Well, today we had a data discussion. And it wasn’t pretty. I got a little excited when I saw that the SBA ‘Brief Writes’ had gone up, but that was mostly for 7th grade. And though I shared so much with the 7th-grade team, I tried to sell the 8th-grade team on having students do them, but with no luck, except for one colleague who worked with me the last three weeks before the test. In essence, and in the most passive way possible, an idea came from a coworker for “no excuses” and wanted to see all the data with teachers’ name tied to it. I don’t mind if people see my numbers. Want my data? My age? My shoe size? Sure. But numbers never tell the whole story. Not 0% in one subject, or 8% in another.
But how do you talk about data in a constructive, honest, and collaborative way without it becoming personal and toxic? I am genuinely curious. It can’t be mean-spirited and snotty, nor can it be sugar-coated when the numbers are there. All I know is I asked everyone who would listen to please consider using the rubrics for the Brief Writes so students would know what exactly would be expected of them, whether they got a narrative, explanatory or argumentative prompt. The students performed better on the longer performance task writes, so that’s comforting. And my Honors kids did well. And some of my Essentials kids met proficient, which is quite a feat.But I want all students to do well. This idea that a teacher is ‘bad’ based on one data point, proficiency, is dangerous, and it seems the loudest teachers perpetuate this. But that’s usually how most things work.
Now what? So why am I feeling so awful after a few comments at a meeting? Why does it bother me so? Because those comments move nothing forward. Nothing.
One thing that I pray will change the conversation from the blame-throwers to constructive is the movement toward showing students’ growth and not just proficiency. How wonderful would it be to have a student who is new to the country and language go from a second-grade level to sixth grade or more, and that would be the number celebrated? I’ll be one who is paddling that river, keeping it flowing, even though I’m not directly responsible for the ELA scores this year. But like an old fire horse, I still hear the siren: once an ELA teacher, always one. And I hope to be one again.
Because I’m good at figuring out what students need, and amazing at it when I have great collaborators, which I do this year. As Mr. Rogers said, “look for the helpers.”
This led me to consider well, everything. The art of relaxation, and if it’s possible for me to find this place called Relaxation: it’s just as elusive as Happiness, really good deli sandwiches on the west coast, and that other silver earring I lost. It may be hard to locate.
Years ago when I worked one of my many other jobs, I was a customer service rep for a credit card company. I was pretty good at it, too, and not necessarily naturally. One day I made the fatal mistake of telling a woman to “calm down.” Nope. I learned very clearly that telling anyone to calm down is the worst thing you can do. The words ‘calm down’ and ‘relax’ are triggers for PAY ATTENTION YOU ARE VULNERABLE THERE MIGHT BE AN ATTACK.
Finding joy and little nuggets of happiness and pleasure are imperative, perhaps more importantly, though, is not apologizing for what we find joyful or pleasurable.
I do know how to relax, and define it for myself. I understand myself pretty well, actually: I tend toward obsession, and also believing that I can affect change. Relaxation for me comes in many forms, but one recurring theme is a product: there is a scarf, a collage done in Pixelmator, a poem or another piece of writing, an idea list, etc. And if we’re all being really honest with one another: we cannot define what relaxation looks like for each other. We’re in different life phases. Now my husband and I are in the ‘two-sons-in-college-and-we-have-no-retirement-because-of-job-losses-and-can’t-get-a-home-equity-loan-because-of-a-misplaced-medical-bill-but-we’re-still-happy-anyway-and-trying-not-to-freak-out” phase. Many of my teacher friends are in varying phases of no children to small children to teenagers. In my five decades+ on this planet, in this country, the holidays have never been about anything else other than a tug-of-war between consumerism and reminders of ‘what the season is truly all about.’ Women especially are placed in the unenviable position of the producers of the season. Perfectionism and responsibility for everyone else’s happiness come at a cost.
I had a dream last night that (oh heaven help us…a dream sequence….!)
Okay– I dreamed last night that I was working, and taking a break, and my principal said an emergency call came from my sons’ old elementary school, (in another district) and they needed a half-day sub, and would one of us be willing to do it? I volunteered and went to teach a first-grade class. The room was set up as if I would be taking over permanently, and though the children were cherubic, the staff welcoming, and I was praised as a welcome addition, I wanted to go back to my original 8th-grade classroom, but wasn’t sure I’d be let back in.
No need to page Dr. Freud on that one.
So in the spirit of my warped sense of relaxation, I made some how-to videos so students can review some foundational skills/strategies. I am feeling more stressed and microscopically dissected than ever before when it comes to students’ success, but like I mentioned, that belief and confidence in my abilities to meet it sure does come in handy.
Questioning: Creating Questions, Levels of Questions, and Discussion Pointers
Taking a break, a real break, is really good for our souls. A walk, a nap, trying something new or completing a project that repairs, replenishes, or responds are all good, good things.
I finished up providing feedback for students and their work/analysis of Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost. Though I heavily scaffolded, (this was the first chance I had this year to walk them through poetry), they still managed to find and make their own meaning (thank heavens).
