I'm baaaaaaack.

Hoarding All the Glitter Since 2001.

31 January 2013

Last week, I took a release day with my Resident.  The idea was to backwards map the Kindergarten year in English Language Arts with reference to the Common Core standards.  Any given standard has lots of little composite pieces - for instance, if you're going to teach kids how to read CVC words, you'll want to plan out when you are introducing various sounds.  Some sounds should be taught earlier than others (say, m before v); others should be separated instructionally (teaching short a and then short e is not a good idea, at least not in California).

This was my first time going deeply into these standards (as opposed to reading and looking for differences from the old state standards).  I was amused by the technology aspect (guess I will just fail to be effective there), and irritated by the constant opening phrase "With prompting and support", which is ridiculously vague.

Overall, though, I find myself much in sympathy with this.  These may or may not be good standards that describe a Kindergarten experience that is at once rigorous and achievable for all children.  (They're certainly rigorous.)  But they lack the wonder and creativity that five year olds bring to the classroom, and I dread their impact on Kindergarten.  I think it is possible to have high academic standards and lots of good play and social development - possible, but very hard.  And when all of our energy is pushing the former, the latter is going to be forgotten.

29 January 2013

Trees die, writing improves.

I got a scholarship to go to a Teachers College Reading and Writing Project institute last summer.  I've been using (not to the letter, but fairly closely - rigid curricula doesn't create flexible learning) the Readers Workshop model for a few years, but hadn't been doing so much Writers Workshop.  Sure, I'd seen various books on how to do it, but found them opaque; Kindergarten isn't like any other grade and too many available books compressed K-2 into "early primary".

Anyway, this year I am using (again, with significant adjustment for my style, my students, and so on) more of a Writers Workshop model.  I'm pretty happy with the results so far; the kids write more and they seem more confident at it.  Part of the model is that they have largely endless quantities of paper.  Generally I give them a three or four page booklet.  They plan out what they want to write by touching each page and saying it (HINT: THIS TAKES SEVEN THOUSAND MINILESSONS, NOT THREE OR SO) to themselves before they sketch and write.  During revisions, they can add more pages if they need to.

The plus side?  Like I said, they write more.  Their writing is organized, too; some kids even use transition words on their own.  Some kids also are independently picking up story language or mimicking their leveled readers in their structure.  And as I get better at teaching writing this way, I'm sure the student results will be even better.

(Downsides?  They're taking longer this year to space words well, but it does seem to be shaking out now.  I'm also having to do lots of small groups and conferencing around spelling expectations - at this point, initial-letter-only spelling is not what want to see.  Still, this does seem to be working itself out and I'm trying to have faith in the process.)

But what I do find alarming is the sheer quantity of tree we're going through for writing.  When the kids revise, having the space on the page for adding more detail is great, but not everything gets revised.  It's also useful for editing, but again: not every piece gets edited.  Since the kids have a lot of choice about what they revise and what they don't, we have paper waste.

We are back-to-backing, of course.  I thought about trimming the size (half-sizing sheets and making little booklets), but this year I have a number of kids who are not developmentally ready to write that small (nor do I want to have this as an available choice/accommodation for a number of reasons).

I haven't been able to come up with anything though.  I suppose it's time for some websearching; I can't be the first teacher to fret over this.

26 January 2013

It is probably a good thing that chickens are notoriously dim-witted, or the silkies would be demanding tribute after weeks of intense celebrity at school.

20 January 2013

What You Don't Learn in Two Years

Whether it's Michelle Rhee demanding that arts instruction be reserved only for fluent readers or ten hour day charter schools with nary a minute for painting, the education reform movement is no fan of the arts in education.

This is not especially surprising.  It's not just the focus on test scores.  Nor is it solely a capitalist impulse against harder-to-monetize subjects or corporatist education focused on creating the service workers of tomorrow.

It's also that the education reformers who taught didn't teach long enough to teach the arts.

