Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Negotiator

My granddaughters are the light of my life.  For some time now, my husband and I have called our oldest granddaughter The Negotiator, and this is why. 

Like many good parents, our daughter and son-in-law give their children opportunities to make choices.  Typically, they’re given two choices:  Do you want to have water or milk for lunch?  Would you like to wear jeans of leggings today? We can go to Grammy and Papa's after nap.  Like that.

However, Miss Negotiator has her own ideas:  I want juice for lunch.  I would like to wear a dress today. I can take a nap AT Grammy and Papa's.  This just cracks me up. 

Typically, given two choices, kiddos will actually choose one of the options suggested.  But not this little three year old sweetie.  She has her own ideas and she’s not afraid to share them!

 Sometimes her negotiating skills wear her parents out, I know.  But in the long run, for me it’s satisfying to know that she can think on her feet, come up with creative solutions, and go for what she wants.   I hope she never changes.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Navigating Standardized Tests: Helping your kiddo thrive

In my last post I lamented my woes of administering standardized tests to my students.  Some of you may have thought, “Well, I took the Iowa Assessments back in the day, and I survived…”  And that is true.  I too, took the Iowa Test of Basic Skills way back -old school- back- in the day.  But there is a difference now.  The difference is this: NCLB.

School districts are now required to supply scores, from a specific number of tests to their state’s Department of Education.  The state DOE requires this by assertion of NCLB.

So, back when you and I took THE Big Test, that was it. Done til next year. (Whew, I made it!)  Not now.  Oh, no. Far from it.

Students are required to take many tests.  These tests are above and beyond the weekly spelling tests or end of unit tests in math, reading, social studies, and science. Or the weekly progress monitoring (a test) of reading skills required by the Iowa Core. In my school district, students completed a battery of tests over the school year.

ü  NWEA Assessments were given 3 times a year.  One for math and one for reading. The tests, Measures of Academic Progress, although high-stakes, are not considered “standardized” because as the student ‘clicked’ his/her multiple choice answer on the computer, the program generated its next question for that particular student. The next question would be easier if the answer was incorrect and harder if the answer was correct.  Each session of this test took 60-90 minutes to complete.

ü  Iowa Assessments are given yearly, starting in first grade.  This test is a Standardized Test.  Which means that all kids, no matter what their background, get the exact same test.  (My first grade students always failed the vocabulary word ‘auditorium’… I often wondered how the kids whose schools had auds fared on this question.)

ü  CogAt or Cognitive Abilities Test was given to selected grades annually.  Third grade (my grade) was one of them.  Reasoning and problem solving skills were assessed.  School districts often use this test to aide in gifted education placement.  Really? Waste.Of.Time.  Hashtag: letsmakethekidstotallyhateschool

So, it’s a pretty bleak outlook- no matter what school district you’re in.  What’s a parent to do?  Well, the options are slim.  You could homeschool your child.  Maybe they could go to private school. Or to a charter school. But it’s still not a guarantee that these institutions won’t or don’t over test their students, too. And that’s what this blog is all about- how to deal with over testing. So, here is my advice.  It comes from years of observing families who are not only successful in school, but who thrive.

1.    Talk TO your child. Have conversations. Ask him/her what they think about something.  Tell them what you think.  In this hustle bustle world we live in, it’s easy to get stuck in a habit of just telling your child what to do and where to go.  (I have found that some of my best conversations with my kids have been in the car.)

2.    Unplug.  I know, it’s hard.  But do it.  For half an hour, make your phone wait.  You have more important things to do. Make sure the kiddos are unplugged to, otherwise you’ll be having a convo with a little brick wall.

3.    Number 3 actually goes with 1 and 2. Read to your kids. Have them read to you.  In the car, standing at the kitchen counter making dinner, while you’re waiting in line or at another siblings practice.  Stay off the phone for a little while and teach your child how to have a back-and-forth conversation.

That’s it.  Three easy steps (in theory) but oh, so hard to practice. I promise: If you talk to your kids about what they’re doing and thinking, they WILL be less stressed about school assessments.  And you will too.  Know why?  Because you’ll realize what a cool person your kid is.  No test can measure that.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

It’s Testing Season Again

It comes around every year. Parents are encouraged to make sure their children get a good night’s sleep and a filling breakfast. (As if they shouldn’t every day!!—But that’s another story…) Students come to school excited and nervous with two brand new #2 pencils, ready to sharpen. (Or not...again, another story..)

