Testing, Testing, 1-2-3 (Think about It)

I admit it. I’m guilty. I’m saying it out loud…err…writing it in cyberspace.

I confess. I used to believe high-stakes testing didn’t affect me. Why should it? I teach music. An elective. A non-tested subject. Save for AP Music Theory, I don’t need to worry about standardized testing at all. Not in my classroom!

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. (Or should I say, unsatisfactory?)

Testing is a burden to my school, and a detriment to the academic well-being (and sometimes emotional health) of my students. This is why it is important for all teachers in all subjects at every grade level to join the conversation about high stakes testing. If you think it doesn’t concern you, you’re mistaken. And I can sum up how it affects my courses in one word: remediation. File May 31, 3 21 14 PM

Every year, it is inevitable that some of my veteran students are unable to continue in my classes because they are being placed in remedial courses. Sometimes they are re-enrolled in a class where they failed their EOI; sometimes they must take two classes in the same subject area to catch up. At the middle school level, some of my students are removed from my class several times a week for additional help in courses where they are struggling or behind. No matter the circumstances, it takes away their elective courses. Which is really a shame because that’s one of only parts of their education our students really own.

Here are a few reasons why I question this practice:

 

  1. More doesn’t always mean more. I understand the concept of practice. Believe me. Something I say very often in my classroom is, “practice makes permanent”. I just can’t wrap my brain around why, when a kid is struggling in math, we think the answer is “more math”. Does the kid need remediation? Probably. But how will increasing the quantity of instruction improve the quality of the student’s performance? Besides, we might be missing an opportunity to help a student with concepts by introducing them through a different medium. Here are a few of the ways I incorporate other subject areas into my classes.
  2. We’re removing an opportunity for success. Everybody is a beginner in 6th grade vocal music. Everybody is just starting out in beginning band. The playing field is even. This is not the case in most other classes, particularly the ones we are trying to remediate. When we remove students from electives, we are taking away a chance for them to gain confidence in a setting (maybe the only setting) where they are performing at equal level with their peers. Music might be the only class where students aren’t reminded constantly how far behind their classmates they perform. Art might be the one place where a kid excels, and feels a sense of accomplishment and pride. This confidence can be the catalyst for success in other areas within a child’s education setting.
  3. Students should have some say in what they study. Kids who read below grade level, are struggling in math, or have trouble writing complete sentences (let alone that essay for the writing exam), already more than likely don’t like school very much. I can’t see how we’re helping a child want to come to school and learn by taking away the one or two classes he/she actually chooses to take. Presence is important. If we take away the tiny bit of ownership they have in their education, not only will they leave school everyday exhausted and downtrodden, they will probably start looking for reasons not to come at all.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not assigning blame to administrators, counselors, special education teachers, or any others who are removing students from my classes. Their hands are tied. I am, however, blaming the reformers and legislators who jumped into the high stakes testing boat without seeking feedback from educators concerning how this will ultimately affect our kids. If they had (and had they listened), we wouldn’t be in this “drill and kill” test culture in which both students’ and educators’ performances are reduced to an arbitrary number used to rank and punish. I’m not saying all testing is bad. I’m a “numbers” person, myself. Test data should be used to help us identify places where we can improve instruction and services to students. It’s in attaching such high stakes (grade level promotion, diplomas, teacher evaluations) to these tests that we have corrupted their original purpose.

We hear from teachers of tested grades and subjects all the time about how this practice is ruining education. I hope we keep hearing from them. I challenge the rest of us teachers, the “non-tested” ones, to reflect on how testing is changing the culture of our classroom and our schools. Think about it. Furthermore, I issue a call to join us in the crusade to roll back testing, and to return to the true purpose of school: to identify, celebrate, and nurture each child’s unique gifts.

“You better think…think about what you’re trying to do to me. You better think…let your mind go, let yourself be free.

People walking around everyday, playing games, taking scores, trying to make other people lose their minds. Well, be careful, you’re gonna lose yours.”

119 Days and Counting…

January 12th was “National Clean Off Your Desk Day”. It was also the day Joy Hoffmeister was sworn in as the State Superintendent of Oklahoma. Does anybody else find that ironic? I can certainly name one person who was cleaning off her desk that day (or preferably before). It’s always refreshing when you have a job to do to start with a clean and tidy workspace, isn’t it?