This is not hard to understand.  If you are a lightly-trained new teacher, you're going to teach subjects for which you are given the necessary materials.  Almost every teacher gets a full classroom set of math and reading materials - workbooks, alphabet cards, anthologies, and so on.  The materials are ready for you to use and easy for the harried and overwhelmed teacher to access.

Even easier to teach?  Test prep.  Every low-performing school is awash in practice tests, test strategy guides, computer-based testing, and test-taking curricula.  These are usually scripted, and typically based on a direct instruction model: you talk and the kids test.

Early in one's teaching career, when all teachers are learning how to manage a classroom, procedures, school policy, materials, assessment, and procedures, direct instruction with very clear instructions is a lifesaver.

Arts instruction, on the other hand, is a nightmare of preparation and management for the new teacher.  The materials are not provided, and a lot of planning is necessary just for getting the supplies to the students (let alone using and cleaning up the supplies).  Alternative certification programs do not cover arts instruction; teachers will have to find or create activities themselves.  Untrained first-  and second- year teachers are unlikely to be able to handle arts activities - and if they are disposed to consider the arts of minimal importance anyway, they won't try.

An example: if I want to teach a reading lesson on phonemic awareness, I group the kids together.  They sit quietly and respond to my oral prompts, which I can come up with on the fly (words that start with a certain letter sound, rhyming words, etc.).  Everyone starts and finishes together and the materials needed are minimal (at most, maybe some tiles for counting sounds).

If I want the class to watercolor, first I need to source the materials: paint, paper, brushes, cups for water, rags or paper towels for spills, and a place to dry the paintings.  I then need to figure out how to pass out these materials to the class, what to do when water becomes too saturated with paint and needs replacing, how to handle spills, what to do when some kids finish early...

And that's just procedures and management.  If I want the paintings to delight the artists, I will probably also need to figure out how to teach using watercolors: how to get bright, saturated tones, how to layer colors, how to make colors bleed into each other, and so on.  (At the least, you will want to teach the first of these, since it will save you the hassle of sopping wet, grayish masterpieces.)

Teaching the arts gets easier when you know how to handle a classroom.  After a couple of years, every plastic tub you empty at home comes to school to be repurposed for holding watercolor water.  You know how to get the cups emptied after the project with as few spills as possible.  And knowing this, you can plan a neat lesson for your class.

Early on, it's very hard to do this.  (This is why I invite new teachers over for shared crafternoons in my room.)  The difficulty is such that even when teachers try arts instruction, things are likely to go poorly - and that makes it harder to try again.

But if you're only in the classroom for a couple of years, you will never gain the experience necessary to have cool arts activities.  And without it, you cannot understand why it is so vital to children's education.  And should you go on to great things in education reform, it will be very easy for you to cut the arts out entirely.

19 January 2013

100 Day Projects

These are the projects that I intend to do this year.
  1. 100 Day necklaces: 10 groups of pony beads, each group containing 10 beads.  This requires a fairly large assortment of pony bead shapes and colors; the cheapest way to get the requisite materials is to purchase mixed bags and sort them yourself (or which child assistance; sorting by attribute is a Kindergarten state standard and an enjoyable short math center).
  2. 100 Day sticker pictures - 100 color coded label dots and a piece of 9 by 12 paper.  It is a good idea to have a couple of samples available to give the kids some ideas.  We have also suggested telling stories using the label dots or recreating story events with them.  These labels fall off fairly easily, so if it is very important to you that every picture has exactly one hundred dots when it leaves your classroom, they need to be laminated or similarly treated.
  3. Some kind of 100 day snack.  In the past I've done trail mix bags, but this year I think I'm going to some kind of salad or salad wrap, possibly along the following lines:
    • 10 cucumber slices
    • 10 baby carrots
    • 10 celery sticks
    • 10 cherry tomatoes
    • 10 lettuce leaves
    • 10 red pepper rings
    • 10 jicama sticks
    • 10 zucchini slices
    • 10 oyster mushrooms (we are growing these right now)
    • 10 kohlrabi slices
The class can chop those things into smaller pieces, to be mixed with (probably) some edamame, topped with (possibly) a few sunflower seeds or cheese shreds and served in a collard green leaf.

