Busting Out of the Box

For 11 years, I taught students at this time of year one thing: “The Box.” I emphasized the words, repeated the phrase several times in class, and made a running joke of the whole thing. Why? Well, for one thing, my English, reading, and language arts students needed to be able to answer open-ended (written response) questions in a way that pleased the almighty state scorers. When you’re completing the formulaic writing that these high-stakes tests require, you have to meet the three criteria points: restate the prompt, use evidence from the text, and explain. The prompt and writing space just so happen to appear in an ever-important box. Typically, each reading passage also is preceded by a short blurb written – you guessed it – in a box, and some students skip right over the box on practice tests because they want to get through the stupid things. (Who could blame them?) So, I emphasized “The Box” for both reading and writing during the couple of weeks prior to the testing days.

I, being the diligent teacher whose evaluations were tied to these precious high-stakes standardized assessments, actually gave my students all sorts of tricks for the test. If the federal and state governments and school district were going to require us to jump through the hoops, I was going to make damn sure my kids had all of the necessary training. I knew the one thing that could generally assure even my lowest students a single precious point was to read “The Box.” Plus, the prompt that they had to regurgitate like trained monkeys was in “The Box.” And, we were told time and again by testing officials that anything a student wrote outside of “The Box” would not be scored. “The Box, The Box, The Box…”

Joey in the box by Louish PixelLiterally, we are forcing kids to live, breathe, and think inside “The Box” with state and national high-stakes standardized assessments. Are these the types of tests that result in academic achievement? Certainly not. Can you imagine trying to tell Monet, Van Gogh, or Jackson Pollock to paint inside a box? Can you imagine telling Mozart that he had to compose neatly on a single sheet? We may not be stifling the next great artist or musician. But, we absolutely are stifling our kids’ creativity and critical thinking, reading, and writing abilities when we shove these poorly designed assessments at them and limit their thinking on such a grand scale.

Simply put, we are boxing in our kids. We have limited curricula to the narrowest scope in the name of the tests. Whether we like to admit it or not, we teach to the tests and then wonder why our kids are not prepared for writing research papers, analytical papers, or anything that requires them to draw their own conclusions. After all, the standards and their associated tests often draw the conclusions for the students and then ask them how they got there in a neat little A, B, C, or D format. We prohibit kids who aren’t proficient from taking electives, such as art, music, foreign language, vocational and technical classes, and the like because they need more remediation on thinking inside the box.

Then, we see companies like Google and Apple that require their employees to think outside the box, collaborate, design, and dream. We hear about professors bemoaning the fact that our students cannot think on their feet, participate in debates, or complete papers without an immense amount of handholding. We see more college graduates taking five or more years to complete a typical four-year track, just so they can move back in with mom and dad when nobody will hire them.

Where is the light at the end of this very dark tunnel? Who will let our kids out of the boxes that we have been putting them into for far too long?

Through Rose coloured glasses by pangalactic garglebblasterThere are some rays of light appearing. One is that Pennsylvania’s new governor said that school ratings should be less dependent on standardized test scores. Governor Wolf has been touring the state and visiting schools, and I am encouraged by his statement. I don’t know what he saw in terms of authentic learning, but I hope he saw enough word walls and test prep materials to make him wonder what we are doing in the name of education in this great state of ours. I also hope that some teachers, students, or parents were able to get close enough to tell him about the tests without their messages being filtered through the rose-colored glasses so many administrators are wearing these days.

The opt-out movement is in full swing, and the numbers are growing daily nationwide. In Pennsylvania, the numbers are growing, too. The latest Pearson spying scandal dealt a blow to the PARCC tests. Finally, droves of parents are starting to question the tests, the standards, and the curricula at their students’  schools.

Will high-stakes testing end tomorrow? No. But, we have parents who are questioning the entire system. We have kids who are refusing the tests. We have teachers who are refusing to give the tests. And, we have some lawmakers and leaders who are beginning to truly take a look at the current state of education.

We still have a long way to go. But, we finally are seeing steps in the right direction. Teachers are notorious for saying that the tide has to turn and that the pendulum eventually has to swing the other way. After all, education reform and initiatives seem to go on a cycle and teachers have to ride out the waves or completely bail out, as I did.

The one thing that hasn’t changed after all these years, though, is the fact that students remain at the center of education. These kids need to be prepared for the next step in their journey. If we continue to box them in, if we continue to narrow the scope and follow curricula that follows the tests, we are doing our students an injustice that we cannot easily correct. If Governor Wolf has his eye on testing, if the opt-out movement continues to grow, if people push back against Pearson long enough, things will change.

That means districts need to be ready and willing to view their curricula and programs with a critical eye and get back to the business of educating kids and preparing them for life beyond the boxes. Is your district ready?