It’s been 119 days, not counting Sundays (because this is Oklahoma), since Joy took office. Where was Joy in those first few days as superintendent? A shorter answer might be to the question, where wasn’t she? She was in schools, worked alongside teachers, met with administrators, attended meetings, spoke at the rally, promoted legislation we liked, and spoke out against the bills we didn’t. Finally! An advocate for public education in the office of State Superintendent! For the most part, educators have been pinching themselves, afraid we will wake up from this dream.

Of course, there are always the Debbie Downers. You can please some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time. Amiright?

For instance…

I have heard a few grumblings about our fearless leader’s comments concerning the passage of SB630, one of the bills dealing with the RSA.

Here’s what Joy tweeted last week:

File May 28, 8 22 56 PM

Notice she did not thank legislators for passing SB630 as a whole. She was specific in praising the extension of the RSA teams that will decide retention. This was the golden nugget in that piece of legislation. I might be alone in my thinking here (nothing new), but I think failing SB630—our LAST chance this legislative session to extend RSA teams—to make a point about our stance against RSA in general is cutting off our nose to spite our face.   Sure. Some legislators claimed they could lay over other RSA legislation and address the issue next session. I’ll take the bird in the hand on this one. Because quite frankly, I don’t trust to happen what they say will happen.

Speaking of stuff that happened…

Here are some things that happened in the last 119 days:

  • Within days of taking office, Joy launched her OKHigh5 plan, to increase teacher pay by $5K, and add 5 instructional days to the calendar.
  • Our superintendent has joined fellow educators at professional development, and participated in several #oklaed chats on Sunday nights.
  • Prompt attention was given to fixing the problem with students receiving instant performance level feedback (including “unsatisfactory”) on state tests administered online.
  • Some redundant and/or excessive testing was eliminated.
  • The implementation of TLE was rolled back to give more time to investigate equitable evaluations for all teachers.

Almost as important, here are some things that did not happened in the last 119 days:

I could go on, but instead I’ll just refer you to the countdown over at okeducationtruths from last June.

In the words of a trusted colleague, “Rome wasn’t built in a day and the mess we are in wasn’t created in one session.” We can’t expect one person to fix in 119 days what it took one dentist and her power-hungry, self-righteous, holy-war-waging posse years to build.

On that note, I’ll leave you with this little gem from George Harrison. He was one of The Beatles, so that should count for something.

“It’s gonna take time.  A whole lot of precious time.  It’s gonna take patience and time…to do it right, child.”

#Oklaed Blog Roundup: Memorial Day Weekend

It was another great blogging week in #oklaed. If you were out of town, or otherwise occupied for the Memorial Day holiday, allow me to point you toward a few of the #brilliant posts you might have missed.

The Extinction of Tyranno Experior by Rob Miller. We should all keep fighting to slay the high stakes testing beast.

Blue Cereal Education has been on a roll lately. Read his post, Teach Like You, and then scroll through a few others. You won’t be disappointed.

I know I’m guilty of spending too much time talking about what I’m against (high stakes testing, vouchers, inequitable teacher evaluations, low teacher pay, the general overreaching of legislators into education…see? There I go again…). Over at Teaching from Here, Scott’s talking about what he is FOR in education.

Peter Greene is a national education blogger. I’ll bend the rule for eligibility in the #oklaed roundup because his blog, Curmudgucation, never disappoints.  Plus (cue music), it’s my round-up and I’ll post what I want to (post what I want to, post what I want to)…I love what he has to say about The Myth of the Hero Teacher.

Meghan wraps up her fourth year of teaching by reflecting on her first one over at her blog, For the Love. My favorite lines: “I laughed a lot. I cried a lot. I banged my head against my desk a lot. But I wouldn’t change a thing.” I think we teachers can all relate to that, yes? Plus, she has some great words of encouragement for first-year (and second-year, and let’s face it…eleventy-second year) teachers.

I imagine there are plenty of Memorial Day festivities happening at The Porch, but they still found time for some blogging. Join us where life is sweet: in the middle.

I would be flattered if you checked out my “wrap-up” post from Saturday reflecting on the last few months in #oklaed and our legislature.

Finally, let’s all take a minute to reflect upon the meaning of Memorial Day, and the men and women we honor and mourn today. Thank you, Rob (again), for helping us in Remembering Some Gave All.

We Didn’t Start the Fire

Yesterday, I wrapped up my first year back in the classroom after a two-year hiatus from teaching. It also marked the end of this year’s legislative session, and my first year involved in political advocacy for public education. For years, the blog posts at A View from the Edge and OKEducationtruths landed in my newsfeed occasionally. Whenever they did, it always led me down the rabbit hole in binge-reading several of their other pieces. But I was leery of commenting or blogging myself because I felt I wasn’t knowledgeable enough to add anything of value to the conversation.

