Stand Up Against Standardized Tests

No one I know takes standardize tests for a living

No one I know takes standardize tests for a living (Photo credit: Ken Whytock)

A friend and neighbor alerted me to a petition signing she is participating in tomorrow at the school where our children attend. She posted this on Facebook to help spread the word:

” ….to support the brave teachers in Seattle that are boycotting the misuse of the MAP testing of their students. As a way of showing support, myself and many other parents throughout the city will be at our local schools collecting signatures to give to CPS asking them to greatly reduce the amount of testing our kids are experiencing. If you haven’t already signed the online petition, you can do so here.”

Why is this so important that I chose to write a blog post about it? First, I am a parent. My children feel the impact of excess testing. Their teachers cannot teach a lesson when they have to test almost 30 students. Students miss out on instruction time. Not all the tests help a teacher assess what a student knows.

Second, I am a former teacher. One of the biggest things that bothered me about education was the decisions being made by those who were a.) not currently teaching  b.)had never been in a classroom. If you talk to any educator, they will agree that 19 standardized tests a year is too much.

Third, I now work with teachers as a Math Coach. They started the school year with weeks upon weeks of testing and now they have to test their students again. No one wants a coaching cycle because they haven’t had time to implement the practices we discussed in our last coaching cycle due to the demands of testing. The teachers say many of the results are unreliable because the students do not know how to use the computer, or read or read in English. The testing seems to be a district wide one size fits all mandate.

The fourth reason I am writing about this is because this is not just a local problem. All around the country schools are administering more tests, while compromising quality instruction. The educational trajectory our children are on is cause for concern. If your community  is currently not affected by these decisions at the moment, that is great, but that could easily be an issue in the future. All of these children will grow up and make decisions in the world you live in. Do you want them to be critical thinkers and problem solvers? Do you want them to be able to collaborate and be innovative? I do. The question is, do you?

Let your voice be heard, even if you are not a parent. You can sign the petition here:

https://www.change.org/petitions/chicago-board-of-education-and-chicago-public-schools-end-the-overuse-and-misuse-of-high-stakes-standardized-testing?utm_campaign=autopublish&utm_medium=facebook&utm_source=share_petition

Two Poems

Jets!

Image by battlecreekcvb via Flickr

I recently wrote a post about finding my evaluations from my student teaching experiences. Some of them were humorous, others surprising, some sarcastic and some “spot on”. I told of some of the comments about the lessons I had to teach to 7th Grade English students. While typically I have very solid memories, my memories of that time were filled with: worry (am I doing a good job), frustration (it is hard to manage a group of students), anxiety (will I be able to find a job?), and stress (I was a college student. Need I say more?) My memories of that semester are blurs at best.

Lucky for me that I am a pack rat. There. I said it. I am not proud. I am trying to change my ways. Let me just say that had I not been a pack rat, I might not have stumbled upon these wonderful poems from two students.

What struck me most about these poems (besides finding that I still had them in my possession) was not just their strength and beauty, but that something like this could emerge from a few 7th grade English lessons on metaphors and  similes. And, that I  had been part of that something.

                     The Jet

A jet is a large silver eagle

spreading its shiny wings as it soars

quietly

turning and dipping as it glides

into the yellow light-bulb sun.

A jet is a predator, a carnivore bird

that hunts its enemies

and brings them down with its power.

                     A Baby

A baby is God’s teardrop,

falling from his face

as he looks down on all the earth’s killings and war.

It falls to earth

and when it hits, a baby is formed

full of laughter and fun.

With each drop that falls

and each baby that is born,

He hopes it will end the wars and killings.

But each one falls short.

My blog is not normally an inspirational type, but now and then I am completely caught off guard with life and how it unfolds before me. It would have been a shame NOT to share this. It has caused me to think about how I might unintentionally influence others.

In the next post I will share more of my evaluations. Stay tuned!

