How Failing the Google Test has Made me a Better Teacher

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The final day of the 2017-2018 school year was over.  I placed the plants from my classroom in the backseat of my car and reflected on school year number 23 as I headed home for the summer.  After unpacking the car, I slept for 24 hours straight, a tradition that is now far more appealing to me than going out for a drink on the last day of school. The next morning, I did what many teachers do: I planned out my summer.  

After updating my calendar with professional developments, curriculum planning time, and a possible week long working vacation to Denver, Colorado, I settled down with my Chromebook and a hot cup of coffee, and I started looking at the Google Level 1 Certification Test requirements, the first task on my summer list.  

There were lots of reasons that I wanted to pass this test.  First of all, after 23 years in education, I know that staying up to date is essential.  Bottom line:  Either “get Googleized or get retired.”  Additionally, each grade level English teacher at our school had just received a set of Chromebooks as part of our school’s 1:1 initiative to become more digitized.  If I could pass this test, it would show the district I was a good steward of their generosity.  Additionally, the district was willing to reimburse me the testing fee and offered to give me a really nice Chromebook to use in my classroom upon successful completion of the test .  Finally, an 80% or higher score would earn me a Google virtual badge which I could affix to to my email signature that would show anyone who cared I was officially a certified Level 1 Google educator.  This would strengthen my credibility as a presenter at any conference I presented at in the future.  

Although I have always been a good student and usually do well on tests, I am aware that technology is not my strong suit.  I have to work at it. Believe it or not, I have never owned an IPod, and for years, I was that teacher who didn’t text due to my cell phone’s antiquity.  Over the last five or six years, however, I have improved because I started including summer technology conferences in my summer plans, and they have made a huge difference in my comfort level with technology.  I love the way technology simplifies grading and engages students if used correctly.  After using Google Suites tools this year, my most frequent post on Facebook and Twitter was “Have I told you how much I love Google?”  

I went to the  Google Test Training Center  and quickly surveyed the 13 units I needed to work through and realized that passing this test would take more study time than I had originally planned, so I adjusted my summer calendar accordingly.   I also found a series of YouTube videos called  Google Educator Test Prep and decided to watch them as well. After two or three weeks of non-stop studying and practicing (I am rather obsessive when I focus on a goal), I signed up for the test and paid my $10.00. Google responded telling me my testing ID had been set up, and the test would be available for the next 48 hours.  

As I started the the test that Saturday,  the first section seemed easy; however, all that changed as I started working on the tasks, exercises designed to test your ability to use each Google Suite tool effectively.  Then, my computer froze up while working on the first task.  Luckily, I was able to return to my test, but not after losing access to the test and my sanity for 10 valuable minutes.  I ran out of time before finishing the test. Exhausted and defeated, I waited for my final score. I knew I had failed but didn’t know by how much. I hoped I had at least earned a 70%.  That turned out to be wishful thinking. The results appeared on the screen in front of me.

 

Examination Unsuccessful

Your score: 59%

 

I was stunned.  I knew I hadn’t reached the required 80% mark, but 59%?  How could I be that far off the mark?  After some heavy sighing, I finally accepted the grade and scanned the rest of the message. It said I could retake the test in two weeks.  Fine, I thought, I have a technology conference next Tuesday, so I will go to the session on passing the Google Level 1 Certification Test, and I will review units 4, 7, and 10 just as the comments suggest. I decided this was a small bump in the road.  It would cost me another $10.00, but that would only make victory sweeter when I passed.

For the next two weeks, I reviewed all 13 units again, especially the top three areas the Google evaluators specifically recommended.  I even made classroom lessons that used those Google tools.  When I felt I was ready, I paid another $10.00 and awaited the arrival of my confirmation e-mail.  I can do this, I thought.  A day later the email arrived, and I decided to take the test that Sunday after church.  The next day, I prayed for a little divine intervention and clicked on  “Start the test.”