The other night my husband and I went out, and he shared this Neil Finn podcast with me. Neil Finn and Crowded House is our soundtrack to our lives. I sang along in my terrible, flat voice, and my husband not only didn’t care but encouraged me.
Relax? Find joy? Play a song and sing–and cry a little bit if you need to, too.
This is what I’m trying to do with my Reading Road Trip, but we haven’t left the driveway yet:
I decided the best way to approach the quarter would be with the question of where stories come from, how authors craft stories for readers, and why we read and listen to stories. Framing our independent reading this way, meant that my job was to ask these questions every day and to set up experiences for students to explore these questions. Standards related to author’s craft, words in context, public speaking, and reading diverse, complex texts informed my instruction as I developed essentially five parts to our class, which I will explain below (independent reading, close reading, text structure, language lessons, and read alouds).Essentially, however, I organized our daily time this way:
Monday through Thursday: 7 minutes of language study,34 minutes of reading and conferring individually and in small groups; during the 34 minutes, I would either take a small group to a table to do a mini-lesson or I would meet with students individually to book talk options and confer about what they were noticing about their books.
. These days, students would read short pieces while their classmates/ audience would listen for and document textual evidence of sensory language, figurative language, tone, mood, word choice, character interaction, etc.
Daily Portfolio Development: Every day, students were responsible for documenting their reading experiences. They’d take pictures of books and sticky notes; they’d document reading responses on Google forms. We used these artifacts for an end-of-quarter portfolio to demonstrate learning and negotiate final grades.
Can I get this moving with a student teacher, other demands, PLC work, district demands, and general tomfoolery of a Title I school (everyone has an agenda, including me, on what works best)?
Someone mentioned the other day our scores have never been good. I guess compared to the district’s numbers, that’s true. Not sure if I paraphrased that correctly, but that was the conclusion she drew.
But have they shown growth? Resoundingly yes.
So, for a few moments, I thought I would look over the scores on the OSPI School Report site, and they are a mixed bag of growth and famine. Consider in the ten years we’ve had three state tests, and during the SBA(C) time the first year of a pilot year, we had no results or data to review. My continuing concern is that the SBA is not a transparent assessment, and we’ve been working mostly blind for years. The fact that my students scored 65-75% passing last year is a testament to them, not me. Overall, last year the 7th grade ELA PLC (of which I was a part) showed significant gains:
But herein lies the rub: whenever we make decisions about what’s best, how do we accurately gauge based on only two years’ worth of data? In other years my 7/8th-grade students grew from about 40% of passing reading to 60-65% on the WASL/MSP. Those years included as many best practices as I could muster, working as the Curriculum Leader in a collaborative way, and cross-content teams. It’s false to paint a picture that our students have never grown.
Here’s what I do know: if you focus on teaching it, students learn it. Clear and concise instruction that includes skills and strategies, with a hefty dose of student self-reflection, independence and choice make the most sense.
What data battles have you had to fight? Is it providing students with reading ideas based on solely their Lexile? Is the collective or group/team misinterpreting the data?
My biggest obstacle to instruction, however, isn’t from others, it’s from my students themselves. Those steeped in learned helplessness and confusion. Somehow along the way they have no idea what’s happening, and don’t try at all, and turn nothing in. And it is different for every student, and unpredictable (and thank goodness–this would limit my ability to truly get to know them).
So———-November. Nine weeks or so till the end of first semester. With my student teacher’s help, I think we can do this. Getting students to read, transfer those skills and strategies to bolster their reading confidence can only help. We’ve got this, right?
About two years ago, I and my colleagues tallied eight weeks of instructional time that went directly to summative assessments provided by the school, district, and state/Federal. We asked, and then begged, for a reasonable conversation and dialogue, but it fell on deaf ears. One test cost $8 per student, and I’m not sure we ever saw the results. Imagine you’re a doctor, you treat a patient, and then never know whether the treatment was effective. It’s kind of like the Schrödinger’s cat of education. Is the test alive, or dead? If you open the box and confirm it, you just killed the cat, jerk.
Going to pause right here: I, and many educators, experience fatigue when trying to explain the differences between the Common Core State Standards and their second cousins once removed assessments, SBAC and PARCC. And I’m not even sure how much of an emotional investment I feel about the SBAC: this isn’t about me. It never has been. It’s about students and their parents. What I am proposing is not a slog through the Swamp of Standardized Testing. As my son told me, it’s like Obi-Wan cautioning about Sand People:
So here we are. We can’t ‘inform instruction’ based on opaque and sullied samples. The data are corrupted and invalid. I propose a deep consideration and intentional conversation about portfolio assessments: no matter the grade, content area, or material/method of delivery, we create a meaningful assessment collection system* to truly see where children/students are, and where they need help. This will require concrete and focused PLC meetings, and time for teachers (hopefully in student cohort/cadre teams) to support student growth.
But you already knew that.
