Thursday, November 13, 2014

When Your Hero Dies

My son's teacher gave me this piece of his work during our parent-teacher conference tonight.

She told me that it touched her.  When I read it, it brought tears to my eyes.  My son is a compassionate little boy. He has assimilated all that he has learned about the history of the US, war, and what it means to be a hero, and he gave that label to his great-grandfather.  He knows that he is lucky to have met his great-grandfather - to have spent time with him playing at an amusement park this past summer - and I know that he will be sad when Great Grampa goes to heaven.  We are all sad when we lose a hero.

I lost a hero this week.  One of my mentors, George Hillocks, Jr., passed away yesterday.  I met George in the pages of Teaching Writing as Reflective Practice, a book that profoundly impacted the way that I teach.  I was fortunate to meet George in person the same summer I read this book - and to continue to bump into him frequently over the years.  He sat on my dissertation committee.  He made me read Aristotle. He pushed my thinking.  He is a giant upon whose shoulders I stand.  I will miss him.

I could say much about how George influenced my teaching and research.  His concept of "gateway activities" changed the way I taught writing.  His exploration of argument influenced my own line of inquiry.  His articulation of the kinds of knowledge that writers need has allowed me to explore new territory.  I joke with my colleagues that I am "taking Hillocks digital" in my work - but I am really just applying everything I learned from him.

My favorite memory of George doesn't come from the pages of his writing.  It doesn't come from the talks he gave at conventions.  It doesn't come from the intimate workshop that I attended where I saw him "in action."  It comes from a moment when I had him all to myself.

We celebrated NCTE's 100th anniversary in 2011 in Chicago, George's hometown.  After the general membership meeting while the attendees enjoyed cake, I saw George wandering aimlessly at the back of the room.  As I approached him, he said, "Kristen, what is this?  What kind of party doesn't have alcohol?"

Anyone who knew George personally knows that this is just the kind of thought he would have - and that he would say out loud.  I laughed, and asked him if I could help him find someone.

"I'm not sure where I am supposed to be right now.  I think they are coming to get me," he replied.

"Ok," I said.  "Then how about we sit here for a bit together while you wait."

For the next half hour, I had the most amazing conversation with one of my heroes.  He talked about Bernie McCabe (a fellow teacher) who changed him as a person, as a teacher.  "He showed me how," George told me.  Just as you did for me, I thought.  He teared up a bit when he talked about his family and his students.  He spit fire when he remembered someone calling one of them stupid.

And then, in a moment that brought our relationship as mentor and mentee full circle, he mentioned Aristotle.  When he required that I read and incorporate Aristotle's view of logic into my dissertation, which was based on Toulmin argument, I did so reluctantly, and I discarded many of the memories of my reading.  When he mentioned Aristotle's name that night at NCTE, I was worried that I would not be able to have an intelligent conversation.  But here is what George said to me that night.  I wrote it down so that I would not forget so these are very close to his own words.
When I die, I'd like to talk to Aristotle.  I'd ask him, "How'd you figure out all that shit?"  And then I'd tell him what all that shit means.  I'd tell him he got some things wrong.  But he also got a lot of things right.
Have you ever thought what you would say to your hero if you had the chance to spend half an hour with him or her?  I was fortunate to spend that time with George.  And I'm hoping that George has requested his appointment with Aristotle.  Knowing him, he's already had the meeting and is figuring out how to let his academic family know what he is now thinking so we can continue his work.

We are sad, as a profession, for the loss of one of our giants.  We will continue to carry all that George has taught us about teaching, learning, and literacy into the next generations.  Perhaps someday, when George and I meet again, he will say, "You know all that stuff about digital literacy?  How'd you figure out all that shit?"  And I will say, "because of you."

Thank you, George, for your dedication to students, young and old, and for your tireless advocacy for our field.  We will miss you.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Where did September go?

My daughter has been counting down the days until today, October 1, because she is very excited to decorate for Halloween.  When she asked me a few weeks ago if I could get down the decorations, I told her I would do it today.  So she started a countdown.  And today her countdown shifted to the number of days before Halloween.

I, too, am looking forward to the end of October because it will bring the end of our crazy fall schedule.  We are overcommitted for the first 8 weeks of the school year, but the end of soccer season will bring some quiet normalcy to our routine.

