Lessons in politics

We finished watching Twilight on Friday after school. About twelve girls and three boys showed up to see the end of Edward and Bella’s opening courtship. Most of them were my students, but I picked up a few strays. I had stopped at Costco the night before to get pretzels and popcorn. Students brought pop, flaming Cheetos and chili-flavored, mango lollipops. I added Oreos and Jolly Ranchers. We had a party. To the best of my knowledge, there’s no rule against parties after school.

My challenge was nonetheless staying under the radar. I explained to students who wanted to be out in the halls, and students who were erupting in those special, high-pitched screams that only middle school girls seem able to produce, why we needed to be quiet. We were not yet against the rules. We did not want to inspire the administration to create a new rule.

Upon reflection, I wonder what lesson I was subtly teaching. Every moment when a teacher explains how the world works has the potential to affect a student’s worldview. Most of the girls want to start New Moon after school soon, so they were listening. I had my teachable moment and I used it to teach … what lesson? Push the limits quietly? Watch out for authority figures?

All it takes is one word to shut down the movies, though, so I can’t say I made a mistake in my approach. I’m not sure why the administration would shut down afterschool movie viewing, but then I don’t understand why students can’t eat anything except food specifically provided by the cafeteria (most of which is inedible) during the school day. I’m not sure why I can’t put pictures of my pets in my PowerPoint, as demanded by my Assistant Principal, for fear I will distract students. If pictures of dogs are too much for their frail little minds at this stage, we might as well shut the school doors now. Their chances of handling the real world are next to nil when one wheaten terrier drags them over the edge of the learning cliff.

In a couple of weeks, we will quietly stage New Moon on another Friday afternoon. If no one talks to me on Monday, that is.

Dead or dying

“Unless you are dead or dying, you come to school,” the Dean said.

The state has set attendance targets that we are trying desperately to meet. Morning announcements have begun to tell absenteeism totals. We are running below expectations. My grade had eighty-nine point something percent attendance according to this morning’s announcements. I’m not sure for what time period.

Eduhonesty: Having another ambivalent moment here. I know that students need to be in school to learn. I know that improved attendance should improve test scores. But I also have been sicker this year than I remember in any previous teaching year. I’ve already had a five-day fever with the flu, another feverish infection that lasted weeks at the start of the year, a cold and a sinus infection. The year is only half over. Are you sure we can’t keep the not-quite-dying home? At least some of my school’s attendance problem has to be the many microbes breeding in our hallways each day.

Oops! Twilight time!

I missed all my meetings for a few days while testing, a situation that led to at least one comical moment. Two “incentive” days had been scheduled, fun activities for students during their tutoring periods. My colleague across the hall was completely blindsided since he has not been getting certain emails. I was vaguely aware that incentives were coming at me, but believed those days were at least a week off. If either of us had been able to attend any meetings, we would have known otherwise, but we have been happily(?) living in our own little test bubble.

Suddenly, students arrived in my doorway wanting to know what the movie was. I had been assigned Movie Room, the choice I usually make for incentive days. Movie? Movie? Trouble! I sprang into action. I rushed to my closet. Oh, no! All the fiction had been taken home. No student was going to want to see the History of Egypt as a reward. Then I found my one and only option: Twilight. Quickly, I asked a nearby special education teacher if she had any general interest films in her classroom. No go. With no time to canvass the hallway, I passed the Twilight disc to “Lucia,” a helpful student, while I scrounged in a cupboard for candy.

Fortunately, surprisingly few boys had signed up for my room. I had drawn mostly girls, the demographic I needed. A classic for middle schoolers of our time, Twilight is the quintessential adolescent chick flick, pure vampire romance with a little action to round out the romance. We had two days of Edward and Bella, lots of lollipops, and a welcome, short break from testing, at least for my part. Girls pulled chairs up to the front of the room to watch endless, longing gazes projected onto the white screen. The guy across the hall refereed in the gym, mysteriously passing up an opportunity to view the first installment of the vampire romance of the decade.