Other project possibilities:
  1. Handprint number lines - 20 handprints, skip counting by five to 100.  This project was time-consuming but a lot of fun.  I have also done this with hand die cuts, but it was less fun without being much less work.
  2. Finger print number lines - 10 sets of all 10 finger prints, counting by tens to 100.  (Or one hundred prints of one finger). 
  3. 100 day crowns - a sentence strip and 100 jewel stickers.
  4. Coloring 100 stars (I made a 10 by 10 table in Word and used the draw tool to make and then copy a star into every box).
The One Project To Avoid:
  1. Cereal Necklaces.  Sure, you can group any ring-shaped, fruit-flavored cereal into groups of ten and then string it.  But it's sticky, messy, and time-consuming (way longer than beading).  Also, it requires tons of cereal, because any given box only has a few hundred rings and many are misshapen and broken.  This project will also make your classroom smell like tutti frutti cereal for days.  It is not a pleasant smell.

16 January 2013


Work in a school district long enough (say, twenty minutes or so) and you'll be told that something is "legally required" when it is actually District policy.

Ask a few questions and you may find that out.  Generally though, no one will be able to point you to the policy.  It is one of those fantastic school urban legends, the unwritten policy.

Spend another twenty minutes working in a school district and you will find that as unwritten and unjustifiable as they may be, these unwritten policies are handed down from District bigwig to content specialist to administrator to teacher in hushed tones and serious voices.  This is received knowledge with mystical, near-religious status.

Sadly, it's often entirely made up, unethical, or of dubious legality.  These are the real reasons the policies are unwritten.  That said, they may as well be written on an ancient stele or tattooed on District employees, because they are very effective at keeping cash from being spent.

Along these lines: it is not actually the case that federal - no wait state, er, I mean...well, some law - bars direct services from being offered under a 504 plan.  Nor is it in fact the case that children with a 504 cannot be assessed for said services unless they also have an IEP.

The actual issue here is that the services provided under a 504 plan are paid for by a district, not by state or federal dollars.  So ultimately, this policy exists to spare the District from providing expensive services to children for which they will not be reimbursed.

Whether this enables the district to provide that Free and Appropriate Public Education, however...well, let's just note that lawyers are standing by to collect retainers on this issue.

The New Lunch Program

The District has a fancy new lunch program!  Some observations:

1. The kids are eating more.
2. They are also eating more vegetables, probably because of small things like the celery is actually crunchy and stuff like that.
3. The food is now served on these segmented Chinet trays.  The kids can manage these better and they're stronger: fewer catastrophic tray failures on the way to the table.
4. This means I need to stock up on old model cafeteria trays for craft supply dispersal.
5. Today's menu for lunch: chicken and waffles (or vegetarian breakfast for lunch).  Actual lunch: BBQ chicken wings.  Number of adults on campus intending to purchase school lunch based on the menu: at least four.  This kind of thing happened all the time under the old program too, but then, no adults were voluntarily buying those lunches.

13 January 2013

Educational Technology Adventures of the 1980s

I attended elementary school during an ed tech boom.  And indeed, through the wonders of technology I learned many things.

Awesome Technological Advance: LOGO
Intended Learning Outcome: Learn all about shapes by programming the turtle to draw them.
Actual Learning Outcome: Programming the turtle to do things like

FD 12398549
RT 34258943

will make the turtle go nuts.  This is very funny until you get caught and the teacher momentarily believes that you broke LOGO and the computer.

Awesome Technological Advance: BASIC
Intended Learning Outcome: Prepare children for the Jobs of the Future, because all future jobs involve programming in BASIC.
Actual Learning Outcome: By pecking laboriously and copying exactly, you can make the computer add.  Just like a calculator or your brain, except longer.