However, I try not to look to that end too often because the end of October also means the end of my second month of sabbatical.  I know both November and December will fly with three professional conferences to prepare for, two family holidays to plan, and a Christmas pageant to direct.

And September is already over.

I'm not sure what I accomplished this past month - kicking off the year in the 8th grade classroom, finalizing the revisions on my first book, drafting chapter 1 of my next book, reading doctoral student work, and enjoying some much-needed "break time" don't feel like they are major accomplishments.  I look at the to-do list that is ever-growing for my sabbatical work, and I wonder how I can be more productive - and still return to my university teaching and administrative duties in January feeling rejuvenated. I wonder, where did September go?

For now, as I sit between classes in the 8th grade, I will only look forward to the end of this day, when I can find those Halloween decorations before my daughter's bus comes home.  And then we will decorate together.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Nervous Excitement

I'm nervous.  And excited.  And nervous.

Tomorrow I teach 8th graders, and like every time I "perform" in front of an audience, I have a healthy dose of nerves.  But I'm more nervous because I am teaching these kids that I've never met - and that I don't know.  I don't know whether they will be able to read the articles I've selected.  I don't know how much support they will need to decode and comprehend them.  I don't know their interests or how to connect the texts to their prior knowledge.

I'm running blind.

I'm also planning to introduce Citelighter, the tool that I will be using with the class throughout the year, and I've discovered a major glitch in the program, a glitch that caused me to rethink my entire plan today.

Backup planning has always been a big part of my lesson design.  Because I've used technology regularly since I started teaching in 1998, I always needed to think in terms of backup.  Something inevitably went wrong, and I had to anticipate what could happen and account for it in my planning.

But in the "old" days, the backup plan usually involved printed materials.  We could always revert to the textbook and paper/pencil if need be.  But the whole goal of tomorrow's plan is to learn to use the technology.  If the technology fails, the plan is shot.

And this is new territory for me as a teacher of adolescents.  I know that digital literacy is important.  I argue that teachers need to overcome the fears associated with bringing technology into the classroom in deep and meaningful ways - and I empathize with them.  Because I'm nervous.  I'm nervous that technology will fail me in a very important moment.

All of these nerves, however, remind me that teaching is really about learning.  It's about learning with and alongside our students.  So no matter whether I've picked the wrong article - or whether technology fails - the students.... my students.... and I will learn together tomorrow.

And that excites me.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Twinlife on Sabbatical

I've been watching my Facebook feed for the last few weeks, noting when each of my colleagues and friends around the country shift from summer mode to school mode.  Most of the parent posts include snapshots of their children on the first day of school - and wonder at where the time has gone.  Most of the teacher posts lament the start of school - some with more angst than others.

I know both perspectives.  Tomorrow I will post pictures of my second graders, and I am saddened that they are headed back to school.  It's been a good summer that we've spent together, our first without a regular babysitter.  I've juggled work and mom life, and I've taken more time for the latter than I ever have before.  I will miss them when they are at school for 6.5 hours per day - and I will need to squeeze in quality time in the 3 hour block between school and bedtime.  It will be hard.

So I get the tinge of sadness that laces the parent posts together.  I also get the angst of my teacher-friends.  This September would have been my 17th start as a teacher.  Each year, as the end of August looms nearer, my heart races a little faster, my stomach starts to roll, and my stress meter rises higher.  Labor Day is usually full of labor as I prepare for my classes.  Excitement of a new start is usually tempered by the understanding that the intense workload - the responsibility for guiding my students to deep learning - will exhaust me.

But not this year.  This year I have ignored the barrage of back to school email.  I have left my textbooks on the shelf and my syllabi untouched in their folders.  My stomach hasn't rolled, and my stress level has been pretty stable.  I am not headed into the city for the opening meeting today and for the first day of classes.

I am on sabbatical.

Many professors take sabbaticals to travel the world.  I chose to stay close to home, where I can indulge in twinlife and grow as an educator.  I will be spending the semester as a visiting teacher in an 8th grade writing class in a local school.  My heart races a little faster - with excitement - at the possibilities in front of me.  I will work with middle schoolers (a first!), enjoy time for writing with colleagues, and be home in time to meet my kids at the bus stop.  Though I will be busy with work, it's a different kind of work, and I'm enjoying the break from normal back-to-school stress.