I finally worked up the courage to leave my first comment on Rob’s blog in January. And he responded! I started a twitter account in February, and watched the #oklaed chats on Sunday nights. Eventually, I jumped in. In March, I attended EdCampOKC, where, I’ll admit, I was a little celebrity-shocked to be in the same room with several edu-bloggers I read regularly: Claudia Swisher, Rob Miller, Rick Cobb, Jason James, and others.

In late March, I took the plunge and started blogging myself. I intended to write mostly about content in my subject area, mentoring new teachers, and general reflections of my experiences in the classroom. A few of my posts might be construed as political, and several contain a call to advocacy for teachers, parents, and community members. Along the way, I have nagged several successful education advocates and bloggers who have graciously read my posts, offered feedback, and encouraged me.

This year has been eye-opening. Veterans to education advocacy and politics will probably laugh at my naiveté, but the agenda for—or rather against—public education in our legislature is shocking. What follows is my personal wrap-up of some of the highlights from the past few months.

Imagine singing this to the tune, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel:

ACT, RSA,

Joy is doing okay.

Teacher shortage, teacher pay,

Can we make them want to stay?

Voucher wolves are at the door.

Fisher and his holy war.

Scott’s grumpy, Rob is mad,

Bullies on the school board.

[We didn’t start the fire.

It was always burning since the world’s been turning.

We didn’t start the fire.

No we didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it.]

 

Rally at the capitol.

There’s a budget shortfall.

Education funding stalls.

ALEC wants to rule it all.

Fallin is a no show,

Union dues a “no-go”.

No excuses, fund us now

#oklaed is on the grow

[We didn’t start the fire.

It was always burning since the world’s been turning.

We didn’t start the fire.

No we didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it.]

Who’s the man behind the mask?

Teachers leaving OK fast,

Cramming kids into a class.

OCPA kiss my _________.

Pearson wants to read our tweets,

Please delay the TLE,

Thousand empty teacher seats,

What we’d do if we were kings!

I will not pretend to be as knowledgeable in these issues as some of my colleagues, nor would I ever presume to place myself in the company of such prolific bloggers as the ones I have mentioned and follow. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to encourage all teachers to get informed and get involved. We aren’t politicians, and most of us don’t want to be. But we’re going to have to become more politically savvy if we want our voice to be heard—a voice speaking on behalf of the best interests of our kids.

There were some accomplishments this year, in my humble opinion. We kept the voucher wolves at bay, dismantled a piece of Anti-AP legislation, extended the sunset on RSA committees, put pressure on the legislature to stop the cuts to education funding, delayed TLE, and laid the groundwork for other important legislation to come in the future. I believe those ends were accomplished because we spoke up and spoke out.

But I’m not convinced these issues won’t keep resurrecting, and that others will be resolved, unless more of us get involved. Especially important is the task of holding legislators accountable with our vote. Next year is an election year. For more information on that, I refer you to my friends over at the porch.

I have a 40-minute drive to and from work. That’s a lot of time in my car for thinking. The other day, my mind was filled with concern for the future of public education in Oklahoma, with frustration toward our legislators who continue to chisel away at funding (and morale), and with the question of what—if anything—I can do about it. My phone was plugged into the auxiliary input playing music through the radio. It was at that time, that—out of the 600 songs in my library—this one came on:

Well, I won’t back down

No, I won’t back down

You can stand me up at the gates of Hell

But I won’t back down

No, I’ll stand my ground

Won’t be turned around

And I’ll keep this world from draggin’ me down

Gonna stand my ground

And I won’t back down

Hey, baby, there ain’t no easy way out

Hey, I will stand my ground

And I won’t back down

Well, I know what’s right

I got just one life

In a world that keeps on pushin’ me around

But I’ll stand my ground

And I won’t back down

I don’t think there’s any need to elaborate. Who can argue with Tom Petty?

Advice for the Graduate

Forgive me while I turn on the sappy-ness. Yesterday was the last day of instruction, and last night was graduation in my district. It’s to be expected that we teachers get a little nostalgic and teary-eyed at the end of school year, right? File May 22, 4 12 06 PM

In some capacity, I have worked with almost every grade-level, from Pre-K to 12th grade, over the past ten years. With the exception of the two year hiatus I took to be with my kids, I have taught at least one high school class every year. Some students I meet and teach for the first time their senior year. Others I am blessed to mentor and teach for multiple years, sometimes all four, of their high school career. Most of the time, they teach me, too.