Like, hours longer.

Once you master this, you can go on to copy programs submitted to  3 2 1 Contact Magazine.  These programs are written by children who are way more ready for the Jobs of the Future than you are.  By laboriously copying, you will make the computer do other things that are easier to do yourself.

Given the horror that is BASIC, you become consumed by how terrible Jobs of the Future must be.  You wake up in the night to worry about your Job of the Future.  You resolve to seek out jobs that do not involve BASIC.  When you report this intention to your teacher when caught not programming in BASIC but messing around with the LOGO turtle instead, you are told that all future jobs will require BASIC.

You think about this for a significant portion of every school day.  It consumes you to the point that there is significantly less paper snow around your desk from illicit adventures in cutting (although you begin to get your finger stuck in your hair from twirling it repetitively).  You identify jobs that seem unlikely to ever involve BASIC:

  • playing baseball
  • becoming a member of a religious order
  • driving a big rig
  • cooking
  • cutting hair (plus: involves scissors!)
and resolve to pursue these options.

Awesome Technological Advance: Oregon Trail
Intended Learning Outcome: Manifest Destiny is really hard!  You have no idea how much cholera and river fording it takes to steal territory.  Also, it is far easier to buy your way to Oregon as opposed to fixing and hunting your way there, so definitely aim for a high-paying career.
Actual Learning Outcome: Who wants to get to Oregon?  It's boring.  With your class, devise new ways to "win":
  • spend an entire class period hunting
  • Who can starve the fastest?
  • Who can leave tombstones in the most locations?  (It's boring when everybody gets dysentery.)
  • Who can give their pioneers the most hilarious names?
This game is so fun that you will go to great lengths to find a copy of it after one of your college friends finds an Apple II cleaning out a professor's storage room.  A party will be organized to enjoy the game, because almost everyone else also learned all about the importance of vaccination that death can be funny feeling bad about drowning your computerized oxen American history through this technological wonder.

Behold the Power of Education Reform.

(More serious discussion of the "data" presented in the MET Project's latest report can be found at Gary Rubinstein's blog.)

Please notice how the young and white educator is so innovative and driven that he can get today's computer programs to run on yesterday's computers.  I mean, that thing clearly takes floppy disks, but that can't hold the high expectations back!

All the problems I have with my eighteen year old eMac are due to my union contract and bad attitude.  If I were just younger and more committed, I could make it happen.  I should stop worrying about Smarter Balanced and how I don't have any internet (let alone internet-ready devices) in my classroom and just start caring more.

Obviously, there's a great deal more that can be said about this touching picture of education reform at its finest, but I'm hung up on that computer.  It reminds me of the machines I used for LOGO and Oregon Trail.  In the eighties.

And we're back.

The first week back after the break always feels like crunch time.  Generally I have a pile of adminstrative tasks - bus requests, updating RtI spreadsheets, etc. - that I figured could wait until January.  After all these years, I know this is a bad idea but somehow I can't resist.  Anyway, those things end up getting done the second week back, when things tend to calm down.

The kids come back from break raring to go, I find.  They get how the classroom is supposed to work (although they need proactive reinforcement on procedures) and since Kindergarten is fun they're happy to be back.  So it's a good time to start new things; I usually begin centers the first week back (they've been doing various small group structures all year, but not centers).  I also made some schedule changes, moved the furniture around, and brought in the chickens (who are spending their first weekend at school right now - inside, of course).

The chickens are extremely popular; the kids have gotten to pet them and feed them and will get to hold them next week.  Hutch cleaning is not quite the nightmare I imagined since it ends up all the science I do pays off long-term.  I cleaned the hutch with the assistance of some second graders I had in Kindergarten; they were not fazed by the reality that this meant seeing chicken poop (I do the hardcore scrubbing myself while they protect the chickens from predators in the garden but they do help me pull out the tray and scrub the feeder and waterer).