Images via Flickr by Louish Pixel and panhgalactic gargle blaster and the heart of gold

It’s Time

It’s that time of year again. Everyone is counting down to the tests or counting down the days until the tests are over. Administrators can tell you how many days until the tests begin without even thinking about it. Teachers have countdowns in their lesson plans and on their boards. egg_timer by openDemocracyParents think about which days they need to be sure to get their children to bed on time and which mornings they need to eat a good breakfast, per the directives they’ve been receiving from the schools once a week since classes resumed after Christmas break. The nurses will tell you that their offices are busier with requests for Tums and Tylenol, from students who have upset stomachs and headaches from the stress of the tests. The secretaries at the secondary level will tell you about the questions they’re already getting from kids who are planning to come to school late on testing days and what their excuses need to say.

But, what about the kids? In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve taken a much longer break than anticipated from this blog (and newsletter – sorry, loyal subscribers) precisely because I’ve been listening to the kids and their parents. I’ve been following opt-out channels to see how the parents are wording their opt out letters and how they are handling pushback from district administrators. I’ve been having Facebook message sessions with parents asking questions about how to opt out, and I’ve been sharing links to resources and information. I have been quiet so that I could listen to the people who are so desperately fighting this fight for wider curriculum, more opportunities for learning and understanding, and fewer tests and test prep lessons.

Yes, the parents are upset about what their kids are missing out on, as they should be. One mother in particular was in tears because her son’s schedule is full of remedial courses because he can’t pass the high-stakes tests; in turn, he cannot take the art class or vocational class that interests him. Other parents at the secondary level worry about what their advanced students are missing out on in the name of test prep and testing. Things like analytical writing, independent reading projects, in-depth research papers and projects, and midterms and finals – the things they worry their children need to be able to do to truly be prepared for college – are put off until AP courses or are not offered at all They, too, have every right to be upset.

But, what about the kids? When you really listen to the students, they are begging for more. Elementary students watch their parents sign checks and ask if they will teach them “how to write like that.” Kids are watching science experiment clips on their tablets and asking teachers when they get to learn “that kind of fun stuff.” Other kids want to know why school is so boring and how long their teachers have to stand at the copier making all of those testing worksheets. Similarly, secondary students ask teachers to stay after class to teach them cursive because they are worried about not being able to write the required SAT paragraph or sign their names. They ask math teachers about creating personal budgets and balancing checkbooks. And, they ask when they will have to take a midterm or a final because they don’t know how to study for “big exams like they will have to do in college.”

Growing by  Strep72This is what happens when you try to standardize the art of teaching and learning. Kids do not come in a one-size-fits-all package. Young students want to explore and learn and talk and share. They want to get their hands dirty and create. Others want to read that book from cover to cover because it sounds like a funny story, not because it’s on someone’s recommended reading list. Still others want to do math in a way that makes sense, and not in the one way that is best for the test because it will get them the  most points. They are sick to death of hearing the word “test,” and they are frustrated that school seems like a months-long marathon to prepare for a test that determines their worth when they’re still dreaming of becoming a superhero, a princess, a chef, or a combination of the three. One thing they don’t want to become is a teacher. Who can blame them?

And, those are just the elementary kids. The secondary students are finding themselves and realizing what their values, beliefs, and interests are. They want to take electives so they have opportunities to learn about various cultures and languages, vocations, art and music, and other programs while they are still students and have time to figure out what they really want to do after those four yeas of high school. Unfortunately, they are told they cannot take those classes until junior or senior year, if at all, because of the testing requirements of the freshman and sophomore years or because those programs have been sacrificed due to the testing requirements and lack of funds.

It’s time to opt out.

It’s time to listen to the teachers, who have been warning of the adverse effects of too many standards and high-stakes tests for years.

It’s time to listen to the kids.

It’s time to listen to the parents.

It’s time to take back public education while we still can.

It’s time.

For further information regarding what the true public education stakeholders – the students, parents, and teachers – have to say about high-stakes testing and opting out, check out these resources:

For more information on how to opt out your child, visit:

Images via Flickr by openDemocracy and Strep72

Resisting Cookie-Cutter Test Prep: #WeKnow

This is the night I used to dread as much as the night before the first student day. It wasn’t going back to work that was the problem. It was knowing what the January on the Drying Rack by alykatweeks after Christmas break meant: test prep and the big push. In my former district, that’s what it was called: “the push.” We were tasked with writing push plans for the number of weeks between the first day back and the first day of the test; my final year of teaching, it was no longer called our “ten-week push plan” because there weren’t even ten full weeks’ worth of instructional days, so administration just called it our “push plan.” The entire district was scheduled for an in-service day because there was a large wrestling tournament held at the high school, and teachers used the day to write ten-week plans incorporating data, best practices, and the standards to get students ready for the tests. (No word on how losing an instructional day to a wrestling tournament helped student achievement, though.) Academic vocabulary and higher-order questions were the emphasis my final year. And, I would spend this night, the night before the first day back, fretting about the kids that I knew would not be ready, the instructional time lost to test prep, and all of the things I wanted to do with my students but was hesitant to do because of the tests.