And today, rather than sitting in meetings, I will enjoy the sunshine with my kids one last time before the start of school.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Reaping the Benefits of Twinlife

Somewhere in the back of my mind, where the fuzzy memories of early twinlife lie, I remembered this park. It sits on a hill inside a state park in our neighboring town. The last time I visited was when my kids were 3. We didn't stay long because my tired body could only chase the two of them, keeping them safe from themselves, for very limited periods of time. Plus, all the moms that day knew each other. I was an "out of towner" and as I chased my kids in two directions, I had no one to turn to for help.

But today we are back at the park, which is surprisingly deserted on this gorgeous afternoon. My kids jumped from the car, ran to the playground, calling, "Mama, there is a bench for you to sit!" They clearly didn't need, or want, me in their play area. As I write, they have created their own world, complete with medical bays and appropriate defensive battle stations. They are challenging themselves on the monkey bars and creating games on the tightrope. 

They are alone together in this park, and I can watch the beauty of it from my seat.

We are about to head back to school, and we will be running one of them to something every night of the week. Our Saturdays will run a full day. But for this moment, sitting in the breeze, I am reaping the benefits of twinlife, watching two best friends play like the kids they are.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Reflections on Using Google Classroom

During the summer of 2014, I taught an online course called Media Literacy and Technology to students in the Fordham University Graduate School of Education.  When I create a course, I purposefully select digital tools that I believe will benefit my students when they are in their own classrooms as teachers.  I want them to engage as learners with these tools so that they can experience the frustrations - and the successes - of learning with and through technology.  Through this experience, they can empathize with their own students and reflect on the tools that would be most useful in meeting their classroom goals.

For the last few years I have used three platforms to interact with my students, and each of the tools has a distinct purpose.
  • I use Wordpress to push content to my students.  Because they can sign up for email  updates, students receive instantaneous notice of blog posts, and I post instructions for independent and online learning regularly.  I also house the syllabus, course documents and links to readings on password protected pages.  Wordpress also allows me to make my students authors on the blog, and I sometimes invite students to share their ideas with their peers.  Readers can, and do, respond to these posts, and I can also facilitate threaded discussion of course topics and readings through the comment features.
  • Because Wordpress does not easily allow for collaborative editing where individual contributions can be tracked, I use Wikispaces for students to collect resources, house portfolios, and write collaboratively.  
  • Dropbox has been my go-to tool for giving feedback on student work because of its ease of use.  Any file in Dropbox is like a file on my computer - I open, insert comments, click “save” and close the document, which is instantly synced to the individual student’s computer.  No need for uploading and downloading through email! Dropbox has allowed me to move from paper/pen grading to digital grading.  All student work in my courses has been submitted to Dropbox… until this semester.

This summer I was given preview access to Google Classroom, and I eagerly incorporated it into the Media Literacy and Technology class.  I had hoped that it would replace two of the three tools above - Wordpress and Dropbox.  Ultimately, it replaced Dropbox completely, but Wordpress was still essential to my course.  In an effort to reflect openly for my students on our use of this tool from my perspective, I’ve outlined what I liked about Classroom - and what I wished it could do for us as a community of learners.

What I Liked

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Making an assignment in Classroom is easy, especially if I have created a document in Google Drive.  For the assignment above, I asked students to review the syllabus and our course sites and complete a “scavenger hunt.”  I linked the syllabus to the assignment for everyone to view and download the file; however, I was able to send individual copies of the scavenger hunt to each student to complete.  They could edit their document directly and submit it without additional downloading, uploading, or even saving!  In the image, you can see that all 20 students turned in their assignments.

When I click on the “turned-in” section of the assignment, I see a list of the students who are ready to be assessed.  

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I click the name and Classroom takes me to the individual’s document, where I can add comments.   Then on the screen shown above I can “return” the assignment with an overall comment, and, if I desire, provide a grade.  For me this was the best part of using Classroom.  The response process was streamlined, and it easily replaced Dropbox as my submission tool for student work.  Though Dropbox saved me time, Classroom saved me more! From the front page to the response page, it was easy to see who had or had not completed the assignment, to engage in conversation with individual students, and to give feedback on written work.

