Testing Season and Why Everyone Should Opt Out

Testing season at my elementary school begins after February break and ends with the conclusion of the state math tests in mid-April. Like many schools, our students are subject to test prep “units” at this time of year that include practice tests, stamina building exercises and test taking skill “explorations.” It is the worst time of year for teachers, students and families, yet at my school, inexplicably, no one is speaking out and no one is opting out.

So to parents out there, here’s what really happens in testing season…

  1. No one teaches science or social studies for 3 months. The number of teachers who have told me ” Oh I’m only doing read alouds for science because of test prep” or “we’ll do that activity after testing” is disturbingly high. This time of year, its all about those 3 Rs. This is a reality across the board- whether schools do a test prep “unit” or do test prep all year- science and social studies always get cut. 30 years from now when we are faced with the next global warming like debate, we can thank high stakes testing for our ignorance.
  2. Reading, writing and math become exclusively pencil and paper tasks and last all day. Reading, writing and math can and should be engaging and meaningful, but in test prep season kids often don’t get to choose what they read or write about, and are fed poorly written passage after passage. Kids should be reading books! Not passages followed by short responses and multiple choice questions. Besides, what’s the point of writing if you’re not allowed to write about anything interesting? ( like STORIES! Remember when kids used to write stories?)
  3. No trips, no fun,  no emotional support. There is so much pressure on teachers to get high scores- so not only is the academic curriculum narrowed to ELA and math, but many teachers sacrifice all the things that keep kids motivated and foster social skills- like trips, games and opportunities for play. At my school we’re not allowed to go on trips with 3rd-5th graders for all of testing season. We all know that what children need to learn is uninterrupted practice with reading packets and multiple choice questions… Oh wait, is that it?
  4. Even students who have disabilities, or are English language learners have to test prep. Even if they can’t read. At all. They have to “practice”  too. I had a student cry for over 30 minutes the other day because his classroom teacher was going to make him finish his ELA packet. He is a smart and vivacious kid who is normally super excited to come to my class and always had great ideas. But he cried for the whole period. The whole period.
  5. The homework gets insane. Like packets on top of packets. Plus many schools have Saturday classes for extra test prep! Because every day and night is not enough!
  6. Everyone is grumpy.  This might not seem important, but you try teaching 30 grumpy, jittery, stressed out kids or leading a staff meeting with angry, sleep deprived teachers. Let me know how that goes.
  7. Finally, it trickles down. All this testing frenzy does absolutely trickle down to the younger grades. Especially in testing season. It is around this time of year that the administration “suggests” incorporating testing language and skills for kids as young as pre-k and we are told to plan ways for first graders to be more “test ready.”

I recently had a conversation with a parent about the impending state tests. This is a parent who has told me that she is thinking about withdrawing both her children from our school and sending them to a progressive private school because, as she put it,  “they’re bored.”

She said that she wasn’t planning on opting out her children because they hadn’t expressed any specific anxieties about taking the tests. Then she told me that they don’t like school anymore and that is why she is thinking about transferring to a private school.

Parents out there- if your child is bored at this time of year, it is because of testing. If your child is especially frustrated and emotional at this time of year, it is because of testing. If your child has suddenly stopped going on trips or learning anything in science and social studies, it is because of testing. If your child is coming home with boatloads of homework that make no sense to you, it is because of testing. If your child hates school and finds it all too hard and confusing, that’s probably in some part because of testing too. If any of this sounds all too familiar- you should OPT YOUR KID OUT.

Send a message that a narrowed, autocratic, undifferentiated, and developmentally inappropriate curriculum is not OK for any child!

There are some lucky schools out there where the administration eschews test prep and almost all the students opt out. And you know what they do at those schools?  They teach. And learn. Real stuff. Projects. Science. Social Studies. Critical thinking. Art.

All children deserve real learning. All children deserve differentiated teaching that meets their needs, not the agendas of corporate reformers. All children deserve to be engaged, respected and inspired at school.  Even during testing season. OPT OUT.

