought about how difficult my 8th graders usually are, but how angelic and diligent they were during the test. We've really got them conditioned. Today when I tried to engage them with some material about what you should do to resist injustice, they acted bored and distracted, sending me the message that if I just gave them stuff like the standardized test, they'd behave better. How utterly depressing.

At the end of the day Monday, it was announced that the 8th grade computer testing was being postponed until further notice in our district, until the state fixed the glitches. And so today, which would have seen the other half of the 8th grade testing, was a "normal" day. But even though I tried to do some really engaging things to get us back on track, somehow everything seemed "off" today. I felt like the flow of the school year had been shattered. Maybe if the writing test had finished itself off completely today, I'd be getting us back on track sooner. But now we don't know when the next testing day will arrive. When it does, half the 8th graders will take the test for three hours or so while the rest of the campus, the other 8th graders, and the sixth and seventh graders, sit in classrooms for three hours somehow filling up the time,  held hostage while one-eighth of the school finishes their testing. In the meantime, we are in instructional limbo-land.

News stations covered the story, but while they did talk about the glitch, few of them questioned the need for the test, the quality of the test itself, or how testing disrupts education.

FSA Part I: The Debacle! has premiered. Until Part 2 arrives, possibly when you least expect it, we must all stay flexible!

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Teaching vs. Testing - Episode 5: Final Preparations!

I got busy last week-- partially school, partially other things. So I need to get you caught up on how Teaching is doing against Testing. I suspect you can guess who's winning, but it's the details that make it such an interesting competition.

I'll begin with 6th grade. On Wednesday I handed their essays back to them, and they were, quite frankly, thrilled for the most part. As I'd said, they had listened to my instructions for how to jump through the state's hoop, and they did very well. There might even be some skills involved in their success that might bleed over into real-world writing. But for the most part, as "proficient" as their essays were, and as good as many of them were about "achieving" the demands of the test by achieving a good score according to the rubric (a score I gave them, which is really my own best guess), I felt like it was a hollow, hollow victory.

It made the old, random-topic FCAT Writing, which I'd railed about for years, look amazingly wonderful--a real creative writing challenge. The FSA "writing to text" essay they produced for me almost demands to be formulaic. And it is. That's how you succeed, but following a formula. Not by actually learning how to think and write.

And one other note of interest. The rubric for the FSA is mind-boggling, and also not that useful. Here's the link to the grades 6 - 11 rubric. How do you use the same rubric for grades 6 through 11? Oh, you don't. More on that later. But here's the thing, the old 6-point rubric was actually kind of sort of useful, if you really felt you had to use a rubric. A 6 was a 6 and a 5 always represented the same thing, as did a 4, a 3, a 2, and a 1. But with the FSA rubric, once you're done wading through all those boxes of text and actual come out the other side to score something, the scores sometimes mean the same thing, and sometimes don't. A 10 is always a 10: well done! But anywhere else on the scale, especially in the middle-- a score gives you general sense of goodness or badness. But since the scoring rubric is divided into three areas, Organization/Focus out of 4 points, Elaboration/Evidence out of 4 points , and Conventions out of 2 points, you can get your score a variety of ways.

A score of 7 might mean you got a 3, 2, 2 score.
Or a 2, 3, 2 score.
Or a 4, 1, 2 score.
Or a 1, 4, 2 score.
Or a 3, 4, 0 score.

I'm the score out of 10 becomes, for all intents and purposes, pretty meaningless.

But on to my other two grades. My 7th graders did well also, so I let them have silent reading Friday as usual. No more test prep.

My 8th graders on the other hand... They finished up their tests on Wednesday after I returned from remediation. They didn't do very well. But could I have Thursday to review with them, to work with them? No.

Because Thursday was one of the most bizarre, absurdest episodes of my entire teaching career. It was my 8th graders' FSA ELA Writing Component Training Test. Like the Infrastructure Test, this one came with a script, this time a densely-packed 7 pages of instructions. I dutifully took my class to the Media Center to practice on laptops, like my wife had, and Mrs. J. who teaches next door to me.

Here's a sample of the script I had to read to them:
For the training test, you will log in as a guest user. Make sure that the box to the left of Guest User is checked. Make sure that the box to the left of Guest Session is not checked. Once you ensure the box next to Guest User is checked and the box next to Guest Session is not checked, enter the Session ID _______. The Session ID is displayed for you. Select Sign In. Raise your hand if you need assistance.