Eduhonesty: During times of intense testing, “emergencies” happen. I have logged so many hours with emergencies that they hardly phase me. I made a mental note to get more films into the classroom, even if non-instructional time has become exceedingly rare. We are planning to finish Twilight after school next week. Tutoring does not run a full class period and we haven’t even gotten to the fateful baseball game yet. I hate to leave a movie unfinished.

Friday’s numbers

I suggest readers backtrack to January 14th and read forward in time. This post is connected to a group of posts. It’s best understood by starting back when these testing events begin. I also plan to clean up my recent posts and add more explanations for acronyms, so if you have arrived at this post on January 24th, I suggest you check back in a few days. I wanted to get all this data down while I was in the trenches, exhausted or not, so some recent posts are … untidy.

The ACCESS test is winding down. We are helping other grades to finish now. Total time on ACCESS for Friday was only 1.78 hours. I accidentally omitted some MAP time from a few days ago. The administration gave us all packets with MAP scores and I went over those scores in class. I’ll count this as standardized test time, too, since going over results of a standardized test in class precludes doing the actual lesson plan. That time amounted to roughly 20 minutes. Total time for MAP, ACCESS and SLO testing now stands at 25.04 hours over the last nine instructional days. This number only represents hours taken out of the actual school day. The hours spent grading SLOs at home are not included, although those hours deserve some recognition since I cannot grade regular student papers or prepare instruction while I am grading my SLOs.

Let’s throw a percentage in here: I have 43.6 hours available for instruction during nine days. My test total of 25.04 represents 57% of those hours. That’s time directly related to testing. It’s only a partial calculation of the actual time lost.

Any attempt to quantify lost class time will necessarily be an underestimate. I can calculate the minutes I lose directly, but I can’t account for ancillary test damage. One earlier post added seven minutes into the test count because those seven minutes were instructionally useless. We didn’t have time to work on the week’s lessons, and even if I had thrust some five minute activity at the students, they were burnt out. Test burn-out affects all the remaining minutes of a school day. Sometimes I wonder how often test burn-out affects all the remaining minutes of a school life. For some students, we pile on set after set of depressing scores, month after month, year after year. The cumulative effect of those scores cannot be trivial. After awhile, I know I’d give up. Why play a game you never win?

Unfortunately, win, lose or even mutilate yourself in frustration, and America’s school districts may still make you play — over and over and over again.

Chronicling the time crunch

(If you are starting here, I suggest you backtrack to January 14th and read forward in time.)

I don’t have time for this post. Or the cat who is pestering me. Or the dog behind me who needs a walk. I am attempting to get down the nitty-gritty details of why our increasing demands for data are hurting America’s students, but here’s my morning’s irony: I don’t have time for this blog either.

Eduhonesty: Still, let me add yesterday’s stats. I spent 3.2 hours on ACCESS testing. Essentially, I lost my whole morning. I damaged my already foreshortened afternoon. The afternoon had an incentive activity — we showed a movie during tutoring — and, during actual classes, my students were in that edgy, fried state created by a morning of standardized testing. We did manage to get some math done, anyway.

I need to go now. I would love to work on preparing interesting, creative instruction but I can’t. I have to grade my SLOs.* I spent the whole evening grading SLOs last night. I just keep putting daily work in a folder to grade this week-end.

I need to document the effect of SLO grading and its offshoots but I also need to get ready for the day. Have a great day, readers. Despite the unadvertised and sometimes depressing nature of this blog, data indicates my words are being read.

*SLO: Student Learning Objective, in this case a final test on material that students had mostly never seen or heard before in their lives. They will repeat the SLO test at term’s end to show how much they have learned. I put this in with standardized testing because it’s another test that does not test what students have learned, another test that they all or almost all fail miserably, but entirely predictably, based on material we believe they have not yet encountered. The SLO is used to grade teachers. It sucks a fair amount of time from preparation for instruction, as well as at least one-class period from students. Since all classes have SLOs, it sucks one full day of instruction from my classes overall. We are doing this each term, so SLOs will take 2 days or 1/90 of the entire school year away from students. If we do this quarterly (we’re still working it out), then the loss will be 1/45 of the school year.

