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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Testing frustration

I wrote this and was going to email it to an old professor. Then I realized I couldn't do that - I'm too frustrated to write something calm enough to send to anyone. So, the blog gets it.

Hi Professor,

I hope you're doing well.

This email is coming to you out of frustration. I remember that last year at the end of my students teaching I lamented that I felt I hadn't assessed my students enough. I had been looking at everything through a rubric I made, and through just general observation. You had commented that teachers don't give themselves enough credit - their observations and the fact that they know and work with their students every day is worth more than it may seem.

Well, that may be true, but it doesn't matter. Teacher observation doesn't matter anymore. My poor students get so many, SO many tests. We're currently in the midst of preparing for our quarterly multiple-choice math test, as mandated by the district. This means I have to give them practice tests nearly constantly, because while many of them do a fine job of answering the question if given it in an open-ended way, the testing system the district uses manages to create horribly confusing multiple-choice questions for their assessments. My students can explain to me what a fact family is, why we are learning about them, how to know if a number sentence is or isn't part of a fact family, and how to know what else to put in a fact family, but when they are given multiple choice questions about fact families, they still tend to get them wrong. Apparently teachers know nothing. I may think my students understand, but they obviously don't. After all, the test says they don't, so they must not, right?

My students spent 40 minutes today working on a 5-question multiple-choice assessment, which was ridiculous. What did I teach today? Well, during the 5.5 hour school day I taught 2 hours of literacy, 20 minutes of math, 25 minutes of writing, and the rest of the time was pretty much spent testing or doing test preparation activities. That's not good. There's no way that I can interpret that as having been a productive day.

Next year it's going to be worse. District already has it in their plans to implement more district-mandated standardized tests for first grade. They're thinking about adding some tests for kindergarten, too. Occasionally I like to pretend I'm a teacher, and teach something. When that happens, I end up finding myself horribly behind with the mandated testing schedule.

Is this a normal first year teacher rant? Does this happen to all first year teachers at this point in the year? Do we all get to the point where looking at another test makes us want to throw it down on the floor and go cry in the corner of the classroom? Because that's how I'm feeling today. I don't want to do this part anymore. I enjoy my students, I like finding ways to make the content accessible to them all. I do not like the extreme testing. With the testing, it doesn't matter if the material is understood by the students, it matters that they know how to take the tests. I have been changing my teaching style to teach more traditionally, more directly. Because while my students truly understand some of the material, they don't understand it in the blunt overly simplistic terms used on the test.

I hope today was just a particularly bad day. I hope I'm able to deal with this all a bit better tomorrow. I hope I find a way to get past the testing, because it's not going away and it's not going to get any better any time soon.

Do I want to continue to be a teacher? Yes, I think I do.

If that is the case, I must learn to live with the testing. I must accept that it is here. It is the new wave. It is damaging at times, but it is what it is.

A disgruntled former student

Monday, February 09, 2009

Reading testing!

A good handful of my students are becoming readers! They are walking, talking, reading beings. And this is great! Yippie!

Unfortunately, since they are doing such a fabulous job, I need to retest their reading level. Many of them are at a wonderfully annoying stage wherein the reading test takes between 30-40 minutes per student, one-on-one. First the students need to preview the pictures, then they read the book, then they retell the story. If the book was too easy or too hard, I need to repeat the whole process with a second book, which tacks on an additional 30-40 minutes.

This means that for the last two weeks I have done nothing except test reading levels. I have come to memorize the text of these books. About 2/3 of my fabulous little ones are actually at or really really close to grade level and I love it! However, I have been spending my entire afternoon every day testing (while I throw the rest of the kids in centers of some sort). I have been spending my lunch (and the poor students' lunch) testing. I have been pulling the children out of their special class for testing. I have been testing during guided reading groups. I have been testing during math. I have been testing NON-STOP. It seems that there must be a more efficient way to do this, but I haven't found one.

But I need to remind myself. This should be a celebration! They are getting to that stage where they can actually read! I have, for the most part, stopped translating the directions on their homework, telling them that they can read well enough now to read their own directions. They don't need help. (And in some cases, yeah, this is a stretch, but overall they should be able to read the instructions on their own.)