These features - the ability to create individual copies of digital assignments with a push of a button and the ability to respond easily to student work - make Classroom worth using in a K-12 setting, and it could certainly replace Dropbox in the assessment portions of my university courses.

What I Wish It Could Do
Unfortunately, Classroom could not become my course management tool.  Many of my wishes can be wrapped up in one BIG wish -  I wish that the stream were not linear.  The Internet is not a linear place, and therefore, much of the interacting and thinking that we do in cyberspace is not linear. Classroom, however, is set up as a linear stream with no way to navigate it other than scrolling up and down.  Even in my short summer semester, the chronological linear stream didn’t work well, especially for me as the instructor.  I can imagine it would be even more cumbersome in a full-year class where I wanted to look back over time and to check in on student work.  Here are some specific wishes that link to the idea that learning is - or should be - networked, and the tools we use should help us to leverage that network.

Online Discussions
When I am facilitating online learning, I think carefully about how to create quality conversations among learners.  Just as I would in a face-to-face conversation, I encourage my students to do heavy thinking through authentic discussion - not simply to respond to a question I pose.  In literacy education, we call this type of pattern IRE - the teacher Initiates, the student Responds, and the teacher Evaluates that response.  IRE patterns place the teacher as the sole expert in the room and do little to foster creative and critical thinking on the part of students.  Rather, in my courses, I ask students to debate ideas openly with each other as they form their views of the world.  In the virtual realm, I have been most successful at facilitating these types of discussions on threaded discussion forums where students can respond to individual comments and extend portions of conversations.  Classroom does not yet allow for threaded discussions, so any “discussion question” I posed became, in effect, a call and response.  Though my graduate students did read through each other’s responses and reference them in their own (at my request), it was difficult to follow any one thread of an argument because responses posted chronologically, rather than topically or in response to each other.

I would also like to be able to track responses to discussion questions, just as I can track submissions to other assignments.  The first step in my assessment of discussion participation would be to easily see how many posts an individual has made.  My next wish is to be able to click on an individual’s name within that post and have all of their comments displayed so I can see the quality of their responses and their overall thinking throughout the discussion.  Because I am emailed when a student comments on a discussion post, I can see these responses in my inbox.  But I would rather keep my inbox clear of this type of mail and manage it on the Classroom board.

Learning does not happen in a moment, but instead it happens through reflection on where you have been, where you are, and where you want to go next.  Sometimes a student needs to (or wants to) look back at work completed earlier in order to move forward in learning, or at the very least, to study for a test.  One thing I love about Wordpress is that it allows me to tag my posts so that I can easily archive material and students can find it at a later date without searching through all the back posts.  I wish that Classroom had this type of tagging feature.  At the minimum, I would want to tag different kinds of posts (assignment, discussion, announcement), but it would be helpful to be able to customize the tags to the course content as well.

Permanent Links
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Classroom has quite a bit of “white” space on the margins of the screen, and I would love to see that space be used with a tagging system, as described above, and with customizable widgets like Wordpress has available.  Links to Twitter feeds, websites, and other resources could be permanently displayed for student reference.

As I mentioned above, I love the ease in response that Classroom gives me.  There are two minor enhancements that would make assessment (and grading) a bit easier.  First, students are able to comment in response to my assessment of their work - which is great!  But it is easy for me to miss these comments because I am not pinged in any way.  So unless I specifically go back to check whether each student has added a comment, thus making the feedback loop a little more cumbersome, it’s difficult to take advantage of this feature.  Adding a notification flag on the front page and, perhaps, promoting the student’s updated assignment to the top of the assessment page would be helpful.  The same is true of assignments resubmitted.  I needed to double check frequently to see if anything had been resubmitted.  A notification on my home page would have been helpful.

Secondly, though I didn’t use the “grade” feature much for my summer course, I imagine it would be extremely helpful to classroom teachers to be able to export the grades they assign into a spreadsheet.  I do not believe that Classroom needs an internal grade calculator - Spreadsheets can serve that purpose well.  However, in the future, Classroom might embed a grade system that allows parents to check on student progress.  Most schools have these grade trackers online, and if the systems were streamlined, it would save teachers time in double inputting.  

