What ARE the Odds?

http://insightbyseymour.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/2635-101413-gs2635.jpgFor the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking a great deal about the upcoming PARCC. I’m speaking of the Next Generation Assessment known as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. If you thought the Ohio Achievement Assessment was bad, then wait until you see THIS! I suggest, if you haven’t yet taken a look at this new online assessment, you should…and soon!

Over the last 5 years, educators across the nation have witnessed the development and implementation of the Common Core standards. In writing this piece, I found it important to research the who, when, and how the standards were developed before expressing my opinion about the PARCC. In a February 2014 article, Allie Bidwell of US News reported,

Although they only recently captured national attention, the Common Core standards – which lay out what students should know and be able to do by each grade – have been in the works since at least 2008. It all started with former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, who was the 2006-07 chair of the National Governors Association and now leads the University of California system.

During her stint as governor, Napolitano desired to develop an initiative focused on strengthening the country’s competitive position in the global economy. As students’ performance in math and the sciences have become comparatively lower than their global peers, the goal of this new initiative was “to give governors the tools they need[ed] to improve math and science education, better align post-secondary education systems with state economies, and develop regional innovation strategies” (retrieved from http://www.nga.org on December 4,2014).  Therein, a task force of governors, CEOs, and university presidents was created. Think about that for just a moment. Does that elicit any emotions for you as it did for me?

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I remember hearing that the Common Core was essentially birthed from the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 in that the standards were developed to hone in on the skills students needed to know and be able to do by the end of each grade level.  The standards were thick with specific skills all students were to master only, with NCLB, this varied from state to state as state leaders played more of a role in the development of their own standards. Unfortunately, the level of expectation varied significantly as well from state to state. States, like Massachusetts, were known for holding very high academic standards, while other states, like Tennessee, did not (Bidwell, US News, 2014), making it more difficult to comparatively determine whether scholars were making adequate growth compared to their global counterparts.

The Common Core differs in that the numbers of standards have been decreased for each grade level and the depth of each of those standards increased. That’s my subtle way of saying that the standards push our scholars harder to learn skills they are fundamentally and developmentally not yet prepared to learn, whether they are ready or not! Don’t get me wrong, I do see this as an incomprehensible issue. It’s clearly a problem, and yet I was not at all surprised to find that the challenge of developing equitable academic standards has been in existence since the desegregation of public schools in the 1960s. Students of minority ethnicity, lower socioeconomic status, born in poverty from parents struggling to keep a roof over their children’s heads and food on the table, and some of them with nothing more than a middle school education was prevalent then and still exists today. Oh yes! You see, what I’ve just described for you was my current classroom and any educator teaching in an urban school district can relate to that very description.

Our scholars have been chasing their peers to close an achievement gap that was created to keep minorities out of public education and distanced far behind their white peers for years! And now, here we are with the Common Core standards, an initiative started to strengthen our competitive position in the global economy when neither our scholars, nor their families, are adequately equipped with the resources or skills to compete in the local economy!

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Let me be clear, I can appreciate the idea behind the Common Core. I get it. We want to develop critical thinkers, leaders, social changers! But then you add the PARCC to the equation. Oh my goodness! Consider this, the majority of my fifth grade scholars are reading at a fourth grade or below grade level right now. I even have a few reading at a second grade level! SECOND GRADE!! That’s their fluency and comprehension level. Did you catch that? The majority of my class is still behind 1-3 grade levels in reading. They struggle to develop a 5 sentence paragraph with a clear topic sentence and strong conclusion. They’ve been working to develop these skills since the second grade. When they are challenged to push themselves to a higher expectation, they shut down with frustration. Oh, I’m not finished yet. My scholars barely know their basic multiplication facts, even though they’ve been exposed to them two grades prior. Many still struggle with regrouping in subtraction and will argue to the end that 0-4 = 4 even when provided proof that it is impossible!