This time, everything went smoothly.  Answers that had tripped me up the first time came easily.  I knew what to do on most of the tasks, and I also knew that I could bypass any task giving me trouble and return to it later, something I hadn’t realized the first time I took it.  My keystrokes were quicker, and I was actually enjoying myself in my own nerdy kind of way.  Then it happened again…

My computer crashed with only 30 minutes remaining. This happened before.  Just restart the computer, I thought to myself.  It will be OK. As I  awaited for my Chromebook to reboot, I tried to remember how many tasks I had completed.  When the test came back up, I saw that 10 minutes or so had elapsed.  Once again, I felt the tension building.  Up to this point, I had been far more confident.  With only 20 minutes remaining, I raced to finish.  But, once again, my three hours ran out before all tasks were completed. I stared at the screen and again awaited my results.  Maybe the work I did will be enough for an 80%, I thought.  Moments later, the screen told me the answer:

 

Examination Unsuccessful

Your score: 72.0%

 

My shoulders sagged in defeat and that was followed by a flash of anger and another string of ugly words.  I shook my head in disbelief and thought  Why can’t I get this test finished? Why can’t I remember which command to complete for each step in the Google applications? What don’t I understand?  I felt dumb. Hadn’t the presenter who had given the Google Level 1 Certification class at the technology conference a week ago said anyone could past this test the second time around?  Apparently, I was really dumb.  

It was at  that moment a student’s face came to mind.  This girl always did her homework. She always paid attention.  She always tried to understand the reading assignments.  Yet, she had experienced the exact same thing that I was now experiencing. She had repeatedly failed my tests.  Her frustration must have been excruciating.  Other students who experience this type of failure often give up long before entering my 7th grade classroom.   But not Cathy.  She was different.  She had persevered.

Unlike Cathy, after only two unsuccessful attempts, I was ready to give up.  My compassion for her and all the other students who struggle welled up inside.  Every day had been a struggle for Cathy; yet, time after time, she shook it off and tried again.  I am ashamed to admit it, but there were some days I grew frustrated with Cathy.  Now, I am filled with admiration!  She came in every day with a smile, and tried again.  What a strong young lady!

As I think about my attempts to encourage students who fail in my class, I know I have to follow my own advice. Instead of giving up, I have recognized the growth between test #1 and test #2 and celebrated that growth.  I am spending time studying each specific Google Suite tool separately so I feel more comfortable with each one. I have set up tutoring sessions with friends whose  technology skills seem second nature.  I will take the test a third time in September when I am once again allowed to pay another $10.00 and sit down to the three hour test. I will do this for Cathy and every single student like her.  I will try again.  I will not give up.

This summer’s technology experience yielded far more learning than a test score will ever reveal.  It allowed me to step into my students’ shoes for just a moment and better understand their struggles.  Because I can now relate to their struggles, I think I will be a far more compassionate teacher.  I will share this story with my future students so they know I have been in their shoes.  I never thought I would be so grateful for twice failing a test, but I am.  Who knew failure could yield so much success? 

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Effective ELA Classrooms Create Literacy Snowstorms out of Snowflakes


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An effective language arts classroom reminds me of a powerful snow storm. Like snowflakes, students enter the room with unique literacy skills necessary to be successful readers, writers, speakers, and listeners.  Like snowflakes, no two students possess the same skills because learning to read and write is a journey, and the literacy path must be traveled independently.  Some students will read like newscasters but may not comprehend meaning. Others  might   understand what they read but struggle with pronunciation. Some student writers create powerful prose because they organize well, others create powerful word pictures due to an enhanced vocabulary, and yet others spell or punctuate better than most of their peers. The challenge for language arts teachers is to analyze the current knowledge patterns in the room, predict which skills need to be taught in order to help all students improve their reading and writing abilities, and create an environment that fosters community when students struggle with concepts so they can connect with other experts in the room.  If done well, new skills taught will create a deeper layer of learning that will transform every student’s literacy landscape.

So how is this done? I wish there was a lock step method, but there isn’t.  Not only do students come to me with varied literacy skills, but they also enter the room with radically different learning styles.  Recognizing those learning styles early in the year and developing lessons which incorporate as many of them as possible will deepen understanding for more students.