Here’s the thing: the years that I spent using test prep materials and emphasizing test prep in my push plans turned out to be the lower test score years. In reality, my students’ test scores improved more during the years that I used novels and literature circles and journaling and creative writing and partner/group activities and the things that I wanted to do to inspire and engage students. The years that I made the test a part of our subconscious turned out to be better testing years. I was happier, my students were happier, and it just so happened that my administrators were happier when the numbers jumped. None of this surprised me, but nobody really wanted to hear the truth about what worked in my classroom.

When I taught in spite of the tests, when I had the data and the push plan in a folder on my desk but not in the forefront of my mind, my kids read more, wrote more, learned more, and understood more. The tests were just an afterthought and their higher scores were just one result instead of THE result.

This won’t work for everyone. Teachers have administrators breathing down their necks, asking what they are doing to prepare students and how they are accomplishing the push, and demanding they show data that is aligned to all of the test prep materials and assessments. I didn’t throw my rebellion in anyone’s face; I just quietly did what I knew was best for my students and myself. It kept us sane in the midst of the testing madness.

cookie cutters by scottfiddPledge to break out of the cookie-cutter testing mold this second semester. Dare to use engaging lessons and strategies. Invite creativity back into the classroom. I urge you to opt out of testing and to share opt-out information with parents. The least you can do is opt your students and yourself out of the test prep craziness. Do your students and yourself a favor and do what you know works. You know your students. You know what they need. After all, you are a professional.

Teachers know better than anyone what kids need, despite what many of the headlines and social media chatter have been saying lately. With all of the hashtag backlash after Arne Duncan’s ridiculous tweet and his online education discussion with a pop singer, it is time to start a new trend. What do teachers know? Here are some ideas to get you started:

#WeKnow kids need to be inspired
#WeKnow kids need the arts
#WeKnow kids need foreign language
#WeKnow kids need libraries
#WeKnow kids rely on school breakfast and lunch programs
#WeKnow technology is a tool and not a solution
#WeKnow the toxic effects of high-stakes testing
#WeKnow kids need local public schools
#WeKnow kids rely on school nurses and guidance counselors
#WeKnow education reform is not about kids

You may not keep your New Year’s resolutions. But, you can pledge to take back your classroom, to be the teacher you want to be, and to show everyone what teachers do, in fact, know about teaching. #WeKnow.

Images via Flickr by alykat and scottfidd

The Double-Edged Sword of College and Career Readiness

Let’s get one thing clear immediately. District and state officials always have a choice when it comes to testing and education. Florida is rolling back assessments in grade K-2, while other districts require more practice assessments. Some school districts support teachers who refuse to administer the high-stakes tests, while others threaten and suspend teachers who do so. Some of the more courageous states and districts are opting out of high-stakes testing, while others are swallowing PARCC and the Smarter Balanced assessments, among others, hook, line, and sinker.

Bad Grade by Robert HruzekThat’s why I had to chuckle when Glen Ridge High School, in New Jersey, recently made the news for cutting midterms and finals to prepare for the new PARCC test. Our school district revamped its secondary grading policy and did away with midterms and finals nearly ten years ago and adopted a retest policy to mirror that of the Pennsylvania Keystone Exams. The grading policy still is a point of contention in the district, as is the elimination of midterms and finals.

The problem with high schools moving in this direction is the mixed message that it sends. On one hand, we have schools adopting the Common Core State Standards that assert the “college and career readiness” mantra. If students are to be ready for college and a career, so the thinking goes, they need to demonstrate proficiency on a slew of standards. Yet, the first round of Smarter Balanced cut scores shows that a mere 11% of students will score at a Level 4 in either ELA or math and be ready for college. The very tests that are supposed to prepare students for college project that the vast majority won’t be ready.

Along with the Common Core come the high-stakes assessments – PARCC, Smarter Balanced, MAP, and so on. Schools lose weeks of instruction in the name of test preparation and administration. Teachers lose the ability to teach curriculum ripe with collaboration, meaningful activities, and real-world application as they are handed packaged materials from big-money companies like Pearson or their own district officials. Secondary students lose out on electives and vocational/technical classes as they are scheduled for more math and ELA classes to get them ready for the test. Let’s be honest: the standards and tests do nothing other than prepare students for the test, not for college and their career.

On the other hand, college is synonymous with midterms and finals. Students from our local high schools, Glen Ridge High School, and other schools that have eliminated midterms and finals will enter these institutions of higher learning unprepared to tackle midterms and finals. One argument is that high schools should not follow what colleges do, just because colleges do it. Admittedly, there is some validity to that argument. But, until colleges make a drastic change and overhaul their own assessment systems (which doesn’t seem likely in the near future), school districts are doing a disservice to their students when they say they are taking part in “college and career readiness” but are not providing the study skills and experience necessary to prepare students for midterms and finals.