I attribute this to Kindergarten science because of the snails.  All the Kindergarten science animals lead to discussions about excretion, but snails are particularly fascinating (to five year olds) in this regard.  For the most part, they eat greens and chalk or eggshells (for calcium).  You can tell exactly what a given snail has been eating most recently by the color of its waste products.  This is a subject of repulsive fascination to five year olds.  Snails are prodigious producers of waste, too, so there's plenty of reason for five year olds to discuss snail digestion all the time.

Anyway, over the course of six weeks or so of snail care, the kids tend to become nonchalant about the issue.  "It's just lettuce and chalk," they chide disgusted observers.  "And it's natural.  Part of life."  So when the kids made similar comments to shocked onlookers, I thought to myself, "Oh yeah.  Lifelong learning right there."

Not that I think snail excretion should be a Common Core standard or anything, but I do think that part of Kindergarten should be learning that disgusting things can be interesting (did you know pond snails can travel vertically through the water on their mucus trails?).  It's also confidence-building; it is really fun to see the child who would not look at the isopods picking up the ones that wander into the building and depositing them under leaf litter to save their lives.  If you can conquer your fear of the fourteen-legged, you can also try to read a new word.  And so on.

Anyway, what with all that it was a crunch time week and I'm looking forward to my Resident teacher soloing a couple of days so I can finish all the paperwork stuff and do the next F&P assessment run.

10 January 2013


This year is for some reason turning into the Year of Realized Projects I Have Idly Considered for Years on End.  Presently:

  • The children are making enormous number lines by 5s to 100, using fingerpaint and handprints.  (They're over five feet long.  One per kid.)
  • We are doing more writers workshop type stuff and they have published books.
  • We're making spore prints from mushrooms RIGHT NOW.
  • We have live adult chickens in the classroom.
Overall, I predict I will have mildly paint and/or marker-specked hands and clothes pretty much every day going forward.

08 January 2013

Civility, Common Ground, Bipartisanship

I have mixed it up with any number of politicos, high-level District suits, non-profits, administrators, and elected officials in my time.  If necessary, I will destroy all of their arguments using facts and data.  I will insist that they explain their suppositions.  I will call them out for privilege.

And when doing this, whether face to face or by written communication, I strive to be professional.  I would say I succeed most of the time.  (I am giving myself credit for responding to the pragmatics of a situation here; what is acceptable in an open comment on Annual Pink Slip Vote Night is different than what is acceptable in an email requesting assistance.  That said, I'm not the kind of person who hisses or even rolls her eyes most of the time.)

(We all fall short of our higher selves now and again.)

(And obviously, my blog is my sandbox: politeness WHATEVER here.)

This is not just me saying so: I ask people for feedback on the issue.  I am smart.  I have a really good memory and I collect facts like a magpie.  I also have ADHD; I think fast, struggle to uphold discourse norms, sometimes lose focus, etc.: feedback is important.

All that said, I think it is often the case that calls for civility are really meant to silence.  Civil behavior is defined by those in power; those in power can be expected to uphold the status quo (or worse), and requiring that one's opponents be civil is an easy way to shut them up.

Somewhat related, I don't think finding common ground is as lofty a goal as some do. Education reformers are actively engaging in activities that make my life harder.  They are working very hard to pick my pocket and my pension.  They are demanding curricula, class sizes, technology and testing that narrow what I can teach my students.  They are silencing important conversations about the commons are, and about race and class in education.  They are attempting to hurt the kids I teach.

It is hard for me to assume best intentions about these people because the data are never in their favor.  Ignoring years of evidence in favor of progress strikes me as an intentional blindness.  I went to fancy college: I'm far too nerdy to accept that one can disregard all known evidence and still be a good bean.

Given all this, I wasn't that interested in watching tonight's Michelle Rheeathon.  She can't be bothered to treat anyone with professionalism, let alone civility.  She uses demands for civility to silence those who argue with her (also name calling and duct tape).  And the things she wants for schools are the antithesis of data-driven and horrible for children.  There's nothing to be said on her that is worth all that bile, blood pressure problem, and time wasted.

