On the Shoulders of Giants
I'm excited to let you know that after nearly SIX years blogging at this site, On the Shoulders Of Giants is moving over to CTQ's handsome new website! (Lots to explore there...more on that soon.)
If you are subscribed to this blog by RSS: no need to do anything at all--the feed will automatically transfer. If you aren't subscribed: visit this blog's new home at www.teachingquality.org/blogs/ArielSacks and bookmark or subsribe there.
All of the CTQ [TransformED] Bloggers have moved there too, and you can find the bunch of us in group blog formation here.
While my old posts at this site will still be visible (as well as findable at the new site), this... is... ... my final Typepad post!!!
Alas, the bags are packed.
Good bye, http://teacherleaders.typepad.com/shoulders_of_giants/. You've been good to me.
Hello, www.teachingquality.org/blogs/ArielSacks! Cheers! :D
I spent the day away from my students grading the writing portion of the 8th grade NY State Common Core ELA Exams. I got to grade one short response and one extended response. I've done this in previous years, but given all of the changes in the exam format and the standards being assessed, everyone was paying extra close attention to the way we were were trained to score the questions.
I have some serious questions about what I learned today, but unfortunately, that's about all I can say. That's because I had to sign a confidentiality agreement before the training and scoring began that said I would not share anything I saw or heard today in relation to the scoring of the test. (I wrote about this last year too--Must Teachers Keep Quiet About the Test?)
The way Pearson directs the scoring of writing pieces on these tests will impact the overall scores of our students this year as well as the way teachers prepare students to meet the demans of the test in subsequent years. The state released a rubric for the writing tasks in advance of the test on engageny.org, but the way the rubric gets applied to student work is where the rubber actually hits the road, so to speak, in the standardized assessment of these Common Core standards.
Here's the problem. These standards are still new and experimental, and so are the standardized tests designed to measure them. Inevitably, at this stage there are going to be glitches or issues with both the standards and the way they are being measured, especially when the people directly involved with them (teachers and students) did not have input into their design. It seems that teachers are being forced to comply with new standards and assessments, but not given a forum to offer vital feedback about them and the transition process.
I don't like being made to promise my silence. I don't understand what purpose it serves either, besides keeping problems out of the light.
To NY State and Pearson--don't require our silence. Admit that there are flaws in the new system with potential to do as much damage as any other flaw in our education system, and invite teachers and school leaders into the revision process.
I have been a fan of the Common Core Learning Standards for ELA since I first read them a few years ago. By and large, the Common Core Standards represent a direction that is more in line with what I've always tried to focus on in my teaching. I actually quite like these nicely organized standards that push toward deeper thinking.
I have a few concerns though. In no particular order, here they are:
- Not everything in the standards seems developmentally appropriate--analyzing author's purpose in the 3rd grade, for example?
- Only one teacher was included in the team of 60 who wrote the standards. (Perhaps this accounts the above point--either way, it needs to be checked and revised.)
- No mention of poetry writing. How many teachers across the country will stop giving students the opportunity to write poems? How is this good for kids?
- Fiction writing is downplayed, visible only as couched inside the general concept of "narrative" witing. This lessens our students' participation in a rich literary tradition.
- At least in NY, teachers have not been included in the design of assessments for the CCLS. Instead, Pearson is doing this work. And it shows in the product that teachers are not involved. Lots to think about and improve upon if the intention is there.
- Are standardized assessments going to drive the instructional shift toward Common Core? That would leave so much out! That would be to take a great opportunity and diminish it significantly and unnecessarily.
I've got a lot more to say about each of these points and I will be exploring them over the next several months. As I said before, I like the Common Core, but, as many educators are saying right now, I'm concerned about implementation. I see a need for some thoughtful revisions. Can we make that happen?
[image credit: leaguewriters.blogspot.com]
Directly before administering Day 2 of NY State ELA testing, about two 2 weeks ago, I gave students a warmup sheet, which asked them to "draw an emoticon or face that shows how you are feeling about the test today." Then it asked them to free write about it in the space below.
Below is a collection of some of the emoticons they drew. I find them entertaining in the way that they communicate some of the spirit of the middle school child, but also poignant in what they express about this yearly ritual that takes up significant space in their educational and personal lives. I wish I had photographed all of them, but this is a pretty good representation of the overall response:
Have you struggled to fit current events into your curriculum? Feel like current events is an "all-or-nothing" sort of thing to teach, and if you can't do it all, then might as well do nothing? I have. Here are two resources that have resolved that issue for me this year.