That's just for starters. There are other exciting instructions I had to read as well. Things like:
Now, select Begin Test Now, but do not begin yet.

Or how about:

The Pause button allows you to pause and exit the test. Do not select the Pause button at
this time. To the right of the Pause button, you will see the End Test button. Do not
select the End Test button at this time. We will discuss the Pause and End Test buttons
more at the end of this training test.
Are there any questions?

Yes. Too many to even list.

The most amazing thing, though, was the digital tools the students had at their disposal to practice on and later to use on the real test. They can change the background color and the font size. They can use a notepad to take notes, and bold, underline, and italicize their writing. There is a "line reader" tool, whatever that is.

The thing is, I have seen students sit in computer labs practicing what I once called in my comic strip "Prodraftination": playing with Word Art, font size, font color, backgrounds, images, and the like for so long, you never get around to actually writing. I'm a little afraid that may happen tomorrow.

The entire past week was devoted to test prep in one way or another, with the exception of reading workshop on Friday. In my 8th grade class on Friday, I gave one last, heroic attempt to get the students to revise their district assessment essays. Some did, some didn't. Tomorrow is the real test. We'll see how they do. But probably not for months. And depending on how they report the score, I won't really know how they did at all. "You got a 7? That's so... ambiguous."

Meanwhile, in what I can only assume is a political move, Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed an executive order canceling the ELA FSA for 11th graders.

One grade down--8 to go.

I'll let you know how tomorrow's testing session goes. I have also landed the part of Harold Hill (one of my dream roles) in a community theater production of The Music Man. Tomorrow night is the first rehearsal. I can't help but savor the delicious irony: I'm starring in a play about some perpetrating educational fraud.

"Use the Think Method, boys! The minuet in D!"

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Teaching vs. Testing - Episode 4: Remediation and Substitute Plans

I missed posting yesterday, so for the record, both yesterday and today were completely dominated by test prep.

Yesterday and today were remediation days. We had to set up a remediation plan so show we were "doing something" to raise scores. In the past we have pulled students from PE or Elective to remediate them from the old writing test. Now we live in the era of End-Of-Course Exams in every subject, including Art and PE. We can't pull from those classes, so now we pull from our own. It's kind of cannibalistic.

I had already come up with a practice test to use, so everyone figured out which students they didn't think were going to succeed on the FSA next Monday. I was soon making a list and checking it twice. I had to prepare substitute plans for my absence most of the day yesterday and today. This was fairly easy since most of my classes were taking the district assessment, which the substitute could handle. I felt privileged to have a sub, since we are generally out of sub funds, so most classes get sent to auditorium for study hall of the teacher is absent.

So the past two days I spent away from my own students attempting to focus small groups of students on the task of reading three articles I'd picked out about whether kids should receive allowance and then write an argument based on "text evidence."

My thought as I worked hard to force feed "writing to text" to these remediation students was that what I was feeding them was the last thing they needed. If food is my metaphor, I guess what I was feeding them was some kind of health-food shake: supposedly good for you, but actually an artificial, "food-like" substance that tasted awful. What these students actually need is to do some real writing from life, from their imagination, about things they really care about. Real food. Organic, for lack of a better word. They need to be encouraged to care about things, period. One student got frustrated at one point and crumpled up his paper and threw it out and cried. I coaxed him back to working with us.

Will my efforts pay off in higher scores? Maybe, for a few. Will my efforts make them better writers for real, make them love writing, or express what really matters to them? Not a bit. I may have done more harm than good.

When I finished remediating, I had all those district assessments to grade, which is how I spent my planning and most of my evening. And I'm going to say, my education resistant 8th graders didn't do very well for the most part. But my 6th and 7th grade students? They tried really hard-- they excelled, so far as I can tell. I don't really know without anchor papers or cut scores, which won't be available until much later this year--after the test.

But my reaction to their success was twofold.

One, I felt relieved that they would probably do well on Monday's FSA test.

And two, I felt kind of sullied by my own success with them. They had given me their best efforts for a kind of writing that doesn't really matter much, a kind of writing that is formulaic and dull.

It makes me want to get to next Wednesday, after the FSA is over. Because then I am giving them to chance to choose a topic and make their own argument about whatever they want, using details from life, from their imaginations, or from texts of their own choosing. Next week they will write for real.

But we'd better do it quickly. Spring break is coming soon, and after it's over, there's more testing. Weeks and weeks of it.


