MCAS: This Does Not Define You.

This does not define youIt’s that time of year again…The snow is beginning to melt (ish). The days are feeling a bit longer. Daylight is sticking around for dinner.

And statewide exams are lurking around the corner.

In Massachusetts, sophomores must pass the MCAS exam (in ELA, math, & science) in order to graduate. So, naturally, I’ve shared strategies and sample test questions with them, and we’ve taken practice tests. Or test. Singular. (Since this year’s MCAS is the first overhaul since 1993, there’s only one practice test available. For the entire state.)

I’ve also shared with my sophomores and a bit more loudly that, while the MCAS is important, it in no way defines them. It’s one test. Assessing where these 15- and 16-year-olds are on those two particular days. And after seven months together, I can attest that they are so much more than whatever they end up scoring on the MCAS.

In their heads, I think they know that. However, I’m not sure knowing that necessarily assuages their anxiety.

So, to put the MCAS (or SAT or ACT or Midyear Exam or Final Exam or…) back into perspective,  I share the video below by teacher-author Kumar Sathy. (It’s also a great way to expose them to spoken word poetry.)

I also share with my students the letter-read-’round-the-world, penned by an Indiana teacher before their state exams (pictured below). This letter practically broke the internet after a student’s parent shared it on Instagram. And you can see why.

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For the record, my students are just as fabulous as hers. And if you work with students, I’m willing to bet that yours are, too.

Are our students anxious about these state-wide assessments? Uh, yeah.

Will they try their best on these tests? Most definitely.

But will their scores define them? Not a chance.

 

 

The Gratitude Project (2018)

Last year, a few days before Thanksgiving, I began what I affectionately call “The Gratitude Project.” (You can read read more about it HERE and HERE.) Essentially, I forced my students–and myself–to carve out some time to reflect on the Good in our lives. We were inspired by Kid President, we looked at an experiment that the Science of Happiness conducted, and we saw how gratitude is being expressed in ongoing global projects such as the 365 Grateful Project and Thnx4. I shared my own musings–in the midst of aging parents–both of whom have battled cancer and defeated the ICU in the last year alone.

In addition to wanting my students to have a positive digital footprint (hence our Passion Blog Project and our use of Goodreads–among other 21st century learning opportunities), I wanted my students’ parents–and the world!–to see the fabulousness these students show me on a regular basis.

The result was a community slide deck where students expressed reasons for which they are thankful this year. Some contributions were light, others were heartfelt, but all reflected the diverse mix of thinkers in Room 1227. Take a look at what they shared below!

Let Them Choose Books!

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Penny Kittle wrote,  “A book isn’t rigorous if students aren’t reading it.” This single statement has shaped my teaching career more than just about anything else. And for my first fifteen years, my students (and, chances are, probably yours, too) simply weren’t reading.

I was beyond frustrated.

So, I decided to teach the students in front of me, rather than teach how I had been taught. I decided to teach the students in front of me, rather than reuse the resources I had feverishly created the years before. I decided to teach the students in front of me, even though it required me to turn what I do in the classroom on its side and allow the students–who were fake reading, at best–to choose what books they would read. Part of my rationale was to help my readers build the stamina they’ll need to tackle the 600-pages-per-week of assigned college reading AND the other part was to help them fall back in love with reading.

Study after study has shown that the more students read, the better they will be at reading, writing, grammar, spelling, and even the unavoidable test-taking.

What study after study has NOT shown is that students have to curl up with the Complete Works of the Bard or anything Dickens or even–dare I say it?–Harper Lee. Nope. The studies simply show that students need to be reading. Period. And my students weren’t. 

Lest you think your cherubs would never fake-read (which Much-Younger-Me thought), check out the video below. (I show it to my students every September.) It features a group of Penny Kittle’s seniors–all of whom earned good English grades despiterarely cracking a book.

My favorite comment? The Everyman who confesses (at 1:23) to snowing his teachers with, “‘Well, this really gets back to the American Dream’… and then you just make a bunch of stuff up.” That was literally every literature circle in my class prior to allowing choice.

Mind you, this was in spite of my high expectations and my years of facilitating seminar discussions and my feverish crafting of higher-order-thinking questions that couldn’t be found online. (ASIDE: Even now, I generate my own questions so students can’t allow someone online to do the thinking for them. For example, the use of color in The Great Gatsby? I’ll bet few students could ignore the Siren Song of the 52.8 million (!) hits Google just generated for me. In 0.56 seconds.)

Even still, my students weren’t authentically reading. Their writing was formulaic and lacked depth and/or free-thought. Their discussion contributions were superficial and redundant. And both forms of communication merely parroted back what the students thought Teacher-Lady wanted to hear. Or what we had already discussed in class.  Shockingly, they fake-read in my class just as much as they had the year before. Even though they supposedly liked tolerated Teacher-Lady.

However, that all changed once students were allowed to choose what books they were going to read. 