CNN Student News. Every morning at 4am, CNN creates a 10 minute news segment for kids. It's posted for free on their website, and teachers at my school have started showing it daily in homeroom. It's interesting and accessible for students, and they look forward to learning about the world every morning. They've even become fans of the anchor, Carl Azuz. There is tons of opportunity for discussion and follow-up reading, if time permits, and current events frequently connect with students' learning in their classes. I see this as a huge resource for increasing students' cultural capital. [Watch today's segment here.]
Upfront Magazine. This excellent current events magazine is a collaboration between The New York Times and Scholastic. My school ordered a subscription to it, and a class set arrives each month. We pass it among the different grades, so most students get a chance to read each issue. Students are very interested in the articles, which cover national and international news and issues. They are accessible for middle school readers, and they present a balanced view of most issues. I used this resource during a journalism unit to teach students about how feature articles are structured. Most of the articles in the magazine are features, with a few informational or Q & A pieces, and always a political cartoon. [View a sample issue here.]
During our journalism unit, I had several issues of Upfront as well as some other newspapers on the tables, and students got into the routine of simply reading the news at the start of class. It was very relaxing, introduces a large element of choice, and students learned a lot and became more curious about the world. Now, when the new issue comes, at least one teacher makes the magazines available for students at the start of class.
These resources have been so valuable to my students this year, and so convenient for me. Both present quality, age-appropriate ways to make current events a regular part of a middle school curriculum without having to "stop everything" and do current events for a few weeks, which I often see happen. These resources have helped me make it simply a part of my students' daily school experience, without leaving behind other important studies.
[image credit: http://classroommagazines.scholastic.com/products/the-new-york-times-upfront?promo_code=3791]
Any classroom teacher could have looked at Day 2 of the NY State ELA Exam that was administered last week on Wednesday and known that it was too much for students to do in the alotted 90 minutes. Unfortunately, it looks like neither Pearson nor the NY State Department of Education saw fit to consult (or listen to) teachers on this. The result was a test that many students did not finish, which will yield data that does not tell us much about what students can really do, when it comes to the new Common Core standards. (See this NY Times article for reporting on reactions to this test.)
As I looked through the test booklet to process each question, being a careful and not especially fast reader myself, I knew I would have struggled to finish in time. The test presented students with the following tasks to complete in 90 minutes:
- 3 lengthy passages, of 2-3 pages, with plenty of unfamiliar vocabulary for students to probem-solve and complex sentences for students to read and reread for understanding
- 7 complex multiple choice questions on each passage, which required students to look back at the passage and really think about what the question is asking and consider the implications of each answer choice to choose the best one. These were not straightforward, "did you understand what you read?" type questions and answers. There were several questions, for which neither I nor any English teacher on my team, was sure of the correct answer.
- 5 complex "short response" questions which require textual evidence in paragraph form.
- an extended response to one passage (an essay)
A sixth grade teacher I know--who finds the new CC standards a natural fit to her teaching--said, "If critical thinking is what we're really emphasizing with the Common Core standards, why was there no time given for that on the test?" Exactly.
The Common Core Language Standards say nothing about students needing to be able to read or write at a certain speed. My fast readers (students who read significantly faster than I do) had no problem with the time, but even very high performing students who read at a more regular speed or who think a lot about each sentence they write had trouble finishing. A good number did not complete the test. My students were not the only ones. An elementary school teacher I know reported that just over half of their students completed the test. One of my students with friends at NEST, a high performing, gifted and talented NYC school, told me her friends said only one person in their class finished the test.
The most unfortunate part of this is that we'll have no real way of knowing how our students would have done, had they finished the test. The data won't tell us much about our students' performance on the new types of tasks included on the test. I don't personally need such data to tell me what my students can and cannot do--but I know this data will be used to evaluate what my students' skills, as well as the impact of my teaching.
Though I have many criticisms about the use of standardized testing to measure teaching and learning, today I simply draw the line at a test that was impossible for many skilled readers and writers to finish. All they had to do was show some teachers that test... gross negligence, willful ignorance, or just mean? Any which way, students and teachers should not be guinea pigs for high stakes experiments.