Much has been written about the worth of professional development: these news stories begin to hit the teacher media sites about this time of year, naturally. Seasonally this is the time when teachers go back to their buildings prior to school’s openings, and participate in a variety of ice-breakers, agenda items, and yes, some professional development. It’s a time to get to know new staff members, and introduce staff resources and reinforce bonds and make new allegiances. This summer I’ve been fortunate to participate in PD with two long-time colleagues, and am looking forward to a follow up PD this next week through the focus of close reading. The best PD always springs from two fields: it’s high-quality, and that usually means it costs money, or it’s from other teachers. Times when I’ve had coaches in my room have been best when the coach is well-trained, and asks me how my students are doing, and has honest conversations about my instructional choices, listens to my reflections and seeks understanding. The time when coaches came in my room and took over the lesson confused the students, (and me), and the conversation veered from my request to look over a close reading strategy to this taking over of the materials for that class. Enthusiasm sometimes gets the better of all of us, and we step on toes. I know my big size 10 feet have misstepped more than once while I’m learning the dance steps.
So if you’re in a position to provide leadership, or an educator in the classroom, two articles for your consideration:
This one is challenging for new administration teams, because they don’t know who knows what when –perhaps a survey before the in-service days is warranted?
6. Build on Existing Expertise
As a facilitator of learning, you don’t know everything and you don’t need to. When you’re planning, consider how to surface the expertise in the room and build on it. All of your participants, even brand new teachers, know something. Your job when delivering PD is figuring out how to connect new learning and content with what already exists, how to build on what people are bringing with them and already doing. Isn’t that a relief? You don’t need to know everything!
Yes: this began as a look at the data driven into a ditch, and turned into a call for solid professional development and instructional dialogue. This my attempt to wrap my head around what to do about it. It is going to take team-work, and sharing know-how. It’s clear to me that the ‘not knowing’ how to help students is our greatest concern, and we are reluctant to admit we’re not always experts. The best conversations I have are when we’re allowed to identify an issue and be frank about its possible resolutions. Argue the issue, not the personality.
And like Sand People, we startle easily, but we always come back.
*Postscript: my plan is to recreate and refine my data collection systems using portfolios, student reflection, and guidance–allow students to see the meaning of the work, and assess their skills and acuity.
I never guess. It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.
– Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
I most always guess; and, tend to live by intuition, and gut instinct. That doesn’t mean that I make decisions based on my lizard brain (most of the time). My decisions are based on a cultivated mix of experience, heart, soul, data, intelligence, and reflection. There are some lessons I cannot learn–for example, I tend not to accept when people willingly choose to use their lizard brains to make decisions, contrary to the mounting evidence. We are living in lizard-brain times. Here are my data to support this theory:
Previously rationale people are becoming more racist, bigoted, and homophobic
Previously rationale people are dividing, polarizing and making a general nuisance of themselves
Previously rationale people seem to be enjoying fanning the flames of ridiculous rhetoric and hate
My gut tells me that:
Humans, and humans-in-the-making, love good stories; and given a good story, will work to learn to decode the symbols of text in order to access those good stories independently, with meaning and strength. They will spend precious, irretrievable time to do this. And those who provide access to those good stories step back and marvel at this miracle.
No amount of technology will close an achievement gap without the dedicated educator to roll up their shirt-sleeves and build the bridge alongside others. It takes everyone to close this gap. Everyone. No sides, no distinctions. The leaders whom I admire most inspire me to inspire others. It’s that simple. (And if you’re not interested in closing the gap, mind it, because you might fall in!)
Not all textbooks are inherently “evil.” (In spite of contrary evidence of what the Texas Department of Education is trying to do. I know – ever the optimist.) Sometimes a well-written anthology and curriculum can be just the kick-start for a new teacher trying to get his bearings, so he can learn to manage a classroom, meet the demands of differentiation, and maintain the passion that inspired him in the first place to become a teacher. We know we don’t do it for the money, and if that makes us martyrs, more pure, more wholesome, more generous than thou, well, man cannot live on bread alone. We need a little hubris to spread on it, too.
Message to those esteemed colleagues who want a revolution: I’m with ya, buddy. My question is, though, can everyone be rock-star teacher? We need the roadies, too. (Sheesh – how many metaphors can I mix in this mess? Start counting.) I now have John Lennon’s Revolution strumming in my head. Thanks. But who else would rhyme Mao with how?
My lizard-brain wants more coffee. I have two days of spring break this year, rather, we have two days of spring break, because of the strike earlier in the year, and I agree that my students deserve and need all 180 days of their education (again, despite evidence to the contrary). And I will bear the complaints of friends and family who tell me they work much harder than I do without any break, so I should shut up and stop complaining. Okay. Being a teacher was a wide-eyed, open-minded, cerebral-cortex decision. So, you got me there. However, none of us are going to succeed in getting what we want, and getting what we need, if we don’t start backing up and demonstrating a little more mutual respect, dignity, and compassion to one another. At least that’s what my gut tells me.