The vanishing worksheet

In a time when we substitute “negative patient outcome” for dead, we can be reassured that the lowly worksheet has not bought any farms, and is not kicking buckets in its free time. No, the worksheet remains alive and well. Students are still plotting points that turn into pumpkins. But teachers are creating euphemisms for that worksheet. We provide “class work” or “activity sheets.” We supply “guided practice” or “independent practice.” If possible, we group kids so that they can work on the “reinforcement activity” together, helping to further disguise the nature of that piece of foolscap which happens to be covered with math problems or worse — perhaps even spelling or grammar exercises. It’s getting harder to defend teaching grammar and ridiculously hard to stand up in favor of spelling, unless you couch spelling in terms of providing practice with Greek and Latin affixes. It’s also getting harder to prevent cheating if you classify shared work done by groups in that category.

Eduhonesty: Worksheets are old-fashioned, we are told. Students need to be “engaged” and worksheets do not inspire them. All I can say is, when today’s students find those bosses who want to engage and inspire them, while those students decide whether or not doing actual work is worth their time, I hope they’ll Facebook me so that I can quit and join the firm.

Too many calculators and not enough plotted points

On a regular basis, I confront the question: Where does the learning go? Academic fundamentals seem to fade away over the summer. Our elementary-school efforts become evanescent collections of fading facts and fantasies, math and English once seen and then forgotten.

Why do my students reach middle school unable to add 1/2 and 3/4? Why don’t they realize that a positive number multiplied by a negative number always yields a negative answer? Why have they forgotten to line up decimal points? Did a previous teacher really tell my students that they do not have to know how to divide? That’s less improbable than it seems: I had a district administrator tell me the same thing a few years ago, suggesting that I hand my class calculators and forget about the mechanics of division.

Other districts score much higher than my district. What do they do differently?

Eduhonesty: Part of my challenge this year (as usual) has been an egregious lack of previous learning to build upon. Teachers are supposed to start by finding out what their students know, building upon previously absorbed fundamentals. However, I have stumbled upon one, and only one, single item in my year’s curriculum that my students seemed to know. My students can plot points, even if a number needed a refresher on which direction to go and when. The mystery remains. I’m sure these kids added, subtracted, multiplied and divided fractions. Why do we seem to be starting nearly at scratch in so many places?

I have an interesting suspicion. Many quick, fun activities for math involve plotting points. We hand out points to plot that turn into pumpkins at Halloween. We hand out boats, trees and bunnies. We may even let students color and decorate the final products. These activities make good openers, five-to-ten minute activities that allow teachers to take attendance and handle administrative questions.

Perhaps the main difference between plotting points and adding fractions comes down to total amount of practice time. We practice plotting thousands of points. If I’m right, I’d say this fact argues for a great many more fraction worksheets even if worksheets are no longer in vogue. It also argues against pressing forward with the curriculum so quickly that those worksheets don’t happen. We need to stay focused on the need for repetition. All these fun activities to introduce new material provide little or no benefit when that material has become no more than a wisp of memory one year later.

Friday wasn’t so bad

I brought in banana cake to eat before school. We had revived Secret Santa although heavy absenteeism and probably previous confusion kept the number of presents down. That worked out in our favor, since the Principal arrived in my room very early in the morning. When she arrived, all students were seated and listening. Bits of suspicious banana cake and a few random presents were scattered around, but my co-teacher and I were busy discussing administrative issues with the students while the Principal watched. I’m glad it didn’t look or sound like a party. Later that day, we sacrificed tutoring time and some of our last class to incentives and rewards for better students. Students without recent disciplinary infractions got to play games, use electronics, and start movies. I guess they will have to rent those movies if they want to see the endings, but the close of the school day allowed for a treat.

Eduhonesty: I enjoyed Friday incentives for the same reason I enjoy Saturday tutoring. I had a chance to talk with small groups of students. This bell-to-bell, block-schedule instruction flies in the face of research on children’s attention spans. Generally I think America’s children need more breaks and exercise than they receive. I was glad to get a break, a chance to look at pictures and selfies on phones while finding out about older brothers and sisters I remember. We had some fun. We did some team-building. The New Year will work better because of silly selfies, I’m sure of it.

Sea of bubbles, forest of teeth

The guy across the hall is impressively bright. I love the guy across the hall. He’s intelligent and dedicated to his craft. He’s witty, the source of funny moments that balance out crazy days.

Yesterday we discussed the resiliency issue that I raised in my last post. He agrees that all these impossible-to-understand tests are hurting students’ self-esteem. He knows that the tests are poor tools to use to test understanding since they contain material the students do not yet know. He’s on my page. Just about every teacher I know has joined me on this page, to one degree or another.

