Saturday, March 11, 2017

Should we put a new face on standardized testing?

As if we secondary teachers didn’t have enough standards to cover before our students take the spring standardized tests, this week I realized there is another skill many students are lacking.  And it’s one that could seriously impair their test-taking performance.

As one student put it so succinctly this week, “I never did learn how to read a regular clock.”

In a world where the time blinks at us constantly from our phones, computers, and business signs, why does this antiquated skill matter?

It matters because many classrooms are equipped with round-faced, industrial-looking clocks whose hands creep or sweep around the numerals ticking off the seconds, minutes, and hours.  

And because many students don’t wear watches.  

Oh, they can access the time on their devices… and they do… at almost any time, but over the past two years, I have seen students falter and mumble when I ask them to write the time on a pass before I sign it.  I have seen them pull out their phones when the clock is right above their heads on the wall.  I have seen them slink back to their desks to check the time on their laptops rather than admit that they cannot read the “regular clock.”

This week, I realized the disadvantage these students have when testing time arrives.  It falls into at least four distinct possibilities, three of which have to do with pacing. 

Many teachers would agree that for students to be successful in taking standardized tests, they need to be able to pace themselves.  Pacing advice for successful testing abounds on the Internet.  For example, College Board advises students taking the AP Chemistry test to examine each question for a maximum of 40 seconds and to complete 15 questions in 10 minutes on the multiple choice section.  For the Free-Response questions, successful students will spend 10 minutes on each of the shorter questions and allow themselves 16 minutes for the longer ones.

On timed writing exams, Skyline College advises testers to spend 10-15% of their time prewriting, 70-80% of their total time writing and 10-15% of their time proofreading.

But if a student cannot tell time from the only clock on the wall, an analog one, how can he or she possibly follow any of this testing advice?

Instead of planning time to complete each question, this student may experience of the following scenarios:

#1           The student rushes through the entire test, not carefully reading each question or writing a response, and finishes early because he doesn’t know when the time will expire.  

#2           The student takes her time, but runs out of time and does not finish all the questions because she doesn’t know how to budget her time with an analog clock.

#3           The student finishes, but he does not have time to proofread or check his work after completing the test.

#4           The student is so anxious about not knowing how much time she has that she cannot concentrate fully on the task at hand.  Her score does not reflect her knowledge.

Could this basic lagging skill be responsible for many students’ failure on high stakes tests?  I believe it is possible.

From that theory, I now am on a quest for ways to integrate clock reading into my freshman English curriculum.  I am wondering how analyzing certain works by time might even build my students’ analytical skills.

For example, in Romeo and Juliet, the action takes place over four days, as my student teacher likes to remind students.  How could we integrate a calendar and clock face in our analysis of the play as we track the events and theme development?  What conclusions might students draw about characterization and about how Shakespeare himself uses pacing as they build their own clock-reading skills?
Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour?”  This perennially confusing story about a woman’s  relief at being released from her marriage by her husband’s untimely death might be more accessible if students tracked her feelings by five or ten minute segments, which, of course, they would need to record on a clock face.

Ever the pragmatist, I know that when students don’t come to me with the skills I think they should already have, the only way they will gain those skills is if someone teaches them now.

So next year during testing time, I hope my students will not be the ones in a race against a clock they cannot read.  Instead, they will know that time is on their side.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Poetry Is an Acquired Taste

Poetry is an acquired taste, kind of like roses.

Often, we don’t appreciate certain things until we acquire a little maturity.  That is certainly true of me and poetry. When I was a kid, like brussel sprouts, poetry was foreign to me.  It had a suspicious odor about it, and I instinctively knew that I wanted no part of it.

This week, as I continue teaching a unit on poetry with my freshmen, I’ve been thinking about why I hated poetry so much as a kid.

I’ve narrowed it down to three reasons:

    1.  No one taught me about enjambment.
That’s the term used to define when a poetic thought runs from one line onto another before it ends.

I thought that when you read poetry, you had to stop at the end of each line.  After all, it often rhymed there, and that was the way the teachers frequently read it to us.  

No wonder I couldn’t make sense of what the poet was trying to say.