Standardized testing* is a way of life in public education. No getting around it. My experiences as a teacher with standardized testing have been far from stellar. 

When I taught first grade, my school district required first graders to take the Iowa Assessments. (Many other school districts wait until students are in third grade before giving The Test.) Since first graders are basically non-readers, the test was read to them by me, their classroom teacher.  Each first grader got a test booklet to mark in. They were to circle the correct multiple choice picture answer after the question/problem was read out loud.  Part of my job was to make sure all 20 to 24 students were ‘on the right problem, on the right page’.  Can you imagine trying to keep 20 some kids on the same page?  Well, that was the easy part.

A really big part of first grade is learning as a team.  Six year olds don’t understand when the teacher they’ve come to trust unconditionally says, “I’m sorry, I can’t help you.  Try your best.”  At the very minimum, the student expects his/her teacher to give clues or ask questions that will help guide their thinking toward the correct answer.  (Cuz that’s what teachers do!) There were many tears in first grade over what I felt, was the students’ feelings of betrayal on my part and perhaps hopelessness at their inability on their part.  It was a sorry sight to be sure.  Just writing about it today – a good eight years later- gives me a gut ache. I’m not kidding. I have a stomach ache right now. 

It was a tedious process.  Read the question-twice- no more. Give the students time to circle the best picture answer.  I remember one picture answer was of a car going into a skid.  I think skid was the vocabulary word, I can’t remember for sure.  But what I do remember is my kiddos asking me what that particular picture was.  I couldn’t even tell them that.  It would have been considered helping. Helping equals cheating in the eyes of the State.  

And of course, if two pictures were circled, that answer was automatically incorrect.  Did you know first graders sometimes have a hard time with a black-and-white world?  Two answers may seem reasonable to them. 

Oftentimes in the first couple of days of testing, before they understood not to, students would blurt out answers.  You can be sure that every kid in the class circled that answer, whether it was right or wrong. By the end of the week we were all just mentally exhausted.

When I taught third grade testing sessions were somewhat better, but also held their own set of problems. Third graders can feel the tension in the air even more so than first graders can.  This causes a number of reactions.  Some kids get so tense they can’t think.  Other kids just shut down.  There are an equal number of kids who give it their all, so all is not lost.  We teachers spend a lot of time during testing week being cheerleaders for these children.

Third graders, for the first time, read the whole test silently to themselves from a test booklet and fill in bubbles on a separate answer sheet. (Second grade has a blend of first and third testing procedures.)  In third grade, the students are given a specific amount of time to answer a specific number of questions. (You’re cringing now, aren’t you?  You remember, don't you?)  I would always write the time to start, the half-way time and the stop time on the board.  I also wrote the half way problem number next to the half-way time in an attempt to keep kids from going too fast.  Because that’s what they do.  The timer freaks them out, no matter how much you practice and try to prepare them for it.  Most of my students completed the tests in half of the allotted time.  We would just sit and wait quietly for the timer to beep.  Before testing season began I would spend  time teaching them how to go back over answers to check for accuracy.   Either they’re not developmentally ready for that kind of a task, or it’s just too daunting because they pretty much didn’t do it.

Oh, and the test results you ask?  Well they arrive at the school some two to three months later.  We analyze and data troll and discuss how to ‘do better’.  In the end, classroom teachers know exactly what they knew about their students the day before the testing began.  We know who’s at  the top of the class. We know who will struggle or cry or shut down or freak out.  We know who will work their little selves to death to try to be successful.  That’s because we’ve already been helping them all grow and learn and extend themselves since August.  And now in January a test is supposed to tell us how to teach them?  Give me a break.  I’m fed up with this crazy system. 

But what’s  a parent to do?  There are few alternatives.  In my next blog I will talk about what parents and kids can do to survive and thrive in this test-taking-madness that has gripped public education.

*Standarized tests are test that are all the same in content and difficulty given to a certain grade (in school) of students over a huge demographic region.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

I' m working on another project this week that has kept me from my writerly mind.  So this week I will not have a story or idea to share and / or ponder.  See you next Wednesday. Be good to yourself.