School districts cannot have it both ways. They cannot adopt the Common Core State Standards and claim to be moving students toward “college and career readiness” when the standards and tests aimed at doing just that are failing students. Districts also cannot tout “college and career readiness” when they eliminate midterms and finals.

Glen Ridge board member Michael de Leeuw was wrong when he said, “We don’t have a choice – that’s just the way it is.” Districts always have a choice. They need to choose to do what’s right for students.

Image via Flickr by Robert Hruz

Rethinking Parent-Teacher Conferences: Putting People First

Our older son had a significant speech delay and a summer birthday. We decided to send him to preschool on time, and he did fairly well. But, his anxiety and speech challenges led to our decision to work with the school and teachers and repeat his preschool year; so, he was in preschool for two years and attends the Pre-K class this year. The school has been wonderful in supporting our decision and communicating his socialization successes and learning gains.

Preschool Craft Project by Lisa @ Sierra TierraI attended my first parent-teacher conference this week as a parent instead of a teacher. I knew that our son’s teacher would show me examples of his handwriting, paper cutting, gluing, and other fine and gross motor skills work. I knew she would discuss his behavior in class and interaction with the other children. I knew she would tell me what we can work on to support him at home.

I also knew that she would talk to me about my son as the small human that he is. I did not hear about any data, any test scores, or any state-level assessments. Yes, this is because he is in Pre-K. But, what if every teacher approached this week’s parent-teacher conferences in the same way, regardless of the grade level?

An article by Randy Turner, a former English teacher, got me thinking about this idea of humans, rather than data, in the classroom. I also spoke with several parents and attended a community meeting this past week regarding issues in my local school district, and the theme of teachers and kids, not test scores, was prevalent. One parent even said, “I don’t care about the test scores. Well, I care about them, but you know what I mean.”

I did know what the parent meant; in this age of Common Core, we speak about kids and schools and teachers in terms of numbers and not in terms of people. We can change the course of the discussion this week, as thousands of parents enter schools for conferences before Thanksgiving break.

Last week, I urged teachers to have TRUTHful parent-teacher conferences. In that article, I pointed to states like Colorado and Florida that are making strides in the Opt Out Movement and shared information on opting out in Pennsylvania. I heard from several teachers who said they planned to share the opt out information this week with parents; but, I also heard from a few teachers who were afraid to do so because they do not know what administration would do if they found out what the teachers were doing. Fear is understandable in the current climate, though I urge teachers to keep in mind that the current course will not change without their courage to speak up and share information with parents.

One thing that all teachers can and must do this week during their conferences is to put the kids back at the heart of the discussion. Talk about them as the creative, inquisitive young people that they are. Talk about their progress in terms of learning and understanding. Talk about their challenges and struggles in terms of obstacles that can be met with a team approach from school and home. Don’t talk about them in terms of percentages, DIBELS levels, or predicted scores.

Student Led Conference 20 maart 2009 by De Rode Leeuw in BeijingBetter yet, help students lead the discussion during the conference. If you’ve been keeping a portfolio of their work, ask them to choose two or three samples to share with parents during their conference. If you don’t have time to do this in class this week, ask students who attend the conferences with their parents to go through their folders while you begin the conference and then bring them into the discussion with their samples. Facilitate the discussion by asking them which samples they chose and why. Encourage them to talk about their success as well as their challenges, because they will take ownership of their work and their responsibilities moving forward if they take part in the decision-making process.

My favorite line from Turner’s article is: “There is no data that has ever been created that can replace an excellent teacher.” He is exactly right. But, there is no number that truly represents what a student is capable of, or already is achieving, either. Make your parent-teacher conferences count this year by talking about kids, understanding, and learning instead of the data. The parents will thank you for it.

Images via Flickr by Lisa @ Sierra Tierra and De Rode Leeuw in Beijing

Hanging Up the Hoop: Why I Resigned

I taught in the Pennsylvania public school system for 11 years. All the while, I jumped through hoops. That’s what education has become: hoop jumping. We teach our kids to jump through the test prep, practice assessment, and high-stakes assessment hoops. Districts tell their teachers that they don’t have an option: they have to administer the tests so they receive state and federal funds. So, teachers jump through the testing hoops. Parents who ask about opting out and curriculum are handed more hoops to jump through: write letters, sign forms, make appointments, sign up to speak at meetings, etc.

I did not teach one year, including my year of student teaching 12 years ago, that was high-stakes-testing free. In fact, the tests became more frequent, more difficult, and more punitive for my students. The hoops became more numerous and higher, and eventually the state set fire to them by tying student performance to teacher evaluations and graduation requirements. Yet, we had to keep jumping.