Up at 4:00 AM (and more testing details)

(If you are starting here, I suggest you backtrack to January 14th and read forward in time.)

Was I productive in the early morning hours? Well, let’s see. I did find and print a lesson for tomorrow’s tutoring time. I cleaned house. I contemplated doing laundry, but opted for procrastination. I checked my Facebook, read some email, and surfed.

I did not actually plan for school. I am too far behind to plan ahead. I had another day of ACCESS testing facing me with more schedule juggling and class rearrangement. Fortunately, I had materials from the common lesson plans that I could use in science and math. My colleagues are ahead of me since I have to give the ACCESS test to bilingual students while the other teachers can forge ahead with their day’s lessons. I will copy what these teachers did a couple of days ago. I will also be late in administering my tests this week, the normal Type III tests that I would give in a normal class that had not spent the last two weeks being clobbered by Type I tests.

What is a Type I test? Besides more educational jargon and gobbledygook, that is? Here’s the short answer from the Illinois State Board of Education table of Illinois Assessment Types:

Type I
A reliable assessment that measures a certain group or subset of students in the same manner with the same potential assessment items, is scored by a non-district entity, and is administered either statewide or beyond Illinois. These are your annual state tests, your MAP and ACCESS tests, the tests used to make national comparisons.

Type II
Any assessment developed or adopted and approved for use by the school district and used on a districtwide basis by all teachers in a given grade or subject area.

Type III
Any assessment that is rigorous, that is aligned to the course curriculum, and that the qualified evaluator and teacher determine measures student learning in that course

There’s a lot more legalese and law relating to these assessment types, especially in the area of teacher evaluation, but I’m not going there right now. Technically, my Type III tests are actually Type II tests, too, since all the teachers in my grade and subject area in the district are giving the same tests. Whatever, as the kids say. The math and science tests that are supposed to measure what I am actually teaching have been delayed because 1) I am too busy testing to be teaching much of the time, and 2) I am too busy giving Type I tests to students to give them Type III tests to assess them on the material I have not had time to teach them anyway.

Time today spent administering the Type I ACCESS test: 2.9 hours. I threw in about 7 minutes at the end of my first period since there’s little a teacher can do with only seven minutes that come at the end of a test. They were lost minutes, even if they did not count directly as test minutes.

Eduhonesty: I think the total Type I test time is up to something like 19.72 hours out of the last seven school days. If I count this as a percentage of instructional time, that’s 58% of all available instructional minutes during this seven day period. I’m pretty exhausted at this point and I will have to check my math later, but that 58% tally seems about right.

P. S. I hear some districts get subs for ACCESS testing, allowing instruction to go forward, even if imperfectly. I even heard our district may have gotten some subs. But subs seldom venture into the middle school. We are the no-man’s land of the district, a sea of hormonal adolescents surrounded by elementary schools filled with cute kids who may even hug the sub instead of talking back.

Did we do anything for Martin Luther King Day?

(If you are starting here, I suggest you backtrack to January 14th and read forward in time.)

I hope we did something for Martin Luther King Day. At this point, the PA system is never used for anything not directly related to instruction. It’s hardly ever used after the morning pledge. We’re not even allowed to use announcements to tell students about picture day. So official silence was deafening but not unusual. I’m not sure what language arts may have done. I didn’t see any King handouts on the hallway floor, but we may still have done something. Somewhere. I hope.

In the meantime, MAP and ACCESS testing continue, sometimes running into each other, predictably adding to an already wild make-up schedule. Time spent directly on ACCESS testing today ran 219 minutes, or 3.65 hours, not including another 20 minutes or so spent discussing MAP results. I’ll add on the MAP discussion for testing time total of 3.98 hours. I have no sub during the testing process and not all students are testing at the same time. Some students did make-up work while others tested, but I can’t test and monitor make-up work, so academic efforts on the part of non-testers were hardly heroic. Forget heroic; I’ll settle for coherent.

Tomorrow a No. 2 pencil crisis is anticipated. Not enough borrowed pencils came back. I need to quit blogging shortly and begin to scavenge more pencils.

