Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Fighting the Data Vortex: How high stakes testing is sucking the life out of education

Let me just start this post out by saying that I am an Algebra 1 teacher in the state of Texas. For those of you who have no context for this predicament, this means I am in the one math course that is a state tested subject and that students are required to pass the state assessment in order to graduate. Campuses and districts are judged based on those scores yearly. If you are not in a similar situation, it is hard to explain the enormous pressure on students, teachers, campuses and districts to have high scores every year.

In my district we have historically done fairly well, especially given the lower socio-economic mix we have in our district and the disparities that usually implies. However, we are not immune to the intense push for higher and higher scores. This driving force has created what I like to term as the data vortex mostly because it is sucking the life out of true education and turning the art of teaching into a micromanaged system to collect more data so that we can make "data-driven decisions" so that our scores -the data- will improve and we will be viewed as a superior district by the state and by the general public. Never mind that this is the same public that claims they do not want teachers "teaching to the test" but if the school's test scores are not high enough for the ranking they, the parents,  desire, they will move their children and their money to a different district or campus.

So educators are in a bit of a catch 22 if you will. We are caught in the middle of a heavily flawed system of accountability for education and the only way to be successful as defined in the system is to sacrifice the real education of students and train them to succeed on one day, on one test, that will measure their worth as a student and determine their eligibility for graduation. A culmination of 13 years of hard work will boil down to one performance on one day; how many adults would crumble under that kind of pressure?

At the district level, many districts have met the fear of falling short with micromanagement of the classroom teacher all in the name of data. Teachers are given tests that mirror the state assessment that they are required to give students. Which at first may not sound too terrible. However, when the realization hits that the State creates the tests to be so difficult that a 43% correct is considered a passing rate, it is cause for pause. This means that the tests, which teachers are often required to count as test grades and are often dictated when they give them and how they can even grade them, are designed similarly where the average student will make around a 45-50%.  Now granted, there are some students who will do much better than that, and conversely there are others who will give up and stop trying because they can't seem to understand more than one or two questions. Usually a curve system or scale score is developed so that the students will not have very poor grades in the grade book, knowing that the expectation is that most students would not receive a score comparable to their coursework average and they will need a "cushion" for their scores.

These unit tests serve an important purpose from the district standpoint as they provide data to pour through, evaluate, compare, and utilize to create a plan of attack to improve because from the district standpoint, the end goal is to improve the scores. They also give students experience with the style of testing that they will face at the end of the year from the state. Teachers and administrators spend hours desegregating data and trying to formulate the perfect plan to have a higher rating at the end of the school year. The plan usually seems to work on the surface, but it is not without casualties.

The first casualty is often the autonomy of the classroom teacher. As stated before, teachers are given exact mandates in the way of someone else designing tests, the timeline of when they must test, how they must grade the test, what weight it has in their grade book, etc. It appears as though the teacher would still have some autonomy about how they instruct their students or present new materials or concepts, but if they want their students to do well (and if they do not want to be singled out in the data vortex as one who did not perform as well) they must teach in such a way that students will be able to be more and more successful on the tests, not necessarily successful in the learning of the concepts. The state provides a specific list of required skills that should be taught, and districts usually have a curriculum in place that helps teachers ensure they are addressing these skills appropriately, but this data vortex system takes it much farther than that. Many times teachers are pushed to sacrifice mastery in order to meet the requirements of the scope of content (something that goes against most teachers' core educational beliefs). Teachers tend to feel as though they are not trusted as professionals and that they have no control of true learning happening in their classroom.

A great teacher, in a good educational setting, does so much more than deliver content. Teachers challenge students to think, they give students a way to connect their learning to the world, they mentor, they advise, they even mother sometimes. Teachers love their students; they are their 'kids'. Lessons about self-efficacy in learning, responsibility for your own education, learning to cooperatively work together for an end goal, as well as lessons in character, work ethic and organization all take place in a great teacher's classroom, none of which will increase test scores. A great teacher gets to know their students and knows that 'John' only gets to eat if he comes to school and that 'Jenn' has a father on his deathbed and that 'Savannah and Stacy' are sisters that live in a motel room with 3 other siblings and two adults. A great teacher never equates these students with a test score or data because they are people, they are children; they are so much more than one test on one day. But that great teacher is held accountable if they do not make the data more important than the student and that teacher is rarely recognized as "great" because that kind of greatness will never show up on a standardized test. Time and again, the data vortex will suck the life and passion out of that teacher because that great teacher is tired of the fight.