I just want a hula hoop by Brian DeweyIt’s time to take a step back and examine what is being lost to the hoops. Specifically, students have lost a great deal. They lost electives and before and after school time, as they worked with teachers and attended tutoring in the name of the test. They lost grammar and spelling instruction in the name of the test. They lost social studies and science in elementary school in the name of the test. They lost handwriting and cursive instruction in the name of the tests. When students asked me to work on cursive writing with them after school because they were stressed about having to handwrite the paragraph and sign their name for the SATs, I taught them how to do it while fuming about the fact that they did not have the simple life skill of being able to sign their names.

And now, my district has lost me, as I officially resigned November 3. Essentially, I hung up my hoop, and I’d like to set the record straight about my decision.

I entered the teaching profession because I wanted to share my passion for reading, writing, and thinking with students. I loved turning on the most reluctant readers to books and having discussions with students about Ponyboy, Boo Radley, Poe, Elie Wiesel, and all of our literary crew. My best days were the ones when the mysteries of a poem finally became clear to students. Seeing students who were weak writers become strong writers over the course of a year kept my passion alive.

But, as the years wore on, the educational climate changed. For all of my passion and commitment, and all of the work I did to get students to read and write and learn, I fought a losing battle. I didn’t know how to combat the testing culture. I asked my administrators why we implemented a Common Core curriculum when the state hadn’t yet adopted the Common Core. I suggested ways for schedules to accommodate students’ desire for vocational, technical, art, and music courses when they lost them to double periods of English and math to prepare them for the tests. I asked why students had to take practice assessments that do not include a writing component when the “real test” does. I never received a clear-cut answer, and administrators started telling me we could meet in their office if I had further questions.

I noticed that other teachers who asked similar questions got the same answer: bring your questions to my office and we can address them one-on-one. I started to notice that other teachers who asked for change, curriculum, and a scope and sequence were evaluated by principals one to two days later. All of a sudden, I was evaluated on days with shorter schedules, days back from vacations, and other days that were not known as the best time for student achievement. I was not afraid of those evaluations because I always held my students to a high standard for learning and did my job, even on those days, but I often chuckled about the timing of the evaluations.

THINK+EXPRESS by Derek DavalosYet, it is an awful thing to feel as though you don’t have a voice when you are working so hard to teach students to use theirs through reading, researching, and writing. It is an awful thing to feel as though your administrators want you to smile, carry on with your day, and make everything work, when you see students in tears because they cannot take the classes they want and cannot pass a test no matter how much time you spend with them and how hard they try. It is an awful thing to talk to teachers who try to get answers and make some changes to help students and themselves navigate the testing madness, only to see them clam up in public and in district-level meetings because they know they are wasting their breath, only to be evaluated and targeted for speaking up.

It is hard to pinpoint exactly which hoop made me stop jumping. Maybe it was the issues with discipline. Maybe it was the denial of the drug, bullying, and racism problems in my school. Maybe it was the way in which administrators said they were working toward equity in scheduling, yet saddled two of us with the bulk of the testing classes. Maybe it was the way my questions were met with smiles and nods and then pushed to the side. Maybe it was the lack of communication. Maybe it was being told during meetings to say things in a positive manner and be positive at all costs. Maybe it was facing students and parents with tears in their eyes during parent-teacher conferences. Maybe it was years of frustration all rolled into one.

I decided that I needed a break. I was granted an uncompensated one-year leave of absence. I had been a part-time freelance writer for a year and decided to pursue my passion for researching and writing, since my passion in the classroom had been killed by the hoops. I started freelancing full time and began my personal blog about being a mom and a teacher. Imagine my surprise when my union president contacted me and said that PSEA advised that I take down the posts about teaching because I could be terminated. Until that point, I knew that district officials worked to stifle teachers’ voices. I had no idea that teachers, as a whole, did not have their full First Amendment rights.

I begrudgingly took down the posts. Then, on August 1, I wrote “An Open Letter to Campbell Brown From a Teacher On Leave,” and it went viral. Suddenly, teachers from across the country started contacting me, thanking me for speaking up when they could not, fearing retribution. I heard from teachers without unions who could lose their jobs if they spoke out. I also heard from teachers from within my own district who asked me to keep writing because I shared their sentiments in a way they could not.

TRUTH LogoNext, I started TRUTH In Teaching to help teachers share their stories and frustrations and to show them that they are not alone. Teachers from all over the country signed up to receive the newsletter, “Liked” TRUTH’s Facebook page, and sent me notes of thanks and encouragement. I made it possible for teachers to anonymously submit their Teacher TRUTHs and soon had several submissions. So many asked me to hold on to them until they decided if they wanted to publish; some of them said just writing their TRUTH made them feel better. Even anonymously, though, they were afraid to speak up about what was happening in their districts.

Early in September, my union president contacted me again. This time, he said that I had upset my superintendent with my site and blog. I never received any form of communication from my superintendent. The only way that I knew that I was “on notice” was through my union president. It is my understanding that my site and I were discussed behind closed doors and the district solicitor was contacted. Because I have no firsthand knowledge of this, I will say nothing more.