[image credit: www.prevention.com]
For years now, fellow English teacher and blogger, Renee Moore, has been singing praises of the English Companion Ning, a site where English teachers can help each other and talk shop. I am finally there, and oh, what I have been missing!
This is the place for English teachers to pose questions like, what does "pre writing" really mean, what part of it do students need, and how do you use it in your classroom? It is also a place where English teachers can share love of literature and end up comparing the writing of Fitzgerald and Milton. It's a place to ask for good text suggestions for high school ELL's, and sharing materials for great poetry lessons, and commisserate about the amount of time we spend thinking about grading papers. The conversation is really thoughtful, and people are more than willing to share what they know and help each other. Their tagline is,
"A place to ask questions and get help. A community dedicated to helping
you enjoy your work. A cafe without walls or coffee: just friends."
How nice is that?!
I've been thinking a lot lately about how teachers can guide our own professional development. For English teachers, it doesn't get much better than a site like this. The ability to connect with other teachers asynchronously with no geographical obstacles, ask your own questions and help others is something we should all be doing.
If you teach English and you're not on the Ning, you're missing out!
Professional development for teachers today is often done "to us," not "by us." There is a lack of consistency in these top down PD initiatives, as different solutions to old problems are tried almost yearly, but never actually established or appropriately reflected upon by teachers and leaders. These "flavor of the month" initiatives are met with a lot of eye rolling by teachers, because they rarely speak directly to the needs we have in our classrooms. What's especially strange to me about this model is that it does not set up teachers to be the experts in our own field.
1. Once teachers acquire the basics of teaching (or during that period), we
would identify areas of interest, such as designing assessments, teaching the skills
of collaboration to students, or connecting with communities around student learning, to name a
2. Teachers would then explore these areas deeply in their
own teaching, drawing on available research and methods and developing their own practices that work for their students in their school
3. We would also participate in the discourse around
these practices within the wider profession. Unfortunately, the discourse has often included only
professors and researchers, and to some degree, preservice or beginning teachers through course work, but not
experienced, practicing teachers!
4. Finally, they would find themselves in a position to
share their developments with other teachers, both in their school and outside. They could write, present at conferences, and
moved into various leadership roles.
The result would be a more deeply skilled, empowered teaching force, in which we are clearly the experts at what we do.
[image credit: careergirlnetwork.com]
The past couple of months have taken a toll on me. Fulltime teaching and writing a book in my extra time, on top of my usual writing and teacher leadership activities, have been no joke. I've pushed myself mentally and physically past what I thought was my limit. No, writing is not a sport; I'm talking about teaching without a full night's sleep too many days each week, for weeks at a time. (Serious empathy going out to the teachers out there who are new moms and dads and do this for their little ones).
This weekend I'm spending time with family, and I feel like I'm barely here. I haven't had time to just be. I haven't had time to get my nails done or other seemingly unimportant stuff that grounds me.
I'm not complaining. I'm proud and excited that I've written a book about an aspect of my teaching that I feel so passionately about and can now share on a new level; I love my students and I'm energized by teaching every day. I would not say that this feeling is one of being burnt out. It's just that there is a personal cost to trying to do so much at once.
Yes, this should be called "Extreme Teacher Leadership"! There are other ways, though... Check out the discussion by teacher leaders at the Teaching Ahead Roundtable on hybrid roles.
[image credit: www.tourismontheedge.com ]
I've dreamt of a hybrid role that allows me to teach part time and lead part time. Here, for example, was my birthday wish a few years ago... the image from that post was so great I had to repeat it here.
Right now, there is a great discussion happening at Teaching Ahead: A Roundtable hosted by EdWeek Teacher and CTQ. Several teacher leaders, including myself, have posted descriptions of our ideal hybrid roles, and the discussion has been equally interesting.
My post is about creating a multi-layered teaching position and I'm working on a follow-up. Brooke Peters of the Odyssey Initiative has been writing about how to create a school around teacher leadership and she shares great suggestions and ideas for hyrbid roles gleaned from her travels to schools around the country. Ilana Garon, Lhisa Almashy, and Linda Yaron describe their unique, ideal hybrid roles.
Check in now--follow up posts are coming out!
[image credit: http://natalie.ukdesignernetwork.com/art/psele.jpg]