The second casualty, by default of the first, is the student learning component. As aluded to before, students are reduced to numbers on a page, their learning to a score. Students are very aware of this fact and they are not fans of the data vortex at all. In general most students want to do well. However, when they are given tests that are designed for the majority of them to only achieve about a 50%, regardless of what adjusted grade is entered into the gradebook, students are very aware that they do not understand half of the material they are testing over (or more likely, the questions ar worded in such a way that they can not discern what material it is testing). Students, at least at the ninth grade level, will often give up if they know they are not going to understand a majority of what is placed in front of them. Now in the defense of the districts, this type of exerience does prepare the students for the state standardized testing situation since it is presented in much the same manner. In my opinion, this is the piece that helps students perform better on the state assessment. Giving students glimpses of the type of questioning they will be faced with is essential. Gathering data on how well they are doing on tested domains is even very useful. When the data becomes high risk every single time the students are faced with it because it counts for more than half of their classroom learning average, that is detrimental and students tend to shut down. It magnifies the pressure of the one test on one day scenario and pulls that same stress and emotion into a weekly or monthly event. In Texas, the extra component for high school students is that if the student does not pass the state mandated end-of-course test for five different subjects, they cannot graduate with their class, regardless of grades, attendance, perseverance, determination, and 13 years of public education. Students begin to perceive that their learning, their education, is less valuable than their scores. If we want students who enter adulthood with a sense of responsibility for their own learning we must give them the impression that self-efficacy is important and that learning and education is more than a testing event.

Here's the catch, as stated above, this is a flawed system. Accountability in education is important; we do not want a system where educators are given full-range to teach whatever, however, and whenever they wish with or without proper qualifications for teaching in that content area. Parents are deserving of a system that does give them some insight into the school campus or district that their student attends as their children are their greatest treasure and the future of our world. Districts are locked into this system and when their school or district does not meet certain standards, despite how flawed the system is, the general public,(the same public who screams that they do not want teachers to teach to the test) use the state rating on the state assessment to determine the viability of the school or district. If a parent or parent group only utilizes the data to determine the health or viabilty of a school, they are falling into the same data vortex trap that the districts are in. If those same parents or general public groups were making the decisions for the district about curriculum, likely they would make the same decisions regarding testing more to get more data and practice to do better on the scores so that public perception is that the school is improving- based solely on data and test scores.

 Maybe the change needs to begin with public and parent perceptions and definitions of what a good educational setting, what a great school, classroom or teacher looks like. Would a parent be happier to have a teacher who knows their child, teaches their child and finds ways to reach their child where they are, regardless of test scores? Or would that same parent rather the child practice and get experience to increase test scores? Or maybe it would be best to find a commonality of the two, if that is even possible. In my opinion, parents and the general public are our only hope for change. Teachers are limited in what they can say or do and continue to be an educator and administrations are locked into what is required of them until something changed. I am going out on a limb, just posting this blog post. I love my district and my campus and have amazing administrators and friends that I work with and for. There are many things that I do not agree with, but I still love the people. I also am logical enough to see the dilemma that districts are in, mostly through no fault of their own. Teacher groups have spoken to law makers for years, but let's face it, they are not the voice that needs to be heard. Parents select homes and spend the almighty dollar in places where the perception is there are great schools. Great schools are defined at the moment in public eye as one with high test scores year in and out. I do not have a solution, only a lot of thoughts, questions and maybe just something to make you think. If nothing else, I hope I inspire you to let that teacher that is working hard to reach your children, despite the pressures of high stakes testing and the data vortex that surrounds them, know that you see them; that you know they are a great educator and that you appreciate them. Sometimes just that simple gesture is enough to keep up the fight and hold tight to the passion.