For students who need to move, it’s important to create lessons that allow this.  This may seem counterintuitive in a classroom where students are learning sedentary tasks like reading and writing, but if included, kinesthetic learners will retain more.  Acting things out may help these students.  Performing skits can cement understanding. This year, I asked students to create original skits to demonstrate theme, act out parts of stories to show how tone was developed by word choice, and added gestures to teach various language artsconcepts. For example, I had students in one class use gestures to punctuate dialogue when tags were at the end of the sentence.  The students had fun, and many of them now apply this skill to their writing.  Additionally, I have incorporated a gesture for the terms “connotation” where I pound my heart and act like I am sweeping emotion out as I say, “Connotation is the feeling a word gives off,” and I have held out my left hand as if it is a piece of paper and pointed to it with my right when I define explicit as “evidence that is right there in the text.”  These small gestures seem to make the learning stick for these types of learners.

Still other students require lots and lots of repetition.  This year, I had my students spell and define the following words to build a base knowledge:  alliteration, simile, personification, metaphor, onomatopoeia, and hyperbole.  Students took the test over and over until they scored 100%.  Some did this quickly.  Others required multiple attempts.  Others still struggle. But more often than not, my students can now rattle off these definitions, and I am confident if given a multiple choice question requiring them to identify an example of one of these poetic devices, more will be able to answer the question correctly than before.  I have also required students to write weekly paragraphs this year.  For ten weeks, students were given prompts. They created a four square where the content of the paragraph was planned, wrote a rough draft, peer revised, and wrote a final draft.  Programs such as Study Island are also effective for students who need skill repetition.

Verbal learning is also prevalent in my classes this year, so we have had Socratic seminars to take advantage of this. Students enjoyed learning from one another and, without realizing it, they practiced higher order thinking skills, supported their opinions with textual evidence, and practiced listening to their classmates’ opinions, asked questions when they disagreed, and built upon each others’ understanding.  The common core is big on these speaking and listening skills.

A key component of created a deeper layer of understanding in the classroom is empowering students to teach each other. This is one reason I am such a proponent of writer’s workshop.  Students are often able to explain concepts to each other better than I can.  This interdependence is crucial to ensuring every student in the room improves his or her literacy skills.  I have noticed that when students pick their own writing peer editors, they tend to find other writers who write as they do. Great writers pair with other great writers.  Emerging writers pair with emerging writers.  Because of this, I incorporate writing revisions “rounds” in my room.  Students pick their first partner.  After ten minutes, they find a new partner.  Then we do a third round where they find another partner.  Usually, after three rounds, students have met with at least one peer who will show them how to improve their writing.  Often, they find three different people who have specific suggestions for improvement.  For students who are not as popular, this requiresother peers to work with them.  Because everyone knows we will do this three times, students are less likely to refuse to workwith a partner.

Hopefully, when students leave my room this year, they willhave improved their literacy skills individually I have provided the next steps necessary to help them on their literacy learning paths and they see the value in learning from other experts in the room.  If I do this well, many students will realize they possess unique literacy skills and will build upon others. In this way, my little snowflakes will be able to create a thicker layer of literary skills that will transform their futures.Winter Snowstorm #2 2015 018 - Copy

The ELA Common Core – Not Some Left Wing Communist Plot!

I have nothing but great things to say about the English/language arts Common Core!  I don’t think it is some left wing Communist plot to take over our children’s minds.  Far from it.  Instead, the Common Core may be the antidote  we need to innoculate a nation of mindless people willing to accept others’ opinions as their own.  I think the Common Core may help individuals in our society learn to think for themselves, expect politicians to support their assertions with credible facts, and require media to stick to the facts without filling our heads with their owners’ agendas.  If successful, the Common Core just might stave off “idiocracy” a little while longer.

I do think the ELA Common Core is one of the best frameworks I have seen for ELA in my 21 years as a teacher. I applaud the insistence that students apply concepts learned instead of parroting back low level definitions and facts, grapple with concepts instead of than memorizing key events in a novel to get a good grade, and analyze what they read for the purpose of uncovering author’s personal biases.

