Thanking the educators in my life

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“Gratitude, the simple and profound feeling of being thankful, is the foundation of all generosity.  I am generous when I believe that right now, right here, in this form and this place, I am myself being given what I need.  Generosity requires that we relinquish something, and this is impossible if we are not glad for what we have.” – Sallie Jiko Tisdale, “As If There is Nothing to Lose”

Thanksgiving Day 2013

While there is much for which I am thankful, I wish to use this space to express my gratitude to the educators in my life.

1.) My co-teachers and Emily, my student teacher.

I appreciate Mrs. H’s maternal touch, humor and life lessons. Yesterday she showed me how to cut a turnip with a pair of scissors.  She is a strong, resilient woman.

I am grateful for Mrs. S’s energy, specifically her efficiency and proactiveness. She possesses common sense, which is sorely lacking in our city and state education departments.  She should manage our schools.

Ms. C, thank you for making your classroom a home for me. Together we build community and inspire our 5th graders through social justice-themed lessons.  Your room, where freedom of thought and expression are cultivated, is a safe place for our students.

My student teacher, Emily, is a fountain of knowledge. She has taught me much about nature and gardening in NYC. She also knows how to organize students for group photographs, which came in handy on picture day. Our students are drawn to her patience and gentle demeanor.

2.) My principal, Mrs. T, trusts me.  Even though we work in a top-down environment, she gives me space to teach content my way.

3.) I have grown personally and professionally through my new Tomki Center friends. They are amazing human beings: thoughtful, sensitive, and intelligent.

4.) A big thank you to the many tireless education activists I have connected with on Facebook and on Twitter.  You motivate and inspire me.  Here in NYC, I am grateful to have joined forces with the MORE Caucus members and their allies.

In solidarity,

Katie

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The NYSESLAT: Mandated standardized testing for ELLs in K-2

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On November 14, 2013, the following statement was made by John King, NYSED commissioner.

“We support the drive to prohibit standardized testing of pre K through 2nd grade students. 

“There are no pre-K – Grade 2 standardized tests administered or required by the state, and there never have been.  Decisions about how to measure student progress in pre-K – Grade 2 are made by local school districts. However, we strongly recommend against the use of bubble tests or other traditional standardized tests and urge districts and their bargaining units to identify other ways to assess learning progress for these very young students.”

“In fact, the Board of Regents has a long-standing policy against administering standardized tests to our very youngest students. 

“We look forward to working together to make sure that children are protected from more testing than is necessary at the local school district level.”

This is false.  For years, our “very youngest” ELLs (English-language learners) have been mandated to take the New York State English as a Second Language Achievement Test (NYSESLAT), a burdensome four-part assessment (now aligned to the Common Core State Standards) that’s administered every spring to ELLs in grades K-12 to assess their English-language proficiency levels.  For the listening, reading and writing sections of the assessment, ELLs in grades K-2 are required to answer multiple choice questions by bubbling their answers directly into student test booklets.  The ESL (English as a Second Language) staff then transcribes their answers onto testing grids (bubble sheets) for scanning purposes.  Here’s the NYSESLAT sampler for kindergarten and the NYSESLAT sampler for grades 1 and 2. 

In addition to the valuable instructional time that’s lost to both the administration and the scoring of the NYSESLAT, ESL teachers (including myself) spend at least a month test prepping students for this assessment.  Not only do we feel compelled to teach them test content and test-taking strategies, but we also must show ELLs in K-2 how to take a multiple choice test.  Because NYSED data shows that former ELLs (students who test proficient on the NYSESLAT and no longer require ESL services) outperform non-ELLs on NY state tests, ESL teachers face pressure from the state to “test out” ELLs by the end of  three years of federally mandated ESL instruction.  The goal is to decrease – eliminate? – the number of long-term ELLs (ELLs with six or more years of ESL service) in New York.

Language instruction for ELLs is funded through the Title III federal grant program so I anticipate that John King will argue that the annual standardized testing of ELLs in K-12 is a federal, not state, mandate, and that I should instead discuss this matter with Arne Duncan.  However, the NYSED must have some autonomy in creating its annual assessment that holds all ELL stakeholders accountable. I haven’t seen the ESL assessments used by other states, but surely they are all different.  Commissioner King – what are your plans for the NYSESLAT in light of your 11/14/13 statement regarding standardized testing in grades K-2? Will you be making changes to the K-2 NYSESLAT? 

