Tuesday, November 24, 2015

On Reading from the Four Corners

I recently read an article about David Coleman's ascension to president of College Board, which has been met with as much criticism as praise in education circles. This is largely due to Coleman's work as an education consultant but never as an actual educator. Coleman is widely known for his work on the Common Core State Standards and has been credited as the "architect" of Common Core. CCSS seems to be informed by very narrow and reductive theoretical perspectives about literature and its function in modern society. The issue is three-fold:
  1. Coleman believes that students do not read enough nonfiction.
  2. Coleman indicates that students need only understand what is "within the four corners" of the text.
  3. Numbers one and two above result in the devaluation of literary study and its reduction to nothing more than the practice of navigating a standardized test.
The assumption that students do not read enough nonfiction assumes that students are only reading in English Language Arts classes. Typical American high school students spend the majority of their school days in history, math, science, and elective classes. In a seven period day, usually only one is occupied by the English class. Even if reading only occurs in core classes, prose fiction and poetry still only account for 25% of what students should be reading. And English Language Arts teachers have long chosen quality nonfiction selections for study. My students read nonfiction by Mandela, King, Solzhenitsyn, Paine, Jefferson, Mather, and Edwards, just to name a few. These are studied in context with prose fiction and poetry.

Literature is civilization’s collection of stories about being human. Those stories did not spring forth from a vacuum. Culture, time, place, history, the human condition--these all inform literature. Shared reading of great literature connects people in powerful ways. Literature requires meaning be brought to it by the life experiences of the reader; thus, the same stories change over time for the reader. As we grow and experience life, our understanding of literature changes. Fiction is what initially makes people independent readers. It also teaches us that, while all fact is true, not all truth is fact.

The study of great literature cannot be contained within the "four corners" of text. It is inextricably connected to the culture, time, and conditions of its origin. One cannot read Dr. King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" without understanding the struggle of the Civil Rights Movement. It is in providing that anchor for students that Dr. King's message becomes clear. What is the purpose and justification for civil disobedience on the order that Dr. King advocates if the Movement doesn't exist for students? And if that is never connected to the extensive literature and history of civil disobedience in America and the world, what further meaning does King's letter have? Through the study of literature individual struggles can be seen as shared human struggles.

"Reading within the four corners" reduces the reading of literature to mere decoding. It turns vibrant, meaningful, rich, shared experience into pedantic test-taking skill sets. It ignores the intelligence and experience of readers. Reading within the corners reduces the reader to a cog and literature to a widget--it's mechanistic and dehumanizing. It strips readers of their voices. Which, for Coleman, may be the point.

*Many thanks to @NicoleBryson for letting me run this by you prior to hitting post!

**This post was informed and inspired by the following sources:

Sunday, April 26, 2015

In honor of standardized testing month...

I watched the news this morning, which was my first mistake. Then I read a number of articles relating to education policy. Mistake number two. I learn from my mistakes, sometimes quickly. Here's what I learned today: Education professionals must take back the dialogue regarding education.

We have to stop allowing people who have never done our jobs to dictate how we should do them. We have to stop operating within a rigged system and acting like the system is fair. We must stand against the systematic dismantling of public education at the hands of modern-day robber barons and their legislative cronies. We have to stop pretending that our jobs are not political. If taxes pay for it, government agencies regulate it, and legislative bodies craft policy for it, it's political. We must no longer be silent!

While I know that correlation is not causation, it is increasingly difficult to ignore what 15 years of consistent data have shown: poverty matters. Poorer students do not perform as well on standardized tests. Standardized tests are more accurately a measure of student poverty than of student learning (1). When the game is as rigged as standardized testing, the failure is on the part of the system, not those forced to operate within it.

The current system artificially creates winners and losers. The catch-22 is that if I do my job, and so do the state's many other teachers, and our children succeed, that is not a success; instead the rhetoric is that the test is not rigorous enough. When too many of Oklahoma's students passed the biology test, the cut scores were rigged upward, which created more failure. This was done after tests were scored and after those manipulating the data knew what that manipulation would do (2). When my students do not score as well on those same tests, the failure is said to be mine. When the data is so easily manipulated, and it is manipulated, those are not my students' failures, nor is it my failure. Such an artificially created failure rests squarely at the feet of those who created it.

We can no longer allow the rigged and manipulated data to be used for high-stakes decisions. Third graders are held back on the basis of a single test score on a test that is not designed to measure their ability to read. It's a language arts test! Eighth graders are told they will not be issued a driver's license if they are unable to pass the 8th grade "reading" test, which is also a language arts test and is not designed to measure their reading ability. High school students are not allowed to graduate if they do not pass the required number of tests, which have already been shown to be easily manipulated by simply raising the passing score after students' tests are scored. Teachers are evaluated, in part, based on the same manipulated data (but only if they teach a tested subject).