Yet we all keep handing out these tests. Because we fear for our jobs, we seldom protest. Tenure no longer provides much protection to someone who appears to disagree with the administration. We look at the latest test some outsider created, the latest test we are required to administer. We shudder. Then we start handing out Number 2 pencils and bubble sheets, or stapled sets of standards-based gobbledygook. If our students don’t understand what’s on the test, that material might as well be ancient Greek or purest gobbledygook.

Why are we letting this happen on a day-by-day basis? I believe part of the reason lies in the fact that we have become lost in the forest. The tests are trees, so many trees everywhere that we lose any sense of where we are actually standing. We just slog through the underbrush, passing more trees as we go, impediments to hack through and weave around that take up all of our time. We can’t see the landscape. We are blocked in by trees.

When we glimpse the landscape, we mostly just rush off to the next professional development meeting, or the next team meeting, or the next emergency sub assignment. We hunker down with the next set of emergency documentation that needs to be prepared for the administration. Teachers are too busy to fight the pernicious effects of testing.

This forest is dangerous for our kids, filled with with creatures with sharp teeth. We are ripping away at some psyches when we hand out those bubble sheets. We know this. But the next set of papers are always due, the next set of documentation has to be prepared. We try to ameliorate the damage while providing our mixed message: Do the best you can because this test is important, and may determine your future classes, or even affect your whole life, but don’t worry if you can’t answer the test questions. We just want you to do your best.

Unfortunately, some of America’s children hear frequent utterances from their teachers that make little or no sense. “Do your best” we say. Many students just let the words wash over them, as they drift through a sea of bubbles and a forest of teeth. “Whatever,” the kids say. “Whatever” may be the best defensive strategy many kids can come up with today.

I’d like to help my students, as I watch their apathy increase in tandem with irrational testing. But I spent the whole night getting ready for the next school day. I’m sick and about to cut sleep again. I have no time. I can’t think who would listen to me either.

On the plus side, the science final went surprisingly well.

Big bubble test today again

We spent yesterday doing the maligned whole-group instruction, but I did not see an alternative. We went over the ideas in the bubble test, one by one, along with strategies for multiple choice tests when you don’t even have a clue where to start. A few of them had most of the ideas at the end. We’ll see how it goes.

Eduhonesty: Bubbles here, bubbles there. They probably see bubbles in their sleep. I’m sure they do. I know I test in my sleep.

All I have taught for the last couple of weeks is how to do test problems on the next set of tests. That might be alright, if the problems were the right problems. But these problems are preparing my students for seventh grade PARCC exams when the average academic level in one class is third grade. The students in this class need to learn fundamentals. They need more time for fundamentals than I am able to provide them because I need to keep them from failing these impossible exams. Scratch that. They are going to fail. I need to provide them with some successes, an occasional right answer.

Personally, I don’t think I am testing math skills. If I were testing math skills, I would be filling in the gaps in their knowledge base and testing them on that material. I would be laying a foundation for future work. I doubt I am doing that because my efforts are too specifically focused on narrow sets of materials needed to pass required proficiency exams written by people who have watched “Field of Dreams” too many times. If you write the test, they will not magically leap the missing four years of mathematics that previous tests have documented.

No, I don’t feel as if I am testing math skills. I feel as if I am testing resiliency. How many times can a given student survive being made to feel stupid? When I regularly hand that student a test filled with questions that are pitched years above that student’s operating level, I make that kid feel stupid. I keep giving pep talks, but those pep talks might as well be bandages on third-degree burns. What are we doing to our students’ self-images when we make this kind of testing a way of life?

Secret Santa was cancelled

Between the no class parties rule and the number of students not expected to be in class on Friday, Secret Santa has been unceremoniously put to rest. My poor, sparkly pink tree sits in a corner of the room, decorated with sheets of cut-out white paper, courtesy of a boy who has been suspended. Too bad he can’t see his tree. It’s the only vestige of any holiday spirit in the room, a poor ill-favoured thing that will be quietly carried out to the car on Friday. I can’t even teach a geometry lesson and use that to make ornaments; geometry has not been incorporated into the math team’s lesson plan for the week.

Meanwhile, the Assistant Principal threatened me again today. I let two students out to get their notes since we were taking a test in which I was letting them use hand-written notes. I went and stood in the doorway since they cannot be out alone without official passes. (But they weren’t alone. I was monitoring the locker run.) He told me he would “talk to me later” about my violation of protocol. Sigh.

Eduhonesty: Looking forward to break. So are my very-well-tested students.