 

 

 

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The Myth of College Readiness

Just because children have to do something when they grow up does not mean it is appropriate for elementary school students. 6 year olds are not college students. Not yet.

I am so tired of “college readiness” being used to justify innumerable teaching mandates that are not developmentally appropriate. For instance- the common core shift to non-fiction in writing and reading, or there was that time my principal told us to use testing language with first graders, and then of course, the pages of homework being sent home starting in kindergarten. I don’t care what they have to do in college- 5 and 6 year olds should be writing stories, not essays, using language that makes sense for them and playing, not filling out worksheets after school.

You know what else college students should probably be prepared for? Sex. But no one has mandated that teachers introduce kindergarteners to details of STD prevention. Because it is not appropriate! They are not ready!

One teacher at my school recently told me that she thought taking tests in 3rd grade was important practice for the SATs. Wait. A. Second. So we need to be preparing kids for the SATs almost 10 years before they take them? Taking a 3 hour test might be developmentally appropriate for 17 year olds. But make no mistake, no matter what anyone tells you, any seated task that lasts more than 40 minutes is not developmentally appropriate for a typical 8 year old.

If we really want our elementary school kids to be “college ready”, we can…

a. Make college affordable so they actually have the option of going.

b. Offer them rich, sensory, creative and meaningful learning experiences so that they love school and develop some of the non-academic skills that actually matter in college – self motivation and self control, executive functioning and organization, independence and the ability to problem solve and communicate.

c. Meet kids’ needs in the here and now. Stop worrying about what they need to do when they are 18. You know what they need to do right now? Eat breakfast every day. Button their coats. Make friends. Solve problems. Feel emotionally and physically safe. Read books they love. Write stories. Do experiments. Play outside. Dig in the dirt.

Imagine if doctors started telling parents that their babies should practice walking immediately upon emergence from the womb. We have to prepare them now for the walking they’ll do later in life, they might say. Make sure you stand them up on 2 feet right after they are born so that they get a head start. And then just let go, they’ll be just fine.

That is what we’re doing to our children in far too many schools, all for the sake of college readiness. Enough.

 

Remember Class Size?

School districts don’t want small classes because that means more teachers, more space, and of course, more money.  Funding in public schools in in short supply these days between sky high consultant fees, expensive test prep programs and deliberate underfunding by state officials, so class size has slipped out of the conversation.

Moreover, for  top down reformer zealots, large class sizes are a-ok because they fit right in with military style, teacher centered classrooms in which students passively recite, chant and fill out the latest quiz.

Small classes, on the other hand, allow teachers to foster independence, freedom, community, and trust- all hallmarks of progressive education. In this way, class size has the power to shape the way we teach and the culture of our classrooms.

We educators know that authentic, meaningful teaching and learning happens in small communities of learners that know each other very well, in communities in which every child can feel heard, in which students can explore and experiment, and in which children can make decisions for themselves.

I see the difference class size can make every day. Last year, the first grade  classes at my school had between 18-22 students. We had a fabulous year. We were able to get messy and do amazing things. We built towers out of recycled materials,  we mixed liquids and made slime, we created animal puppets, we planted seeds in the school garden and designed roller coaster tracks for marbles.

This year, I am teaching many of the same students and I want everything we do to be as fun, hands-on and child friendly. The thing is, this year, the second grade classes all have between 27 and 30 students.  The difference is palpable. What felt calm now feels chaotic, and what felt manageable now feels utterly exhausting. Just getting through a greeting or transition takes an extraordinary amount of strategic management.

And the kids are suffering. Students who made tremendous progress last year are now falling behind, because in a class of 30, teachers don’t get to work with every student daily, or even weekly. Similarly, students with learning disabilities who were able to shine and fully participate last year are now struggling because there are so many more distractions around them. Because of these larger classes, many teachers  are trying autocratic management strategies like class dojo or forgoing hands on activities. I also know that some teachers are reluctant to go on trips because their classes are so big.