   It didn’t make sense to me. 
a.       See number one. 

b.     No one taught me about rhythm or scansion.  Knowing the concept that lines had specific numbers of syllables with specific stress patterns might have helped me understand why some words were used in place of others.  That knowledge would also have helped me smile, rather than scowl perplexedly at syntactical shifts.  Now, I like to imagine myself as a kid scoffing at a line, knowing its bewildering word order was simply created to form a spondee instead of an iamb.  I would have held the power, not the poem.

     3.     I didn’t read the footnotes. Were there even footnotes in our literature textbooks back then?  If I had, I might have understood how a teacher could infer so much about the true meaning of a poem, while I had no clue about the meaning of an archaic word or an allusion, much less the entire jumble of words called a poem. 

This week in class as we read more poetry and continue to write our own poems, you can bet we will be talking about enjambment, rhythm, and archaic words and allusions.  Maybe my students will come away being more appreciative of the beauty and inspiration poetry can offer than I was at fourteen.  Maybe they will even compose a little poetry for their dear ones this week in honor of Valentine’s Day.

As for me, I am still working on appreciating the roses.

How about you?  What's your adult take on poetry?

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Something Fresh

Teaching is a lonely profession. 

Especially when you are an English teacher. 

This weekend, I spent about nine hours grading essay questions from a poetry test.  Grading them well takes my full attention.  Oh, I can listen to some instrumental music while I grade, but I can’t have the distraction of a television program or music that might tempt me to sing along.  It wouldn’t be fair to students to have my mind wondering if Bigfoot is real or when Meghan Trainor will release a video for “Dance like Yo Daddy.” 

Teaching is lonely at school, too, because mostly we teachers close our doors and carry out our plans.  Once every few weeks an administrator might wander in and observe for a few minutes, but mostly, we are on our own with our students for 45, 55, or 85-minute chunks of time each day.  And we repeat this several times before we go home.  If we have a prep period, we often spend it in our empty classrooms planning, grading, and creating new materials for the next day, week or unit.

That’s why having a student teacher is such a blessing. 

A student teacher gives a seasoned teacher someone to talk to, someone to reflect with, and someone to plan with.  Having a student teacher reminds teachers of why they went into the profession years ago.

My student teacher and I talk about pedagogy every day.  We discuss our students’ needs, both individually and collectively, and how we can best meet them.  We discuss the time we have to address specific skills and topics, the range of abilities our students have, and how best to engage our students in those topics.

We kick around ideas and generate new approaches together. And something fresh always results.

Last week, my student teacher and I were looking for a new way to use vocabulary flashcards with
our students.  Here was our conundrum: We know our students benefit greatly from physically making their own flashcards with color- coded words, but it takes them two or three sessions to create them. How could we have students produce them more quickly to get more use from them?

As we chatted together, I had an inspiration about how to vary an approach we were already using.  We kicked it around, tested it, and plan to implement it this week.  I am eager to see what happens.

The point is that often it takes a little give and take to be inspired. That’s the benefit of having other colleagues to chat with, struggle with, and challenge us. 

If you aren’t lucky enough to have a student teacher, find other ways to seek out teachers to challenge you.  Write or follow a teacher’s blog, join a discussion on a professional forum, like NCTE, or come to an event like Indiana Writing Project’s Write Time.

Just find a group of teachers to kick around ideas.  You, your students, and your colleagues will be the happy beneficiaries.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The pages that bind

Ten times this past weekend I read it: “Moo moo buzz buzz pop pop pop!”  Even so, I’ll never get tired of reading Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You? by Dr. Seuss to our one-year-old granddaughter. There’s something about reading aloud and sharing words with other people that creates a mighty bond.

My Language Lab students know it.  We’ve been reading aloud a book called The Afterlife by Gary Soto.  They are captivated by this story about a teen who is randomly stabbed and killed in the first chapter and then narrates the entire story after his death.  In class, we never seem to have enough time to read it aloud. Even though these kids say they hate to read, our discussions are rich.  Everyone has an opinion.  We are bound together by this book.

I guess I have my family to thank for loving to read.  

