Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Time for School: Mandatory Testing


It’s getting to be that time of the year again. Anticipation mixed with angst. School Time! I found myself perusing the school supply ads in the Sunday paper last weekend, as I have done for my whole adult life: first for myself as a college student, then for my own children, and finally for my students. Then it hit me: Hey, I don’t have to look for the best bargains for school supplies ever again! Not for me, not for my adult children, and not for students.  I’m moving on! 

Being an elementary school teacher made me proud.  It was a hard job that not just any one could do. I know this because so many people who are not teachers have commented to me about this very thing.  I’ve also been witness to volunteers who thought it was an easy gig until they taught a lesson. Often parents would come to the classroom to help out and be in awe of how I handled a group of twenty- some kids and kept them learning and on task.

But things have changed. Giving kids an education is more difficult than ever for a number of reasons. Mandated testing is one of the reasons. An article I read entitled High Stakes Testing Pros and Cons by Roberta Munoz, published December 4, 2014 by, proposed a list of “pros” and “cons” of testing.  I’ll share part of it here.

   The (so called) Pros:

·        High-stakes test results can be used to help teachers create a learning plan based on your kid's needs—helping her in the long run. Look at your child's test results as a tool for progress, not as a judgment on ability or intelligence. (Most teachers don’t need the information from this kind of test to create learning plans.  Classroom work, observation and focused quizzes are more beneficial  assessment tools to the classroom teacher for lesson development. Also, teachers don’t pass judgment on kids—maybe parents sometimes, but not kids.)

·        Data from statewide testing is almost always publicly available. As a parent, you can look at these results to see how well, or poorly, your child's school is performing.(This is true. Many families look at these stats. to determine the ‘best’ schools.  However, if you want your kid to go to the ‘best’ school, you’d better be committed to do your share of the work. i.e. homework completion.)

·        High stakes exams can cause anxiety, but yearly testing and frequent practice tests can help kids improve their test-taking abilities over time. Your child can benefit by learning how to handle pressure, and developing the skills and strategies necessary to meet the school's—and [the] parents'—expectations. (Yes, children certainly do get anxious over testing. Yes, your child will become a better test taker, but at what cost? Will your child learn more?  Will your child learn to solve problems creatively? )

   The Cons:

·        High-stakes tests cause any subject that isn't math or language arts to be pushed out of the classroom. Subjects like science, social studies and the arts are sacrificed to make time for more test prep. (We were given so much more math curriculum to teach this past year that I personally didn’t have room in my schedule for Social Studies! Teachers were told to ‘fit it in when we could’. )

·        Pressure on teachers can clamp down on creativity and innovation. Thanks to pressure from the government, teachers often feel compelled to "teach to the test," resulting in less flexibility to tailor lesson plans to individual students or class groups. (Too true. Many great projects have been cut out of my teaching and their learning in the name of Core Curriculum- teaching only skills that will specifically be required to show proficiency on a test. --And if any students didn’t show proficiency, then I didn’t do my job.)

·         Increased pressure on parents and students is counter-productive. … “[there is] a distinction between constructive pressure—the kind that motivates students to do better—and pressure that stifles learning. If the pressure isn't clearly linked to student learning…if it's just pressure for pressure's sake and not encouraging students to take their learning seriously — then the pressure is not constructive." (Many a parent felt the pressure placed on them by the school district’s requirements.  Additional teachers were required to make phone calls to parents of students who didn’t  ‘pass’ specific sections of tests, regardless of whether the student was working to their best ability or regardless of their overall testing results. It was crazy. So much stress on parents tends to lead to negative comments about school, often in front of the children.  And the kids are the ones who suffer.)

I understand these pros and cons so clearly. I lived it!  The Federal government, who puts stipulations on the State government, which makes them set core standards that make it very difficult for teachers to give students time to think, create, and problem-solve.  I tested kids too much!  Pre-test, post-tests, quizzes.  I did not give the students tests to help me know what they still needed to learn and understand as much as I gave tests because they were mandated.  It was too much for the kids to handle, they would act out, actually groan out loud, and complain about having another test, and most of the time I knew how each student would perform on the tests.  I didn’t know what their exact score would be, but I did know which students “got it” (the topic) and would score high and who didn’t “get it” and would score low. It’s so frustrating to watch kids struggle on a test you know they can’t pass; that did nothing to help me know what they need. And it makes school an unhappy place for children.