Student Teaching Comments Unearthed

My Pile of Index Card

Image by koalazymonkey via Flickr

A long time ago as part of completing my undergraduate degree in Education I had to spend an entire semester  student teaching. My first eight week placement was in a fourth grade classroom. The second eight weeks I divided my time between teaching eighth grade math and seventh grade language arts. At the end of my experience I had the idea to ask my middle school aged students to evaluate me. I know, you are probably thinking You did what???

For those who may not know this, middle school students is brutal. They are in the middle of strange growth spurts with their arms, legs, feet, facial hair, sweat glands, skin and voices. Plus, they are trying to find their niche – where they fit in at school. They are sensitive, but don’t want you to think they are. They think they are cool, but inside are sometimes confused. They tend to hold grudges, especially when they or their friends have been wronged. Are these really the people you want to answer questions about your strengths and weaknesses as their teacher over the past eight weeks? If you answered NO, then congratulations, you knew something that I did not way back then. If you answered YES, then you are just as naïve as I was.

I was going through boxes that I never opened when we move from an apartment to a condo eleven years ago. Since we moved last year it has been my goal to go through every single box and purge, purge, purge because I do not want to turn into one of those people you see on television whose stuff has taken over their life. In one of those boxes I discovered materials from college, specifically my last stressful semester spent student teaching. For some reason I hung onto those  evaluations  from those middle school students. Each teen had scrawled their thoughts on a 3 by 5 index card. Rather than pitching them into the trash, (I temporarily got distracted from my purging goal) I began to read because I was curious. It was so long ago I  couldn’t remember the faces that went with the names. I barely remember the lessons I taught. In case you didn’t know, student teaching is intense. It saps your energy. I ran on fumes, churning out lesson plans   while trying to figure out how to get a job and when to send out resumes. My thoughts were consumed with questions like Does my cooperating teacher like me? Do the students like me?

On the evaluations from my middle school students I asked them to answer the following three questions:

1. What did you learn in class this while I was your teacher?

2. What did you like about the way I taught?

3. Do you have any suggestions for improvement?

Yea, I know. I set myself up for the third question. So, what did these young people who I was forced to spend the day with for eight weeks to earn my degree have to say about me?

One student wrote: Be nice to students unless they are out of control. Another student wrote: You always had a sweet voice and a smile on your face even when  no one was cooperating. Well, that makes me sound like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I guess I cannot please everyone all the time.

One student wrote at the bottom of his card: P.S. I would keep this card if I were you because I am going to be famous one day. Then he signed his name. I Googled his name but did not find it. I guess it hasn’t happened yet.

One student was very honest. He wrote: I liked it when you helped me with problems, even though I did not want to listen.  How refreshing.

I had one student give me advice! She wrote: Remember, what is right is not always popular, and hat is popular is not always right. Thanks a bunch! Hmmm, I never saw myself as Ms. Popularity although it is nice when people acknowledge when I am right.

One of my lessons for English class involved using details in writing. A student wrote: You have taught me to be outrageously detailed and very specific. 

Another student reflected on his own actions (at such a young age.) The only thing I didn’t like was all the late minutes we got. But that was mostly our fault.  Now if only I could get me children to reflect like that!

A student wrote: I learned how to keep my mouth shut when you or others are talking.  I was hoping he would mention a math topic. Oh well. Then he went on to write: I really liked when you gave us candy and you even gave me candy when I was being bad. All I can say in my defense is that everyone makes mistakes because I do not like to reward bad behavior.

Another student wrote: You smile too much. But then she went on to write: You are very hip and cool, too! Just for the record, I dress for myself, not for students. And i already knew I was cool.

Stay tuned. That was only a smattering of comments. I’ll have a second installment out in a future post sharing  more musings from former middle school students.

Charlie and the Real Angels of Chicago

Todays post is dedicated to Charlie and the Real Angels of Chicago and all the other educators out there who sacrifice so much for the children who need the most.