At the end of the year, I find myself scrambling to complete their education. Not as musicians, but as people. I think of things I want them to know while I try to sleep at night, while I’m getting ready in the morning, or driving to and from work. I pat them on the back or hug them more often. I ask them about their plans, and offer help if they have not finalized them. I write recommendations for scholarships and serve as a reference for jobs. I let them “friend” me on Facebook. I remind them to check in with me from time to time.

And sometimes I find myself saying things that seem silly, but that I really want them to know:

Don’t wait to tell people you love them. Call your parents. Always carry a little cash. Step out of your comfort zone every now and then. Volunteer. Don’t be ashamed to ask for help. Accept that failure is part of learning. Drink lots of water. Wear sunscreen. Treat yourself occasionally. Try not to let your gas tank get below ¼ full. The experts are wrong: it’s perfectly okay to go to bed angry. You’ll be amazed what a little daylight will do for that anger. Don’t expect to magically have all the answers when you turn 18 or graduate from college. And don’t panic when you don’t.

But more than anything, I want you to remember this:

No matter how much you love what you do, always love people more.

Notice I didn’t say you have to like people. You may not be a “people person”. And that’s okay. You don’t have to work with people to work on their behalf. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a job anywhere that doesn’t touch people in some way. You may not work directly with many people in a medical research lab. But your work could inevitably touch many people. As a journalist or a writer, you may not see the way your words affect those that read them. But they will. Your work, even if done in solitude, will find a way to influence the lives of people.

That is why loving people is so important. Love will hold you accountable to the knowledge that your work will find its way into the lives of others. It will drive you to work toward contributions to the greater good. And that is the only way we can ever bring about positive change.

College graduation, May 2004

College graduation, May 2004

Yes, people can be a source of pain in your life; but people will also be the main source of joy, healing, help, encouragement, laughter, comfort, hope, and love. It’s okay to be passionate about your career. But always love people more. People will always have the greatest return for your investment.

Hire Me! I’m Cross-Curricular!

Tonight was another great #oklaed chat. The topic was hiring and retaining teachers, an important and urgent issue given our current teacher shortage. There was some discussion about interview technique, which made me reflect on my own experiences in interviews for teaching positions.

As you can probably surmise from the name of my blog, I teach vocal music (crazymusicteacherlady was already taken…seriously).

One of the questions I am almost always asked in interviews is, “how do you collaborate with other teachers and incorporate other subject areas into your teaching?”

I know the five or six of you who read my blog are just dying to know the answer. You’re in luck, because I’m a people-pleaser. Here you go:

Science:

Singing is as much science as it is art. Maybe more so. Mr. Holland may have been able to teach a kid to “play the sunset” on her clarinet.

But in real life, it’s not that magical.

We talk a lot in my classroom about breathing. A LOT. As in…every day. I have to give at least a brief explanation of the breath mechanism in order for students to visualize what is happening inside and outside of their bodies during the process. I explain the difference between diaphragmatic and costal breathing, and why diaphragmatic breathing is imperative to good vocal production. We do many different exercises, and I approach the concept from many different angles in order to encourage good habits with breath support. It’s a mini-biology lesson in my class.

With my older students, I also talk occasionally about the vocal folds, and how sound is produced. This is a good springboard into the science of acoustics. The same principle that makes airplanes fly (the Bernouli Effect), is the one that makes our vocal cords produce sound. Pretty cool, huh?

Math:

I tell my students all the time that “music is math”. My right-brained students especially excel at music theory. Many are surprised to discover that there is a “formula” to music composition. It’s not just random notes on a page. With my younger students, we get into math concepts when discussing rhythm. Especially when talking about time signatures. Only a certain number of rhythms will fit into a measure. This is determined by the number of beats in each measure, as indicated by the time signature. When the measure is full, you have to start over in a new measure. Essentially, we are working with different number bases (i.e. a base of “4” instead of “10” like they are accustomed to). They don’t realize it, but they’re thinking critically.