This excitement is partially hindered by my extreme disappointment in their lack of effort and focus during literacy centers, but that is a whole different post and a whole different issue. For now, reading = yay! Testing to confirm reading ability = tedious!

Saturday, February 07, 2009

The good, the bad, the rambly

Things that make me love school:

On a Friday I was wearing jeans (for casual Friday) and a plaid-patterned button-down shirt, and my hair was in a braid (it's usually down or in a ponytail). We were standing in line outside the classroom, about to walk to lunch.

Carla: Ms. Grownup, are you a cowgirl?
Me: Huh?
Carla: Well, Ms. Grownup, you've got your shirt, and your hair is like that, and your pants, and you look like a cowgirl.
Andy: Well, you're missing some things.
Jose: You just need one of those things for your head.
Raquel: Yeah. Ms. Grownup you're almost a cowgirl. You just need a hat.
Andy: And a horse and a rope.
Elizabeth: And you need the boots.
Various students: So Ms. Grownup, are you a cowgirl?
Me [Laughing hysterically]: I kind of want to be a cowgirl.
Me [Still laughing, trying to quiet them down so we can walk to lunch]: Shh, bubbles in your mouths.
Andy [sighing]: Ms. Grownup, you're turning red again.
Raquel: You are turning so red again!
Me [trying not to laugh]: Lunch! We're late!
Jose: You're turning a little bit not red now.
Me: ...
Jose: You're turning redder again.
Me: ... Lunch! Now!

Later in the day...
Carla: So Ms. Grownup...are you a cowgirl?
Me: What do you think, Carla?
Carla: I think yes.

- - - - - - - - - -
We were talking about symmetry.

Me: So, if you split my body down the center, that would be a line of symmetry. Both sides would be exactly the same.
Class: No, take off your ID tag, your watch, your paper clips, (etc.)
Me: Okay, now both sides of me are symmetrical.
Juliet: But Ms. Grownup, what about your heart?
Me: Huh?
Juliet: Your heart, it is on the side.
Me: Oh, gosh. You're so right.
Andy (gleefully): But Ms. Grownup, if you RIP IT OUT, then you'll be the same on both sides again!

Sometimes they're so smart! I was ready for them to tell me to take off my watch and ID tag. But, I never even thought about my heart! It's true! Because of my heart, I am not symmetrical!

- - - - - - - - - -
I had an all day meeting one day, so had scheduled a substitute. I stopped into my classroom in the morning to set up, greet the sub, and hand him my plans. The sub had gone to pick up the class from the playground, and I was still in the classroom. As I walked out all the kids saw me. I told them I was going to be gone that day, but the sub would be there, so they should be good. "No, Ms. Grownup! Don't leave us!!" "Don't go!!!" "Think about the poor children! We need you!!" I had to pry them off me to leave for my meeting. It's always nice to feel wanted.

- - - - - - - - - -
We were working on surveys and graphing in math. Pairs of students went around to survey everyone else in the class. One group's survey question was, "Do you prefer water or soda?" I heard one particularly astute child exclaim in response, "Water! I don't want to get fat!" Then, after receiving a perplexed look from the survey-giver he explained, "Soda makes you fat." This was complete with his hands motioning out in front of his body to indicate, 'fat.'

- - - - - - - - - -
I was helping another teacher give an assessment to her class. I was talking to one of her students in Spanish - he had just moved to the class the week before and knew no English, so I was asking the questions in Spanish to see if he understood the concept at all. Another one of her students was sitting next to me and this boy, mostly doing his own work, but half listening to us. He sighed and commented out-loud to no one in particular, "I really need to practice my Spanish more..." Keep in mind this was a Spanish dominant student in a class for only students who have not "passed" the English proficiency test. So his comment was quite amusing. I told him I needed to practice my Spanish more too, so he could practice with me.

Things that make the job crazy and stressful.

We had a lockdown the other day because there was a disturbance on campus, (or rather, a person running through the open-air campus trying to escape the police). As I quickly instructed my students to leave everything exactly where it was and line up at the door to the connecting classroom, tried to explain to the Spanish-speaking parent volunteer in my room at the time that, "hay algo afuera y no se que pero tenemos que ir al otra sala," and crowded us all into the classroom connected to mine, (which is on the "inside" of our open-air campus, while my room is on the "outside") the other teacher sarcastically commented, "and they wonder why our students sometimes struggle." An hour later, when we were finally allowed to turn the lights back on, open the blinds, get the children off the floor, and make noise, I had to agree. In a 3-year-old-having-a-tantrum way, it's just not fair.