It’s 2:40 AM, I’m getting sick and I’ve gotten up to work

Because of extra tests and grading and endless meetings, this appears to be the time to start all the failure documentation that is due today. I collapsed last night. My obligatory paperwork did not disappear while I slept. It didn’t help that I stayed late to help students. But somebody has to help the students and woman tutoring was clearly overwhelmed when I first saw her. So here goes.

Eduhonesty: Yucch. I want to go to bed. But I have to get this done and I had better start NOW.

No parties allowed

I printed the pertinent page from my email to show the kids. I don’t want them to blame me for this. We are not allowed any class parties on December 19th, the last day before break. I’m not sure how secret Santa will be managed. I will have to talk with my coworker who mostly set this up.

This morning, I also printed the twelve pages of lesson plans for the week since I like to have a copy on my desk. I have been grading my standardized test, and grading and grading and grading that test, so I didn’t have time to print the lesson plans yesterday. I’ve had zero time to prepare a study guide for the quarter exam in science. I am going to use the eight-page test as a study guide. I’ve already cleverly whited-out the part that would tell them they are receiving the actual test. If they listen and study what I hand them, they should ace this test. I’d really like some fun games for this week, a little grouping-like-terms Jeopardy. But I’ve had zero prep time available for actual lesson planning so far. I may be able to steal a game or two from a colleague. We have one more standardized test to give this week, though — I kid you not, I have the bubble sheets — as well as two tests, including the 8-page science final. I still have make-up tests to give from last week’s standardized test, too.

Let me note that last week’s standardized test and this week’s standardized test are being used to gather data by the administration. Only one of these tests factors into my grades. My tests are supposed to factor into my grades, with students allowed to retake tests to boost scores. Only if you did not come on Saturday, you are in trouble. I have no time to give these tests again. I can do this after school, but yesterday I was busy with standardized test grading. I managed to give one girl a solid half hour of my time so that she could redo a project. I got three others who essentially wasted that hour after school to agree to come in again today.

But “failure documentation” is due tomorrow. That will take the whole evening to prepare easily. I am trying not to cut too much sleep since I don’t want to get sick for the holidays. So many kids in the school are walking around sick right now. I guess the life lesson for my students will be this: Don’t plan to try to get help at the last minute, because the teacher will have no time available to use to help you. Her documentation needs are going to leave you on your own.

Eduhonesty: This post was typed as fast I could type. But I want to get this stuff down. Maybe later I’ll clean it up. Fundamentally, the time demands for this week contain an impossible number of items to get done, mostly due to test demands. These demands are compromising instruction, reteaching and learning. Reteaching? Hell, I don’t even have time to go over their failed tests with them. In the meantime, they can’t even have a single class party on the last day of the semester because they are not supposed to waste any instructional time.

Note to admin: You can’t cram 150 hours of work into 75 hours. You simply can’t. You can’t make students diligently work on the last day of the semester, either, for a variety of psychological reasons I can’t take time to go into. You might get some goodwill from a party. The way you are testing these guys, I guarantee that you will need a little goodwill to keep at least some of these students on track in the long run.

Qualifying my last reference to administrators

For the sake of clarity, I loved my last Principal. I’d have followed him to Mars if he had said the trip was necessary. I never hesitated to give up an evening for him. He was the coach I needed.

Eduhonesty: Administrators are team-builders. The art of building a team, like teaching, requires an understanding of the players on the field. I work well when asked. I will work furiously for someone intelligent who treats me well and listens to me.

I sure do miss that guy.

(I’m mostly working furiously anyway. The kids need me. I spent 2 1/2 hours tutoring them on Saturday morning. We made some good progress, too.)

The Catholic school option

I think about leaving education and I end up pondering the private school system as a possible retreat after this year. I don’t want to leave teaching. I want to leave public education. I am tired of irrational testing. I am not tired of teaching. I am tired of administrators who don’t listen or who can’t understand. I am tired of scary administrators who threaten people to get what they want.

I am not tired of my students.

Eduhonesty: I have a full day’s work ahead of me to get ready for school tomorrow. Much of it relates to a standardized test I had to give this week which is not a bubble test. It’s a tough set of tests to grade, although at least I get useful information from the process. But I am buried in tests. These tests are taken directly from instructional time. I would like my instructional time back. My students would know a lot more if I could teach them more and test them less.

I’m beginning to sound like that proverbial broken record on this topic. Do our students even know what a broken record is? I doubt it. Vinyl has become vintage. I fear I am becoming vintage as well, but I still know a great deal of useful information. I’d like to find someplace to share that information with kids if I could.