Finally, and this is a big one, I want to be able to look at one student’s work (easily) across assignments.  Right now the only way for me to do this is to dig down into my Drive (where Classroom stores the folders of all the assignments I create), and search the student’s name.  I really hope Classroom can allow for teachers to click on a student’s name to (1) see at a glance what the student is missing, and (2) click through to any assignment over time.  This type of feature would be very helpful in assessment over time.

Community of Learners
One of the reasons I use Wikispaces is that it allows each individual in the class to put their stamp on our community.  Classroom is very much teacher-driven and teacher-centered, and I would like to see a space dedicated to the students as individuals.  This could be accomplished with something as simple as grouping the student avatars in some of the open white space, or it could be more involved by creating a “classroom community” page where students can post short bios, links to their personal or academic blogs, or other resources that they think their classmates might find useful.  This type of space would allow everyone in the community to recognize individual voices, and it would also shift the role of “expert” from being solely in the teacher’s realm. used to allow for this kind of individual space within a community, though I haven’t used it in several years to see how it has evolved.

Worth it
My students may have different reflections than I do on the stream.  Most of them told me it was easy to navigate, which was attractive to them.  I agree with the limited number of assignments in my course that the linear path was workable.  I imagine, however, that with a full-year course, it would become less manageable.  There were some other bugs that my students and I had to work through (e.g., they didn’t like being “red-flagged” for discussion assignments that they had completed; some couldn’t get their assignments to register as having been submitted), but overall, it was seamless from their use to mine.  I will continue to use Classroom as my assessment tool to replace Dropbox, particularly because of the way it allows me to read and respond to their work in a single platform. I look forward to seeing what new features the Google team has in store.  

Classroom will be available to GAPPS schools beginning this fall.  They are releasing this current beta version because it’s a useful tool for teachers now, yet they are continuing to improve its functionality.  If you try it, send them feedback!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Learning It All

My mom found me in my bedroom, on the verge of tears.  “What’s wrong?” she asked.

“How will I learn it all?”

She looked at me quizzically.  “What do you mean?”

My floodgates opened.  “Well, you know everything, and I just don’t know how I’m going to learn it all.”

I was five years old.

I don’t remember my mom’s response, which I’m sure reassured me that I would learn everything I needed to know, but I often think about that moment in my life, when I was absolutely overwhelmed by all that I needed to learn, as I watch my own children grow.

Last week my son asked me why the veterans gave us a flower when we donated to their bucket outside of the grocery store.  His question turned into a 20-minute conversation about the various branches of the military, strategies of war, and the history of WWI and II.  His curiosity elicited questions that I answered confidently.  I didn’t even know that I knew all of the information until I talked with him.

“You know a lot of things,” he said.

A few days later, as we waited in a construction zone near our house, my daughter asked me why they needed to fix the road.  Her follow-up questions led us into a discussion about construction and the science behind it.  Again, I surprised myself with my knowledge – which had been buried inside me, collected over the years.

“You know a lot of things,” she said.

I think that I was surprised in my knowledge because I have always seen myself in that role of the five year old – admiring my parents who have always seemed to have the “fix-its” to my questions.  My parents are a creative team.  They have learned over their adult lives how to identify and troubleshoot problems, as well as how to fix (or jerry-rig) nearly everything.  When I have a question, I almost always go to them, and they almost always have the right answer.  I need to make superhero capes?  I call my mom.  I need to fix one of the kids’ toys?  I speed-dial my dad.  I want a life-sized book (that opens) for a theater production?  I get them both on the phone.

Because I have relied on them, especially for creative, constructive, or crafty endeavors, I have doubted my own knowledge and abilities.  But recently, for the first time, I recognized in me what I have always seen in them.

This self-discovery came because my son and I made the Liberty Bell.

When he told me that he wanted to make a Liberty Bell for his class project, I panicked, and then I breathed deeply.  I can do this.  I thought.  Paper mache, I decided, not able to come up with a different solution.  When I told a friend what we were doing, she asked, “How are you going to paper mache a bell?” 