On top of that, schools are given a grade which does not reflect the true value of the school. The top performing students are often exempt from the end of instruction tests. Because they are exempt, their scores on the alternate tests do not count in the school's A-F data. You heard me correctly; the top performing students do not count in A-F if they are exempt from the EOI tests. If the district is lucky, an exempt student may count in the bonus section for AP or honors classes. Meanwhile, most of the bottom 25% of students count three times: once in whole school progress, once in the bottom 25% improvement, and usually in one or more subareas. A-F scores are skewed downward. Enough already!

Who does this system benefit? Testing companies who make billions of dollars in testing contracts with state departments of education, charter school companies who cash in on the rhetoric of failure, politicians whose campaigns receive donations from those companies and who gain campaign points by promising to "clean up public education and fire our way to the top." One thing is certain; children do not benefit from misguided, high-stakes test driven education reform.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Blogger Challenge and the Hideously Ugly Object Invasion

This week's blogger challenge, which I am late in responding to (dagnabbit, EOI testing!), is to write positively and about curriculum. Here goes...

Raymond Loewy is known as the father of modern industrial design--and for good reason. He, like the Bauhaus, de Stijl, and Craftsman artists, architects, and designers, promoted the idea that form follows function: an object must both fulfill its purpose and be aesthetically pleasing. In that order. 

I love good design. It makes me giddy. My favorite designers pay attention to the details that make an everyday object a thing of beauty. I hope that my students will appreciate good design as much as I do by the end of our project. It goes something like this...

"I challenge you to find the ugliest useful object you can acquire. It can be footwear, a kitchen gadget, a pen, desk supplies like paper clips or staplers, furniture, lamps, electronic devices, any object you come into daily contact with and wish you didn't have to look at. For me, it's the ultra-utilitarian plain crank-style can opener. (Produces said can opener.) It's flat. It's uncomfortable in the hand. It's not much to look at, and it begs for improvement. The more hideous the object, the better. Please bring in objects that started life as ugly things, not objects that have been made unsightly through misuse, neglect, or purposeful and malicious defacement." 

I ask them to bring their objects in a few days from the announcement, and then we discuss great designers, what drives them, and how their work impacts society. We look at beautiful things like ideas from industrial design shows, the work of the Bauhaus and de Stijl movements, and the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. I ask students why the objects need to look good. Why is it not enough for an object to simply function? We look at functional ceramic objects that are relatively simple and unadorned. Is there an inherent beauty in the simplicity of line and surface? Is there a difference between good art and good design? We talk about design as a career path. Then I throw down the gauntlet. 

"Students, your task is to redesign the object you brought in with you. You know, that ugly one? What can you do to reimagine the design? How can you elevate it? How will the user interact with it differently?"

So far this semester, my students have redesigned the high school track uniforms,  screw drivers and other tools, and shoes; created sets of inexpensive yet attractive dishes and flatware; designed homes and commercial spaces; and engaged in a wide range of other design problems of their choosing. 

I look forward each year to seeing how my students respond to the challenge. What they choose to redesign and how they approach the design process varies. Sometimes their redesign is literal; they remake the object in question. Sometimes it's conceptual; they produce renderings of their improved concept. Regardless of the varied approaches, invariably, my students rise.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

We Have to Stop Pretending...

When it comes to #oklaed, we have to stop pretending...
  1. that one multiple choice test tells us everything we need to know about a student, her teacher, and her school.
  2. that students are engaged in or will find a future need for the kinds of learning we are requiring of them. (See #1.)
  3. that we know what college and career readiness means for this year's seniors, much less for a kindergartener (or that it has any real meaning at all).
  4. that education reform is about student outcomes. (Spoiler alert: It's about money.)
  5. that teachers are the cause of all of society's ills, or that we can cure all of them.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Tech-E Assessment Tools or How to Make Assessment Fun!

I'll be straight with you...for me, assessment might as well be a four-letter-word, like data. I don't like giving tests, and even though I do it well, I don't want to take them, either. I prefer performance-based assessments that have real-world applications, but the reality of the education world is that my students have to test, and I have to collect and analyze the assessment data. This is not my favorite part of teaching. In fact, I could safely say that I teach in spite of testing. That is, until this morning. I learned about a few tools to gather assessment data that are engaging for students and teacher alike, and I'm excited to use them. That's right...I'm excited about assessment and data. Maybe for the first time. Ever.

Kahoot! turns testing into a game. The same information + new format = increased engagement. You can preview pre-built assessments, favorite them, copy them and make them your own, and get real-time instantly graded results. http://kahoot.it

Socrative: Ask questions and get answers. Students join your class and can answer or...wait for it...ask questions. http://socrative.com

Padlet: Multimedia Q&A. Students join a class and can pop in questions, answers, images, links, etc. Powerful stuff for engaging assessment. http://padlet.com

Today's Meet: Backchannel discussion on the questions of the day. Have students discuss a question as they research answers. Oh! The possibilities! http://todaysmeet.com

Comment. Let me know how these work for you.