Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Trust in what you know...

I'm struggling this week. It might be because of the time change. It might be because of a short week. Or it might be knowing that Spring Break begins in just a few days. Or...if I'm being honest, I have a bad case of the testing blues.

We have been blessed with a wonderful student teacher. He brings a different lens to our classroom and allows Tara and I to continue to grow as we work to prepare one of tomorrow's teachers. After sitting with us through a long week of Parent Teacher Conferences (where we saw 47 out of 51 families in a week-more about that in a future post), this fresh face to education wrote the following letter to our students:

Dear Class,
As you already know, next week you will take the MAP test. We know how hard you have worked, but there is something very important you must know.
The MAP test does not assess all of what makes you special and unique. The people who create these tests and score them do not know each of you like we do, and certainly not the way your families do.
They do not know that some of you speak two languages, or that you love to sing or write code. They have not seen your natural talent for creating amazing inventions. They do not know that your friends count on you to be there for them, that your laughter can brighten the darkest day, or that your face turns red when you feel shy. They have not seen you move from curiosity to genius. They do not know that you participate in sports, wonder about the future, or sometimes have trouble focusing. They do not know that you are kind, trustworthy, and thoughtful...and every day you try to do your very best work.
The scores you will get from these tests will tell you something, but they will not tell you everything. These tests do not define you. There are many ways of being smart. You are smart! You are enough! You guys are the light that brightens the Light Bulb Labs and you are the reason we are happy to come to school and learn with you every day. So, in the midst of all these tests, remember that there is no way to “test” all of the amazing and awesome things that make you special.
All we ask is that you do your very best work and do not give up. You are rock stars and you are amazing students.

Your Teachers,

Mrs. Frederick, Mrs. Thoma, & Mr. Staggs

When he shared it with Tara and I, we did a lot of reflection. You see, all of the tests we give, we know they have value in some ways. But in others, they unnecessarily cause overwhelm and concern for the parents of our amazing students. We spent many of our 1-1 conferences reviewing numbers because, rightfully so, that is what their parents were worried about. They got a letter, from the state, telling them a number and a blanket statement about what their 8 year old knows. We've been working with their children for 7 months and have pages and pages of notes and information about the growth we see and where we are headed next with each child. This is important to them, it is. They are excited to hear the anecdotes about how their child spends their days. But they are so worried about these numbers, even when they fight like crazy to pretend that they aren't. So...I was compelled to follow Mr. Staggs letter, with a letter to our parents:

Dear Parents of the Amazing Light Bulb Lab Students,

  First and foremost, we want to thank you for sharing your children with us. We recognize and respect that your child spends more hours awake with us in a day then you will get to see them awake at home. We don't take this lightly. We spend hours planning every moment of their day and monitoring their smiles and "thinking faces". We make a million changes as we observe what is working for your son or daughter and what isn't. To be honest, during the school year, there are more pictures of your children and our learning on our phone, than of our own children. We learn what makes them laugh, cry and giggle. We push them when they need it and we remind them to clean up after themselves (sound familiar). We make sure that they are safe and happy at school because we know that they will not be able to do their best if we don't take care of these two things first.

We know what a special year 3rd grade is. It's the last of the early primary years. We strive for every second of this final year in early childhood to be a moment where they will fall in love with learning. We know all about the research for what must be accomplished by the end of this year. We know this is our big chance to make them see what is so special about school. We have in our sights what next year will bring for them in their intermediate elementary years. We know how the shift in departmentalizing will rattle them at first and then challenge them in new and exciting ways. We know it all. Which is why, we spend so much time thinking about your children. Planning for their days at school. Studying them at every moment to learn what will hook them.

And then we give them test after test. Please don't mistake what I am saying. There is value in making sure our students achieve the skills necessary to move forward in their education. But I want you, no I'm begging you, to remember that your child is so much more than just the number that gets reported to you on a bar graph. If you want to know about your learner, ask me. I'll tell you a funny story about how they were creating a model of their house in Tinkercad and then they 3D printed 8 years old. If you could have seen the pure joy and elation this success brought to won't show on a test, but I can tell you all about it. Or maybe you'd like to talk about how in small math group, your child just explained the entire process for multiplying two digits by one digits to the entire math group. But that isn't how the computer will ask her to show what she knows. Maybe I'll get the chance to show you the invention they prototyped that will help others who need a new type of cast that is easier to keep dry and not get stinky. You won't find that on a test. Or my favorite, maybe you'll listen to 51 kids share what they are passionate about. So passionate in fact that they talk your ear off for as long as you'll let them, and even attempt to follow you into the bathroom because they just can't contain the excitement about their learning. Sadly, the test won't ask them about the Porsche car company, Stephan Curry or Gymnastics.

You see, your children have learned so much more than I could have ever dreamed possible. It just may not come out on every test they take. I'm not teaching them to take tests, they will get so much practice taking tests over their years in public education that I don't worry or doubt for a moment that they didn't grow that 6 RIT points they needed. They are 8. They should focus on falling in love with learning. The rest will fall into place as they grow and develop into the Genius' I see already.

To be fair, I want to say again, that these tests do have many benefits and I do use them to guide my instruction. They are a piece to making sure I'm on track with your child. I just want you to know that I did my very best for your child, the same way that you have done your very best. But they are 8, and this number does not come close to explaining what growth your child has made this year. If you have concerns about that...let's chat! I've got hours of learning to share with you!

With love from part of your child's village,

Mrs. Thoma

And so those small steps brought me back to reality, but not before I took a moment to think of myself and all the other teachers who may have the test taking blues.

Dear Rock Star, Hard Working, Life Changing, Dream Facilitator,

Hey...I know you are struggling right now. Hang in there. These kids need you. This test does not tell you what kind of teacher you are. I know it's easy to put on that brave face with your students and dance and cheer to get them pumped up. I get that its exhausting to worry about what the results will reflect on your teacher evaluation. But here's the truth, although your students scores will account for 50% of your overall teacher effectiveness rating, only YOU know what kind of teacher you really are. You know your kids as if they were your own children. So remember that some of your students are still learning how to take these tests and don't lose sight of their brilliant mind. Be okay that it moved you down on the rating scale-as long as you know you took that student to a new level this year, let that be enough. Don't spend so much time worrying that this public record will look like you didn't work hard enough to raise test scores and instead relish the ah-ha's, the "I did it's" and the epic failures that turned into successes. Real learning doesn't come in a neat package that moves exactly the way it should. Remember above all else, that you got into this job to change lives, so forget the test and get back to that work!

Your Fellow Life Changer

Phew! I'm starting to feel a little better and I hope you will get out of the test taking blues and gear up for the powerful learning that takes place every day. Tests are here to stay (for a while anyway) so be sure to take care of yourself and keep your priorities straight. We have a lot of kids counting on pick yourself up and remember that standardized tests do not tell the whole picture of your students growth or your teaching! Use these tools to reflect, make changes and move on! This is an opportunity for growth if we choose to look at it that way!

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