~Mrs. R

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Long-Reach Teach: What you can do to help a lot of kids without much money

Today I want to share something that I started on a whim about 8 or 9 years ago. I teach a lower income school district that tends to lag behind a bit in the technology area, just because the expense is enormous. Years ago, I looked into "flipping" my classroom, but decided that would not be beneficial to my students at the time as I still had many whose parents did not even have an email, much less computer access or wi-fi. As I brainstormed how I could help my students, I thought about creating a library of my recorded lessons. Our library had flip cameras that I could check out and my friend, the art teacher, had tiny tripods that I could borrow that she used when students did stop-motion projects. So I checked a camera out and began to experiment a little.
Flip Camera- super easy to use except some of the software is outdated

The side has a built-in flash drive that you extend, plug into your computer and download the video

My classroom set-up has a document camera and projector to the front screen (when I first started, the projector was on a cart the rolled around, but is now mounted on the ceiling) I would set up my little camera and point it at the board to show any notes and to record my voice as I taught. And guess what? It worked! It was a far cry from great cinematography and there were struggles with lighting and glare spots, but it worked! ( I prefer the Flip camera to my chromebook or ipad because it is easier to set up and keep stationary at this time. For the others, I would need an extra desk to set them on to record the board.)

And then came the real challenge- uploading it to an easy-to-reach site! I used my school website for a while, but ended up having to reformat the video types and often split them into pieces because they were too long. I tried YouTube, but it was slow and not easy to find the videos for the students. Then I discovered a learning/teaching platform called Schoology and created folders and organized them well. The newest platform that I currently use is Google Classroom, and I love it. I post a copy of the video, a copy of the notes pages and a copy of the corresponding assignment to the page and any student, adult, parent or administrator who has the classroom code can access them.

I cannot tell you how having these videos has changed my teaching strategies. It has helped me in so many ways and has helped my students in ways that I probably do not even know. The first thing I realized that was so beneficial was for students who were in a disciplinary in-school suspension situation or even at an alternative placement campus. These students can serve their discipline consequences and never fall behind! It has changed how I feel about sending to work to ISS. The instructor now just logs students into Google Classroom, gives them a set of headphones, and they sit, take notes, get the lesson and do not miss a single ounce of classroom instruction! That is huge!

It has helped students who have had to miss for a variety of reasons as they can utilize a computer or their phone and see the lesson even if they are in bed at home. One particular student, who had to go on homebound, I remember kept right up with the class the entire year utilizing my videos of the class lessons. Her other teachers at first thought I was just being nice about her grades because she was doing so well, but she was doing everything the students who were actually at school were doing and doing well, despite the fact that the homebound teacher was not strong in Algebra and struggled to assist her much.

I have had several parents who utilize the videos to keep up and help their students ( and not feel so clueless.) Let's face it, math is different than it used to be and most parents honestly can't begin to help their students. But if they have access to the exact same lesson their student had in class, they can feel more confident or even help explain more because they have more experience to relate to the lesson. Other students use the lessons to review or re-watch when they had a bad day or just zoned out during the class or can't remember one part of the lesson. I have also shared the lessons with friends of students in other Algebra teacher's classrooms at my school so they can have an explanation that might be worded differently and helped them have a light bulb moment. Believe it or not, I even have friends who teach in other districts who have shared the videos with their students, and friends who have children in other districts who have used them to help get through Algebra with their students. I personal believe it is an invaluable tool.

It is a tool, however, not without its downfalls. My tech department is working to figure out a more up-to-date and affordable alternative, but for now it is still what I am using. Flip cameras are out of date and tend to give me a little trouble sometimes when trying to load the videos. I also have learned to select a class that is not my first one (I get better as I teach it more), but it also needs to be a class that can handle the extra distraction and I have to be diligent about remember to set things up to record. I have procured a floor tripod that I set up now, so that is helpful. The video does not record any students other than questions they ask and I am careful to not say their names aloud as I teach when I am recording to protect them. I have had to resort to teaching to an empty classroom to record a lesson or two that my batteries were dead and the original didn't work or I had other technical difficulties. Other than that, It is fairly painless, just a little time consuming.

