Wednesday, May 27, 2015

End of Year Testing Season

Yesterday as I walked a student from our reading group back to class she innocently asked me if we were going to have reading group on Friday. "Because if you are," she explained, "I won't be here. I'll be in Paris to see my dad. And after Paris I'm going back to Africa because I miss my mom."

My heart stopped. And I am ashamed to say, it did not stop because she was leaving, or because this sweet, lovely girl has been in this strange country all year without her mom and now will finally go back to see her (as a mother this makes me tear up just thinking about it). My heart stopped because if she leaves on Friday she will only be able to take half of her SOL test.

Yes, my  thoughts immediately went to testing and not to the actual child's well being or what is best for her. What has happened to me? What has happened to all of us? There was a time I called this time of year pool-brain season because once the pools opened it seemed impossible to get any work out of the kids. Now it's testing season, and once testing has started it is impossible to get any non-test thoughts out of the teachers.

Sadly, because she gave us so little notice we have two choices, we can give her the test early and let her last two days of school in the United States be while taking the standardized test, or we can let her miss the test and get dinged as a school for a sub-group student who didn't participate. I don't know what the decision is, or even who is involved in making it. A large part of me is hoping that it will turn out she was wrong and she isn't going to Paris this Friday, but on the last Friday in June so she can finish out the year. Or that she is only going to Paris and Africa for the weekend and will return the following week. (Because people do that, right? Go to Paris and Africa for the weekend?) 

More than anything I'm hoping I can use this as a reminder to myself to keep focused on the students first. 

Friday, May 22, 2015

Staying Strong to the End

This is a rough time of year in schools. We are in the depths of testing. The upper grades are administering the state standardized tests while the younger grades are giving the county assessments, many of which need to be given one on one. Every room in the school is being used for some sort of testing, and the school hallways are full of "Quiet! Testing!" signs. When we aren't testing we are trying to cram in last minute meaningful lessons to prepare for the testing, and when we are testing we are holding our breath that all of the hard work throughout the year will show up on the test. Beyond actual academics, much of our energy is spent trying to keep our kids quiet in the hallway so that they won't disrupt other students' testing.

As a teacher it is so easy at this time of the year to let the stress get the best of you. We start to snap at the kids and our colleagues, feel resentment towards anything that is getting in our way, and put up defensive barriers towards any challenge. It's easy to stop working as a team with our co-teachers and parents and to start focusing on what went wrong during the year. "Well, if only she'd taught it this way..." "He would have passed if ______ would have done this." We feel defensive and powerless. We know how hard we worked and we still aren't happy with the results, so we start to question other people's work and choices. We watch these young kids take long standardized tests and then want someone to blame when they lose focus and don't pass even though we know they know the information. Blaming Pearson, the state, and the education reformers starts to get old, so we start to turn on ourselves.

This is a slippery slope because it quickly goes from a moment of expressing frustration with a close friend to losing trust in what all your colleagues are doing. We stop having truly collaborative conversations with each other and start having one sided dialogues where we are only listening to one another for a chance to prove our own point. We stop thinking about problems from multiple angles and instead focus on proving our own original view point. Once we lose the trust we have with our coworkers and the parents of our students we are left feeling powerless, frustrated, and angry. We stop solving problems and start looking for excuses.

Regardless of how we feel about all the testing, we still must teach with our students in mind. We are teachers, and we are teaching our students through every moment of the day, whether we are intentional or not. How we respond to frustration during the standardized testing, how we act toward our co-teachers, and how we listen to parent concerns is all conveyed to our students in one way or another.

We need to stay strong and united, no matter how frustrated and powerless we feel. We can't let the tests take away our love for teaching, our collaboration, and our ability to problem solve the toughest situations. We need to keep our sense of humor, our love of our students, and our pride in the work everyone put in during the year, no matter what the tests show. When we start to get angry at the situation we can't control we need to focus on what we can control. We can let our students know we believe in them. We can let our colleagues know that we trust their judgement and that we know together we worked hard. We can let parents know how proud we are of their children, and how much we love them. We can find reasons to laugh out loud every day. We can remember we are here to prepare students for their future, and that job does not stop when testing season starts, but continues until the last day of school.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Age Appropriate Books

The other day I was in a hurry and I ran to our school's book room to grab a good book for my fourth grade reading group. They are reading on a Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) level 3 (the level expected for the end of kindergarten). These are students in the intellectual disability program, so their reading is significantly below grade level, although they are making slow but steady progress. It is hard to choose books for them because so many of the books at the lower levels are written for kindergarten and first grade students. I flipped through the pages of a book about models, saw some pictures of objects like a real boat, a car, and a house and decided it would be OK. Models are something older kids can get into. 

Sitting down with the reading group I quickly realized there were pages I hadn't read. As we walked through the book to work on the vocabulary my students and I saw the juvenile pictures of toys in the book at the same time. We looked at the picture of a real boat and we assumed there would be a picture of an exact model boat on the next page. The book, after all, is called, My Models. Yet when we turned the page we didn't see a model at all. We saw a plastic baby toy. We all sat staring silently at the toy boat on the page, as though it was giving us the middle finger. I apologized to the students, and explained that I thought the book was going to be about actual models- not toys. Especially not toys for preschoolers. 

All I have from these kids is their effort. They have been reading at a level 3 all year, and while I will try to push them up level 4, 6, and 8, we often fall back to the level 3. They are applying all the strategies readers  need to be able to read- checking the picture, the first letter, thinking about the story, looking for parts of the word they know. Reading is significantly harder for them than it is for other students and they know it. The one thing I don't need to do is remind them that despite how ridiculously hard they are working, they are still reading on the level of a kindergarten student.

Finding age appropriate books at their reading level is surprisingly harder than it should be. And it isn't just a problem for the students in the intellectual disability class. We often get students who are brand new to the country and to speaking English, sometimes from war-torn countries where they were not able to go to school in their home language. These kids also use the lower level books. You can imagine what it's like to hand a street-smart, new-to-school fourth grader a book like this and expect them to happily read it. If we want these kids to buy into what we're selling, we have to give them something worthwhile.

My school has an amazing book room, and we are frequently updating it so it's not that we aren't looking for age appropriate books. It seems they just aren't out there. If you know of some that are out there, please share.

Otherwise, my plead to the publishers is to please make some books at lower levels that will appeal to older children. I'd be happy to help. In fact, I have lots of ideas about topics older students would like.