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.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Testing vs. Teaching - Episode 1: Testing the Wireless

I don't blog very often. Between teaching and drawing my comic strip six times a week, I'm often too busy. But an innovation in the way a produce my daily comic strip, doing the lettering on my computer with my own font, has made creating the strip a lot quicker. And I suspect I won't be doing a whole lot of teaching between now and the end of the school year.

Why? you might ask. It's only February. Surely if school doesn't get out till June, you have lots of time to teach!

Don't be so sure.

I have decided to chronicle, over the next few months, the way testing impacts my teaching. And not just in philosophical ways, but in hard minutes and hours of wasted instructional time.

First, an introduction. I am in my 16th year of teaching at a middle school in Florida, and my 23rd year of teaching in Florida overall. I teach Language Arts: one 8th grade class, four 6th grade classes, and one 7th grade class. When I started teaching, Florida had no standards, no school grading, no district grades, and no standardized curriculum maps, and we used a generic standardized test called the CTBS that never changed from year to year and had no "stakes" attached to it. We stored it in a closet. The booklets had gum stuck in them.

Times have changed.

After years of the FCAT Writing (8th grade only) and FCAT Reading (all grades), we are now about to take the Florida Standards Assessment (FSA) for the first time starting March 2nd.

A little more back story to get out of the way before I proceed to the real beginning of today's episode. Today was not really the first time testing has impacted me this year. This fall, I was out for a day to go to a district workshop. I had a substitute, but still, I was out of my class for the day. At this workshop, we learned how to score samples of our district tests, the VLT's (Volusia Literacy Tests). These tests are designed to prepare students for the FSA Writing, which asks students to "write to text" about some essays and articles they've read. It was actually a pretty productive day. Our tests came out of a "Performance Assessment" workbook (previously titled "Common Core Assessment" until Florida changed the name of its standards to the Florida Standards while retaining all of the Common Core Standards; our Language Arts Standards are called LAFS) from our test book publisher.One of the productive things that came out of it was the fact the prompts for these tests were deeply flawed, as we discovered when we decided to take the essays tests for ourselves. The district wisely revised all three grade levels' prompts.

In addition to the day out, I have already spent three days getting students ready to take the VLT, which is practice for the FSA. And the VLT took three more days to take. That's a total of 6 days just to get ready to take the VLT and then take the VLT, which will get them ready to take the FSA.

And then there's today. Today my first period, 8th grade ELA class had to take the FSA Infrastructure Trial. This trial, which took the entire period, involved setting up laptops in my class room, and having students test the wireless system by logging into a make-believe testing site and taking a pretend test that they could just random guess on, just to see if the wireless bandwidth in my classroom is adequate for this online test.

In order to administer the FSA Infrastructure Trial, I had to print out and decipher a 14 page booklet of instructions, complete with a script to read to my students. As Dave Barry would say, "I am not making this up." A 14 page booklet of instructions and script to test the wireless in my room. I was in the middle of a lead up activity to the VLT to practice for the FSA, but that had to wait.  Reading this book, logging into the system, and figuring out how make it all work took up my entire morning before school  (I arrive early) when I could have been, you know, grading papers.

Today's total:
1 day out of class.
6 days of practice for the FSA
1 class period testing the wireless.

Now that I have given you the back story and begun the rising action, our tale of testing is underway. I shall try to update this series daily, if only briefly, to chronicle how much of the rest of my year is spent teaching,,, and how much is taken up with testing.

Here we go!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Teaching: a love/hate letter

Don't think I am making light of a serious subject.
I have seen abusive relationships for real,
Fortunately, always from the outside,
But sometimes first hand.
So I am

You are my profession,
And I've had a long, long relationship with you.
But Teaching, I have to say,
This has become an abusive relationship.

I was so in love with you, Teaching,
At the start.
You seemed to share my deepest values.
The individual voice.
Knowing facts, but also telling the Truth.
Inspiring love of learning,
Love of reading,
Love of writing,
Knowing the power of words.
We wanted the same things.
We worked together.
You appreciated my creativity and you encouraged me to grow
As a person and as a professional.
Sure, there were some growing pains.
The kids we had in our care were a bit difficult to deal with at times,
But you helped me to find ways to deal with them,
And our time with them, and with each other,
Got better and better.

To this day, Teaching,
I remain enamored of you still.
When did it begin to go all wrong?

Perhaps it was when you insisted on judging me
For things that were beyond my control, turning one little feature
Of our relationship
Into the only thing that mattered,
Blowing it all out of proportion.
You felt you had to test me.