If you teach in a school that struggles with absenteeism, lower income, a lack of technology options or just have students that struggle, this is a great option to reach more students. It is fairly inexpensive, you do not have to actually be on camera (just my voice, not my face is there) and the payoff is much larger than the drawbacks. It really doesn't matter what subject you teach, it will help! It is even great if you have to miss, the sub can just show the video and your class is not behind! (you have to record those early though) I say give it a try! Don't be so scared and I guarantee your administrators will be impressed!

Here is a link to one of my videos, just to give you an idea of what they look like. They are not fancy, but they are effective.

I encourage to step out of your comfort zone just a little! If one teacher from every core subject area at a school would record lessons, think of how helpful that would be! I also feel like it is not an excuse to say your school does not have technology resources- you can brainstorm and figure something out that will reach your kids!

~Mrs. R 

Friday, September 2, 2016

Trying New Things- The Techie Side of Teaching

I look around at young people today and it amazes me how embedded in technology their lives are; sometimes for good and sometimes not-so-good. Before school started this year, I knew I wanted to really work to incorporate new technology into my classroom so I began looking for new ideas this summer. I found way more than my brain could absorb! Faced with the rush of getting my room ready, create the first week or so of lesson plans, and attend various meetings, I knew I needed to pick one thing to start with that would be EASY! That's when I landed on Recap by the makers of Swivl.

Recap is a free, new, still somewhat in the beta testing phase, program that allows for you to assign video response questions to your "students." I decided it would be my "one thing" for now. When my students came in the first day I asked them the question, "How do you usually learn how to do something that you don't know, but want to learn?" I gave them examples like, a certain dance, how to fix something, how to cook something or create something. Their primary answers were: "I would ask someone I know that already knows how and they would teach me." or " I would 'Google' or 'YouTube' it." This is the world our students live in. If they want to know, they can find out and the best and the worst teachers are at their fingertips and through the World Wide Web. They post selfies and video clips of themselves on all kinds of social media as a way to connect with friends. This is why I thought Recap would be something that I could get them to at least try. I am still working out the kinks, but so far, I'd say it has been successful! Here are a few photos of my students using the program in the classroom.

First of all the set up as a teacher was fairly painless and then all I had to do was get my students to join the correct class. Then I played around with the Demo class they provided and figured out how to add a question and watched a couple of demo videos. All that was left was to assign a Recap assignment to my kids! The first few days, we struggled with the school's firewall and it would not allow them to record, (in the help section, there is a very specific list you can print and hand to your technology person and the firewall issue will be resolved) but I found the app and had them all download the app onto their phones and they just began using those! Here is the app icon to look for:

 I can't even explain how excited I was when my first video appeared! They did great! Even if the explanation was a little off, it was easy to see where the mistakes were being made and how to help the student improve! I also was able to assess their knowledge of precise mathematical vocabulary! So far, I am using this program once a week as a quick quiz grade and I sit at home watching them to grade them during commercial breaks of my favorite shows. Here's a couple of my students who allowed me to share their videos. I even had a limited ENglish speaker who did her entire vieo in Spanish and I had a fellow teacher translate for me! I was very proud of her for doing it even if it wasn't in English yet! We have formulated a plan for her to just pick one of the 4 questions I assing on the next RECAP and try that one in English. I know her confidence and speaking will improve so much over this year and we will have video proof of her progress! 

To me, this is an invaluable tool for formative assessment, for Exit Tickets, extensions on learning, vocabulary quizzes...the possibilities are endless! 

On top of using it in my classroom, my campus has been working hard to have a stronger presence on social media, especially on Twitter. We created a "class" for the staff and faculty of Waxahachie Ninth Grade Academy to do a recap of a quick introduction of each staff member. Our Principal has been introducing one staff member a day via Twitter using the links to their individual recap videos. 