What’s more, 30 students puts quite a bit of pressure on space and materials.  30 little bodies doing hands-on exploration or experiments is very different than 20. For 30 kids to be able to all work together and do meaningful, multi-sensory, student driven work, you need children with exceptional self control, lots of space, extra funding for materials, and lots and lots of clean up time.

With 6 and 7 year olds, exceptional self control is hard to come by. Which is why I’m coming to the conclusion that large class sizes in early childhood are simply not developmentally appropriate. It is just too much. Too much distraction, too many bodies, too many materials, too many needs, and too many voices that don’t get heard. There is a reason class sizes in private schools are almost always no more than 20.

I know I’ll make it work this year with a combination of patience, station teaching, donors choose and lots of practice, and so will the fantastic teachers I work with each day.  But in the meantime, some of these kids are missing out and no amount of fancy new curricula,  consultant visits or new mandates from on high are going to help them. What they need is teachers- empowered, creative and nurturing teachers with enough time and resources to help every child thrive.

 

 

 

 

Why do teachers give students numbers?

“I don’t understand why so many of you cannot remember your student number.”

I heard this in a 3rd grade classroom last week in school. More and more teachers I know are assigning students individual numbers. I don’t understand it. Is this a charter school thing? If someone out there can explain the advantages of referring to students by number rather than name to me, please do. Especially considering that giving students numbers seems oddly mechanical and is certainly dehumanizing.

I even know kindergarten teachers who call students to line up or come into the room by number. Of course the 5 year olds sometimes forget to respond to their numbers, which leads to disapproving  chastisements from their teachers. Personally, I think getting mad at a 5 year old for forgetting to respond to a number is not only inappropriate, but also, a waste of energy.

Imagine if you went to work every day and your supervisors referred to you by number.” Number 14, 15, and 16 come to my office.” I know I would never choose to work in an environment like that.

Even if it helps teachers stay slightly more organized, what is numbering teaching students about how to treat others and how we view them as individuals? Is it so hard to label your files and checklists by name each year? It’s the kids we should be worried about, each and every one with their own unique names and needs, not  how easy it is to keep track of our spreadsheets and student data.

Report Cards Should be About Kids Not Data

Did you know that for the New York City report cards you can enter a comment code in lieu of an actual personalized comment?

These codes are aligned to the comment core and produce comments like the following:

“Struggles to meet deadlines”

“Low scores on assessments”

“Requires academic assistance”

“Demonstrates satisfactory skill in analyzing, interpreting and evaluating master works and own works of art”

“Far below standards in following a standard format for citations”

These are options for a first grade report card. If my first grader was sent home with comments like this I would storm the school. While comment codes may be good for aggregating data, they are not necessarily good for children. Some of these comments are so clearly impersonal and inappropriate that they either fail to communicate anything useful or they serve only make children feel bad for not meeting expectations that are unreasonable to begin with.

Teaching is a human act. It is a process of forming and building learning relationships. At no point should selecting from a drop down menu be part of how we communicate with students and families. Especially with choices like these. We are not robots.

Class Dojo and Other Ways We’re Preparing our Children to Live in a Surveillance State

I hate class dojo. I hate it and all the other apps, and monitoring systems, and zero tolerance policies and discipline ladders- they all make me queasy.

For the uninitiated, Class Dojo is an app that teachers can use to monitor student behavior through a point and demerit system. Parents get notified daily with how many points students earned throughout the day and for what. And yes, many teachers were doing this same thing before the app, and I too have concocted incentives and point earning systems out of desperation. But I knew then and certainly know now that that was not good teaching. And now Class Dojo is rampant and it all makes me deeply uncomfortable.

Why?

Well first off, we’re quantifying behaviors and habits of mind that really can’t be quantified- yet another way we’re turning our children into data that is often meaningless but can still follow them forever.  And of course, there are many privacy issues when data about a young child is tracked by a large tech company and made public to an entire class, often without parental consent.