07 January 2013

Billionare/Teacher Meet Up Service?

The thing I don't get about offensive claims like these (Joel Klein knows a bunch of teachers who share damaging information with him and him alone off the record) is where do these plutocrats meet these teachers?

Seriously.  Do they have some kind of Meet Up online?  Do low-paid mayoral aides set it up?  Because despite all they claim to know about teachers - that we're against our own unions, that we burnt out years ago and are only in it for the pensions, that we're none too bright and lazy to boot - means that they know some teachers, right?

They have all this secret, uncomplimentary information because their trusting teacher allies told them, right?

How many teachers do you know who hobnob with the 1% after work?  How many plutocrats do you encounter in your daily activities on and off school grounds?  Either Bloomberg et al. have a special secret way to meet teachers, or they're just liars.

Since I already know Michael Bloomberg is a hypocrite - 35:1 classrooms are great for NYC public schools but not for his daughters' private ones - I'm guessing he's fibbing here.  And this fib is awfully offensive.

05 January 2013

It's Poisonous Because It's Not FOR THE CHILDREN.

Gee, if this story is true, I have to start giving the American Federation for Teachers national leadership slightly less of a hard time.

My favorite part is the Students First spokesperson whining about "poisonous discourse".  When they engage in it, you see, it's for the children and therefore okay. But when unions do it (and what is poisonous is apparently telling the truth), it's mean.  I find this a bit rich coming from an organization headed by someone who thinks it's okay to mock those who disagree with you by offensively imitating them to Newsweek and firing people on camera.

And you know, if Michelle Rhee doesn't like what her opponents have to say, she can just duct tape all of our mouths shut.

04 January 2013

Poor Schools Are Not Flush With Poor School Cash

Every few weeks I read or hear that poor schools have all kinds of money wealthy schools do not.  It's true that certain monies - for instance, federal Title I funds  - are distributed based on a school's low-income student population.  It's also true that SFUSD uses a weighted student formula that in theory provides additional cash to high-needs schools.

To the extent that these programs are effective, this is equity in action.  Poor schools need more and they should get more.  Equality is not equity.  Since I believe that we should strive towards equity, I am not particularly moved by the plaint of the wealthy school.

That said, these programs aren't that effective and don't serve to provide poor schools with vast, Scrooge McDuck style cash swimming pools.  (NB: We are not talking about SIG schools here, but your everyday high-needs school.)  Some data contrary to the myth:
  1. Federal funding is approximately 10-12% of a school's budget, so the federal Title I program isn't ever that enormous a sum.
  2. The Weighted Student Formula also means that schools pay a set sum per teacher.  If your teachers are low-seniority and/or don't take some benefits, you are paying more than the actual teacher cost.  If your teachers are high-seniority, you are paying less.  High-needs schools in SFUSD have lower overall seniority.  Please note: I'm not taking a position on whether or not this is a good way to budget.  It has some positive effects.  I am saying that its costs are not shared across the District.
  3. Certain District funds for high-needs schools (or at least the large subset with lower test scores) are restricted.  STAR money buys you a specific set of services; it is not unrestricted money to be used as the school deems fit.
  4. School funding overall is lousy.  High-needs schools may be getting some extra cash (although locally, the teacher averaging offsets it).  That doesn't mean they are well-funded.
The other big issue for me is that in SFUSD, some schools are raising big funds - at times exceeding 40% of the school's annual budget - via Parent-Teacher Organzations/Associations.  Here's a link to a Guidestar search for San Francisco PTAs.  Not all list their actual annual funds, but a number do, and the numbers are big.

This is unrestricted funding, and it significantly impacts what schools can offer.  Among the things that these funds are providing at SFUSD schools:
  • additional art and music supplies and instruction
  • sensory-motor materials and instructors
  • garden teachers
  • reduced class sizes in 4th and 5th grades
  • physical education
  • language programming
Which is awesome for the schools that can raise this kind of money.  Of course, the schools that do are not high-needs ones.  So most schools not receiving Title I funding are more than making up for it.