All of you have probably heard of the female private investigation show, Charlie’s Angels from the 1970’s. Or maybe you saw the movie in the year 2000. Three trained police officers on assignment with an agency, putting themselves in dangerous situations to help those in need. This is the story of Charlie and the Real Angels of Chicago.

They met and formed a quick friendship at a rough school on the south  side of Chicago in the Fall of 2000. They were mostly new teachers at the school that year and were already living by the motto of “No Child Left Behind“, well before it became a well know phrase for fixing education. All of them taught middle to upper grade students, except one.

They coined the name after they went on a road trip to Schaumburg  one day after school. The occasion: a big name company that a friend worked for was closing an office. All items not taken would be sent to a Corporate America dumpster. For any teacher, this was a gold mine: free school supplies. More pounds of paper than all their weight combined, file folders, organizers, tape dispensers and enough boxes of staples to fill a small closet.

The name was suggested in fun, but little did they know that it would bind them together, impact their teaching and collaboration with one another and offer opportunities to break into a karate kick in the middle of the hallway. Charlie (the only male of the group) and his Angels were brought to life. They quickly called out their favorite Angel names: Jill, Kelly, Sabrina. Since their were 4 women, one Angel had to choose the name Kris, you know, the replacement Angel after Jill (Farah Fawcett)  left.

By day, these teachers tried to motivate their students, bring them up to grade level, explain things in their native language of Spanish and convince them that they could be somebody.  They were verbally assaulted by students and parents with words that are unfit for repeating here. They were always on the lookout for “Pelos Ellote”, who lurked around every corner, looking for ways to get the Angels in trouble.

Charlie, Sabrina, Kelly, Jill and Kris spent their money and time bringing dollar store trinkets and alley finds into their classrooms to make them more inviting, more enjoyable, and more engaging. They doled out tough love. They skated on roller-blades with students after school, gave out their home phone number and attended funeral services of their students’ relatives. They participated in committees and  got involved with after school programming.

For fun and to maintain their sanity, they called together The Meeting of the Minds. They tried to be clever with Secret Santa’s, Secret Shamrocks and Secret Missions.  They car-pooled to school jamming to Moby’s appropriately titled, “South Side“.

All of the Angels, except one, had tough upbringings. Once, while they sat around exchanging tales from their childhood, this one Angel realized she was the only one who had never eaten government cheese. She thought that coming from a divorced family with a dad who was often late on child support payments and had to shop at Kmart deserved some sympathy. Charlie and the real Angels told her she had no idea. Then they tried to one-up each other in their recollections of My childhood was so bad… Kind of like a Your Momma is so fat or ugly…… type of contest.

While they shared some of their most heart-wrenching stories, the faux Angel sat and thought. She should have known she was never really one of them.  She thought about how amazing it was that out of all the different careers they could have chosen, Charlie and his Angels all chose to be teachers. And what was even more incredible was that they chose to help the children who needed the most dedicated and understanding type of teacher. They chose a profession that gives back to those who need it the most.

Later, Charlie became a principal in a school that needed new leadership to help the students become successful despite the tremendous amount obstacles they faced each day. Jill went on to work with some of the most behavioral challenged students in the city. Sabrina has had the role of both principal and assistant principal and continues to work with the underprivileged. Kelly became a bilingual coördinator to assist students and families in understanding the educational placement and progress of children whose first language is Spanish.

Charlie and his Angels have put themselves on the front line every day. They have the difficult and nearly impossible job of educating students who often have many strikes against them before entering the classroom. They have seen their students arrested, had their vehicles vandalized and stolen, and thrown themselves into the middle of a fight to break it up. They have been spit upon, sworn at and attacked with scissors. They have called DCFS to protect their students and called the police to protect themselves. They have advocated on behalf of the ignorant and poorly educated. They have lent an ear, a shoulder and more when tearful confessions of accidental pregnancies spilled out of the lips of students.