Second, fear should not be a daily teaching strategy, neither should complete surveillance and disempowerment. Children will not learn to be good, thoughtful, creative and critical people by getting negative points when they talk out of turn or fidget in their chairs. Instead of empowering children to make choices, instead of creating community and building trust, all of these apps and systems shift the emphasis away from the children toward teacher centered control, as if control= learning.

Although organization, clear expectations, and routines are a part of learning, controlling children is not the same as teaching them. So many of us, especially Reformers, buy in to the myth that the quietest classroom is the best- even though deep down we know and research has shown that that is FALSE. Rather, real learning is noisy, messy,playful, circuitous, involves mistakes and is highly social. Keeping kids quiet and sitting still does not equal good teaching, nor does it actually give students practice with authentic self control and compassion- which are the real end goals of behavior management.

Being scared into silence does not breed empathy, nor does constant monitoring from above. When these kids graduate from high school, is there going to be someone to monitor their every choice? Who will give and take away their points? Who is taking away points after school? We need students to be self aware, to self monitor their actions, to be reflective, to understand that they have a role in a community which comes with certain considerations and responsibilities- that they have a responsibility to themselves. We want them to be engaged, to love learning, and to be motivated to learn from something deeper than a desire to hear an app ping.  Control via app is not engagement and it is not learning.

What’s more, the worst thing about class dojo is that it is often public- students are getting points removed or earned in front of a whole class. All that teaches is shame and resentment, two feelings already enjoying a renaissance in public schools thanks to the culture of education reform and high stakes testing.

It makes me queasy every time I hear another teacher tell me they are trying class dojo, because it “works.” If by “works”, you mean that your students are quiet, maybe it does. But are they engaged? Are they empowered? And most important, what exactly are they learning? If children learn by doing, all they learn from Class Dojo is fear and obedience, two qualities valued by the powerful and useless to everyone else.

And that is why, I will never, ever, ever use class Dojo.

…. the NY Times seems to agree with me Class Dojo Times,

and Alfie Kohn : “This is just a flashy digital update of programs that have long been used to treat children like pets, bribing or threatening them into compliance,”

Homework: To Give or Not to Give?

Research has shown that homework has no academic benefit for elementary school students, plus parents and kids hate it. So why are our kids saddled with up to an hour a night starting as early as kindergarten?

This is just another example of knowing how children actually learn but ignoring what we know. On the very first day of school last week, students at my school were sent home with pages of math drills.  Some argue this teaches responsibility, and yes remembering to bring something back to school in the morning does require a degree of executive functioning skill. But aren’t there better, more meaningful ways to teach responsibility?

Learning should continue at home, but as reading, drawing, playing, building, exploring outside and talking. Instead of homework, let’s provide high quality after school programs and send every kid home with a lego set, books and a big box of crayons every September. For once, let’s listen to the research and do what we know is right for kids.  Let’s give less homework this year.

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-10-24/study-finds-homework-has-limited-value/4330514

http://www.alfiekohn.org/article/rethinking-homework/

Summer Reflections or How Education Reform Messes with One’s Head

In took a month for me to realize my that my greatest success last year was letting kids play. But at the time, it was my greatest source of doubt. This is a product of the current culture in eduction: our priorities are so skewed, so perverted by the false necessity of ‘rigor’ and the corporate ed agenda, that we forget what real learning is.

Exploring ecosystems, pretending to be squirrels digging for acorns, working together to build trees from recycled materials, observing hissing cockroaches, making birdfeeders, singing – kids made the decision about what to do and when to do it. What number could I assign to the experience they were having at that moment? None. But I do know, at least now, that they were making an emotional connection to science. They were making discoveries. They were having fun. And they were learning. But there I was, nervous I would get caught.

