Standards Matter, But Kids Matter More–And Passionate Educators Make a Difference!

It’s that time of year. We’re entering the last quarter in US schools and that means standardized testing is taking over the classrooms and dreams–or nightmares–of many teachers and students. So many times, we go about that test prep all the wrong way. Sometimes, though, drastic measures are needed. I’d love to hear your comments on the drastic measures noted below.

I’ll never forget being in an at-risk school and the fifth grade teacher leaving mid-year–(his wife got a job elsewhere, so he had to follow. I love that story!) The principal asked if I would leave my “gifted technology teacher” job to go into fifth grade and teach the rest of the year.  I agreed, and we decided to departmentalize so I taught math and social studies and my partner teacher taught science and reading.

When the kids came back  from winter break in January, we assessed the heck out of them with practice tests to see where we were.  It was dismal. As I remember, the results showed that we could expect fewer than than 50% potential passing students in all areas. SO, we went to work.  The other teacher, Jennifer Morgan, and I knew we had to get the kids to believe in themselves–so our first job was to show them the data and convince them they COULD do it. These kids had had repeated years of failure and felt school was a place to survive–not enjoy or learn from.

We met with them and explained how the SOL tests worked, what a distractor was, and told them we would not only be working on test-taking skills with them, but also that we would make sure they learned the content. We wanted them to be confident going into the tests, and  we told them that we were sure they would blow the top off the tests.  (This was in a school where not one class before had ever met the standard score needed for AYP.) In fact, I was blown away when we (the principal, and both of us teachers) first met with the whole group and explained our plan and  Bobby asked, “Why do you think we can do it? My brother says any kids who have been here are stupid.”

Our response was to talk about the difference between effort and luck and help them understand that it was effort that would get us over the hump of not reaching our goals.  We spoke to the importance of believing in yourself and trying your hardest.  We told them we would NOT wish them good luck the day of the test, because it is not an issue of luck, but hard work and determination. AND, we told them we would be with them each and every step of the way helping them and supporting them.

We began by showing them their math test data and have THEM analyze it for the standards they didn’t know. Each child had a folder with the SOL standards in the front with the standards they needed to work on highlighted.  Bobby had skipped items on the test–the principal sat down with him and showed that if he had answered them, PURELY GUESSING, his score rose 4 points–so he clearly got that he needed to answer each and every question–and he became our evangelist for that test-taking skill.

Jennifer and I made up a system we called “SOL Points” where kids got points for participating in extra work on content, emphasizing  to the kids it was the effort that counted. (Extra work counted things like making posters to put in the hallways so others kids saw them and that reinforced content, attending extra work sessions, reading books at home, being on time with homework and correctly doing the daily “do nows”, etc.) Each child had a folder where we DAILY reported to parents the behavior in class-and the students self-rated their effort. The goal was 100 points in a short amount of time to earn a special field trip to be determined by the students.  (In the end they chose a walking tour of our downtown mall–as many of these kids had little experience with traveling outside of their rural area.)

We offered OPEN after-school tutoring twice a week, and almost EVERY student chose to come, so we had groups of 20 kids for tutoring. We scaffolded the kids every way we could to help them understand they WERE learning and they WERE going to succeed–that their hard work was paying off.  We–all of the teachers–SPED, Guidance, Title 1 teachers, gym teachers, librarian, everyone in the building–worked to help this group of kids understand they were smart, they could do it and they just needed to work hard and believe in themselves. We integrated skills whenever we could, teaching stem and leaf plots through looking at test scores of the class- so the group could see them rising.

Jennifer had the kids practice reading skills with science texts.  We used Virginia Pathways to teach the history standards, having them do history like historians do. We used hands on materials to teach measurement–we compared bags of candy weighed in ounces and grams, and used students from the University of Virginia to help with the groups so they had more individual support and attention.

Our Central Office Science facilitator, Chuck Pace, and our County tech support person, Becky Fisher, came out to do “gym science” once a week during their gym time.  Our gym teacher did brain gym exercises with them during this time to help them attend to the hands on stuff Chuck and Becky led them through. Our county math people came out and targeted specific skills with individual kids as the test came near that still hadn’t gotten the skill–they literally pulled kids throughout the day and worked one on one or in small groups on the patterns, functions and algebra strand.

During lunch, I offered read aloud time–to share one of MY passions, so over half the fifth grade came to my room each day to eat their lunch as they listened to me read picture books and share great literature on my document camera–they loved hearing stories they hadn’t heard before, especially as I shared stories of my love for these books. We read Ghost Cadet during our study of the Civil War and took them to the New Market Battlefield–and an anonymous donor bought each child their own “Cadet Kit.” An observer would have thought they were given gold–but that kit was simply part of the power of the community we were building.

It was an amazing 5 months–and then May came with all the glory of the tests. Our kids WERE  confident.  They DID know it–and they did pass the test well enough so that our school earned AYP for the first time.

More importantly though, the passion we had–all of the adults involved–showed these students that we thought it was important for them to learn.  It was crucial for them to believe in themselves as we believed in them.

The scores were amazing–in the high eighties and even one in the low nineties as I recall.   Even more incredible, though, were some anomalies we found.

I had a Hispanic kid who was identified for Title 1 services–after working with her a short time, I pulled her OUT of title 1 and two months later she was identified gifted.  I did a spot check through our student information system on some of these kids and she is in 11th grade now, in Adv. German, AP Language and Composition, Honors Calculus, Honors Physics, and taking History at our local community college.

Our resident jokester–whose sense of humor often got in the way of learning–is now in Adv. History, Adv Chemistry, adv. College Algebra and Trig, Adv. German and Honors English.

A quiet girl who just KNEW she would never succeed at this is currently in Adv. History, Adv. Chemistry, Adv. German and Honors English.