Here is what I do know: the superintendent scheduled meetings at every elementary school to discuss the approximate 20-page lesson plan that some of the anonymous teachers and I mentioned on the site. I did not attend the meetings, so I will not discuss them. But, I find it interesting that the meetings were held only a few days after my union president contacted me and that they were held at elementary buildings, when the anonymous Teacher TRUTH posts were written by elementary teachers. I was not surprised when teachers asked me not to publish what they had sent me, after the meetings with the superintendent.

While I cannot identify the hoop that pushed me to take a leave of absence, I can say with 100% certainty that I resigned because I refuse to abide by the unwritten gag order the superintendent is imposing on teachers. How can an institution of learning squelch teachers’ First Amendment rights? How can an institution of learning dictate what the public knows about a public-funded entity? How could I, an English teacher, allow myself to be censored when I never censored my students nor encouraged them to censor themselves when they conducted themselves respectfully and with support for their opinions and ideas?

I now am a former teacher. I now work to make it possible for teachers to share their TRUTH. I now work for a positive change in our school district so that our students can learn how to be the leaders, and not the followers, of tomorrow. It starts with allowing our teachers to be leaders themselves.

Images via Flickr by Brian Dewey and Derek Davlos

TRUTHful Parent-Teacher Conferences

‘Tis the season for parent-teacher conferences. I always looked forward to meeting parents that I only had communicated with over the phone or through email, to sharing students’ progress, and to determining ways in which to support students at school and at home. But, I always dreaded the part where I had to share information about students’ standardized test scores, diagnostic test scores, and predicted test scores.

When Pennsylvania decided to include the Keystone Exams as part of the state’s graduation requirements, I told parents that I would do everything I could to help their students meet benchmarks, make progress, and “beat the test.” I never gave up on any of my kids, but I knew that some of them just wouldn’t make it, regardless of the extra time we spent working before and after school, the time they spent in tutoring sessions with other teachers, and the time they spent on extra practice activities at home. These were kids who hadn’t “grown up” with the Common Core State Standards; they had been in classes covering the CCSS for only one or two years, but the state decided they had to pass the Keystone Exams in order to graduate. It was unfair, and I knew that.

Parent teacher conference by Innovation SchoolAnd so, I had to look parents in the eye and tell them that even though I saw their students working unbelievably hard in my class and making growth in their reading and writing skills, they were not on track to score in the proficient range on the tests. Parents worried. Sometimes, students cried. And every conference night, I went home feeling happy about seeing so many parents but incredibly defeated because of the news I had just shared with them. I felt even more disgusted by the fact that the tests and the scores became the focal point of the conferences, when I knew that they should not have been.

Now, there is news about students opting out in record numbers in Colorado and Florida. There also is news about PA superintendents, school boards, and legislators who want to cut the cord between the tests and graduation status. Finally, people other than teachers are beginning to realize that one test should not determine a student’s future, especially when that test is grounded in standards that are under such scrutiny.

If I were still in the classroom, my parent-teacher conferences this year would be so much simpler. I’d share information on how to opt out. I’d tell parents about students’ rights and their own rights. I’d tell them that the scores really don’t mean much of anything for their students’ actual life goals or chances of getting into college or a branch of the armed services. I’d tell them the TRUTH about the standardized tests.

Wouldn’t it be something if Pennsylvania would make the news, like Colorado and Florida, for the numbers of students opting out? Wouldn’t it send quite a message if not one of the state’s districts met the participation rate for taking the tests?

But, it’s going to take effort and courage on the part of the teachers to communicate with parents. Parents may not have access to the information they need to opt out their children. They also may be getting the wrong message from administration or central offices when they ask about opting out. Parent-teacher conferences are the prime time for teachers to share information with parents. Who better to have the students’ best interests at heart?

For more information on opting out, visit http://unitedoptout.com and http://nopacommoncore.com/opt-info/, or follow Pennsylvanians Against Common Core on Facebook and Twitter.

Image via Flickr by Innovation School

4 Video Clips to Engage and Inspire Students

Technology permeates every area of students’ lives, and they are accustomed to watching videos for entertainment. As more teachers gain access to YouTube, FLat Classroom Skype by superkimboTeacherTube, and other online sites for use in their classrooms, they frequently use videos to introduce, enhance, and extend their lessons. But, teachers often do not have the time to search the web for classroom-appropriate videos. Other teachers are unsure of how to relate the videos to their course content in a meaningful way. These four video clips are a good place to start when incorporating video clips into your lessons; though these are geared toward engaging and inspiring students, they most likely are best suited to English/language arts and social studies classes. Please note: these videos are most appropriate for the secondary level.