Finally, after losing our technology teachers about four years ago, teachers were tasked to teach not only keyboarding skills, but also researching skills in a computer lab which we were scheduled to use once, maybe twice a week for 30-45 minutes, if we were lucky. There were several times I’d taken my class in to complete assignments and it’d taken the first 20 minutes alone just to get through all the glitches we’d face trying to simply get logged in! Amazing! Well, the computer lab no longer exists after 6 years of existence. The district has begun transitioning to the use of chrome books. I share a cart with a coworker. Yes, share! We make it work. Our scholars are most knowledgeable about how to search for information because that interests them. However, they still lack in the area of research, note taking, and essay typing. It continues to be a struggle for them since it requires more thinking and effort. Not a very good place to be with PARCC right around the corner, wouldn’t you think?

Our scholars, while they’ve shown growth in reading and math, are continuing to chase the leaders of the achievement gap every single day they enter our urban school. This is based on data from the Ohio Achievement Assessment, a two and a half hour, paper-pencil, written assessment. The new PARCC will assess my scholars electronically and will take multiple days. They will be given multiple reading samples at a time with two part answers where one answer will depend on scholars’ knowledge of and response to the other. On this assessment, scholars performance levels will be scored in the areas of text complexity, range of accuracy, and quality of evidence. There are multiple choice questions, matching, and two part extended responses that will need to be typed, providing explicit evidence from the text provided. The questions are much more challenging since they are multi-step questions and very different from what they’ve been used to. Scholars must use, not only the text provided, but also answers from previous questions to construct their responses. Seriously, if you haven’t seen the sample PARCC, you should take some time to peruse the website. Here’s the link:

PARCC Practice Tests

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If I sound a bit anxious about this Next Generation Assessment, it’s because I am, along with many of my urban school educator friends. It feels a lot like my scholars are being set up to fail! Do you understand that the growth my scholars have made, any growth at all, will absolutely go unnoticed after taking this test! And YES…I take it personally! If they are not functionally or developmentally prepared to meet the Common Core standards then how could they possibly be prepared to take this Next Generation Assessment? Well, I don’t know either, but it kind of sounds like yet another way to keep our minority scholars at the bottom end of the achievement gap. All I know is that we need to get our scholars ready for this PARCC with the limited resources we are provided and hope that just one of them beats the odds, gets across that gap, and comes out on top! With everything we’ve been given, what do you think those odds are?

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From Deliberate Ignorance to Intentional Awareness

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The bottom line is that most U.S. schools have no plan to provide the sorts of classroom instruction that at-risk kindergartners need. Neither high-quality, extensive professional development for kindergarten teachers nor expert tutorial instruction for at-risk kindergartners is on the agenda at this point. This means that most schools deliberately create a pool of students who will become struggling readers. I say deliberately because, unfortunately, that’s just what it is— deliberate ignorance of what we should do to address the problems of at-risk kindergartners. (Allington, 2011)

In a recent staff meeting, we read the article “What At-Risk Readers Need” by Richard Allington. The above quote stuck with me and elicited some great discussion among a group of us during the meeting. The article discussed the lack of instruction at-risk readers receive within the classroom. Allington asserts that children leaving kindergarten not knowing their letters and letter sounds will more than likely become struggling readers. In fact, at the time of this research, he stated that 66% of students were reading below grade level. Take a moment just to consider that. That means, two out of every three students in your classroom, are reading below grade level! Astounded by this realization, I had to stop and consider my own students and actually found the statement to be consistent with what is happening in my classroom!

My thoughts cling to these two words, “deliberate ignorance”. Who, in their right mind, would practice ignorance, on purpose?! Well, according to Allington, many of us tend to fall prey to this particular form of ignorance. You see, when we know that we don’t know a particular instructional process or strategy, we choose to deal with our ignorance by purposely overlooking those struggling students and focusing on those we know we can help instead. Why? Because it’s the easiest thing to do! It’s just as compelling as it is true, isn’t it? It was for me and, after some thought, I found, and consequently owned the fact that I, myself, have apparently been practicing this “deliberate ignorance” for much of the year!

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Okay, so, what exactly does this “deliberate ignorance” look like? I’ll explain by sharing my personal experience and perception of what it looks like in my own classroom. Earlier in the year, I acknowledged my fear of literacy instruction and development. I mean, I have enough knowledge of how to teach reading and comprehension skills to get by, but, when it comes to grammar, spelling patterns and conventions, this is a struggle for me. It has been for some time now, and although I continue to seek help and guidance, the mere thought of being responsible for the facilitation of my students’ literacy development, scares me to no end. If I fail, they fail, right? Well, with deliberate ignorance, that is exactly what I have already done…failed my struggling readers by providing surface level intervention.