Another girl is in Adv History, taking nursing at CATEC, and is also studying digital imaging. (These kids also got to take home digital cameras in fifth grade.)

And, is there a connection between our “doing history as historians do” and the fact most kids I checked are in advanced history classes OR taking history at the local community college?

MANY of these kids are extremely successful at school.  I wish I could say all of them are, but that’s simply not true.  However, I KNOW we made a difference in the lives of many–and it was because of the passion we educators had–and the belief that ALL children can learn.
Check out our gap data on history and science for that year–the first picture is black/white and the second is free and reduced lunch kids.

black white data 2004

SES data 2004

These were children who, as a group,  had experienced very little success in school.  They had very little belief in themselves as successful learners.  Yet, they learned that passionate educators exist–a whole lot of them who helped them AND that their effort paid off in standardized testing AND learning.

For about a week now, @PamMoran has been tweeting about joy of learning, and how the culture of schools and sometimes teachers either nurture or kill student passion for learning. The blogging members of the Cooperative Catalyst Blog agreed several weeks ago to all read the book, Wounded by School and write about it.  I think this is the week we’ll be doing that, so be sure to check it out tomorrow. (We post on Monday.)

16 thoughts on “Standards Matter, But Kids Matter More–And Passionate Educators Make a Difference!

  1. Paula,
    Thank you for sharing such an inspiring story and a testament to the power of getting kids to believe that hard work will pay off for them! Too many of us get caught up in the pressure of preparing for testing without working on the “mindset” and attitudes that will sabotage any grand efforts to load kids with “knowledge”. I love how you gave us a peek into how some of these kids ended up in challenging high school classes. Clearly, giving kids the tools, the mindset and the support from passionate educators makes a huge difference! Thank you.

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  3. we both know this story well having lived it together.. my greatest fear is the loss of missed opportunities of a generation of the most scheduled, videoed and tested children in the history of public education to find their learning muse, their inspiration to create, design, build -they know what they need- we know what we need to do- thanks for reminding us all that it’s more than teaching the standards well…. it’s passion that lights fires

  4. This is a very inspiring story, Paula. It’s very difficult to motivate kids for standardized testing, because many of them already have that defeatist attitude. But your story shows that it is very possible to change this attitude–and have them truly believe that they can do anything with hard work and perseverance. Thank you for sharing this.

  5. Great share Paula,
    it’s the stories of inspiring teachers and situations like yours that I love reading about. When we feel like there’s little or no point to what we are doing, or that standardized assessments are driving instruction, looking at a case study like this reaffirms just how important our jobs are and how much of a great teacher just comes innately. Measuring the effectiveness of any position can be tough to quantify, with teachers it’s even harder.

    I had the opportunity to sit down this weekend with an amazing person, “Sebastian Hirsh” @cervus Our conversation quickly glided towards what makes successful schools, and how is the learning designed to empower and engage students. His experience coming from Berlin where they are wrestling with similar questions, gave me perspective and led me towards my own assumptions around pedagogy/andragogy, and why are they so different.

    As adults we don’t pursue anything that we can’t see the value and transferability in (for some reason media doesn’t fit this description though), so why are we surprised when we engage students in authentic learning, real applicable skills, and projects that have meaning in them, that they thrive and blow our minds. Sometimes meaning to them comes from seeing us excited, sometimes it’s innate and hard to put a finger on, regardless, you are an inspiration and great teacher leaders like you are exactly what we need in schools
    Thanks so much!

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  8. Ms. White! This is a really memorable story coming from one of the students you were talking about. It brought back a lot of memories and reminded me how before we started working with you and getting all that extra help, we were struggling. To be honest, I never thought I would get as far as I am right now and am still trying really hard to pursue my dreams now that I’m about to start college. I’m very thankful for everything you and everyone else have done for me and for believing in all of us. I’m sure everyone in my fifth grade class is grateful as I am for helping us dramatically to get this far.
    Thanks so much and we miss you and hope to see you soon!

  9. Deisy,
    I am honestly so honored you friended me on Facebook. You have given me the opportunity to not only reconnect with you, but also find out how others in our class are doing. You are truly a beautiful human being and I am proud to know you. Thanks so much for being my friend.

    BTW-I still have the video of “The Judge.” You can let Gabi know, too– “There’s something horrible coming this way, Creeping closer, day by day….” LOL


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  12. Wow…this brought back a lot of memories Ms. White. I can’t believe that you still remember all of this and us. I was honored to have you as my computer teacher to help us learn about them. However, never in a million years would I have thought you would end up being my fifth grade teacher and changing my life. You helped us understand that there was a better life when we got older, we just had to reach for the stars. You never let us give up on anything and that’s probably the reason why so many of us are determined to make a better life for ourselves. We were lucky to have a teacher like you. Well, every student is lucky to have a teacher like you, because you encourage us and you are so willing to do whatever is required or needed of you to better someone’s future. I personally thank you for that and I pretty sure the others in my class do too.
    Thanks for everything.

  13. Eryka,
    This is truly one of those “paychecks of the heart.” Thank you.

    But, as I told Quincy on Facebook, YOU kids were the ones who did the work and who showed who you were deep down–thinking, caring, awesome people who could put in your best effort and show just how incredible you are. You all, as a group, are definitely one of my most memorable groups–and the memories are incredibly strong ones for me, simply because you were so amazing.

    And, if you’re ever applying for a tech job, I still have the video of you and Jessica tech troubleshooting hooking up an LCD projector as a fifth grader! I’ve used it in many presentations. LOL.

    You make me proud–but even more important is the pride I read in YOUR voice over your own accomplishments. You ROCK, girl!

    Thank YOU for letting me be part of your life.

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