It started in desperation. Having never taught kindergarten before, I needed to figure a way to keep them engaged for a whole science period ASAP.  So, I introduced new  stations each week and let the kids choose their science activity. All the activities were hands on and revolved around a theme depending on what we were studying. The idea was for the activity to be self directed and continuous, not something quick that the kiddos would finish in 2 minutes and then run up to me with cries of “I’m done, I’m done!”They could try something new, or they could return to a station they had already visited. Most students got to try every activity, but some did not, because they weren’t ready for some of the more sophisticated or stimulating stations or because they loved one center so much that they wanted to return again and again. Although this was working in the sense that the kids were highly engaged and always excited to explore, a part of me felt like this approach stemmed from a failure on my part- I couldn’t “control” the class in the same way that other teachers could in order to teach with a more traditional approach. The children weren’t writing  every day, they didn’t have folders, our time on the rug was brief, usually consisting of a song or movement activity and modeling a new activity.

After an observation by my principal, I was told that  the activities were great, but she suggested that maybe the kids could bring a worksheet to each station to record what they did. So in an effort to “get ready for first grade” I introduced folders and the kids started doing some writing and drawing. It was fine, but it is only now in the depths of summer that I realize how foolish the whole “get ready” mentality is, and that I didn’t need those worksheets- that I was doing exactly what I believed in and exactly what is appropriate for 4 and 5 year olds. Choice based, hands on, multi-sensory, play based activities should be part of kindergarten every day. I was scared to get “in trouble” and worried that they weren’t learning what “they were supposed to” but they learned so much more that that. In fact, I was astounded by how much they remembered at the end of the year, how almost all the students knew the parts and life cycle of an insect, could recognize different types of trees, how they talked about centers from months before- “remember when had the water center?” They may not have each had exactly the same measurable experience, but they were all thrilled to explore science and had acquired a wealth of knowledge about living things.

And they were learning more than just science content. As I modeled each new center, I had opportunities to model sharing, problem solving, communicating and helping others. Because not every student did the same thing every day, students always had the option to collaborate or work independently. And because so many of the activities were play based, most of the times the children worked and explored together. And it paid off.  After my second observation, my principal also commented on the tone in the room- she said that she saw the same class in another setting and in my room they were calmer and kinder to one another. And I was so worried about what I thought I was doing wrong, that her compliment barely registered. Meanwhile, the kids were happy and they were practicing valuable social skills instead of being pushed to “get ready” for academics that they were not, in fact, ready for.

Going into this year, my goal is to bring this approach into all my classes. I remember yelling at a 3rd grade class last March and feeling like I was being tough, just like the other teachers. I used to never yell, but there was so much tension around me that I lost my bearings and thought I was doing right by shouting at kids who were not engaged simply because they were exhausted, alienated in their own classrooms and because I had absorbed the false idol of “rigor” and planned something boring and too hard.  Now, after the summer to reflect, I realize I need to bring a little more of what I did with kindergarten into every class- more choice, more hands on, more play, more collaboration. They are, after all, all children. And all children need learning to meaningful, developmentally appropriate, fun and empowering.  I hope I can carry this conviction with me into the new year, in spite of everything.

No trips until after testing?

That is what I was told by a teacher earlier this year when I offered to book some trips for her. No field trips until after testing. For those of you who grew up thinking field trips were just for fun, they’re not, though they may be fun incidentally. Field trips are one of the most meaningful forms of learning when properly embedded in curriculum. They are the bridge between school and the world, between concept and reality, plus kids  love them and remember them for decades after the fact. If this is what testing is doing to teachers, then it needs to stop.

What is more important- a test score, or meaningful learning? With the pressure put on teachers and the inclusion of test scores in teacher ratings, it is getting harder and harder for teachers to prioritize real learning over test prep.  As always, the burden falls unfairly on low-income schools. Since income is tied to test scores, guess which kids aren’t going on trips this year?

Focusing all of our energy on reading, writing and ‘rithmetic does not appeal to diverse learning styles, it does not engage or empower children to be agents of change, nor does it actually prepare kids to do much other than solve word problems and read convoluted non-fiction passages.

Please take your kids on trips. And not just for fun when testing is over. Take them on trips because that is how we learn, by doing and experiencing and exploring the real world around us.