People, I don’t think this reality in education is going to change soon.  The best advice I can give to you is to make sure you read with your kids – a lot!  Have them read to you while you’re making dinner, riding or waiting in the car, and while you’re sitting at your other kids’ practices.  Also, make sure your kid gets their homework done and goes to school with a Ready To Learn frame of mind.  School is going by at lightning speed. Teachers are responsible for meeting ALL the needs of each and every student in their class.  We know that can’t always be done. The student to teacher ratio is too great.  Keep up with everything at your kiddo’s school.  Your child’s life will be less stressful for it. Believe me.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Suddenly: Death.

I debated about this topic for several days.  I want this blog to be easy to read. But sometimes you just gotta write what’s on your mind.  So people, brace your selves. No bunnies and daisies here today.

Death is unpredictable. We all know that, but what really brings it home is when we are faced suddenly with death, or near-death, in our own lives.  Recently during church, one of the singers in the choir had and “episode.” Apparently she’d had a seizure and EMT’s attended to her right there on the alter.  It’s a very scary thing to be witness to someone else’s time of need.  Sometimes you need to jump into action, and sometimes you’re a helpless bystander.  Whenever death comes around, everyone pays attention.

Several months ago I was coming home from class when I came upon a road block on Spruce Hill’s Drive.  All the cars were being diverted through a nearby neighborhood.  As I was guided off the main road, I saw yellow caution tape had been placed across all four lanes of traffic.  A smashed car and a nearly unrecognizable wreck of a motorcycle lay in the middle of the road in the middle of the taped off area. Death was there.  There were police cars and fire trucks, but the ambulance or ambulances had already left the scene. I said a quick prayer for the people involved as I turned the corner. 

Three days later, I was involved in my own car-motorcycle accident. Death was watching, but fortunately, that was all. It all happened so fast.  One minute I was chatting with my friend as I drove us to a baby shower, and the next minute I was standing in the middle of the highway flagging down traffic, hoping it would stop and not hit me or the man writhing in pain in the middle of the highway. 

I held the man’s hand as the first person on the scene identified herself as a nurse.  As she worked, I continued to hold his hand.  I forgot to pray. I was so overwhelmed with the sudden-ness and urgency of it all.  The only thing I could think of was that if it was me lying on the highway, I would want someone to hold my hand. So I stayed and held his hand until the EMT’s needed me out of the way.

Then, just this week I attended a funeral for a family friend.  This gentleman had lived a long and generous life.  He was a man who gave to others, and his funeral was a testament to that.  It made me stop my crazy busy mind. It reminded me that I have a job to do. It helped me to be kinder and more forgiving with my thoughts and words. I realized the people I love most got the brunt of my attitude, and it needed adjusting. The words that were said about this man helped me realize that I could be a better me.  I hope it lasts.

If we lived life as if it could end at any minute (because it could), we would be so frazzled by the thought of the finality of every move we made.  God is gracious.  He gives us guidance in preparing for Death. He doesn’t let Death control our lives. However, Death waits for no man. Therefore, we must be LIVE life with gusto, glory, and honor.  That is what God wants us to do.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

How I Became a Writer: rough writing


In a previous post I talked about the Eastern Iowa Writing Project at Saint Ambrose University.  I learned so much in such a short time there. It changed how I thought about writing. It changed my thinking.

Rough writing (as I call it) was such a freeing concept.  I’d never thought of this as a legitimate way to write.  It’s similar to writing a rough draft (getting the words/ideas on paper and not thinking about grammar, spelling and punctuation) except  there’s no need to make a final polished copy. It can be called a stream of consciousness or internal monologue, if you like. Rough writing gave me the opportunity to think about myself, my experiences, and my writing style without the conventions and rules of writing getting in the way of my thought processes.