“I’m not sure,” I replied.  “But we’ll figure it out.”

And we did.

We searched the dollar store for something that looked like a bell (a popcorn bucket!); we researched the best glue recipes; we ripped paper; we bought two kinds of paint to try to create the metallic effect.  Finally, we had our supplies, and it was time to begin.  My son and I sat on the grass in our front yard, and we made it.  We even figured out how to round out the bottom, just like the real bell.

Our bell is not perfect – and I’m sure that the next time we paper mache we will do a better job – but the experience of making it was perfect.  My son learned the word “iterative” to describe the process, and I learned that I can, indeed, tackle a creative problem on my own, without relying solely on my parental experts. 

Somehow, over the years I did learn everything I need to know.  I learned that process matters, that failure is part of the process, and that as I try, I learn.  Most importantly, I learned to ask questions, think of possibilities, and take in the world around me.   These are the lessons, I hope, that I am passing to my children, just as my parents have passed them to me.

“I know a lot,” I said to my son and my daughter, “but I keep learning everyday.” I know that they are too.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Becoming a Reader

I'm testing this story out for a project that I am working on. What might you learn about being the parent of a young reader from this story? Please leave me a comment! And if you have your own stories, I'd love to hear those too. Thanks.

I walked into the room, and there they were, my six year old twins, lying head to bent knees on my son’s bed, each with a book propped against their legs.  My daughter wore her pink sunglasses, despite the fact it was bedtime and the room was dimly lit.

“You’re up for teeth brushing,” I said to my son.  He reluctantly put down his Lego magazine.  My daughter ignored us, continuing to read her Junie B. Jones novel.  A few minutes later, “Okay, Megs, it’s your turn,” I said.  She didn’t budge.

I turned and walked across the hall to the bathroom.  “Let’s go,” I called, getting frustrated.  She did not follow.

“MEGAN,” I yelled.  She sauntered into the room, her small sunglasses still perched on her nose, her face in the book.  I couldn’t help but smile - because this sight in front of me rarely happens.  My daughter is not my reader.

My twins could not be more different in their love of reading.  From his toddler days my son would curl on an adult’s lap, engaged in a book, whenever he could.  Once he started to decode, he learned quickly, advancing in levels of reading without much effort on my part.  

My daughter, on the other hand, has never loved to read.  She has always been willing to sit dutifully to listen to bedtime stories, but given another choice, she almost always picked journaling, singing, or playing beauty parlor for her pre-sleep activity.

I always suspected that her disinterest in reading came because of a perceived competition with her twin. He was a good reader.  She, in her mind, was not.  And she didn’t want to compete in a contest  that she knew she would lose.  Because she struggled with decoding, reading wasn’t enjoyable for her.

Until recently.

A few weeks ago she received the soundtrack to the movie Frozen.  As a lover of “tunes,” she easily learned the melodies of the songs, and she could sing most of the words.  She learned, however, that ALL of the words were printed in the leaflet inside the CD case, and within the day, she was carrying the booklet with her everywhere.

I found her lying on the couch, reading the lyrics.   She asked me if it could count for her “20 minutes of reading” required each day by her teacher, and I said, “sure.”  She wrote it in her reading log.  She took it in the car.  She carried it into restaurants.  Within a week, the dog-eared pages resembled those of a well-loved book.

And now, just a few weeks later, books have replaced her leaflet.  Though reading is still not her go-to activity, she has moments where she just can’t put the book down.  She is a reader.

That realization hit me as she walked into the room with those sunglasses on her face - and she proceeded to read the book while I brushed her teeth.  “I’m sorry I yelled,” I said to her.  “You were reading, and that’s a good excuse to ignore me --- sometimes.”  She smiled, but not at me.  “Junie B. Jones just did the silliest thing!” she exclaimed.  

“Tell me about it,” I said.

And she did.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Why I Am Against High Stakes Testing

My children were born at 36 weeks gestation - premature by official standards and “full term” to most twin mamas.  They were tiny, well below average in weight, and it was my doctor’s goal to beef them up.  Each visit she weighed my son, who left the hospital at just over 4.5 lbs, and we charted the progress.  By his 6-month checkup, he weighed 16 pounds (within the average range for all babies).  Though most babies double their birth weight by 6 months, my son nearly quadrupled his.  