If you are looking for an easy tool that kids will actually use and that is free, I completely recommend giving Recap a try! You get to see a little bit of the kids' personalities, it makes it much quicker to put faces with names in your classroom and they love it! I wouldn't say I am a pro by any means, but it has been fun so far.  Just go to www.letsrecap.com to check it out! Follow me on Twitter @Srieper89 if you would like to see a few more videos.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

How'd I Get Here?

When I was in high school, I can remember deciding to go to engineering school and make a ton of money as a female engineer, who at the time got paid more because there were so few of them and it fulfilled affirmative action plans. I was graduating from Waxahachie High School in 1989and the Superconducting Supercollider was billed to be the most amazing thing in technology, science and the world since the discovery of penicillin. Engineering was going to make me much wealthier than my teaching parents and teaching grandparents. I remember growing up with the knowledge of how much extra work teachers put it and how little they were compensated. I knew first-hand the difficulties of raising a family of five on teaching salaries and was determined to be different. I also grew up seeing how much my parents cared about their students, how my worked hard to make learning Biology fun and hands-on, and how my dad would look to find a better way to reach a struggling math student.

 Somehow the good of teaching penetrated my soul more deeply than the bad and I found myself miserable while studying to become an engineer. While trying to figure out what to do, I got a job as a tutor at a local tutoring franchise. It was weirdly rewarding, so I applied for a teacher's aide position at my local school district; the same school I graduated from. If I thought teachers were underpaid, boy was I in for a shock! I remember my checks were only about $630 each month, but I continued to enjoy my position and found such contentment in feeling like I was part of these students' lives. I had two children and took a year off after each but always found my way back into the classroom, and always at the secondary level. I did substitute three days in 4th grade and it rained all three days- it was awful trying to keep all of those same kids happy for three solid days and keep my sanity. I learned very quickly that teaching at the elementary level required some extra dose of "specialness" that I did not posess! (My hat is tipped to all the amazing elementary teachers out there!)

 I worked in alternative placement programs, taught low-level math classes, classes to help students pass our state assessment and at one point even taught an ESL math class (which was comical as I have no second language; English is it.) I finally landed in what we call Content Mastery in Texas. It is a classroom where Special Education students can come to receive a more focused, one-on-one approach to their guided practice, quizzes and tests. I found my niche in this classroom and it was never a dull moment as we serviced all levels of disabilities and learning struggles as well as every subject area that was offered to high school students at the time. We would often have a room full of students working on everything from Biology, Algebra or World Geography to Journalism, Art or Spanish. After about 12 years on and off in eductaion, I finally decided to go back and finish my long-abandoned engineering degree to get my teaching certificate in secondary mathematics. I quit work, went to college full-time and finished 84 semester hours in 2 years of college with a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies with an emphasis on math, science and education. By design, my degree is intent on finding solutions to issues utilizing more than one discipline and to improve on ideas by drawing from other disciplines which has been very helpful in my journey as an educator. I find myself drawing on ideas in other subject areas, and looking at my ideas to see how they cna be used in those same areas all the time.

That was 11 years ago, and I have been teaching Algebra 1 to ninth grade students ever since. My heart will always be that of an educator and those students are all "my kids." I am currently working to become certified in other core subject areas and will also be pursuing my Master's in Curriculum soon. I have always been someone who is not afraid to try something new or to investigate how to do things unconventionally in order to reach my students more effectively. So, I decided to start a blog to talk about ideas I have used in the classroom and how they have impacted my teaching, and most importantly my student's learning. Maybe through my trials and errors, another young aspiring teacher can glean some insight and wisdom into their classroom. I will post about all kinds of things from classroom management, technology integration, ideas specific to mathematics and ideas that are cross curricular. I have been blessed to spend most of my teahcing years at the same school and to have had amazing administrators who have provided support and encouragement through the years. I hope that if you are reading this and are a fellow educator that you have been and will be as blessed as I have been. So from this 3rd generation educator to you, I wish you all the best! Don't ever stop learning and improving and looking at things from a different perspective! We owe it to our students to strive to bring our best and to get over our anxiety and fear of trying to do what we can to make learning interesting and fun. It is a growth process and I am proud to say that I am still trying, still improving, sometimes striking out, but learning all the time!

Mrs. R