Monthly Archives: April 2013

On Being “College Ready”

My son has taken his parents for quite a “ride” over the last few months as he waited and waited to make a decision about which of the three colleges where he was accepted he would attend. As May 1 seemed to be looming, his father and I kept at him about that deadline and the need to make ANY decision!

He finally told us his decision, which I suspect has been his decision for a very long, but a little part of him just enjoyed watching his parents squirm. Last week, upon my insistence, he and his father went directly the admissions office of his chosen college to hand in the deposit and sign the financial aid paperwork.

When he arrived, he was met with the typical “You’ve made a great choice!” that any admissions counselor will give a kid who has decided to attend their college. But, here’s where it gets interesting………

He was remembered by the admissions counselor for his ESSAY! Yes, the essay that he wrote as part of his application, which was on the “topic of his choice” – not for his SAT or ACT scores, or even his high school transcript, and most definitely NOT for his ELA and MATH test scores in grades 3-8!!

Interestingly, this is the same child who had to be cajoled into attending a “Scholarship Invitational” at this college. He finally went, but only AFTER someone called him and told him it consisted of a 20 minute oral interview. (and being lured in by some free tickets to a sporting event) From what I can gather, the interview was conducted by 4 people, each asking him “some question” (his words, not mine). At the end, he was told that he could ask THEM a question. His question was “So, tell me, how has being part of this college community changed YOU?”  One of the panel replied “What a great question! I don’t think anyone has asked me that before.”

A few weeks later, an envelope arrived. Inside was a letter stating “You have been awarded an additional scholarship of $3000/year based on your interview.” Let me repeat : BASED ON YOUR INTERVIEW!

I tell this story not because I want a forum to sing the praises of my own child (obviously since my name isn’t on this) but because I want to point out that the line we are being fed as parents and as teachers that somehow NYS TESTING ‘proves’ college readiness is  LIE! NO ONE has ever asked to see his test scores from those tests. NO ONE cares if he was a 2, a 3 or a 4 when he was 10 years old. Yes, he submitted SAT and ACT scores and his HS transcript (which at the time was only HALF of his last year in high school), and yes those things factored into his admission, but remember – he was REMEMBERED for his writing and his speaking – both of which were his CHOICE!

As a parent, I have concerns about college readiness, but honestly none of them have to do with TESTS. I wonder about students’ ability to manage time and tasks when school is structured most often in a way where those are managed for them. I wonder about students’ ability to balance fun and work when most of the time constraints that schools put on them are taken away. I wonder about students’ ability to collaborate when school has become a test prep factory and everything is about competing NOT cooperating. I wonder about students’ ability to ‘think on their feet’ and make decisions after having spent 13 years in school where they were told what to learn and when to learn it.

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For What It’s Worth

Well, the battle lines have been drawn.

NYSED, NYSSBA, Commissioner King, and Governor Cuomo have publicly and loudly said “There is NO OPTING OUT of State Tests in NY.” Additionally, there is now a movement afoot in NY in which students will have to verbally refuse the test themselves (no note from a parent will do) and sit there for the duration doing NOTHING.

Of course, one could keep their child home on all 12 testing days – but there are also those making threats that CPS could be called for “Educational Neglect” if a child has too many illegal absences.

There has even been some encouragement from attorneys for NYSSBA to examine student handbooks. I don’t know about the rest of you, dear readers, but I take that as encouragement for districts to add some sort of ‘punishment’ if a student refuses to take a State Test.

Parents, too, have drawn a line. They say their children will indeed refuse the tests! These brave parents are out there in the news almost daily now. They have done their homework. They have read the regulations. They have spent hours on the phone with NYSED. They have met with their Principals and Superintendents.

And, despite what some critics of this rapidly growing refusal movement would have you believe – these parents are in no way “using” their children as pawns in some sort of game. They have spoken to their children. They have explained to them what civil disobedience is and what it means to refuse the test. They have talked to their children to find out what their children think and feel. They have, in fact, gone to great lengths to explain to their children that this is not an action against their teachers or their schools – this is an action against NYSED and NYS.

I hope that we don’t get to a point where there have to be “men with guns over there”. I hope earnestly that cooler heads will prevail and that real conversations about authentic assessment for children AND teachers will happen. I hope that local schools will once again have control. I hope that we, collectively, as a society will decide once and for all that our children should be RESPECTED and not treated as guinea pigs in some grand “Reform Experiment”.

Testing days begin next week in NYS, and for what it’s worth there will be thousands of children refusing the tests! You know, just some young people speaking their minds.

An Antique Teacher Goes to Washington

The day dawned bright, cold and breezy in Washington DC on April 4. I layered up the clothing and headed downtown to the Dept. of Education. The crowd gathered there was much like the crowd I saw last year, but this year there were hugs and moments of “aha – a face to go with a name!” as activists from all over the country met in person for the first time.

As the time approached for the first “mic check” of Occupy 2.0, I was asked if I could talk. I summoned all the courage I had and took the mic. I honestly don’t remember every word I said, but I told the story of the WNYers for Public Education forum held in March. I told them that 6 people with a vision and a dream put together something that we weren’t sure would be well-attended or well-received. We took a chance and boy, were we ever SURPRISED! In the past month, Buffalo News outlets (both television and print) have exploded with news about “opting out”.