I’ll be posting how I have made Choice work in my classroom and the importance of a blended approach separately. In the meantime, if you’re uneasy with allowing your students to direct their own learning, know that I was, too. It’s terrifying. After all, who’s the one with the literature degree in the room, the one who knows which standards have to be met? However, choice in no way means that Teacher-Lady works less or avoids steering students toward rich titles or withholds her vast knowledge about all-things-ELA. On the contrary, it means that in a Choice Classroom, “students assume responsibility and self-direct their own learning.” Which is one of our district’s 21st Century Learning Expectations.

But for Choice to work, there needs to be some ground rules.

1) DON’T JUDGE WHAT THE STUDENTS ARE READING. We can’t assume that because our students are young and inexperienced and don’t hold a literature degree, they are reading “garbage” or “bubble gum” literature. But some of them are. And that’s okay. We can’t shame these lighter-fare choices. After all, when was the last time we went to the library or Amazon.com and left with only Faulkner, Joyce, and Rand? Or we logged in to Netflix and only watched film adaptations of The Bard’s plays? We read–and watch–for different reasons. And if we’re trying to create lifelong readers–or at least readers who will be able to survive the 600+ per week they’ll be assigned in college, we can’t judge what they choose to read.

Plus, it’s about moderation. Those lighter-fare reads are the very Gateway Titles our reluctant readers need to come back into the fold. Rest assured: My sophomores authentically read–and enjoy!–The Great Gatsby. In the spring. When they’re ready. But many of them confessed to fake-reading it when I used to assign it in September. Same level of readers. Same Choice Reading Program. Just students who weren’t yet ready.

2) DON’T ASSUME IT’S QUANTITY OVER QUALITY. And we can’t tell our students that reading should be about quality over quantity. Says who? We don’t always know what our students are reading. We don’t always see the students who struggled through The Hunger Games in September now poring over Vonnegut and Orwell and Heller and Shakespeare in February.

Further, why are they even mutually exclusive? Why not hold students to a higher reading standard, quantity-wise, while helping them climb Teri Lesesne’s “Reading Ladder” toward more complex books? Ironically, I only require my students to read one Choice Book each month–a number so low it would make both Penny Kittle and Donalyn Miller guffaw. However, because my students quickly realize they enjoy reading (they just don’t love what we teachers have done to it), students read upwards of 80+ books during our 10 months together. After reading zero the year before.

3) DON’T JUDGE WHAT GOES ON IN OTHER CLASSROOMS. This is a good rule for all of us. We shouldn’t judge what our colleagues are doing in their classrooms–especially if we’re not current in what the research says. Until we read a professional development book about literacy or attend a workshop or take a graduate class or do something else to professionally develop, have we really earned the right to cross our proverbial arms and assume that what our colleagues are doing (with results) is lesser than whatever we’re doing? Conversely, Choice Embracers can’t judge what goes on in a traditional classroom either. Students need to be exposed to all types of teaching.

4) DON’T ASSUME, IN GENERAL. What if we just put a moratorium on assumptions altogether? We can’t assume that Choice Embracers don’t teach whole-class novels as well. Or dig in to texts with close-reading. Or assign works from the Canon. Or adhere to the one-size-fits-all curriculum that was purchased for us on top of all of the rich work we do with Choice Texts. Choice Embracers do all of that–and then some.

For Choice to work, we need to put our book-shaming and judgment and assumptions aside. Can we disagree? Absolutely. We teach our students that respectful discourse helps us understand other points of view. And isn’t that one of the reasons we read? However, we also need to consider the students in front of us. And teach them.

And, of course, you know where I stand: Let them eat cake choose books!

Authors Who Inspire

Since reading is the inhale and writing is the exhale, our Creative Writing class reflected on which authors have inspired the inner writers in each of us. Take a look at the community slidedeck that we created! (Use the control bar to control the speed.) Teacher-Lady played, too!

When Numbahs Don’t Lie (2017-8)

Students can’t be reduced to a number. They can’t be defined by their results on a common assessment, reduced to where they fall on a state test, nor limited by their SAT/ACT scores.

However, sometimes numbers don’t lie.

With a towering goal of helping students fall back (or, for a select few, remain) in love with reading–while building their stamina to endure the 600-pages-per-week of reading they’ll be asked to do in college, I need numbers. They help validate what I do in the classroom (e.g., allowing students to choose the majority of their texts, beginning every class with 10 minutes of reading, using Goodreads for goal-setting, tracking, and review-publishing, maintaining a classroom library).

So, at the end of every year, I ask students to tally how many books they read–cover-to-cover during our time together and compare it to what they read the year before.

The. Results. Are. Glorious.

In a world of SparkNotes, Fake Reading, and Beating the System, check out the growth of these amazing, authentic (and hopefully lifelong) readers! It’ll warm your soul.

And just imagine the effect this much reading has had on their writing skills!

DISCLAIMER: These are all honors sophomores. However, I have done my reading experiment-turned-way-of-life for the last 5 years, and the results with my college preparatory students are equally astounding!