Eduhonesty: The pencil sharpener sometimes overheats and quits for awhile, but once its motor has cooled, the sharpener again starts chewing merrily away. The day may come when the sharpener fails, but today was not that day. Bzzz, bzzz, bzzz.

It occurs to me that the sharpener and I have a lot in common.

The week’s totals

The total time I spent on standardized testing during the five days of this school week, either in the form of preparation or actual testing, amounted to 12.84 hours.

The total meeting time for the week ran 7.1 hours. This includes some meeting time that was preempted by testing.

Eduhonesty: The opportunity costs of standardized testing and meetings are staggering. I am not alone. That’s almost a third of my technical work-week, which is honestly crazy.

Thursday’s tally

(If you are starting here, I suggest you backtrack to January 14th and read forward in time.)

Time spent doing or planning for standardized testing (ACCESS) totaled only 85 minutes.

Meeting time (including the meeting I missed for testing — I was supposed to be at that meeting) ran 95 minutes.

Total testing time for the week: 11.34 hours
Total meeting time for the week: 6.3 hours

Eduhonesty: Nearly half of my available class time has gone to standardized or SLO testing this week, not including the regular tests I have to give. Tomorrow my students will have a math quiz. I did not plan or write this quiz, but I am required to give the same quizzes as everyone else in the department. Instruction? I’m pretty sure I’ve heard of instruction, but at this rate I may forget how that instruction thing actually works. Apparently instruction does not require continuity or momentum, for example, since no one ever seems preoccupied with providing me with a shot at continuity. I have managed to cover the content on the quiz.


Tracking today’s time

MAP is over for now. I think I am going to count the minutes from my Student Learning Objective or “SLO” tests, though.

What is a Student Learning Objective (SLO)? SLOs are content-specific, learning objectives aligned to curricular standards. As part of the SLO process, today I was obliged to give all my classes tests which cover the material we are going to teach this quarter. Most of the material on these tests has not yet been taught. I reassured students repeatedly that today’s tests would not be part of their grades. I recommended they try to remember questions when possible, since the tests would be repeated as their final exams at the end of the quarter. I reiterated that I was not going to hold them responsible for not knowing vocabulary and concepts they had never seen before.

One major purpose of SLOs is to provide evidence of a teacher’s instructional success. If all teachers in a department give the same exam, teacher results can be compared at the end of the quarter. Comparisons are normally averages, the mean improvement of students in given classes. SLOs are losers for some subsets of teachers. Special education teachers, for example, have student groups who normally do not attain the same overall averages for improvement as their regular education counterparts. SLOs can also be losers for teachers who do not draw strong class groups from the regular population. Any teacher knows that some classes are academically stronger than other classes. Picking the right class or classes may be critical to the SLO process when not all classes are included in the data.

TIP to new teachers: Pick your strongest class! Don’t let anyone tell you that your lowest class “has the most room for improvement.” Your lowest class is your lowest class for a reason. If that class had regularly been pegging a full year’s academic progress or more overall, they would not be your lowest class. Your best bet to show improvement will come from those kids who have already surged to the front of the pack. Learning comes more easily to these kids. That’s why they are already outscoring their peers.

Eduhonesty: I’ve gone sideways here. I wanted to explain why the SLO minutes are being included in my count of standardized testing minutes. While today’s tests were not national tests, they represent a full day of testing in which I gave my students tests filled with information they had never seen before, tests that were not part of their grade. I am doing this so that the administration can make comparisons of progress at the end of the quarter.

Total minutes spent giving SLOs today: 225 minutes or 3.75 hours. The true time loss would be a bit more, since tests preclude making progress on other material. Students who finish do reinforcement work or help with class projects while we wait for slower students to get done. No new material was presented today. In fact, no lecture happened at all, although a fair amount of individual tutoring occurred here and there during testing.

Standardized testing and test prep time for the week so far: 9.92 hours

To add another component to my time management study here: Total meeting time for today ran 150 minutes, or 2 1/2 hours. Meeting time for the last two days (some of which I missed due to testing) ran 135 minutes. Total meeting time for the week so far then adds up to 4.75 hours.