I would like to specifically state that the entirety of my point here is that poor schools aren't rolling in piles of money.  (And also?  That the "poor school squandering money" image reminds me of the welfare queen myth.)  I believe that schools should offer every service they can, and I'm not bashing on PTOs for doing so.  But when we hear that a wealthy school just doesn't have the funding a poor school does, I think it's fair to ask to see the proof.

Come the Silkies

Last year, I hatched silkie chickens with my class.  Two hatched and survived, a rooster and a hen.  I took them home for the summer and for various reasons they haven't come back to school.

They're moving in on their newly-wheeled hutch this weekend.

Whatever else the New Year brings my classroom...well, this should be a lifelong memory for all involved at the least.

With any luck it will keep the class from asking where the isopods went (for environmental and cruelty reasons, releasing them is not an option, so using FOSS kit recommendations they were euthanized via freezer).

02 January 2013

Reading Assessment Rant: Nonsense Words

The present reading assessment in Kindergarten for my District is Fountas and Pinnell.  Teachers are to give the concepts about print, phonemic awareness, letter recognition, letter sound, and some high-frequency word assessment at the end of each trimester until the child masters the task.  At the end of the year, the teacher also reports the child's reading level via running record and leveled readers.  There's also a decoding words  task I believe is given only at the last trimester and a spelling assessment that doesn't seem to be required (it's a decent one and I will probably give it anyway, along with a Hearing Sounds in Words from the Observation Survey).

I have quibbles with this assessment.  I didn't complete the blending and segmenting assessment portion in November because informal assessment of these skills informed me it would be a big waste of time.  I hadn't taught much of either and certainly not enough for children to blend and segment three and four sound words. In-class activities on the topics were just starting to "click" with a few kids.  To make sure that my post-it notes were largely accurate, I pulled a high reader with good phonemic awareness (able to rhyme and to say if a sound is first, middle, or last in a word) and ran the assessments.  The results were what I had predicted.  In essence, these aren't skills we expect Kindergartners to master in November.  Assessing them formally isn't assessing much and cannot inform instruction if you have good observation skills.  I do.  End of story.

I am also not a big fan of the fifty-item high frequency word list, which has some oddities on it; schools like mine that already had 50+ word lists for Kindergarten as an assessment can apparently substitute their list though.  And the last of the decodable words is "day", which involves a non-Kindergarten spelling pattern (to the extent kids get this one, it's from calendar activities).

However, overall it's an okay assessment, and it has no nonsense words.

Many common assessments like DIBELS give students a list of nonsense words to decode.  This is purported to tell you how fluently kids decode, and since decoding is important to reading, it's supposed to be a measure of reading skill.

It is a measure of nonsense.  It's not just that the research on nonsense word reading is mixed at best.  The key thing is that real reading is more than decoding.  I teach decoding.  I also teach using context clues like the picture, chunking the word, cross-checking, contextualizing, and deleting/re-reading.  All of these skills together tell readers that their job is to make sense of what they read.  In the end, that's what we want readers to do: read and understand.  (Also, to read and enjoy, but it seems like most ed reform is about sucking enjoyment out of school, so never mind that.)

So the well-taught child handed a list of nonsense words is having the rug pulled out from under her.  A number of children will decode the nonsense, come up with nonsense...and then answer with a similar actual word (say, reading cat or case for caz).  Some of the children will answer correctly, and what you've just taught them is that decoding is the key reading strategy.  For a nonsense word assessment, decoding is all that matters.  I can assure you that their first and second grade teachers will not appreciate you instilling this belief.

The fact that these tests exist and are defended boggles my mind.  There is no other subject or field in which such an assessment is given.  A road test for a driver's license takes place on real streets and requires that you monitor for all real-world conditions.  The DIBELS version would test on streets empty of other cars, signs, and so on where you only have to pay attention to your speedometer (which reports your speed only in kilometers).