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As freshmen, A block read a collective 62 books cover-to-cover from September to June. (See top pic.) As sophomores? 288 books! (See bottom pic.) That’s a 365% increase, folks! 
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As freshmen, B block read a collective 35 books cover-to-cover from September to June. (See top pic.) As sophomores? 245 books! (See bottom pic.) That’s a 600% increase, folks!
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As freshmen, E block read a collective 45 books cover-to-cover from September to June. (See top pic.) As sophomores? 360 books! (See bottom pic.) That’s a 700% increase, folks!
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As freshmen, G block read a collective 95 books cover-to-cover from September to June. (See top pic.) As sophomores? 399 books! (See bottom pic.) That’s a 307% increase, folks! (It’s even bigger if you remove the outlying reading machine!)

Teaching Style: The Art of Repetition

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Most honors students enter my classroom in the fall with the ability to craft organized, error-free writing. Which is fabulous. However, most students don’t have the tools to take their writing to the next level. (And based on the Traits of an Honors Student, taken from the Honors English course description in our school’s Program of Studies, honors students are already supposed to be writing on a more sophisticated level than their college prep counterparts.) One of the tools we recently emulated is repetition, which is a “rhetorical device writers use to make their point clearer and more memorable” (Your Dictionary).

After looking at some fabulous examples in literature, the students set out to make this sophisticated technique their own. Take a look at some of their publishing!

  • Writing can be a challenge. People need a challenge. A challenge is what helps people grow.

 

  • It’s going to get better. Everything gets better in time and I plan on doing whatever I have to in order to make it better. I will force it to get better.

 

  • We played for our families. We played for ourselves. But most importantly, we played for each other in the championship game.

 

  • I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe the vibrant colors right before my eyes. I couldn’t believe the delightful aromas filling the air. I couldn’t believe the overall sensation and feeling of safety. I couldn’t believe I found home.

 

  • We waited not knowing what would happen. We waited not knowing if we would be happy with the results or not. We waited not knowing if the list would destroy friendships or bring people closer together.

 

  • We’d get to see ball games, we’d get to see Broadway shows, we’d get to see some museums and we’d get to experience anything else New York has to offer.

 

  • don’t like running, I don’t like it at all. I don’t want to like running, I don’t want to like it at all, yet all I do is run.

 

  • He fell hard. And he fell fast.

 

  • What’s outside the window? A thousand possibilities. What’s outside the window?A land far away. What’s outside the window? Anything but here

 

  • Green is my favorite color. Green is the color of the trees. Green is the color of the grass. Green is the color of the land we call home.

 

  • Tonight, we fight for our fathers, we fight for our mothers, we fight for our sisters, we fight for our sons, we fight for our daughters, we fight for our future. Tonight, my friends, we fight for our freedom.

 

 

The Gratitude Project–Part 2 (2017)

raok-2A few days before Thanksgiving, I asked my high school students to take an inventory of what they were thankful for this year.  They knew ahead of time that I would be sharing their lists, and, as promised, I emailed the class projects to my students’ parents and guardians on Thanksgiving morning.  (You can view the finished products HERE.)

Part 2 of the assignment was to commit a Random Act of Kindness over Thanksgiving break. On their first day back, the students reflected on their experiences. Take a look at some of the fabulous, very-adult realizations the students made. (I shared the list below with my students’ parents in my December newsletter.) I’m teaching some pretty kindhearted, magnanimous souls!

  • Over the break, I helped my mom put up all of the Christmas Decorations in our house, which actually took about 2 hours because we have WAY too many, and [which] I even had to wake up early to do…I knew that my mom had a lot of work to do…so it was helpful to her. This action helped me feel good about myself because I usually do not help with decorations, but this year I decided to.

 

  • My random act of kindness…was volunteering to help set the table at Thanksgiving. My mom was certainly appreciative of my offering, but more so shocked…I could tell it took stress off of her…I saw her face instantly relax once the table was set, and her visually exhale out of relief. I felt good after setting the table, about myself and about my contribution. Helping my mom, when she so often helps me, was a really nice feeling.

 

  • Although I only got a small “thank you,” I still felt better about my day, and I was glad that I got to help someone out that seemed like they needed it.

 

  • At work, I helped out a woman with a broken arm…It felt nice to help her out and it felt very empowering. She needed help and there was no one else who was going to help her so I did. When I think back on it I wonder, what if I was in her situation?

 

  • The effect of the random act on me was that I did more that day than sitting doing other things while my mom worked. I know that she enjoyed my help because she wasn’t as tired as she would’ve been if I had not helped doing small but big tasks around the house.

 

  • My random act of kindness was bringing the dirty dishes to the sink. I was about to run upstairs to my room after eating, but both of my parents were still sitting down. I stopped and turned around. They just finished their food, so I offered to take their plates. They said “thank you” and continued to watch their show. It felt good to do this small act for my parents. After all, that is the least I could do considering my mom cooked all the food for us while I watched Netflix.

For the December holidays, my students will be encouraged to complete another Random Act of Kindness, and I’ll be sharing  this list of fabulous ideas from fellow-educator Brad Aronson (@bradaronson).