Ashton Kutcher’s Advice for Teens

At the beginning of last school year, a colleague and I collaborated on our first week of lesson plans. Our goal was to engage students, inspire them to begin the year with enthusiasm, and to encourage them to explore their academic goals for the year. We decided to use Ashton Kutcher’s Teen Choice Awards speech to launch our beginning day lesson.

Kutcher gives students three pieces of advice for being successful: find your opportunities, change your definition of sexiness, and build your own life. After sharing the video with students, we asked them to explain which of Kutcher’s pieces of advice were most meaningful for them. We then asked students to write their own pieces of advice for themselves, but the advice would be for themselves as students a year prior. These processes helped students reflect on their previous experiences and decide how to approach the upcoming school year.

Kerry Washington Reciting “Ain’t I A Woman”

As an English teacher, I sought out ways to encourage students to practice reading aloud and to embrace the tone and inflection of poems and speeches. I modeled as much as I could, and my students who had a dramatic flair or a love of performing (or both) also read aloud in class. I constantly searched the web for truly great models of reading performances, and Kerry Washington’s “Ain’t I A Woman” is one of the best.

This video has several classroom applications. Use it to begin a discussion of feminism or women’s studies, to launch into a study of racism or stereotyping, or to teach tone and inflection. You may find that it inspires you to practice reading aloud before your next lesson, too.

My Daughter, Malala

Sometimes, inspiring students to work hard in the classroom is a lesson best served by someone who understands what it is like not to have access to education. In this TED Talk, Ziauddin Yousafzai, a Pakistani educator, explains how education gives girls in developing countries an identity. He also equates education to emancipation. And, Ziauddin just so happens to be the father of Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman for advocating for girls’ education in Pakistan and recently became the youngest Nobel Prize recipient.

This video is an appropriate springboard into a discussion of feminism and women’s studies. Similarly, it lends itself to lessons on human rights, civil disobedience, international studies, and diversity.

The Danger of Silence

In his TED Talk, poet and teacher Clint Smith describes what it was like to give up his own voice during Lent. In a poetry-slam style, Smith extends his message to encompass his classroom principle, tell your truth, which he based on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Use this video clip to show students that silence is detrimental to others and themselves, and that their voices and their opinions have value. I envision using this video prior to a lesson on the Holocaust, the Civil Rights Movement, or any other lesson that illuminates the power of words and the importance of speaking up against ignorance and injustice.

Videos that directly relate to your course content are beneficial, but sometimes videos that veer from the norm are more engaging and inspiring for students. Don’t forget: asking students to relate the video to the day’s lesson at the end of class as an exit slip exercise is just as effective as using the videos to introduce lessons.

Have you used any videos that you’d like to share? Add your ideas in the comments below. Or, if you have questions about these videos or how to use others, email Bailey at bailey@truthinteaching.com.

Image via Flickr by superkimbo

Teachers, Not Superintendents, Deserve Recognition

The TRUTH is, teachers are stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to Tug of War by JoePhilipsonadministering standardized and high-stakes tests. While the opt out movement gains steam and moves forward, teachers face a very difficult reality of playing by the rules or risking their jobs by being insubordinate. Recently, more and more teachers across the nation are choosing to refuse to administer the tests; but other teachers face backlash and repercussions for doing so.

The irony of the situation is that when the test scores are released, it often is the district superintendents who receive all of the praise. If teachers are abiding by the rules and administering the tests, and often putting aside their own feelings toward the testing madness in the process, let’s give credit where it is due.

During this era of low morale, increased responsibilities for data collection and analysis, more hoops to jump through in the evaluation process, and larger piles of paperwork that include several extra hours of work for lesson planning and completing report cards, it is the teachers who work tirelessly in the trenches to teach and support their students. Often, all of the district and state mandates are a tough pill to swallow for educators who just want to teach, so giving them the credit is the least their administrators and communities can do.

A September 2014 blog post, “The Myth of the Superstar Superintendent,” points out that school district superintendents “often get lots of media attention, are in charge of big budgets and, in theory, set the educational agenda.” But, it questions whether these administrators truly matter in terms of student success and cites a study that analyzed student scores from two states over a ten year-period to determine the answer.

Matthew Chingos, a senior fellow at the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, co-authored a broad study that examines the link between superintendents and student achievement. Chingos and his co-authors, Grover Whitehurst and Katharine Lindquist, determined that “hiring a new superintendent made almost no difference in student success.” As Chingos puts it, “‘We just don’t see a whole lot of difference in student achievement that correlates with who the superintendent happens to be.’”

Another important finding of the study is that student achievement does not improve the longer a superintendent serves in a district. In fact, Chingos contends that it is the wider school system, including the culture, community, and local school board that are much more influential than the person serving as the superintendent. “‘When you see a district that’s doing really well with a visionary superintendent, it may also have a very proactive school board, a very involved community, and a whole bunch of other things.’”