Sabrina, Kelly, Jill and Charlie are four of the many unnamed  pillars of urban education  who have  the formidable task of preparing students for the future. Students that under other circumstances might fall through the cracks. But this isn’t a story of bad endings. Just like in the television show, some days and years have been more successful than others. Under the leadership of Charlie and Sabrina, and the support of Jill and other teachers, their school has shown remarkable improvement  not only in test scores, but in attitude. Now students show pride in their learning and are setting goals for their future. The school has earned awards. Kelly has had the great fortune of mentoring her students, watch them go off to college, earn  degrees in education and come back to work in the same environment they came from. And even better, acknowledging and thanking her for her support during the process.

So, what happened to Kris, the faux Angel? She left the south side to become a mother and write this blog, among other things. She remains in awe of the miracles that the Angels perform every day. She respects them immensely. She misses her adventures with the Angels and has fond memories  of carpools, secrets and trying to create positive changes one child at a time. She kind of misses those karate kicks, too!

Speaking of karate kicks,  if Charlie and the real Angels of Chicago were to meet those television starlets on the street, they would kick those bell bottom clad girls right on their butts.

The Strings of Kites

Kites that are used to lift skateboarders up i...

Image via Wikipedia

This week our school is celebrating teachers with Teacher Appreciation Week . I wanted to take the opportunity to post a few teacher and education related essays on my blog this week. Please add your comments and/or perspectives at the bottom of the post. Conversation makes it more fun.
The following is a re-post from about a month ago. I wrote it to honor my son’s teacher, who does an incredible job with the students she has in her second grade classroom. I dedicate this essay to Ms. O’Hara.

Have you ever met an amazing teacher before? They come in different shapes, sizes and colors, much like the intricate Lego kits that my son loves to build with. They have their own personality and teaching style, and it is electric.They come from all walks of life and when they become part of your life, you find that you will never be the same.

Early on, my husband and I started noticing differences in our son. He was fascinated with spinning items. It began with fans, then came to include wheels. This led to inquiries about how things moved and worked. I still recall him at one and a half years old trying to communicate with the cashier at Dominick’s that the wheels on the bus go round and round, and of him laying on the floor exploring how a spatula spun around, instead of using it for pretend play. His interest in motion grew with a passion, as did his quick grasp of letters, sounds and words. He was an early reader and at times I wondered if he had a book stashed somewhere in my belly before he was born. On most mornings he is nowhere near to being ready for the day and not in the least  interested in anything other than the book in front of him.

This year he is finally in an environment where there are all sorts of children with  similar, intellectual abilities, interests and intense personalities. Although they are all working beyond their grade level, some are stronger in math or reading than others. Some show traits of perfectionism and are afraid to fail. Some of them get distracted easily, while others have a hard time with transitions because they are so focused on the task at hand. Many have asynchronous development, which means that their social and emotional development is not at the same level as their cognitive development.

This year, he has one of those amazing teachers. She understands all the quirks of these children. At times I cannot even describe how she does what she does in her classroom of 29 students. I have volunteered often and have seen her effortlessly manage behaviors, distractions, interruptions, and misunderstandings. She has multiple groups configured  by ability, personality, gender, table and compass direction. Her students are engaged in their learning environment.

Everyday, these children arrive, like little kites, ready to fly. She has 29 strings to manage. It can not be done well if she holds them too close to her for the entire day. She has to consider the classroom barometer to determine what type of weather her kites will be exposed to on any given day.  Then she must check for tears and properly woven strings before letting them go, up, up, up into the sky. Each day, she has to decide how much string to let out on each kite, and when to reel them in. She makes sure that the strings don’t get tangled up, or carried away towards  trees and wires. Some kites need to fly closer to the ground, while others show their need for  space and freedom with little tugs. Some need to be close to others or to her. Occasionally a kite can only stay so long in the sky, before it needs to come down.  She watches each uniquely designed kite, and marvels at the dips, swoops and dances that occur in the air and can’t help but smile as she witnesses the extraordinary potential of them all.