Tuesday, April 29, 2008

State Alternative Assessment

I have issues with standardized tests. Not a shocking fact, but true. So, my state's alternative assessment should fill me with joy. It doesn't have the issues that bother me about multiple choice tests:
  • A multiple choice test shows a student's ability in one, brief period. If his best friend is mad at him, her parent lost a job, she didn't get enough sleep last night, or he hasn't had a good meal in days, a student will not likely perform well regardless of how much they know and are able to do.
  • Some people naturally do well on multiple choice tests and some struggle. I've watched brilliant students have trouble with multiple choice because they are able to justify more than one answer. They can talk themselves out of correct answers.
  • It's very stressful to be tested on an entire year (or multiple years) of learning at once. Some students get sick because they are so concerned about the test.
So, a portfolio assessment should be a great improvement. In theory, it is. I create portfolios for my students throughout the year to help illustrate all they have learned. (I have to admit that mine don't address every single standard, but they do show progress.)

However, the reality of these portfolios has been absurd. We use this alternative assessment for our limited English speakers in place of taking the reading test. We have to document each and every part of every reading standard. For example, standard 5.4 reads, "The student will read fiction and nonfiction with fluency and accuracy. Use context to clarify meaning of unfamiliar words. Use knowledge of root words, prefixes, and suffixes. Use dictionary, glossary, thesaurus, and other word-reference materials."

I think it's a good standard. I teach my students all of those things. To prove it for the portfolio, we must have documentation for each piece:
  1. "Use context to clarify meaning of unfamiliar words."
  2. "Use knowledge of root words,
  3. prefixes,
  4. and suffixes."
  5. "Use dictionary,
  6. glossary,
  7. thesaurus,
  8. and other word-reference materials."
For that one standard we need eight pieces of documentation. Fifth grade has four different reading standards, each of which requires about this many pieces of documentation. (Third grade has to document third grade standards and second grade standards.)

The sheer amount of documentation is daunting. That's my first frustration. I think it should be reasonable to think that we could prove a student's mastery of that standard with only three or four pieces of documentation (a multiple choice test would not hit every single one of those eight aspects).

My second frustration is on us. Instead of documenting students' learning in authentic ways; anecdotal records from reading groups and conferences, response letters students have written about their reading, literature discussion notes, etc., we're documenting mostly with worksheets. We rarely, rarely use worksheets at this school. I know this sort of documentation is a result of our inexperience with this. As we continue to use these portfolios we'll get better at using what we are naturally doing in the classroom for our documentation. Of course, that also assumes that the state will accept more authentic documentation.

Maybe I'm overreacting. Maybe I should be grateful the state allows us the option of an alternative assessment that is a portfolio. Maybe...but I think I'll still strive for an assessment that is authentic to the teaching and learning going on in our school.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Best Day of the Year

We have a New Teacher Shower every year. It's a surprise placed on the calendar as a staff meeting - which makes it doubly nice for the new teachers. We bring in goodies to eat and everyone brings various small gifts that teachers can use. The principals talk with the new teachers while we get ready. They enter the library where the rest of the staff is lined up cheering for them. New teachers take turns choosing gifts. Teammates share briefly about the new teachers and they again are applauded. This is my tenth year at the school and this remains my favorite day of the year.

I will never forget walking into the library my first year. It took a bit before the reality registered. I felt so incredibly lucky to work with such a caring, giving staff. Now, on the other side, I still feel the same way.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Title 1

Last week I had lunch with some colleagues, including a woman who was our parent coordinator a couple of years ago. She now works full time in our district's Title 1 office. We've been waiting with bated breath for our Title 1 budget in order to plan staffing for next year. We have several people whose salaries are paid through Title 1 in order to have more Reading Recovery support.

This woman mentioned that she was concerned that our budgets would be smaller this year. She expected that the district would get the same amount as last year (which already means less in buying power), but more of it would have to got to support outside tutoring programs for schools that did not make AYP last year.

So, rather than have funding for staff, professional development, training, etc. we will be funneling money to for profit business that offer tutoring. These programs are not affiliated with the schools and there is no communication. This means that the work they do with children is completely unrelated to the work that is happening in the classroom.

I find this to be incredibly sad and exceptionally maddening.

Joy of Learning

Last night my girls and I went for a walk (we went for ice cream and I figured if we walked I could eat ice cream without guilt). On the way, my four year old discovered dandelions. She was fascinated by them as we noticed them along the way. I finally stopped and picked one to show her the seeds and how you can blow them. She had some trouble blowing the seeds at first, but eventually figured it out. We talked about what was happening to the seeds when she blew them and what would happen next. She was so excited about them that she carried two home to show her dad. She also wanted to keep them but we convinced her that we could always get more.

This whole experience struck me because of how much she was learning and how much fun she was having. She asked question after question. She learned a lot about seeds and plants through our discussion. She explored the dandelions in many ways, blowing the seeds, touching the different parts, smelling them. When she finally managed to blow the seeds on her own she was so proud of herself.

I want her learning to always be this way. I want her to continue to ask questions and get excited about new things. Will that continue once she starts school in the fall? How long will it take before she looks at learning in a totally different light?

Do children naturally outgrow this joy in learning or do schools push it out of them?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Love That School

I've got three more weeks out of the classroom while an intern completes student teaching. There are five of us in this position and we're keeping ourselves busy. This is just another reminder to me of why I love my school.

Here's our to do list for these four weeks:
  • reorganize and clean up the upstairs workroom (completed beautifully by a couple of teachers in the first two days)
  • make a welcome video for new students and their families - narrated by students
  • reorganize all of the math manipulatives in our math trailer (this may involve some reorganizing in another room in the building too so that we can move materials there)
  • decorate and make our teachers' lounge more welcoming and warm
  • help gather evidence and organize information for our state alternative assessment
Only one of those chores was assigned to us by the administration. We have principals that respect us as professionals and allow us to set our own agendas, knowing that what we do will benefit the staff.

In previous years we have reorganized our book room, pulled small groups for remediation, created book lists for teaching different strategies in reading and writing, and many other activities. Again, none required by our administration. I often forget that this is not the norm.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008


Reading The Wright 3 by Blue Balliett led to much fun with pentominoes.


I'm happiest to live in complete ignorance about my students' personal lives. Teaching where I do, I often learn things that tear me up inside.

I'm out of my classroom for a few weeks while an intern student teaches. I walked back in the vicinity of my room this afternoon, something I've avoided doing, and saw one of my students in the hall crying, waiting to talk with our counselor. I pulled the student into the empty workroom and asked what was wrong. The story I got could have been a soap opera.

The father left the mother for her sister, the child's aunt. This happened some time ago. The father has been lying to the mother and child. Now the aunt is claiming that the student is calling and cursing at her. She is telling the father this is happening and doing all she can to turn him against his child. The aunt is also calling this student and cursing. Finally, the student says to me, "And I'm not doing well in school."

It was all I could do to not cry. I told the child that school is not always the most important thing (is that a cardinal sin for a teacher) and that taking care of oneself is critical. I just sat with the student until the counselor was finished with her previous group (two of my other students, no less). School counselors are saints.

I'm amazed at the strength and perseverance shown by my students. I learn so much from them.