I have two points to make about this story.

First, though I charted the progress, a particular weight was never my ultimate goal.  If it had been, I likely would have chosen to supplement mother’s milk with formula and early introduction to solids. These interventions surely would have introduced additional calories and helped to increase the numbers on the scale.  Instead, I gave my baby what I thought was best for his development - mother’s milk - and allowed him to grow at his own pace.

And two, my little boy did not grow because the doctor weighed him every month.  He grew because he had what nourished him.

I share this anecdote as an analogy because the speaker at my doctoral graduation said, “You don’t make cows fatter by weighing them, and you don’t make kids smarter by testing them.”  When I Googled the phrase to see if I could locate the origin of this idea, I found a nice explanation of measurement, why it matters, and why “you can’t fatten a cow simply by weighing it every day.”   The author (outside the field of education) suggests that

  • You can't aim without measurable targets
  • You won't improve if you don't keep score
  • You can't manage it if you can't measure it
  • What gets measured gets done
  • What pays off gets done first

All of these points apply to learning, and it is for these reasons that teachers are trained to set learning targets, assess students’ progress toward those targets, and alter instruction to help individuals meet these learning goals.  This process is practiced as a cycle of assessment and instruction - and it happens constantly.  Sometimes assessments are cumulative, asking students to demonstrate learning through performance on a test or project; often assessments happen on the fly as teachers interact with students, take notes on what they observe, and reflect on both student work and their interactions.  These assessments allow teachers to give individual students what they need in order to grow.

And now to the heart of the matter.

Yesterday I started a Facebook group for parents in NJ who are concerned about the effects of corporate and political initiatives that are disrupting our schools’ ability to give individual students what they need in order to grow.  I thought hard about what I would title this group, and I settled on “NJ Parents Against High Stakes Testing.”  The culture of high stakes testing that dominates current educational “reforms” (though these may be considered takeovers more than they are positive reforms) worries me for a variety of reasons.  Because I have seen comments from parents who are unsure where they stand, I wanted to articulate my own stance in hopes that it might help others to understand why I speak out against these kinds of tests.

First, I want to reiterate that I am not against assessment, nor am I against setting targets for learning and working toward those targets.  I believe that schools, teachers, and students should work toward goals that require - and allow for - growth.  I also believe that school communities can offer some judgment about how well each individual performs in relation to those goals.  Understanding areas for improvement is an important part of learning.

I do not believe that yearly high stakes testing offers this kind of atmosphere.  These are the most salient of my reasons:

The test provides one snapshot of my child.
In order to get into my home office, I walk by a wall of photos that I have carefully selected to display. I see my son and daughter over their 6 years in various stages of joy.  There is not a bad photo among them - all of the bad ones are filed away in photo boxes or discarded in the trash.  We share the best.

But what if I did not have the option to choose?  What if I were limited to one snapshot per year? Would I want to put so many on the wall to display to my friends and family (and for me to look at each day)?  And what if that one snapshot of my daughter catches her with her eyes closed, yet my son has a handsome smile?  When I display them both, how will my daughter feel, knowing that shot is not really representative of her?

Children grow over time and at different rates.  They have good days and bad days.  It is not appropriate to judge a child’s proficiency in any task by their performance on one test, taken in a sterile setting, on a day arbitrarily assigned by the state.  

Though some parents argue that learning to take these kinds of tests is important for taking tests in the future (e.g., SAT, LSAT), we can develop test-taking skills of this nature throughout learning, rather than by testing them yearly.  We don’t make cows fatter by weighing them constantly.

Tests limit curriculum.
My colleague Troy Hicks and I articulated some of the ways that testing limits curriculum (specifically writing) in this post on Writers Who Care.  There are other examples that I could share, but the “Results Count” post shared above makes the argument for me.  “What gets measured, gets done.”  Yes, and what gets tested, gets taught.