Given the freedom to ‘rough write’ is just that- freedom.  Freedom to create. Freedom to make mistakes.  Freedom to try new ideas.  During the EIWP we all shared some of our rough writing.  It was a liberating experience because every person in that class knew that no revisions had been made by the writer. When my fellow writers heard or read my work they took that into consideration (as I did their work.) BUT… when a writer has been working on a piece; thinking, revising, and everything else that goes into a polished piece of work; that’s when it gets scary. A writer (translate- me, Nadine) begins to over think, over analyze word choice and content, as well as deciding what to and what not to elaborate on ….THAT is when you really start second guessing yourself.  

In her book, Page After Page,Heather Sellers says, “Writing is hard. It takes so much willingness to be bad at something. It’s not fun to suck. And, if you are to write, suck you must.”



Wednesday, July 8, 2015

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

Sometimes a song lyric can stop me in my tracks.  The song Jolene, by The Zac Brown Band, is about a guy who lost the woman he loves – his whole life really - to cocaine addiction.  In that song these lyrics flatten me:

“A picture of you holding a picture of me in the pocket of my blue jeans…”

The poor couple in this song can’t even get together in the same place long enough to have their picture taken with each other, no wonder they can’t make the relationship work (well, that and the cocaine…)  So sad.

I remember when I was a kid during the Vietnam War my young, newly married aunt would sit on my grandmother’s front porch to write letters to her new husband who was somewhere ‘out there’ fighting a war.  My aunt wrote to him several times a week on super thin airmail paper called Onion Skin. And every single time she did, she would bring out an 8x10 framed photo of him in his uniform to set by her on the step as she wrote. 

My picture that’s worth a thousand words was taken right after my daughter became a mother.  In the picture there’s new baby paraphernalia taking up all the surrounding space, but in the center of the photo is my daughter, now a new mommy, sleeping on the couch with her hand in the bassinette. Even in her sleep, she is protective of her baby.  And lying at her feet?  Well that’s her buddy Gus, who is the self-appointed protector of his owner and gladly accepts the job of protecting her new babe, too.  I thank my son-in-law for seeing the beauty in this moment and capturing it.

What is your picture of? Is it a picture in your mind, a memory?  Or is it one you can hold in your hands?  Both are worth a thousand words.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

I Love Big Books (and little ones too...)

Hello, my name is Nadine and I’m a bibliophile.  It’s not so much a confession as it is a celebration.  I love books!  The first book I remember really loving was one read to my class in elementary school by our librarian, Mr. Lange, who looked like actor Herschel Bernardi’s television character named Arnie, of the 1970's sitcom of the same name. Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel, told the tale of a Chinese boy with a great long name who fell into a well and was not retrieved quickly enough and became very ill because of that great long name. It was a tale of naughty boys and consequences.  I loved the cadence of the words and the tension in the plot.  I was intrigued by the Chinese culture, (so mysterious) and the importance of learning a lesson through a story.  As an adult, I’ve added to my collection of much-loved Chinese tales; Demi’s The Empty Pot, and The Greatest Treasure, The Fourth Question, by Rosalind C. Wang, Mr. and Mrs. Haktak’s story in Two of Everything by Lily Toy Hong.

As much as I enjoyed listening to stories, I was not a ‘hooked’ reader until several years later. Over the years I enjoyed many teacher’s read alouds. Stories like Charlotte’s Web and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were exciting and fun to listen to. I also was exposed to The Little Prince and Animal Farm, and Jonathan Livingston Seagull, all of which I thought whaaat???

But then, in sixth grade the greatest thing ever happened. Our teacher read The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton.  My life changed.  This book was about people like me!  I could relate to being from the wrong side of the tracks and fighting for dignity and respect.  I had no idea there were gritty books out there like this! NOW I was hooked!  It took me until sixth grade to realize books could be more than just sweetness and fluff!  They were so much more than I could have ever imagined! The day I checked out Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls, my teacher came to me and asked if she could have it to read to our class.  I was dumbstruck! I, Nadine, the awkward quiet one, actually had selected a book the teacher wanted!?!  Of course I said yes. She read about Little Ann and Old Dan and we cried.
What story or book changed your life? How did it change you? I'd love to hear about it!