History/Social Studies:

As long as man has been around, there has been music. I’m fairly certain that if we suffered a global catastrophe, and only a handful of humans survived, the first thing they’d do upon exiting whatever cave in which they sheltered would be to bang a few sticks together and write a song to tell the story. Music has always been an integral part of every culture—our traditions, our stories, our ceremonies. I love seeing my students’ faces when I remind them that people nearly 300 years ago were singing the same Vivaldi piece they are rehearsing. It’s sort of a pipe dream of mine to teach a “rock/pop history and culture” class someday. I especially love pointing out cultural and historical references in contemporary music. Just think of how much fun we’d have with Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire”!

Language Arts:

This is an easy one with vocal music, because we are always dealing with text. With my younger ones, it’s a good introduction to meter. My more mature students are capable of discussing interpretation. I also try to point out “text painting” and the different techniques the composer uses to treat the text and convey the overall meaning. I wrote about this in another post a while back. Also, you should check out this one by Dr. Cobb over at okeducationtruths.

I’m curious…what are some questions you are frequently asked in interviews? Answer in the comments, or better yet…blog about it and I’ll post a link to the responses on this page.

Your Mission, Should You Choose to Accept It…

I can say without doubt that several of my blogger colleagues (like my friends over at My Grandma’s Porch) can provide more insight and valuable resources. I encourage them to leave a comment with additional input, or link to their own post in the comments.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post (Village, We Need You), in which I called upon parents and community members to join the fight for public education. It seems whichever way we turn, public instruction is under attack from misguided and misinformed reformers, many of whom never set foot in a classroom. Teachers are growing weary of being left out of the conversation when it comes to deciding how best to teach our children.   We’re fighting for what we know to be right for our students, but gaining little ground (or so it seems). When it comes to legislation regarding education, one thing is very clear to me: parents are still the most powerful voice for change.

This prompted a query via Facebook from a good friend. She’s a parent with young children just starting in public education:

File May 11, 9 29 47 PM

I’m still relatively new to the political side of education. For years, I watched from the sidelines, content to leave the advocacy to the professionals while I kept to the business of running my classroom. Sadly, I’m beginning to feel we have reached a “tipping point” in education reform where we can no longer afford to be apolitical. If we don’t speak up on behalf of our kids, we are accepting via abstention the decisions being made by others.

Here are some ways I encourage parents to become involved:

  1. Stay informed. Keep up-to-date with legislation concerning education, specifically the bills that address what concerns you most. I find the Oklahoma PTA and OSSBA websites to be helpful resources. You can read the language, see the history, and view the votes for any bill in the current legislative session at the Oklahoma Legislature website. If you’re a numbers person, you might find interesting this website of school profiles, which is provided by the Office of Educational Quality and Accountability. Social media is also a great way to connect with other advocates. I recently joined the Facebook group, Oklahoma Parents and Educators for Public Education. I follow #oklaed on Twitter and the Oklahoma Central PLAC (Parent Legislative Action Committee) on Facebook.
  2. Contact your legislators. Tell them your concerns, and how you would like for them to vote on certain issues. Be polite, but firm. When you have questions, expect them to answer, not deflect or assign blame. Be sure to follow up those e-mails with a “thank you” when the vote goes your way. During election years, ask candidates where they stand on the issues that matter to you, and what they plan to do when in office concerning those issues.
  3. Tell your stories. Tell your kids’ stories, too.   Tell anybody who will listen. In the grocery store. At church. Among friends. To your families. At the ballpark. At the dance studio. In vacation Bible school. Make it personal. Because it is.
  4. Hold legislators accountable with your vote. This is, in my opinion, the most powerful tool for advocacy. If you believe a candidate is not serving in your best interests, then vote for one in the next election that will, regardless of what political party with which he/she affiliates.

Personally, I want to see an end to meaningless high-stakes testing, replacing the End-of-Instruction (EOI) exams with the ACT, and eliminating tests that are not federally mandated. With three young children beginning school in the next few years, I want to see the 3rd grade Reading Sufficiency Act (RSA) amended to make permanent the committee that decides retention (or for the RSA to go away completely). I want to see the teacher shortage addressed by providing competitive pay and eliminating unfair and inequitable teacher evaluation systems that rely too heavily on student test scores. I want to keep public tax dollars in public schools. I want to keep corporate charters at bay, and allow local school boards to maintain control in their local districts. You may not entirely agree with me on all of these issues, but I encourage you to inform yourself and form an opinion concerning the issues that matter most to you.

File May 15, 9 22 18 PMIt takes a village, folks. And indeed, we need you, village. In desperate times, sometimes the village has to take up arms to keep the wolves at bay. It’s time to arm ourselves with the information and iron will necessary to fight for our kids, and to entrust power only to those who have their best interests at heart.