These are the types of skills necessary for success in our world, skills I have seen diminish during my tenure. It is because these skills have declined over the years that I worry about our country’s future. These are the skills that allow a person to accurately analyze issues and identify personal agendas, to separate fact from elegantly phrased rhetoric.  The Common Core expects something from our kids that I want for them – to think for themselves and support their opinions with sound evidence.  I further hope my students will then be able to write and speak intelligently about the views they have.

Here is a breakdown of the Common Core reading standards from my perspective.  I hope you will see how these standard give students the tools necessary to think for themselves:

The reading standards for the ELA Common Core are divided into two categories:  Reading Literary Texts (RL) and Reading Informational Texts (RI).  Each category is divided into standards that contain specific skills students need to understand what they read:  10 reading standards for literature and the same 10 reading standards for informational reading. They were, from what I can see, designed to create a literate person who can analyze what they read and then write and speak intelligently about what they read.  Let me show you what I mean.

The reading standards are particularly well put together as they focus on different skills a student needs to understand a piece of writing both as a reader and as a writer.  If a student can effectively apply these skills to a text, they will be an expert on it!

The first three reading standards focus on key ideas and details of the text:

The first standard in RL and RI teaches students how to cite information from their reading to support their opinions and answer questions about the reading.  People who can do this understand what the text was about.

The second standard in RL and RI teaches students how to figure out the theme or central ideas of a text and write an objective summary about the text.  This skill is vital to understanding a text.

The third standard in RL and RI teaches students how the key people, places, things, and ideas in a text interact. In short, this skills helps students understand the causes and effects in a text.

The next three reading standards focus on craft and structure of the text:

The fourth standard in RL and RI asks students to look at the author’s choice of words and how it affects the tone of the piece.  This is a key skill in today’s world.  If people can’t figure out why an author or speaker chooses a word, they can very easily be duped into believing what the author is saying by how well they say it.

The fifth standard in RL and RI asks students to look at the way a text is organized.  Knowing how a text is organized better helps a reader understand it.

The sixth standard in RL and RI asks students to figure out the author’s point of view in different ways throughout the grade levels.  This is very important because it is important to know why an author is writing something and how his or her point-of-view might influence the opinions voiced in the writing.

The next three reading standards focus on how the author weaves his or her knowledge and ideas into a text:

The seventh standard focuses on comparing and contrasting written text with other types of communication such as speeches or multimedia versions.  This is a valuable skill in today’s world where so much of what a student learns is through movies, speeches, videos, and television.

The eighth standard does not exist in literary reading because it is focused on analyzing arguments.  It expects students to figure out the author’s viewpoint, analyze the support the author uses, and decide if the support used is relevant and sufficient.  This will help students decide if an argument is valid.

The ninth standard focuses on comparing and contrasting two written texts.  In literature, the student compares historical fiction to non-fiction in order to figure out what the author included or left out.  In today’s world where so many students think every movie is fact, this will help them figure out that media can and does manipulate.

For informational texts, students analyze two pieces written about the same topic and analyze how they present information similarly or differently.  If most Americans were able to analyze viewpoints in this way, there is a very good chance that FOX news and MSNBC would be out of business!

The final standard expects students to be able to read texts and their current grade level: 

The tenth standard simply wants students to be able to read texts at their current grade level.  I have seen a decline of student reading levels over my 21 years of teaching, so it makes sense that we should try to get our kids to be able to read and understand challenging text.

Clearly the creators of this framework paid close attention to experts in the field of writing instruction as the Common Core mirrors the best practice strategies I have been taught and tried to incorporate in my own classroom. These are the very same standards I was required to understand and demonstrate as I earned my National Board Certification.

These standards require students to first understand what is being said, then asks them to look at how it is being said, and finally asks them to compare it to other points of view.  If that is a left wing conspiracy that is pushing for a communist agenda, then I am all for it!