THE State Writing Test

Our state writing test is coming up in early March and the tension around it is beginning to rise. Our fifth grades departmentalize, so one teacher teaches writing every day, and the others integrate it into Science and Social Studies some, as well as address it in Literacy and Math as they can, so these kids have gotten lots of practice with writing.

What I see, though, from many of the kids, is quite a bit of this:


In spring of 2013, our writing test will be online, so that all students will do it on the computer. Our teachers have questions about this decision:

Is it best for all kids? Don’t some of us prefer the actual act of writing–pen to paper-to feel that flow of thoughts?  Are we handicapping those kids by forcing them to tell their story through a keyboard?

Will this decision force keyboarding lessons? How fast should kids be able to type?

What about all of those articles that talk about how fast kids can text?  Is this even something we have to worry about?

What about the kids who do NOT text?  Is there an equity issue we need to address?

Will they be allowed, or not, to use a spellchecker? (If integrating contemporary tools, why not utilize the full functionality–is the test on writing or spelling?)

Will the font be fixed, or will they be allowed to use text features as part of their composition (such as bold, underline, italics, etc.)?  They can do that with their handwritten texts, so why not with ones using technology?  They will probably be allowed to use spacing and indenting, so why not the full menu of text features we teach?

But, in the bigger scheme of things, why are we even considering these mechanical kinds of questions about the tools of the word processor?

We have access to the features our state will test through a program called Perspective (formerly NCS Mentor).  Here we can learn about scoring, access anchor papers to show our kids, understand the scoring domains and rubrics, and actually practice scoring actual compositions submitted by real fifth graders.

We can spend a ton of time helping kids understand the process, the scoring domains, rubrics and anchor papers.  Would our time be better spent with kids writing? Some say yes.

I think that our third graders ought to be exploring the access we have to this kind of information.  I believe that when kids clearly understand the expectations and have seen examples–both good and bad–and know the rubrics by which they will be judged, they can more clearly write for the prescribed audience–in this particular case, the test scorers. In this case, the state has provided a reasonable tool by which we can do this kind of teaching. Why not use it–and not just right before the test? Why not make it an integral part of our instruction as one more tool in our arsenal?

However, isn’t the real question this:

Wouldn’t it be better if the state just allowed us to police ourselves and examine our student writing portfolios to see if they can construct a well-organized composition?

Passionate Learning

Yesterday I drove one of my students into town to have a guided tour of our data center.  You see, he had a question about me using a VNC from school to show him stuff on his home computer.  (I have NO CLUE what  a VNC is.  I mean, I understand the concept he’s getting at, but I couldn’t answer the question he was asking.  However, I could connect him to someone who did.)

I had him send his question to our central office person for instructional technology, Becky Fisher. She, in turn, invited him to a tour of the data center and arranged for one of the folks in her department to lead it for this amazingly bright 11 year old.  I was honored to watch the exchange between this kid and the tour guide.

You see, my kid is one of those who doesn’t want to play school, and who stands out in the classroom as somewhat defiant, although he isn’t trying to be. He simply can’t understand why school can’t be a place where he can learn what he wants to learn and he questions the status quo constantly. He wants to pursue his passions in school as well as out and he can’t figure out why he can’t have some time in school to do so.

As an 11 year old, he has learned, though, to shut his mouth and not ask questions sometimes.  He has learned that to NOT lose his ability to have precious moments of free time for his passions, he has to spend time doing rote activities that don’t help him learn much many times. He has learned to play school.

He is writing code and creating his own computer games and has been for years.  He has an intuitive understanding of mathematical concepts and is truly one of the brightest kids I have ever taught–or in some cases, gotten out of his way so he could learn. He stops by my room every morning to touch base and make sure he can have extra time in my room each day.  He comes to my room every recess and lunch to have his own time for learning–to have a 40 minute piece of the day where he can pursue his passions–and I truly just stay out of his way most of the time, watching or asking questions to get an idea of what he is most recently creating. He asks to stay after school so he can work on his own ideas.  He spends hours and hours at home on his wiki, and is the most prolific wikikid I have. His silent leadership has caused me to have at least six kids in my room for lunch each day who are working on THEIR wikis and asking the leader questions OR who are playing his games and giving him feedback on them. They point to his wiki on theirs. By providing him an avenue to pursue his passion and let him bring that into school, he has gone from a classroom loner who was perceived as odd to a leader among his peers.

But, back to the tour…

Becky arranged for a former Murray High School student who is now our Systems Manager to give my kid the tour.  She says Robert is the most brilliant person she has ever met.  I believe her.  Becky was one of the teachers who opened Murray over 20 years ago. (Murray  is our alternative high school, a Glasser school of choice, as well as one of four charter schools in the state of VA, and is described as a school that “honors your heart and respects your mind.”)  Robert attended Murray after Becky had moved to central office, so they never knew each other in that venue.  He says, though, that while she was never formally his teacher, she has taught him much, as she initially gave him his entry into the world of our technology department as a student intern during his senior year at Murray. I have watched Robert grow in the 10 or 12 years he has been with the county as he has moved from his first support technician job right out of high school  to being in charge of all of our technology systems as a 30 year old. Becky and I deliberately wanted Robert to lead this child through the tour, as we knew they would be intrigued by each other.