We hit a snag, though, because in NY, there is no “OPT OUT” provision in the law. As parents, we can opt out of vaccines, sex education, field trips, and even sports – but we cannot OPT OUR CHILDREN OUT of HIGH STAKES TESTS! So, the new word on the street is REFUSE! 

Apparently, this idea of a child refusing to take a high stakes test, has gotten the attention of the many “powers that be”. Superintendents have gone on TV to say “It’s part of life, get used to it.”

Just TODAY – the NYS Association of School Attorneys  released this document as ‘advice’ to school boards in regard to students refusing the test.

When I read it, I was FURIOUS – the veiled threat to check “attendance policy” resemble the outright threats that I’ve heard about from schools saying that refusing the High Stakes Tests could be considered “educational neglect”. My least favorite is the one to “check your student handbook” – clearly an encouragement to create some sort of PUNISHMENT for those children who refuse.

Then, I took a deep breath and remembered something : If they are pushing back this hard, it must be because they have HEARD US! They even reference Occupy in the memo!  This is actually GOOD NEWS! You see, the harder they push, the harder NYer’s will push back! Parents in NY are not going to be bullied – while in school the “Dignity for All” act teaches children that bullying is not acceptable! Parents will not allow their children to be held hostage all in the name of rating teachers, students, and schools based on high stakes tests DATA! These parents will show up at school with TV cameras and lawyers if needed, because, you see, the US SUPREME COURT has consistently held parental rights above the rights of the STATE. 

There are those that criticize me and other supporters of REFUSALS because they feel that children are being used as pawns or that children don’t really understand the idea of refusal. I’m sorry, but that is utter and complete BS! Students became pawns in this game long before their parents even knew what was happening. These students certainly understand that their days are full of “test prep” and that school isn’t really much FUN any more!

Further, I would argue that long before children can make thoughtful decisions, their parents make decisions for them: should they be vaccinated? should they eat fruits or vegetables? should they have a set bed time? Parents are “GUARDIANS” – they GUARD their children from danger! Parents who have decided to GUARD their children from High Stakes Tests should  have the right to do so. PERIOD.

Step into my WAYBACK Machine

Okay, I’m dating myself here a bit, but I used to really, really LOVE my Saturday cartoons and one of my absolute favorite times was when Mr. Peabody and Sherman would step into the Wayback Machine! For a few minutes, I would be transported back to an “important” event in history and get to see what happened, or what the writers wished we could know! I learned a lot from those trips in the Wayback Machine. For example, did you know that Ponce De Leon actually found the Fountain of Youth and ending up founding a Nursery School for all the men who were so thirsty that they drank from it?
Of course, that seems silly, but in my mind as a child – it seemed plausible. It led me to want to know MORE about Ponce De Leon and this magical fountain. When the topic came up in my studies, it led to my ability to draw from past experiences and ask questions.

I would like to take you on a trip in MY PERSONAL Wayback Machine as a first grade teacher. Sadly, we aren’t going back to 1513, but only to 2011. That was the year that I had this year’s current third graders in class.

In 2011, if I had a concern about a student and felt that the student needed extra services, I contacted the parent. We met, we talked about the child’s progress. I then went to the Reading Teacher and arranged for some extra help for the student. There was no RTI process, which by the way EXCLUDES parents. There were no monthly meetings where we tried some sort of “research based” intervention while waiting to get help for the child. Within a week, with parental consent, the student was receiving help!

2011 was also the year in which I attended training about Project Based Learning. I decided that the perfect “project” for my students would be to produce and present Fairy Tale Plays. We spent many school hours reading Fairy Tales, talking about the elements of Fairy Tales, and then moved on to talking about what made a play “good” or enjoyable.

My students created scenery, memorized lines, made costume decisions as a group, rehearsed, learned to wear a lapel mic, learned about blocking on the stage, gathered props, and got ready to put on our show!

During the show, LIttle Red Riding Hood was so into character that when the wolf arrived at Grandma’s house, she wandered off the stage to pick imaginary flowers. Her parents were panicked- had she lost her nerve? Later she told them, “I was just doing what Little Red Riding Hood would have been doing.” That student still asks me “Remember when I walked off the stage, and my mom thought I got scared?”

I had the great opportunity to see my students work together! I got to see the delight and a few tears  in parents’ eyes when they watched their “shy” child stand in front of everyone to deliver lines.

I’m not saying that it was a perfect time, but it was a child-centered time. Now, my days are filled with Progress Monitoring, analyzing STAR Test data, meeting with my PLC to discuss implementing the CCSS, assessing sight words, giving timed tests to make sure they all know their addition and subtraction facts, and in general keeping my head above water.

We are so busy testing and monitoring progress that we aren’t letting KIDS be KIDS! I have to “fudge” my daily attendance reporting in order for my students to have FREE PLAY every day. I am expected to have them all reading at the exact same level at the exact same time – there is no time for Little Red Riding Hood to wander around picking flowers.