Though this might seem like a strength of tests, in actuality, high stakes exams measure very little of what we want children to learn.  For example, this report from the Carnegie corporation explains that most standardized assessments of reading focus on comprehension strategies for identifying main idea and making inferences, but not on critical analysis or synthesis. It would not be possible to test children on all of the knowledge and skills that they learn - they would spend more time in testing than they do in learning.  As of now in NJ, ELA and math are privileged.  Science and social studies may gain status.  But how about all of the other areas?  And if tests only measure part of what we want kids to be able to know and do within a discipline, like the reading tests do, are they a true assessment of learning? What gets tested, gets taught.

Teachers and schools are evaluated based on scores that are one snapshot of my child.
The authors of the Carnegie report cited above state that though the tests may be able to tell educators “who struggles with reading, they cannot provide insight into why these students struggle” (p. 2).  Thus, these tests have little place in the assessment-instruction cycle that I mention above.  If teachers do not get data that helps them to alter instruction for a student, how can they be held accountable for that student’s performance on a future test?

I have been bothered for a decade by classifications of schools as “failing” because they do not hit benchmarks, including test scores, that do not take the school’s context into account.  We punish children and families when we punish schools, and a better approach would be to invest in professional development - real PD that extends over time and provides teachers with support - rather than sanctioning schools and requiring inhuman feats to achieve excellence without appropriate time and resources.  

I am also incredibly bothered by the path NJ has taken to link test scores to teacher evaluations.  The explanation of the state’s Teacher Evaluation can be found here.  Be warned.  This is complicated stuff. As far as I understand, teachers in tested subjects (English and math, grades 4 - 8) will have 30% of their evaluation tied to test scores, or the Student Growth Percentiles.  These SGP data are “a measure of how much a student improves his or her NJ ASK score from the previous year as compared to academic peers across the state.”  Though I don’t know what this means in terms of the actual calculations, there are several concerns here: (1) only a subset of teachers are held accountable, (2) teachers are held accountable in comparison to scores of others, and (3) nearly a third of the evaluation is based on the difference between two single snapshots of student performance, snapshots that measure a limited amount of what is actually taught or what really matters.

In some ways this system is a better one than assigning a teacher a score based on students she has never taught (as is done in Florida).  However, I can only speculate on the effects this system will have on teaching and learning over time.  Principals are also held accountable for these scores.  So in effect, entire buildings may succumb to a focus on the test, resentment, and self-preservation - rather than engaging in a rich culture of collaboration and community where children can grow and thrive.

Testing takes time.
In his state of the state address, Governor Christie called for an extended school year/day in order to make NJ students more competitive.  Proponents of this approach cite research that suggests that more instructional time leads to more learning.  While this would be a debate for another conversation, it is important to understand that testing, divorced from assessment-instruction cycle as it currently is, does not equal instructional time.  In fact, it takes away from it.  It takes away on the test days themselves, and it takes away from the stuff of real learning in the classroom when schools  and teachers adjust their curricula to focus on tested items.   As the “Results Count” article suggests, “Even if you measure the cow every hour it will not change anything that will change the end result – her weight gain. In fact, if you have her trotting on and off the scale hourly, her weight is likely to go down. To fatten the cow, someone must become the change agent developing insights on those behaviors and variables that cause cows to gain weight.” If we spend too much time testing kids, we cannot become change agents to affect their development as learners.

So what to do?
My colleagues at Writers Who Care have collected resources for Opting Out, a growing movement of parents, like me, who want to take a stand against testing.  I am not convinced that opting out is enough, and, in fact, the decision to opt out is complicated, as this mom from Colorado explains.  Given the way teachers and schools are evaluated, I may, as an individual, do harm to my children’s teachers if I opt out.   And what effect will one parent’s decision have on the larger issue?  Can my decision to opt out really make a change?  There are other issues with opting out in NJ, namely the fact that schools are not permitted to offer alternate activities for children who opt out.

I strongly believe a change needs to be made - and that parents need to lead this cause from outside the classroom.  We need to take back our children’s education by speaking up for them and speaking out against testing that brings high stakes to children, their teachers, and their schools.  We, as a society, need to value educators as professionals.  This requires more than opting out.  It requires changes in policies at both the state and federal levels. The Network for Public Education is tackling the issue by calling on Congress to hold hearings on abusive testing practices.  I encourage NJ parents to join conversations that are occurring throughout the state so that we can make a change that will benefit our children.