If a class needs to ace a nonsense word assessment at the end of the year, I can tell you there's going to be a lot of context-free phonics drill filling the day.  I don't think Kindergarten should be like that.  Kindergarten should be like real reading: rich, multi-faceted, and purposeful.

01 January 2013

Testing and the Use of Data

In years past, the District's Kindergarten and 1st grade teachers administered the Brigance.  It wasn't the world's most useful assessment (particularly the first grade version, which boasted one of the strangest high-frequency word lists I've ever seen), but it was a very broad assessment.  For Kindergarten, it covered

  • personal knowledge (name, birthdate, phone number, etc.)
  • self-concept (self portrait task)
  • fine motor skills (copying shapes, writing one's name)
  • gross motor skills (walking backwards heel to toe, standing on one foot)
  • alphabet recognition
  • oral counting
  • number recognition
  • math readiness (adding-like task)
  • color recognition
  • naming parts of the body (vocabulary task)
It also had space for teachers to note which hand was the child's dominant one (or if the child switched hands, which I'm seeing more of every year - kids who don't have a dominant hand until later in Kindergarten.*)  You could also note any concerns you had about the child, specifically around vision and hearing.

Brigance data were recorded on Scantron and sent to the District, who would then analyze them.  When your Brigances came back, the district told you in what percentile the child's score ranked - both locally (for your school) and overall (District-wide).  The district also reported (although not to schools directly) Brigance ranges and percentiles for each individual school.

These are some interesting data, yeah?  I mean, the district knew which schools had more children who were more and less academically ready for Kindergarten.  The administration of the Brigance is straightforward.  It was not a high-stakes test; no one's job or child's future was dependent on the test.  The data were certainly reliable and valid.

Given such data, you could really do some strategic thinking - especially if school-site data trended similarly year after year (which it did).   If you knew a school was likely to have more students with less preschool experience who scored less well on the Brigance, you could try to offer more ECE programming in those neighborhoods.  You could partner with JumpStart.  You could make some adjustments to the Weighted Student Formula and allocate funding to those school's Kindergarten classes.  You could hire paraeducators to assist in doing small-group instruction for less-ready students.  Etc.

Or you could do none of these things.

Guess which course of action the District took.

So this is part of the reason I am so very leery of the CLAs (luckily not part of Kindergarten), the coming Smarter Balanced assessments, and the total lack of a District-wide entry assessment this year.  The District collects reams of data.  They purchased an online data system for that data.  There is an entire District office that analyzes and disseminates that data.  Yet "data-driven instruction" is something only teachers and grade levels are expected to do.  If the District really wanted to be "data-driven", they'd be making District-wide budget decisions based on things like the Brigance.  They didn't.  Instead, they collected the data, turned them into nice charts, and...had a bunch of nice charts, I guess.

The teachers whose students were less ready for Kindergarten were left to solve that one on their own.  But undoubtedly, did their efforts fail to ameliorate the problem, the District would propose they look hard at the data and reflect on the problem - which is certainly not a systemic one, but a problem of individual teachers and schools.

If we are really engaged in an effort to teach all children, we need to act like it.  That can't happen when a district sees its role as a data collector, not part of the education system that creates the data.  And that definitely can't happen if we can't be bothered to have an intake assessment at all.   As far as the District's concerned, this year every Kindergarten student came in knowing the same things; how they do on the District-wide assessments will be due entirely to what their teachers bring to them.

*Also, I'm seeing more lefties - 25% of my class is left-handed this year, and over the past few years the number of left-handed kids has generally gone up.  I have no idea if this is just my class or some kind of trend.  Whatever the case, I'm left-handed myself, so I am ALL KINDS OF READY for my lefties, not just with left-handed tools but also with "How to use right-handed scissors with ease" and other such failsafes.