Some of my best kid memories involve reading with others:  Sharing the latest Archie and Richie Rich comic books with my sister.  Inheriting a set of The Happy Hollisters when my older brothers were too old to care about the family of seven who solved mysteries On a River Trip and At Snowflake Camp. Listening to my mother read James Whitcomb Riley’s “The Bear Story” to us on a summer night, in a perfect old-time Hoosier dialect.

Even before I was an ELA teacher, I new I wanted to foster reading experiences for my own kids.  It started with Mr. Brown, but escalated as the kids developed their own interests.  In 1998, Great Aunt Connie started them on the first Harry Potter book, and we all were hooked.  Several times, we stayed up until midnight for a new release and shoved our way through the crowded Walmart to get at least two copies, so no one had to wait for more than one other reader to finish.  And then the debates began: Why couldn’t Voldemort be named?  Was Snape secretly a good guy?  Would Hermione and Harry end up together?

As they grew older, we read The Kite Runner and Outliers and The Know-It-All.  We read classical literature and self-help books and philosophy and humor.  We shared anything that we read that was provocative or amusing or quaint.

And so it still goes. Even though my kids are grown, we continue to share reading experiences. 

These days, I’m more likely to see a satiric piece from The Onion or a provocative essay from Slate pop up in my email than an actual book review, although that does happen occasionally.  But no matter what the genre, we still keep reading… and talking or texting… together.

Times change.  Our interests shift.  But it’s not too late to start sharing reading with your kids, no matter how old they are. 

Share a sports page, a funny comic strip, a daily devotional.  Share a news story, a home renovation blog, the latest best seller. Keep reading and talking or emailing or texting.  Reading together creates shared experiences that our busy lifestyles today often can’t.  Reading together creates lasting memories and irrevocable bonds.  Reading together keeps us together.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

One way or another, let's get organized!

As I debated about buying Valentine candy for my students last week at WalMart, I noticed something out of place.  It was a board that had sticky notes of different sizes and colors attached to it.  And they weren’t even pink with hearts or flowers on them.  How did they find their way into the Valentine’s Day section of the store?

My practical side pushed away such heady matters.  This was exactly what some of my students needed to help stay organized.  

When I saw that it cost only $3.97, I immediately snatched it up and began to examine it.   Then, as my mind tends to do, I began wondering.
Calendar, reminders, lists... this sticky note organizer has it all!

How could my students could produce their own sticky note portfolios?  What kinds of notes would they need most?  What sizes and packaging would be most helpful?  

There used to be a special glue available to make your own tablets.  Is that still being sold? How could we make the papers sticky? Would students enjoy designing their own sayings and organizational forms to suit their own needs?  Which students would really use the notes?

It was definitely a project worth pursuing .

In class, we have created digital sticky notes for their laptops, but some of my students aren’t as comfortable in a one-to-one electronic classroom.  A few of them frequently have issues with technology.  Their devices won’t boot up.  They lose connectivity at random times. They cannot access documents that are loaded.  They try to upload their work to the assigned drop, but it disappears.  Sometimes it’s their lack of knowledge, but often their trouble is inexplicable.  

Those students could use more physical tools for organization like the portfolio I found.
Trello example.PNG
Use Trello to set up boards and reminders you and your student can access.

For the others, there are many digital tools that will support being better organized.  Trello is an Internet-based program that allows users to create boards that have cards on them with notes users create.  It looks like a bulletin board with index cards.

Two of Trello’s best features are that it is shareable and free.  That means that parents and students can share an account and help each other keep track of their chores, school assignments, and projects.

Using a calendar or alarm on a cell phone is one of the best ways I have found to stay organized. Many successful adults use their phones in this way.  How about encouraging students to set an alarm to remind students to read twenty minutes each day?  Many of my students do not know how to use the calendars or alarms on their phones.  This would be a great time to learn together.
Google has it all.  Check out is many options.

One last way to stay organized is by using a shared Google Calendar or even a simple Google Doc.  If both student and parent create free Google accounts, they can share a calendar or document that includes activities for the week. Both people can access and edit it, so keeping each other accountable and supporting each other is easy.  