(However, my students behaved amazingly well the whole time. If they started wispering or moving around, I never had to do more than give them a threatening glare for them to quiet back down. I was proud and impressed with how well they behaved. Luckly, they didn't understand what a "Lockdown" meant. They could sense that it was very important for them to behave, but they did not show any indication that they knew what was actually going on. A teacher of an older grade later told me that her students spent the whole time talking about "bad guys" and guns and shooting - they knew what a lockdown was actually for.)

- - - - - - - - - -
Student: Teacher? Can you test me now?
Me: No, not right now.
Student: But Teacher? That's my favorite thing.
Me: Testing?! That's your favorite part of school?!
Student: Yes.

And this makes me sad. A first grader should not say that testing is his or her favorite part of a school. A first grader shouldn't have testing - the concept or the word - at such the forefront of his or her mind. I should not have to brainwash my students into getting excited about testing (which I have done). I should not have one-on-one testing be the only time my students get one-on-one attention. Which is pretty much what is going on right now. Because of so much one-on-one testing, I have my students doing independent work or "center" work so much of the day, that there is no more time for individual attention outside of the testing times. I'm not giving the interventions I should, because of the testing I have to do to make sure the interventions are effective. (Except I never really get to the interventions, so the testing is kind of pointless. But if I don't do the testing I get in trouble - that's apparent when I don't have the data. The actual interventions, no one sees whether or not I do them.)

- - - - - - - - - -
I have had students either join or leave my class 15 times so far this year. That means that, on average, at least every other week I have gained or lost a student. That's another, "well, no wonder they sometimes struggle" moment.

My principal once commented that an interesting dissertation topic would be to examine the correlation between English language proficiency in ELL students and their frequency of school movement. My classroom may have a lot of movement, but compared to my partner teacher, I've got nothing. Her class has had so, so much movement, and her class is comprised of students with lower English language proficiency (such divided by state law). I agree that it would be an incredibly interesting dissertation topic (I would like to reserve it for myself for some day - so no one steal it!)

- - - - - - - - - -
I was kind of sick all week, but didn't call in sick any days of of school (both because I didn't realize how bad I felt until I was there, and because the thought of having to plan for a sub was just way, way too overwhelming to even contemplate doing while sick. Ironic.) At one point, I had developed a fairly irritating headache and decided to cut math short to have the class listen to a book-on-tape as I flipped the pages in the story. It was right at this point that the principal walked in for an informal observation. That certainly wasn't the most intellectually stimulating lesson. At least I had the required 85% engagement! The students love listening to the stories on tape.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Why tests screw with your head.

Our school focuses a lot, a lot on test scores. Even the first graders are given standardized tests several times during the year (once each quarter for some tests, three times during the year for others).

This fact screws with the teacher's head. It makes us think things we don't want to think, things we shouldn't think.

As a grade, we performed poorly on the last test. We got a stern talking-to from the higher-ups, and promised to do better next time.

I had a student move recently. That's nothing new, I loose a student or get a new one every two weeks or so. This student, though, is one that I really liked. (I really like them all, of course.) She was hilarious - goofy and sarcastic, but a really hard worker. She always listened and did what she was supposed to do. If she had questions, she asked.

Despite this, she was academically pretty low. She was in my lowest reading group, and had made very little reading progress from the beginning of the year.

And when she left, I mourned as I always do and was sad to see her go, but I couldn't help thinking, "at least she was a low one. Her being gone will make my class's scores look just a little bit higher for the next time we take a test." And while I had that thought I hated myself for it, but it's true.

It makes me sad that I have those thoughts. They're completely logical thoughts. I am sad she's gone. And unless I get another academically low student, my class's scores will look just a little higher next time.

So, that was my class's first step toward performing better on the next standardized test - loosing a student falling below the district expectations for success. Of course, we are doing other things to make everyone else's scores rise, but loosing a low student certainly did hurt anything.