Additionally, when it comes to guided reading groups, although I know and agree with the differentiation of instruction, the actual process of implementing 3-5 small reading groups a week, AND attending to my most bottom three readers, five times a week, during a separate intervention time during the day, along with collecting weekly data for all, has proven to be very overwhelming for me. Because of my overpowering insecurity, rather than attacking the issue, rather than researching, watching, and working to implement a new process, a new strategy, a new routine that would benefit my students…I did what benefited ME instead…and deliberately ignored the developmental needs of my lowest reading students. Listen, ignoring it was a lot easier than addressing it, so, I did what was comfortable. I KNOW I’m not alone in this, so I’m okay with this public admission. In fact, for me, this public realization and disclosure signifies my personal commitment to transform my deliberate ignorance into intentional awareness.

For me, choosing to become intentionally aware is a resolute, determined, uncompromising shift in paradigmatic thinking which will help me truly attend to the individual needs of my students. That means being intentionally aware of how students acquire and develop language, being intentionally aware of how students construct the meaning of vocabulary and being intentionally aware of how students construct meaning from what they are reading rather than simply labeling this with a quantified number or test score. It means tackling the areas of my practice that I fear so much with confidence and purpose. It means getting beyond the surface of my students learning and putting their needs ahead of my own, even when it feels uncomfortable. As I sit and reflect on my students and this year, I believe that becoming intentionally aware will do nothing less than further align my passion with my purpose. My students deserve nothing less than my all, especially when they so often feel that no one else will.

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Well, there you have it. That’s my take on deliberate ignorance. What about you? Is there an area in your practice that you can admit to being deliberately ignorant? If so, turn it around, become intentionally aware instead, and further align your passion with your purpose. Two-thirds of our students depend on it!

Know That You’re AMAZING!!

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Some months ago, I wrote a blog entitled, “The Matrix”. In it, I share the struggles my oldest has experienced with reading fluency and comprehension. I know I’ve spoken of him a great deal, but I am in absolute awe at the progress he’s made! I just can’t help it! All of my children are making great gains academically, but he truly exemplifies perseverance and hard work! He’s the one that has to work harder and longer, but he does it and he has proven to himself that it pays off!

He is now in the 6th grade and even though it takes him a little longer to do some things, he has demonstrated to himself that he does have the ability to achieve. He has made the Honor Roll all this year! Even with that, he has remained in disbelief about his Honor Roll status.  He didn’t believe it because he has doubted his capability for so many years! So much that he has stated, out loud, “I can’t get good grades. I’m not smart.” My husband and I looked at each other with astonishment and then came my response, “WHAT?!! Not only are you smart…you’re amazing!!”

A couple of days ago, he made a profound statement after taking his Reading OAA. He had been quite anxious about it to say the least and understandably so considering the difficulty he’s experienced with standardized testing thus far. In a concerted effort to boost students confidence, the school asks that parents write their students a note of encouragement for test days. I wrote him the attached note, not realizing the true impact it would have!

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When he called me after school, the first thing he said to me was he thought he did really well this time! He has NEVER sounded more confident and sure of himself!! It was a profound revelation from he who thought it to be impossible. I was filled with so much joy! I told him that was AWESOME! He continued by saying, “Yeah, I did slack a couple of times, but then I read your note and it helped me get focused!” I said, “Well, you DO know you’re amazing, right?”

I’ve said it before, there is power in words.  We all want our children to reach higher and go farther.  You know the saying, “if you can believe it, you can achieve it”. It is vital that we continue to instill in our students the importance of hard work and the diligent commitment it takes to succeed.  Come on, really. You do know they are amazing, right? So, no matter what it takes, we need to keep telling our children that they have a gift to share with the world, that they are capable of anything,  and just how absolutely amazing they truly are.

“The Matrix”: An Attempt at Evading the Inevitable

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During my last 13 years in education, my husband and I have had three children.  It’s true what “they” say…each one of them has their own identity. Each has their personal strengths and weaknesses. Two boys and a girl. Our youngest, a pretty little girl with tomboy tendencies; a girl after her mother’s own heart! She loves pink and purple, frilly dresses, wrestling with her brothers, running track, doing 1st grade homework, and reading! Everything a tomboy, teacher mom could ask for in a perfect little girl. Ok, I’m probably a little biased.

