Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Good at Reading, or Reading is Good?

Today, I had a half day of professional development that focused on close reading and writing from sources. All tied to Common Core, of course. While I could see how someone who is new to the gig of teaching could get some good information from this, what I fear the most is the message being sent about teaching reading. Everything when it comes to close reading needs to be text-based. One of the videos we watched today is this one on writing text-dependent questions. On the surface, I see the value in close reading and having students respond to text-dependent questions, but the more I thought about it, the more upsetting it became. Here's why.

Here is how this strategy is supposed to work.

Kids are given a text to read. Let's say they are reading a short story, or even a magazine article. Close reading means the text needs to be read three times. Each reading is done for a different purpose and should allow the student to delve more deeply into the text. Then having students respond to text-dependent questions will be their way of demonstrating their depth of knowledge of what they learned. We are told this will help our students become good readers, they will be able to master challenging texts. Lord knows teacher bemoan the fact that kids aren't good readers. This close reading thing sure does sound like a great way to develop our kids into readers.

But I can't help but wonder if while we are trying to make out kids good readers, they might end up not thinking reading is a good thing to do. This process of close reading has the potential to be overkill, making kids dread having to read something over and over and over again. Asking only text-dependent questions has the potential to make talking about what they read very clinical and meaningless all while trying to make the text meaningful. If you watched the video I linked to above, then you know that posing questions that ask the students to find ways to personally identify with and connect to the text is not a good thing; remember (as said at the end of the video): "It's what's INSIDE that counts...stay inside the text!"

While we work so hard to make out students good readers, are we killing any desire they might have to read for fun? Because close reading doesn't seem to be at all about reading for fun; it's all about making meaning.

The crux of my teaching philosophy is that I want to help students make their education meaningful to them personally right now. It's hard to make thirteen-year-olds see why prepositional phrases and mythology are meaningful, but if I want them to care about prepositional phrases and mythology, I have to help them connect to those topics personally right now. It does no good to constantly hit them with threats of high school, college, or jobs. Those things all seem a lifetime way when you're in 8th grade. But close reading -- and writing from sources -- eschew those personal connections in favor of a focus on understanding the text as it is presented, not from a personal perspective.

It seems to me that the harder we work to make out students good, critical readers, the less success we have because our students learn pretty quickly that reading isn't fun and it isn't personal.

And that is really sad.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Why I Stick Around

I just saw this article posted this morning, contemplating why some teachers decide to stay in education despite the immense challenges faced in this field right now. I thought I'd add my two cents for anyone who's interested.

I have been teaching since 1991 and I don't plan to leave it. I admit that over the past 5 years, I have contemplated leaving teaching. Some of the reasons I thought about getting out included

  • the way Common Core has been implemented
  • the implementation of PARCC testing and other high-stakes testing
  • the general attitude of hostility toward teachers from the media and general public
  • administrators and parents who are unsupportive of what teachers do (caveat -- this does not mean ALL parents and ALL administrators; it only takes 1 or 2 to make an absolute mess, trust me)
  • decreasing autonomy
  • increased workload
  • flawed evaluation systems
  • workplace politics
I'm still here, though, and I have no intentions of leaving. Why do I stay?

  • I love education.
  • I love kids.
  • I love seeing the ways kids' faces light up when they finally "get" something difficult that they have been trying to learn.
  • Education is not a job to me -- it is a calling. I always wanted to be a teacher for as long as I can remember. Always.
  • Did I mention the kids?
The reasons to leave this field are easily quantifiable and identified. The reasons to stay, not so much. It's something that is in my blood. It is just part of who I am. The reasons I stay in teaching are based in emotion, not tasks. When I am teaching in a classroom, talking with, laughing with, and guiding my students, I am at my happiest, professionally speaking. The times when I am miserable are rarely when I am with the kids. They are when I am in a meeting or when I am reading an email or when I am on a phone call.

Why do I stay in education? Because I am a teacher and that's all I have ever wanted to be.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

No Walk in the PARCC

Not long ago I read with glee about Chicago Public Schools saying they were not giving the PARCC test to about 600 of their schools. To me, it was a strong message being sent -- we aren't ready for this test and we won't force it upon our kids until we are ready. But today, it was announced that they would indeed be administering it starting next week. State Superintendent Christopher Koch held them hostage with money, threatening to withhold funds if PARCC wasn't administered as the law states it should be. Sadly, money talks and CPS had to cave.

But now two things make me raise my eyebrows. One of them is the late notice to the 600 schools who didn't think they were administering the PARCC test. I have helping teachers for the past month work with their kids on how to navigate the test -- how to use the online tools available to them during the test, looking at the different kinds of questions and how to answer them (there are single answer multiple choice, multiple answer multiple choice, fill in the blank, highlight, drag and drop, drop-down menu, constructed response, graphing, and equation editor questions -- all requiring different methods of inputting the answers). We've practiced having the kids log in and out as well as flag and review questions, too. According to the directions in the script, once the students start the test, teachers are not allowed to help the students answer the questions or use any of the online tools unless there is some sort of technology malfunction, so it is important that the kids know how to move around the page, move from one question to the next, and how to answer questions. Some of the navigation of the test is intuitive for these "digital natives", but some of it is not. And kids who might not have a lot of access to technology might also find the navigation challenging. How are the kids in those 600 schools going to get properly acquainted with the tools they need to know to take this test in the short amount of time they now have -- less than a week? Maybe they have been prepping the kids in case this whole thing fell through (exactly as it has).

The other thing that makes me concerned is that students in Chicago Public Schools in grades 3 - 5 are taking the paper-pencil version of the test. The bulk of my assistance has been with students in grades 3 and 4; in our district, all our students are taking the online version of the test. During practice sessions, kids have had questions about how to use the tools and navigate the test. More than one student forgot how to move to the next question. Had this been the actual test and not a practice session, nobody would have been allowed to tell the student how to go to the next question, so either that student would sit there and not move on or figure it out on his or her own. Hopefully the latter can happen and in a timely manner because if the student takes 20 minutes to figure it out, that is 20 minutes of testing time lost, meaning the student will likely not finish the test. Kids who are taking paper/pencil tests probably won't have to worry about not knowing how to move on to the next question. Also, students taking the online test will have to do their constructed responses on a keyboard as well as use the equation editor, meaning they use a keyboard and the buttons on the screen to develop their responses for math questions. This is going to be a much more cumbersome process than it will be for the kids who are handwriting their responses. Kids who don't have a lot of keyboarding experience, as kids in grades 3 and 4 tend to be, could be at a real disadvantage with the online version of the test.

So when you consider that within the entire PARCC partnership of 10 states plus Washington, D.C., some kids have been prepared for navigating the online test but some haven't and some don't need to, and that some kids have good keyboarding skills but some don't and some don't need them, and some kids have plenty of access to technology in and out of school but some don't and some don't need the access to technology for this test, how can ANYONE hope to come up with STANDARDIZED scores on a test that really isn't STANDARDIZED for everyone? How fair will it be to compare the scores for 3rd graders taking the test on a computer with limited keyboarding skills and computer experience to the scores of 3rd graders taking the test on paper?

Please tell me I'm not the only one who feels like this makes no sense.