Friday, February 20, 2015

Teaching vs. Testing - Episode 3: District Testing and Plotting Remediation

So today all my classes were taking the district writing exam. I read, outlined, and wrote my own version of the 6th grade essay so I could see what my students had to do, and read and outlined the 7th and 8th grade essays as well.

What strikes me about these assessments is how tricky it is to come up with a decent combination of texts to read and a prompt to write about them. Some of the prompt topics are actually decent, but then the reading selections students are given to use are too short on "textual evidence" to make a decent argument. Or the texts have lots of evidence-- just not for the prompt they are given. Or the selections are oddly out of balance. The 6th grade prompt I'm giving has two informational texts, and no arguments to draw from at all. The 7th grade prompt has three informational pieces, no arguments there, either. In both cases, students must develop argumentative reasons of their own about a topic they may or may not have been aware of, and then hope there is enough "text evidence" to help support those reasons. The 8th grade articles actually include arguments, but the topic is so complex and multifaceted that I had trouble deciding what point of view to take myself.

Many of my students haven't really developed into writers yet, and doing this kind of writing, about these kinds of relatively un-engaging topics, may actually keep them from developing much further. Why is there such a prejudice against letting students write from life about topics that interest them and letting them do their own research?

Because you can't test individuality, and you can't score thousands of different topics with a computer algorithm (which is where I'm afraid we're heading; even now our 8th graders will get one "human score" and one "computer score.") The forces shaping out assessments, and thus the education we force upon our students, are not based upon sound educational principles, but on what is expedient to get scores in the most efficient way possible, at whatever cost to the students, or the tax payers for that matter. These tests don't come cheap.

Meanwhile, we'd been told we had to do "remediation" for the upcoming test. This involved making lists of kids who were in danger of "failing" the upcoming state test. This was an interesting task since we don't even know what cut scores will be yet. We also found out that we couldn't "pull" students from PE or elective classes because they, like everyone else, now have End Of Course Exams (EOC's). So we are pulling them from our own classes Monday and Tuesday. Our district writing coach, who is really extremely helpful, is coming in to assist. I will be out of class most of Monday and Tuesday, and the two of us will guide groups of 5 to 11 students through a two-day writing-to-text exercise.

Speaking of which, I had to spend a couple of days finding resources for and creating a fake FSA test. I finally found a topic with my wife's help: should kids receive allowance or not? I found one neutral article, one pro-allowance, and one article about someone who says allowance is evil. It's actually better than some of the stuff that came with our textbook, I think. But it took time.

So Monday and Tuesday I'm mostly out of the classroom re-mediating students to take a test that none of us have really seen, a test that has no cut score and whose rubric was just finalized about three months ago.

I won't be with my students for their last day of taking the Volusia Literacy Test. But that doesn't matter. I'm not supposed to help them with it anyway. I'm not a teacher on those days. I'm a test-enforcer.

I'll let you know how Monday goes. Before I start re-mediating, I'm going to be attending a meeting about how to administer the FSA.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Teaching vs. Testing - Episode 2: District Assessment

Today I got my 8th graders back on track after yesterday's Infrastructure Test by getting us back into a workbook exercise that is practice for the district writing test, which is practice for the Florida Standards Assessment coming up March 2nd. They had to practice writing a body paragraph for their essay.

The formula for such a paragraph is:

My key idea for this paragraph is ______________. In the article/essay/text "_____" the author says, "___________________." This supports my key idea because ____________________. In the article/essay/text "_____" the author says, "___________________." This supports my key idea because ____________________. In the article/essay/text "_____" the author says, "___________________." This supports my key idea because ____________________. This key idea can transition gracefully into my next text-supported idea.

The rest of my classes, four 6th grade and one 7th grade, started a district assessment full of paragraphs like that one, about topics of moderate to low interest. The 6th grade assessment asked them to read two newspaper articles that gave them very little to work with given the prompt. The seventh grade prompt gave them more to work with, I think. I'm still writing it for myself to find out.

These assessments will stretch through tomorrow into Monday, and for the 8th graders into Tuesday. I also spent time finalizing Remediation lists for our upcoming remediation on Monday and Tuesday. This will take me out of class for most of Monday and Tuesday, which isn't really a big deal. My students will be taking a district assessment, so I wouldn't be teaching anyway.

So today was all about testing, except for drama club after school where they brainstormed ideas for original 10 minute one-act plays to write, and our Super Hero Literacy Night, where I ran an event called The Suspect-Super Villain Edition.

That's what I should be doing. Cool stuff.