So whether it’s using an old fashioned calendar, a set of actual or digital sticky notes, or using an Internet program, keeping organized can be easy this semester.  Find the best way for your student to be organized ... and more successful.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

With a little help from … your kids

Okay, this display is still on my table.
It’s time to take down those holiday decorations!  

Newspapers suggest safety tips for removing greenery, merchants are hawking organizational tips (and their wares), and one blog even advises that we might have bad luck if we don’t promptly take down our Christmas trees.

This year was the first Christmas that I didn’t have a kid at home to help me bring down the tubs from the attic, unpack them, and purposefully place just the right piece in just the right place.  And no one was there to help me tear down the decor and stow it back in its plastic tubs.

Without another set of hands this year, I knew I had to be efficient. I had about sixty essays to mark before going back to school and was determined not to spend the whole break grading. With such motivation, I tore down the tree and its holiday pals in record time.

How do holiday decorations connect to English/Language Arts?

Last semester, my high school freshmen wrote an essay that evaluated their own progress in a variety of ELA skills. One of the first questions my students asked was the inevitable “How long does it have to be?”

To impress upon them the gravity of this assignment that would count as their final exam, I deviated from my usual “long-enough-to-get-the-job-done-right” response.  Instead, I told them it would likely be five to six pages, double spaced.

They all gasped.  A few were on the edge of a total freak out.  Even though I told them that we would be writing it in chunks in class, some students just shut down at the news.  They weren’t capable of hearing the details of my plan.

As I put away my Christmas decorations this year, I wondered if my students who had freaked out had helped decorate their homes for the holidays. Or tackled any big project with an adult who helped them break it down into smaller parts.

If they had, perhaps they wouldn’t have been so unnerved by their final exam essay project.

My grandmother confided to me once that her mother never allowed her in the kitchen while she cooked.  No doubt it was easier and faster for her mother to can green beans without a little girl helping.  But what a shame!  My grandmother not only missed the bond that comes from cooking together, but also the planning and  problem-solving skills that are developed.

My kids' and my new herb garden
So here is my challenge to parents, guardians, and grandparents, really to all people who work with kids: This year, create opportunities help your student develop the so-called “Executive Function Skills.”  

Even though it isn’t always easy or quick, involve kids in some of your next home or outdoor projects.  Talk  about your end goal.  Let them help you break it down into smaller chunks with mini goals. Decide together how you will know if the job is coming along well, and revise the plan together when needed.  Create a timeline to work on the project. And above all, talk about the skills that you are building together and brainstorm ways these skills will help your student at school.

You will be helping students  build the skills that many psychologists say are critical for success, not only in school, but also in life. And you’ll be creating wonderful memories.

Now, how about taking down those holiday decorations… with a little help from your kids?


Next time: Tech tools that will help you and your student be organized for success.

The countdown begins with fun

The countdown has begun.

Not for the end of school.  For high stakes testing.

Whether it is end-of-year state testing, graduation exams, or Advanced Placement tests, teachers everywhere are scheduling their last-minute crams to make sure that their students have every bit of information they might need to bump up their scores.

It can get intense.  Especially in many places, like here in Indiana, where there is more at stake than ever: evaluations and next year's paycheck.

How about lightening the mood a little in your classroom and reviewing at the same time?  After all, students learn more when they have fun.

Incorporating games to review the literary terms that pepper language arts test questions can be fun and still provide appropriate review.  Especially when they are not those contrived video games that kids get to play when they have accomplished another boring set of review questions on their computer review program.

Group games and activities also build your classroom community. And after all, we are in this together.

Using popular culture examples for more advanced review can engage students, too. What student doesn't like discussing The Simpsons or Katy Perry in class without getting in trouble?

And if you can spare the time, let the kids create their own review games to share. Either way, students will be having fun, using higher order thinking skills, and reviewing at the same time.  That's a sure-fire way to testing success.

If you don't have time to make your own games and activities, check out my Teachers Pay Teachers Store for literary term review activities for high school students.

Above all, make it fun whenever you can.  Your students and your blood pressure will thank you.