Our middle son, a fourth grader, is the dirty playground, playing in puddles, neighborhood pick up football game type.  He insists on playing with the big kids in the neighborhood. Exactly the things that make a daddy’s chest puff out with pride.  He does have a sensitive side, as well I must say.  He’s a pretty well-rounded young man for this 21st century day and age, if I do say so myself.  He is also the one that strives for academic perfection at this point and time.  Admittedly, we have to encourage him to put his book down or leave it at home when we run errands.  He reads all…the… time! I mean, that’s heavenly for a teacher mom, right?

Our oldest son, our first born, well…he learned to entertain himself at an early age. We were told that this was typical of the first-born, so, we went with it.  While he entertained himself, he entertained us as well. He loved Sesame Street, The Backyardigans, and Scooby-Doo and we thought that was so adorable at the time.  Three years into teaching, I thought I was doing everything right in terms of introducing him to literacy. I had labels all around the house (door, refrigerator, bathroom, etc.), we read to him every night, and he listened to books on tape. I mean, we were even teaching him sight words BEFORE he went to kindergarten! Everything you can think of, we did! After all, I am a teacher, so, I knew exactly what he needed to begin obtaining strong literacy skills, right?

By the middle of first grade, we began to notice that our oldest, our first-born, was struggling with reading. How could this possibly be? I mean, I’m a teacher!! I’m doing everything RIGHT!  He began to show strength in the area of mathematics, but was now shying away from reading. He didn’t want to practice reading at night and certainly didn’t want to talk about the pictures and what was happening in the story. His demeanor seemed to be saying, “Hey teacher mom, will you please just read the story.” He was beginning to become uninterested in anything that involved reading. We just assumed this was developmental. Everything will come together soon. His reading will improve and he’ll be a lover of reading, just like we dreamed he would be. After all, his mother IS a teacher and that’s how things are supposed to be, right?

I was heartbroken as things did not get better right away and in fact, reading is still a major struggle for our now 6th grader. Don’t get me wrong, he’s made excellent strides, but, in all honesty, reading remains his pain staking nemesis; the thorn in his side; his “matrix”. To him, reading was pages among pages of letters that simply frustrated him every day and evening at the beginning literacy stages. “What is this? What is going on?”, I thought to myself so very often. His MOTHER is a TEACHER for heaven’s sake! Why doesn’t he love this…this…reading! Tested…yes! Tutored…yes! Genres of interest? Certainly. Modeled behavior? Absolutely, yes, yes, yes!  We tried all of those things. Been there and done that. He, himself would admit, “Yes, reading is ok, but, it’s hard.”, so he did, and still does, everything he can to get around it. Therefore, the fact remains, that he, our first-born, sees reading as a matrix and evades reading at all costs. My goodness! Doesn’t he realize that reading is the main artery that cultivates every other subject? Reading is inevitable! There is no way around it! It’s connected to everything we do! Of course he knows this! For goodness sake…HIS MOTHER….IS…A TEACHER!

Well, in the grand scheme of things, he DOES enjoy reading about historical fiction and books about nature…for a few minutes at least. He gets excited about buying books at the book fair and going to the public library and we are extremely proud of him and his siblings for that matter for the gains they have all made. But when it comes down to it, if our son had to choose reading on his own, without prompting… Oh, no. This wouldn’t be number one on his list of things to do. He evades that matrix at every opportunity, even choosing to do more chores before reading! Yes, yes…I AM lucky in that aspect.

So, what of this thing called “reading”?  How do we as teachers get our students to appreciate this matrix that surrounds us?  We work with 20, 25, 30 students everyday and are suppose to put that teacher touch on literacy and reading to make it exciting and fun. But, what about that “one”? That one like my oldest son, who passed all the “identifying” assessments, and just simply is not motivated to read. How do we help them to enter the matrix with no fear? There is no portal to close and no magic pills to take to protect us from it or to avoid it. There is no evading what is inevitable! Reading is all around us! How do we help our students get motivated and connect with reading? I mean, come on…we ARE teachers after all. We DO have all the answers to everything. Don’t we?