And then there was the issue of trust.
Once upon a time we had a relationship
Where we had certain expectations of each other,
Commitments that I took seriously and worked hard to meet.
But then you started to not trust me.
You started telling me what to do.
And then when to do it.
And then how to do it.
You told me to stop thinking for myself.
You got... controlling.
You demanded compliance.

And yet,
When I would think about leaving you, Teaching,
You would act like things were better.
You would appear to relent.

And I would decide to stay.
Maybe things would get better now.

You told me you had a new set of standards we would live by,
And they would renew and transform our relationship.
They looked good the way you presented them at first.
They promised more freedom.
Things would be different this time.

But then, after I'd recommitted, things only got worse.

Now you tried to control,
Not just the how and the what and the when,
But the why, too.
You tried to control my thoughts.

You asked me to betray my most deeply held beliefs,
The very reasons I had gotten into our relationship in the first place.

You asked me to betray myself.
Worst of all,
You asked me
To betray the children in our care,
To betray their trust.
To tell them their stories don't matter.
That education is nothing but facts.
That they are cogs in a machine,
Not people.

And that's when I was ready to leave once and for all,
To get out of this abusive relationship.

But there was no way to take the kids with me.

Maybe it was then that I realized that you were no longer yourself,

You had been kidnapped,
Replaced by someone or something that looked like Teaching,
But was really someone else.
You are now an impostor.
You are not Teaching anymore.
You are Standardization.
You are Reform.
You are Compliance.
You are Test Prep.
You are Hoop-jumping.
You are Text Complexity and Zombie New Criticism and Writing to Text.
You are Rigor as torture
And Death to
Creativity, Curiosity, and
You are... everything that is not really Teaching.

But I am not leaving.
I am calling you out for the impostor you are.
I am searching for the real Teaching.
You are still there, somewhere.
And I will find you again.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Mr. Fitz for Halloween: The Stepford Teachers

Two strands of the education reform agenda have never made sense to me, because they completely contradict each other:

Strand One: We want excellent teachers. We should get rid of bad teachers, and hire and retain excellent teachers. Teachers are the most important determining factor in a child's educational success. Great teachers can change life trajectories, increase future achievement levels, get students to attend and graduate from college, and raise the lifetime earnings of their students by hundreds of thousands of dollars. Let's hear it for great teachers! They work miracles, raise test scores and create a well educated public who will, obviously, vote just like we do!

Strand Two: The days of closing your class room door and doing your own thing are OVER. You must now follow a curriculum map, which is built around a textbook or workbook program. You do not need to think. You must do as you are told. You must follow in lockstep and get with the program. The creators of these educational products are much smarter and more adept at creating coherent instruction than you are. Be a generic teacher, just like everybody else. (The subtext of this strand is easy to pick out: If you and your colleagues are forced to follow a curriculum map built around our curricular resource, we can be sure our curricular resource is used! Also, standardizing teachers makes it easier to take learning online, where it becomes a commodity!)

Whenever I tell people the predicament teachers are in, caught between calls for excellence and policies that promote bland standardized obedience, they get it. They realize the absurdity of asking for both.

When my wife suggested a Halloween plot-line for the strip based on The Stepford Wives, I checked out the original movie online and quickly realized its potential...  the Stepford wives are all about products and using them. Exactly what they want teachers to be now-- product dispensers.

And so, without further ado, Mr. Fitz presents "The Stepford Teachers," which of course begins with a talk with education reformer Mr. Blustbag.

Of course, Mr. Fitz gets to wake up from this nightmare. But teachers everywhere will not, unless we somehow wake people up to what is being done to the teaching profession.

Because once teachers have been turned into robots, the next step is turn students into automatons as well. The process has already begun.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

I Test Under Duress...

This past spring I did a series about the reality of testing. It's not completely autobiographical, though it is mostly, but everything in it happened at my school during testing at some point recently. And the way Mr. Fitz looks near the end is the way I felt by time I'd finished testing my students. 

I think when people who are no longer around schools during testing time think of testing, they remember taking tests when they were youngsters. There were no high-stakes. No pressure. The test came once a year and was gone. You hardly even noticed it. That was before the test became everything. Before computer based testing. Before testing took up weeks of the school year and changed the schedule for days on end, making actual teaching and learning impossible.

In some ways, this series is to educate people like that, who think that's still how testing is, so why are teachers complaining? We aren't just being whiny. It's really this insane. And stressful.

I hadn't posted the whole series yet here on this blog, but when a certain teacher group asked people to post about the theme "I Test Under Duress..." it seemed like the perfect opportunity. So here is the Mr. Fitz "I Test Under Duress" series. It's all based on the reality...