Monday, April 14, 2014

They Used to Love to Learn

They Used to Love to Learn

Signs held at a demonstration at public school PS3 on April 11, 2014.
Signs parents held at a demonstration at public school PS3 on April 11, 2014.
Photos by Vivian Selbo.
When many of my students entered my third-grade classroom this year, they told me they didn’t like to read, and they definitely didn’t like to write. I made them a promise that by the end of third grade, I would change their minds.
Before the winter’s end, many of my children confirmed that—would you believe it?—they couldn’t stop reading. Parents were reporting flashlights under the covers because they just had to know what Ramona was going to do next. Kids were choosing to read during indoor recess instead of zoning out in front of the computer screen. They lit up when it was time for Writing Workshop because they had become teachers through their writing, and they had LOTS to teach about being a big sister, the right way to swing a tennis racket, and how to bake the perfect cupcake. Better still, I had tangible quantitative data that this love for their work was translating into elevated reading levels, stronger spelling and grammar, and better elaboration of ideas in writing. There was proof. I have numbers, letters, grades, written reports—all kinds of things that show that yes, love pays off, and that yes, kids will excel when they are engaged and committed because they are, well, engaged and committed. We get better at doing things we like doing, because we’ll do them again, and again, and again. Practice makes progress, proficiency, and beyond.

When the winter started to come to an end, it was time to start preparing for the ELA, the New York state standardized test in English Language Arts, which, for the second time now, is supposed to be aligned with the new Common Core expectations of what students at each grade level should know and be able to do. I have been a teacher for seven years, this is my third year teaching on a testing grade, and I felt that I’d learned a thing or two about how to make the test-prep process less arduous and monotonous for my young students: test-prep games instead of workbook pages every so often; basing some essays and short response questions on high-level but fun read-alouds such as Time for Kids articles, the fictional tales of Chris Van Allsburg, and short, kid-friendly biographies about famous historical figures, instead of irrelevant and obscure texts; partnership and small group work when possible; etc. I used every trick in my test-preppy pocket, because while it’s part of my job to make sure my students feel ready and confident for this test, it’s all of my job to take care of them and their learning. I won’t lie to you and say they loved it, because they didn’t. But we managed. I did my job. They felt ready. They were ready. They had practiced, and practiced hard. Their love for reading was weakening, because they were reading with the intention of answering complex questions, rather than to authentically respond or have a conversation with a reading partner. But still, they were reading. We reminded ourselves weekly of the books we were reading and enjoying outside of test prep, such as My Father’s Dragon, Superfudge, and Encyclopedia Brown. We did what we could to hold on to the most important factor in our progress: the actual desire to do the work, the love of reading and writing.
Nothing could have adequately prepared these 8-year-olds for the testing they were subjected to last week. As many other teachers have reported, the multiple-choice questions (and answer choices) were so complex and nonsensical that many adults struggled to determine the right answers. One of the reasons I actually support certain parts the Common Core is due to the emphasis on getting kids to go beyond the surface level of a text, but none of these questions tested their ability to do that. Instead of a question like: “What caused the character to (insert action here) in the middle of the story?” (which, mind you, is hard enough for an 8-year-old to identify as it is), there were questions like: “In Line 8 of Paragraph 4, the character says … and in Line 17 of Paragraph 5, the character does … Which of the following lines from Paragraph 7 best supports the character’s actions?” This, followed by four choices of lines from Paragraph 7 that could all, arguably, show motivation for the character’s actions in the preceding paragraphs. Additionally, MANY of the questions on the third-grade tests were aligned with fifth-grade standards (especially related to the structure of the text itself, rather than its meaning), and did not address the third-grade expectations. I wish I could give you more than hypotheticals, but teachers aren’t allowed to publicize test material.

If you got these questions right, it meant that you had an advanced enough memory to retain what had happened in Paragraphs 6 and 8 as you read the question that referred to Line 9 in order to determine what the test writer thought was the relationship among all three parts of the text. Question after question required undue scrutiny of individual words and phrases as they connected to other words and phrases. That isn’t close reading. That isn’t what we did all year, as we read and reread to talk about authorial intent, point of view, character motivations—things that I didn’t talk about as a student until middle school, that now I was watching my third-graders slowly but surely be able to do. But no: This was text dissection and process of elimination. Nobody really reads like that. It’s not how I taught, and it’s not what the Common Core expects. One of the huge goals of the Common Core is to prepare students for real-life reading, to be able to engage with text in the real world no matter the genre. Hear, hear! I would love for someone at Pearson, the company that produced the ELA, to find me one 8-year-old who would, on any given day in the “real world,” somehow come into contact with a level X (sixth-grade) novel that is set during the Great Depression, with characters who speak in local vernacular and are facing the problems of poverty and bankruptcy. But this is what’s used to measure how well my students can understand “authentic texts.” Give me a break.
During the test, my readers, who months ago couldn’t get their noses out of books, complained of stomachaches as they persevered and tried to read texts that were over their heads and had no relevance to their lives, age, or backgrounds. They struggled to hold their heads up and were doing hand stretches at the 60-minute mark as they tried to do what they were taught, what they know how to do—to back up their ideas with strong text evidence. But at the end of the day, their close reading and thinking put them at a disadvantage because they barely had enough time to finish writing about topics and texts that not only were inappropriate for their age and developmental level, but that they would never, EVER encounter in their reading lives, inside of school or out.
My kids are now totally fried and frustrated, and so am I. Worst of all, these tests are turning reading and writing into chores, into something that more closely resembles punishment than it does a way to enrich thinking. This is sucking the life and love out of their young literary lives. Did I break my promise from September? Do they not love to read and write anymore because of this insane culture? The hard work that we put in earlier in the year, showing them that there was so much to love about reading and writing, and doing it in a way that really does support these higher standards of learning, will not be reflected in their test results. It’s not what they needed to show New York state that they are grade-level readers (which, ironically enough, almost all of them are).
Again, it is my job to take care of them and their learning. Recently it has become part of my job to try and push their thinking beyond what many child psychologists would consider “developmentally appropriate” for 8-year-olds, and I was, and still am, up for that challenge, even though it’s a little crazy. It is not my job to take children who are developing, who are trying to make sense of the world and the books around them, and turn them into test-taking drones who read and write with the intention of dissection and choosing the best answer out of four complex answer choices that all say little to nothing about what the text actually meant.
The past few days have made it seem as though that’s what my job is supposed to be, and that all of the love (and skill!) they have developed for literature and writing this year is irrelevant, as is the progress my kids have made that will not be shown by this absurdity. You can assess me all you want. I will number-crunch and data-report until the cows come home, but leave my kids out of it. They’re trying to become stronger readers and writers, and this is getting in the way. We need a way to measure their growth from start to finish, not to see where they fall on a bell curve that is already skewed because of the flawed measures that it rests on.
And if you’re not sure what I mean … try going back to Paragraph 2, Lines 8–10, as well as Paragraph 5, Lines 1–4, and then choose the sentence from Paragraph 7 that best supports the main idea found in both of those paragraphs. Because if you can do that, you will have shown me that you have a deep understanding of the message I am trying to convey.
This piece originally appeared on Testing Talk.

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