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?

Authenticity- Learning and Assessment

Many of us are asking what the school of the future should look like–what experiences students should have, how we can assess, how we can make sure the students learn the state and local curricular objectives, what experiences are crucial,  where it should happen, how technology plays a role, and the questions we have go on and on and on…

Many research studies have shown the importance of relationships in learning, and recent ones speak to the importance of the one between teacher and student.

My personal belief is that students are a lot more competent than we ever give them credit for, and sometimes all we need is to do is get out of their way.

I am a Gifted Resource Teacher. In my division, that means we have a lot of leeway in the services we provide our students.  For good or bad, it means I can really individualize and provide a lot of unique experiences to my kids, since I’m NOT locked into a core subject, for the most part. I am responsible to make sure they are challenged, and they grow in all areas–not just their area of strength or the subject I am working with them at a specific time. I do teach a 3rd grade and 5th grade math class 4/5 days a week, but even those classes can be flexibly scheduled, and because I teach the highest performing kids (who are not all identified kids) I can compact the curriculum and still have time to support kids as they  pursue their passions.

At the beginning of the year, I gave my kids wikis and some of them moved, in January, to blogging as well. It is amazing to me to see how they are using the various media and to see what I am learning about them through the  freedom and latitude I give them in these venues. I am learning more about them through this work than I could have ever imagined–I am seeing what they enjoy in their lives outside of school, how much they are motivated to learn, how much they challenge themselves, how much initiative they show and I am discovering what topics and activities truly draw out their passion!

I have become involved in a child’s struggle as she watches a beloved horse begin to slip downhill from a battle with cancer. I listen to her fears and show my compassion for her impending loss.

I am intrigued by another’s grappling to explain thinking processes clearly as she attempts to describe her fascination with and understanding of math through “math tricks.” She also maintains a fictional writing blog called “Duck In for a Story.”

I see leadership in some students  in the wikimail exchanges I read–skills I generally do not see visibly in school.

I watch a young man aspire to become part of a parent’s passion as he begins an independent study on Shakespeare in 5th grade.

I am amazed at just how GEEKY some of these kids are and how fast they figure out how to embed videos, create Google polls with Google forms and analyze the responses they get in spreadsheets.

I support them as they they ask to figure out why we are having such an unusually cold and snowy winter.

I have a 10 year old girl who wants to know how computers work on the inside–even to the differences between laptops and desktop machines.

I have another who is enthralled with the digital fabrication lab we have, wanting to create a 3-D eagle that really can fly. (She is trying to decide whether she wants to major in physics in college or become a veterinarian, as she writes passionately about her riding on her “Horsin’ Around” blog.)

My 8 yo third graders have created an Earth Protection Club on a wiki–their description of it says, “The Earth Protection club is about saving the earth and ways to clean up the earth so we can have a better place to live!” They talk about protecting endangered animals and getting together to clean up the environment. I believe these are pretty hefty goals for very young children!

I only have 2 who are heavily into gaming–but as they share code to play the games better across their wikimail, I realize again how much we underestimate  students’ abilities, how much the rote learning opportunities provided in school must bore them.

Yet, many of my kids said to me yesterday  (after returning to school from nearly a two week closure of schools due to weather) that they were so happy to be back and they hoped we got to keep coming to school. When I asked why, a HUGE part of their wanting to be back was the face to face social interactions and the mentoring and support they receive from intelligent others. They KNOW they don’t know everything, nor do they know HOW to learn everything they want to learn–and they want that support to learn and understand deeply.

And, as for assessment, I DO know what my kids know and need to learn in much of their assigned grade level curricular areas.

Exploring all of this UNASSIGNED work the students do OUTSIDE of school,  I can clearly talk with parents and the students about the strengths and weaknesses they have in the areas of literacy.  I can make lesson plans and personalize the lessons to individuals or small group to target the skills they will be tested on in the state writing tests they will take in a couple of weeks.

Yes, it takes time for me to look through the work they do.

Yes, some are more motivated than others to produce on the web in these areas.

Yes, the work is not done on any particular timeline that fits MY schedule.

BUT the student work is authentic, it engages them in real world topics,  it gives them choice, allows for novelty and variety and they learn from one another as they explore what others are studying and we share, discuss and delve into their projects together in class. (See the Schlechty Center’s work on engagement.)

It IS powerful learning.

It IS powerful engagement.

It is NOT compliance.

And, we are all confident they will pass the tests with flying colors.

My class didn’t work this morning-or did it?

I was working with 3rd grade. The plan was to have them respond to writing they had done Friday and give each other feedback, so we could rewrite and raise quality. Was it ever not working. … most had no clue how to do this! PLUS, 1/3 of the kids had written in their response something to the effect of “I think Ms. White showed us this because she wanted us to . .. .” They clearly were trying to write what they thought I wanted them to write.

I overheard a high level conversation going on in one group, so I gathered the others around that table in a fishbowl method and asked the three to relive their conversation. They were able to do so (challenging each other’s content, NOT talking to mechanics), and we started a conversation about my expectations for them in group work (This is only the 4th day with this group.)

Bottom line is I told them I did not want them playing school–did not want them to sit down, shut up and listen–did not want them playing the game of “guess the answer I have in my head.” I wanted them to think, to challenge, to ask questions, to be the highest level of thinkers they could be–and to constantly push themselves to be smarter. I said I would ask them questions, but they were NOT to assume I had an answer I wanted them to guess. . and they started talking about how teachers respond in other classes. They said some teachers yell when you get a wrong answer.

We talked about how intense I am–that sometimes I may sound mad or upset when I really am not, I’m just thinking seriously and intensely about what I’m trying to say. Several kids said I never even raise my voice. (That’s not true, but I think because they trust me, they don’t hear it.)

Kids said other teachers, if they (the kids) don’t respond as the teacher wants, say, “True, but what else?” or say, “Okay” and then call on another kid. They don’t get the chance to re-hypothesize or think about it more deeply, or refine their answer OR thinking

Sammie said  that what I do is say, “Okay” and then ask something else or give them more information to help them think harder and give them another chance to respond. I explained to her that I did that deliberately, that it was a teaching strategy called “scaffolding” which supports students learning for themselves. Several commented that they like that I do not go to another kid for the “real” answer–that I give them a chance to figure it out. (I reiterated that was scaffolding and said again that’s what I was trying to do.)

N’s summary of our conversation was that I do things to help them get to what I call “the AH-HA moment.” (Obviously he’s listened to me before!)

‘Bout half of this class has had me a LOT before. . ’bout half was reasonably new to me this year. They were all participating in sharing and asking and talking when we gathered round the group modeling high level thinking.

Looking back, with this conversation ending our class, I guess maybe something DID work… I hope they’ll come back tomorrow looking for deep thinking. We’ll see.