Trickle Down Test Prep and the Cultural Brutality of Ed Reform

High stakes testing and standardization is a cultural shift, not just a change in curriculum or teaching practices.  It pervades every aspect of school whether you are in a testing grade or in pre-k. Elementary school testing season has come to a close and for many parents and educators in NYC it is clear that high stakes testing causes undue trauma to our 3rd and 4th graders, that the tests are developmentally inappropriate and often obtuse, and that teacher and school evaluations should not be tied to test scores which consistently correlate to income in district after district. What people don’t realize is the effect that the culture of high stakes testing is having on early childhood- all the way down to pre-k.

This week, news broke of a kindergarten music performance that was canceled because as the principal wrote in her letter to families, “We are responsible for preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills and know that we can best do that by having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers and problem solvers.” There are so many things wrong with this scenario. This administrator not only lacks understanding of child development and the value of music, joy and community in building school culture, but also narrowly defines so called “lifelong skills” as testable ones. To think that  academic experiences like reading and writing are the only skills needed for college and career is foolish and a source of countless failures in our school systems. Study after study has shown that test scores do not predict success in life, rather, social emotional skills like resiliency, the ability to collaborate, creativity and self control are what actually predict success. Furthermore, to think that a music performance with the collaboration, practice, goal setting, confidence and community building it entails does not help build lifelong skills, is equally thoughtless. And of course, there is the fact that they are just kindergarteners- they are five, and the way five year olds learn is through play, through their senses and through art and music. It may sound crazy, but this kind of narrow focus on academic skills in early childhood is being pushed throughout public and charter schools. As the ethos and mythology of testing trickles down into the early years, and the pressure on test scores is so great it is not only changing what we teach but also, how we teach, ed reformers are fundamentally altering the culture of our schools.

As a second grade teacher, the culture around high stakes testing poses daily obstacles. After the ELA test this year, suddenly we were told to make sure our students could write in paragraphs and write full persuasive essays, never mind if that isn’t appropriate for second graders, even if it is expected of third graders a year later. One second grade teacher at my school received high praise at a staff meeting for sending home ELA test prep ( that’s for the third grade test) for second grade homework all year. Meanwhile, our Go Math curriculum, actually has questions labeled test prep with a star, and was chosen by the DOE to align with the third grade math test, no matter how obtuse or deliberately confusing that test may be. Having struggled against it for a year, I can safely say that Go Math is a weak curriculum. The student workbooks are visually overwhelming and rote, the teacher resources are overly complex and not truly differentiated, and there are a whopping three days of assessment for every unit. That’s 27 days a year where instead of teaching math, we’re testing. And of course, the curriculum was never tested or researched with actual children before it was implemented last year. It’s not just upper elementary school students who are subjected to test prep, its 2nd and 1st graders, and yes even kindergarteners.

Not only does our curriculum suffer due to the trickle down effects of testing, but our school culture, how the school feels, whether it is nurturing and empowering or punishing and cruel, suffers as well. During the math tests this past week I overheard an administrator shouting at a third grade boy in the hallway. This boy is learning disabled, an ELL and struggles with school. He often comes into my classroom to take a break from his own and you can see how alienated he feels when he sits sullenly in the corner. He is an unhappy kid who is forced to do things day in and day out that he is simply not capable of. She yelled, “NOW, ARE YOU READY TO GET IN THERE AND TAKE THIS TEST LIKE A GROWN UP?” Like a grown up. I doubt she realized what she was saying to this 9 year old, who looked defeated and hostile all at once. How is he going to make it through school when there is nothing of value to him in his school day, and he is expected to do things he can’t do to please the stressed out adult who happens to be berating him at a given moment. These kids are not grown ups. Kindergardeners are not grown ups. There is more to education than preparation, and true learning, the kind of learning that empowers and engages, happens slowly across years through layers of experiences that touch the heart and mind.

“Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” 
― John Dewey