Robert was amazing with this 5th grader. We had scheduled an hour and Robert gave more than that.  Robert gave this child his undivided attention and answered every question. The child SOAKED UP Robert’s explanations of the server room, the movement of packets of information through our system, and the details of how the redundancy of our system protects our work. He was so excited to be there, and Robert was just perfect as a guide–giving great detail so the kid was fascinated, but not too much so the kid was overwhelmed.  Robert shared reasons and the WHY behind some of the decisions made about our data center and the set up.  He gave enough information that the kid was totally engaged for the entire time. The most powerful piece for me, though, was the last ten minutes or so, where Robert and my kid talked about school.

You see, Robert doesn’t like to play school either, and he ended up at Murray because he was looking for an alternative to traditional high school, where he could learn what he wanted to learn. He was willing to do what was asked through the curriculum, but only if he could show what he knew in reasonable ways and not through doing pages and pages of redundant worksheets as homework. Murray met those needs and allowed him to create his own path of learning through our school system.  He described to my kid how he went from making Ds and Fs in the traditional high school to As and Bs at Murray.  As he described his path through our school system, he often used words my kid has used to describe school and his desires. Again, my kid SOAKED UP Robert’s words–but this time it was hitting him on a very personal level.  This time, those words came from a very successful person who struggled through school as my kid is–but who found a path that allowed him to pursue his passions while playing school.

My kid said in the car that he would love growing up and being like Robert-he would love to have a job like his.  Robert is an idol for this child.

Connecting gifted kids who struggle to survive in traditional school settings to successful adults who survived that system is crucial to give them hope.  My kid has that model now, thanks to Robert. I’m not sure Robert will EVER understand the impact he has had on this one kid with sharing his time and his story. MY whole purpose of this trip was to give my kid hope–hope that he will survive the next 7 years and manage to hang on to his passion for learning.  Thanks partially  to Robert, I think he will.

What’s the Rubric for “Pencil”?

A HUGE thanks to Becky Fisher (@beckyfisher73 on Twitter) who helped me think through this blog and who gave me words when mine got stuck in a quagmire of thoughts.

This is a blog collaboratively written. (The “I statements” about being a K teacher are mine.  The brilliance elsewhere is hers! :-))

I don’t think anyone would argue John Grisham or J.K. Rowlings being an accomplished writer.  (If you would, just pretend you think they are great as you read this blog!)

So, let’s think about the rubric for “pencil” or whatever tool they use to do their writing and apply it to their work.

There is absolutely no doubt that we teach “pencil” in school.  As a Kindergarten teacher, I have to show students how to hold it correctly so that their little hands don’t get worn out.  I look out for ergonomically sound practices, so no one is crooking their wrist to cause carpel tunnel syndrome or an achy wrist.  I pay attention to how tightly they are holding it and try to loosen up those kids who are squeezing it for all it’s worth. I watch to see if their grasp is hiding their writing as they write, so they can see how the letters are written  I adjust their grip to make sure they are not holding it too high or too close to the tip. ALL of these things are criteria I use to judge whether a child is using the pencil correctly and most efficiently.

However, by about 7 years old, most kids are using a pencil efficaciously and teachers no longer teach “pencil.”  Instead, our focus now centers on the mechanics of writing, with content being the most important piece. We teach spelling, grammar, usage and mechanics, but what the student has to say is where the majority of our efforts fall. In writing workshops we do mini lessons on word choice, voice and storylines.  We talk about beginnings and endings, suspense building, conclusions, and how to build a good story.  We talk sequence and logical progression as we also encourage creativity and individual voice within student writing.  No longer do we center on the tool they use, as our emphasis is the learning they do about how to craft a great product.

When we think about John Grisham or J.K.Rowlings, do we care WHAT they write WITH?  Do we care if they use a pencil or an old typewriter, or a word processor? Don’t we care most about the product, the book, the STORY?

We have talked about a “developmental continuum” for developing a writer’s craft for years.  We assume the skill of “pencil use” or whatever the tool is as we look at bigger skills and concepts like voice and word choice. How can we look at “Digital Bloom’s” more like the way we look at “writer’s craft” and less like the way we look at “pencil”?

What skills we choose to put on a continua of skills speak to our vision for technology – either changing what kids do or changing how they do it.  What is bigger than how. Why not develop our continua around what?  What does it mean to “collaborate across cultures”?  Do we really care if this is done with a wiki or Google Docs?

The fact that we are looking at continua of development is important, and the fact that this conversation is happening in a number of places–on Twitter, in the wikis, at Paul R Wood’s deck in Texas, in other places we don’t even know yet–with educators from ALL OVER THE WORLD- is even MORE POWERFUL.  As we craft the rubrics for a Digital Bloom’s Taxonomy together, the impact in our classrooms will happen collaboratively and perhaps similarly across cultures, across gender, across SES, across race, across all kinds of boundaries we normally don’t cross with assessment tools.  The way things are assessed affect what gets taught, so let’s make these the best we can!

Join us at Blooms Rubrics to add your voice (and see the Bloom’s blog page to see yet another blog on “Testing the Pencil” by Tim Holt)

Until next time,