Doin’ Core Curriculum Our Way (cue the Laverne & Shirley theme song)

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The purpose of this reflection (Danielson 4a) is to further highlight the maddening waste of resources and lack of common sense that I’m seeing on a daily basis as a result of corporate education reform and its Common Core troika of nationalized learning standards, scripted curriculum and high-stakes testing.  Last week, Pearson’s ReadyGEN program, a “recommended” NYC Department of Education ELA (English-language arts) curriculum, particularly irked me.

In complying with the ReadyGEN script, my 5th grade co-teacher and I were instructed to read to students chapter seven of Rachel Carson: Pioneer of Ecology. I am an ESL (English as a Second Language) instructor and push-in to my colleague’s class during the literacy block.  The chapter’s title – Fourteen Dead Robins – intrigued me. Rubbing my hands together in excitement, I imagined a powerful, real world conversation we’d have with our students about the health effects of DDT and people’s unwillingness – due to fear – to speak out against injustices.

Instead, the ReadyGEN reading skill assigned to chapter seven was craft and structure, specifically analyzing figurative language and word choice.  We did attempt to practice this skill with our students using the ReadyGEN Student Materials workbook, but quickly decided to pull the plug on the task because we found few examples of figurative language, and we felt that the chosen ReadyGEN skill was ill-fitting in light of the chapter’s content.  It was as if the people who created ReadyGEN had randomly selected reading skills without first considering the content of the individual chapters. Chapter four’s reading skill was main idea and details while in chapter six – the previous day’s lesson – the students practiced cause and effect. Shockingly – given the NYC DOE’s constant use of Common Core-aligned – the standards themselves are not even cited in the ReadyGEN Teacher’s Guide, which is still in the pre-publication stage.

Below are the alternative questions that my colleague created midway into ReadyGEN’s chapter seven lesson. The students first discussed the questions in small groups, while we circulated, and then worked individually to respond to them in writing. We felt that this was a more suitable (and more meaningful) task that better reflected the main idea of chapter seven.

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The next day, ReadyGEN never saw the light of day.  Instead, I led a lesson about cancer clusters that are appearing in farming regions of Argentina as a result of the country’s increased use of pesticides and herbicides.  I was inspired by a Mother Jones article I saw recently on Twitter.  The high-interest, real world content in this article tied in nicely with Rachel’s reaction to the effects of DDT as seen in chapter seven. The SmartBoard presentation I created included many visuals – photographs, graphs, charts – to aide students in digesting the challenging content. Genetically-modified and Monsanto’s Roundup Ready were among the vocabulary terms in the lesson.  Students were engaged and moved by the topic.  Below is one English-language learner’s wondering about pesticides.

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I know of no teacher – including one in Ohio – who is satisfied with ReadyGEN’s ELA program.  The anchor texts (literature) may be authentic, but the reading and writing tasks are not.  Pearson’s ReadyGEN is a poorly and hastily designed test prep program to get students ready for next year’s high-stakes Common Core ELA assessment.  The NYC DOE could have saved a lot of money if they had instead provided schools with just the copies of the anchor texts, class sets of titles such as Rachel Carson: Pioneer of Ecology. Sample reading and writing questions and suggested performance tasks could have been posted online. From what I’ve observed, the Student Materials workbook (see below photo) is being used minimally.

I don’t know how much the NYC DOE has spent on producing this program and on providing professional development to teachers.  However, I’m outraged that ReadyGEN has priority over other, more pressing initiatives like ensuring smaller class sizes and providing AIS services to students. The Common Core standards, unfortunately, do not stand alone. As I am experiencing, they are not an innocuous set of student learning objectives that teachers can use to shape their own instruction.  Here in New York State, the adoption of the Common Core has led to the wasteful spending of millions of dollars on the development of inferior math and ELA programs that are scripted and threaten teacher autonomy.  The overarching goal of such curricula is not to inspire students or to address their individual needs, but instead to train them for meaningless high-stakes tests.