Along the same lines, education writer and author Dana Goldstein contends that “‘too many Paperwork by luxomediasuperintendents have been paper-pushing administrative overlords wedding to traditionalist views and averse to change.’” Goldstein also differentiates between successful and poor superintendents: “‘A good superintendent empowers leading visionary principals and teacher leaders at the school.’ … But what actually happens too often is that superintendents ‘squash interesting ideas, so you’d have principals afraid to try something new, afraid to try something innovative.’”

As author of The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession, Goldstein reflects on the public school system and contends that public schools “desperately need more autonomy and authority to innovate.” Goldstein says, “‘Sustainable education reform in the United States is going to come from the bottom up.’ … ‘There is too much focus on these top-down reformers and the idea of the crusading, superstar superintendent. And not enough on the people who matter more – the principals and teachers.’”

_MG_9850 by Saul LewisUntil the high-stakes testing madness ends or a national moratorium on standardized testing is put into place, we need to consider where we place our praise and recognition. Let’s give teachers the credit they are due, even if we don’t agree with the current testing, curricula, and timelines under which they are suffering.

Images via Flickr by JoePhilipson, luxomedia, and Saul Lewis

On Meeting Tom Wolf, Surviving Corbett’s Cuts, and Voting

I met Tom Wolf Wednesday, Oct. 29. He was running late, so I couldn’t stay for the entire campaign trail event, but I made sure to shake hands with him, look him in the eye, and tell him that I am a teacher and that we need him. He responded by saying, “We need you, too.” I continued by telling him we need him to keep his promises.

I am not naïve. I know that politicians are politicians. I know that Mr. Wolf has made promises and plans to cut some taxes and raise others. I know that he needs to do all that he can to remedy the path of destruction left by Tom Corbett. I also know that he has no idea what lies ahead until he takes office and that some surprises may come up to prevent him from doing all that he has said he will do. He’s human, and he will inherit a state that’s been left in shambles.

Education Protest March 4 2010-27 by Patrick GiblinBut, I also have firsthand knowledge of what Tom Corbett has done to my state and our public education system. As proponents and opponents throw their truths about education cuts back and forth, I only can speak about what I know to be true. I was in a classroom for eleven years. None of those years was perfect, as far as statewide high-stakes assessments, new regulations, new evaluations, new budget changes, and new technology initiatives took hold. But, the four years during which Corbett held the reins were the worst.

In those four years, we lost positions to attrition. Thank goodness nobody was furloughed (at least to the best of my knowledge), but the lost positions helped to account for the increased class sizes and the loss of itinerants, so that teachers now travel between buildings at a dizzying rate. We also lost principal positions to attrition. Some buildings do not have a principal on site during the day. Schools are left without leaders in an age of school violence, bullying, and increased time needed for evaluations.

In those four years, teachers took a pay freeze. Teachers retiring at the end of the year lost money, teachers who spent time earning extra credits for advancement on the pay scale lost money, and teachers who were counting on raises to help cover the money spent out of pocket on classroom supplies lost money. I was one of the teachers who spent more of my own money during those four years. Tissues, pencils, erasers, novels, hand sanitizer, paper, glue sticks, markers, and other supplies we used on a daily basis came out of my checking account. As my classroom budget was cut, and I worked under a pay freeze, I spent more and more of my own money to keep my classroom going the way that I wanted it to, in order to have an engaging learning environment.

In those four years, classrooms lost assistants, libraries lost assistants, and buildings lost assistants. Even more damaging was the fact that students lost services they desperately needed as wrap-arounds and personal aides were slashed. Students who relied on those paraprofessionals and support staff suddenly were left to navigate through the school year on their own. Discipline issues became a problem and students spent more time with guidance counselors and principals after they lost their support in the classrooms.

In those four years, my class sizes grew from an average of 22 to an average of 30. My largest class was 38 students, and I did not have enough desks in my room to accommodate all of them the first week of school. When I managed to borrow desks from fellow teachers, we worked in close quarters until two desks broke and I was told there were no replacements. I again relied on my colleagues for help and found enough desks to squeak by until the end of the school year. I worked with students and changed my lessons and daily activities to accommodate the large numbers, but those kids definitely would have been better off in smaller classes.

In those four years, we lost our after-school tutoring and mentoring programs. Students lost a program that included activities, tutoring, and snacks. We also lost a program dedicated solely to tutoring. When everyone was so concerned about test scores and student achievement, the two programs that were in place to help students academically were lost.

VOTE by Theresa ThompsonI don’t need studies or campaign ads telling me what a disaster Tom Corbett has been for my profession or my state. I have seen it and lived it. Tuesday, teachers MUST vote their job, not their party. Teachers MUST vote, period. I can’t imagine what will be left of our state or our schools if we have to endure another four years of Tom Corbett.

For more, follow the #Vote4ED posts on Twitter and visit http://educationvotes.nea.org.

Images via Flickr by Patrick Giblin and Teresa Thompson