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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#TeachingIs a Paradox

I just read my friend and colleague’s blog post titled “Teaching is Messy,”  I would strongly recommend you read it if you have the chance. Liz Prather starts her post with the following:

During National Teacher Appreciation Week, May 4-8, 2015, the Center for Teaching Quality invites all teachers to share their #TeachingIs story in an effort to dispel the popular myth of bad apple teachers and failing schools. Bill Ferriter, a CTQ blogger and 20-year veteran teacher in North Carolina, recently posted “#TeachingIs According to Twelve-Year-Old.  He had asked his 6th graders to describe their best teachers, and one of them responded:  “The best teachers are close and personal with the students, even if it is messy.”

This 6th grader is wise beyond his or her years!  As much as I crave order in my classroom and would love all of my students come it with the same skills and learn at the same rate, that notion is unrealistic.  Literacy is especially messy as has been outlined by countless talented educators such as Nancie Atwell, Lucy Calkins, and Penny Kittle. Each of these experts states that a student’s literacy path is unique.  Some zoom along the path at break necked speed while others grow in spurts; others still wander off the path because they lack a stable home life, a lack of desire, or ability. Does that let me off the hook and allow me give up on any of them? Absolutely not! Every child can improve.  Because I teach the whole child, teaching reading and writing is a just a part of what I do.  I am passionate about that part, but there is much more to consider to effectively teach each child who enters my room. Often, the real teaching that happens in my room has nothing to do with my content. Once I have connected with a student on a personal level, I have a far better chance of teaching them literacy skills.

For me #TeachingIs filled with paradoxes.  One paradox in particular is “Spontaneity in the classroom requires lots of planning.”  Undoubtedly, this has been on my mind because the end of the year is fast approaching, and as usual, I didn’t cover some of the areas on my curriculum map as well as I had hoped. I plan endlessly but have never once in 21 years taught everything on that document.  Why?  Because I teach little human beings, and they can’t be regulated like manufactured goods.  No amount of quality control will ever assure that every student will come away every standard mastered that is listed on my curriculum map, and I can live with that.

Don’t get me wrong, I want students to learn all that stuff, but I am realistic.  It probably won’t happen.  Does it stop me from trying?  Never!

Each Student’s Literacy Journey is Unique

Students do not come to me with all the skills they are “supposed” to.  This is NOT an indictment of their prior teachers. Like me, they struggle with the same issues as when it comes to following a curriculum map with fidelity.

Because literacy skills require a solid foundation, determining my incoming students’ ability levels is paramount to improvement.  I am fortunate to work with a terrific group of language arts teachers who work hard to gather a lot of data. Good teachers use data to assess students’ current abilities and plan for the future.  I am incredibly grateful for the marvelous work done by the 6th grade ELA teachers at my school whose collection of key data from standardized tests, benchmark assessments, and baseline writings provides me insight into my future students’ ability levels. This information is priceless.

Because I have this information at the end of the year, I can adjust my curriculum map over the summer and focus on skills that will give me the most bang for my teaching buck.  Time is always the enemy in education, so it is imperative I focus on those skills which most impact student growth. For example, if after examining the baseline/post test writings, I see that a lot of students use apostrophes every time they add an s to a word, it is clear they have internalized the need for apostrophes but are still unsure when to use them.  This allows me to prioritize this instruction on my curriculum map and address the confusion.  If that skill is less important than others, I will teach it later in the year and focus on more pressing issues earlier so students have more time to practice those skills.

Some skills cannot be measured until I actually work with students.  Reading deficiencies often emerge in this way.  While the data from state and benchmark assessments identify students who struggle with reading, the real analysis starts when I can  sit down and work a group of students having the same issue. Sometimes reading fluency is the issue; other times, vocabulary is a major stumbling block; still other times, students can read fluently but are unable to process the information they just read.  This can be remedied by teaching students to read a sentence (yes, just a sentence), cover it up, and restate it as though they were explaining what they read to a younger person.  Often, students have to reread a sentence four or five times, but when they get it, they know it. It is as if blinders have been lifted, and students can see for the first time. If they continue using this strategy, my seventh graders will eventually comprehend complete paragraphs, and later, longer texts.

Because these interventions require time, I often miss the mark when it comes to meeting curriculum map deadlines, but had I plowed ahead, my students would be no better off than the day they first entered my classroom.

Factors Beyond my Control

Many times, I adjust my curriculum map or lesson plans because of factors beyond my control.  National, state, community, and personal tragedies all impede the literacy instruction that I planned the weekend before. The 9/11 tragedy completely changed my students’ needs in 2001.  Tornadoes and floods ravage local communities and often require a different agenda than the one I had in mind.  Death, divorce, and problems at home frequently impact an individual child’s ability to focus. While this may only impact a single student, there are many, many of these personal crises occurring on any given day, so there is always a percentage of students who understandable struggle to stay focused. Some things can be anticipated, such as field trips and assemblies if enough notice is given, yet other things such as chronic absenteeism, family vacations, snow days, spring fever, and excitement surrounding an upcoming dance, sporting event, or One Direction concert are beyond my control, yet each one requires me to readjust my plans. Plowing on through the curriculum map would not help my students grow.

Sometimes Once is not Enough

Students understand literacy skills at different rates.  I don’t feel covering a skill for the sake of covering it is effective. If 70% or more of my students demonstrate the ability to apply the skills on a formative assessment, I test and try to reteach those concepts to students who struggle as we look at other texts.  If less that 70% understand, I reteach until the formative assessments indicate most do. Sometimes students grasp concepts quickly, but more often than not, each skill takes longer than the curriculum map suggests it will.

When I first started teaching, the culture of education was to teach everything on your scope and sequence. However, I believe the pendulum has finally swung in the opposite direction, and I am happy about this.  After years of seeing students graduate high school with third grade reading abilities, many states are recognizing that students won’t just “get it”  the next year.  Plowing on so that students have seen the content once will not guarantee success.

This year, my students’ baseline writings revealed the inability to write a single paragraph effectively, let alone the persuasive essay they were asked to complete.  After a lot of discussion during department meetings, our ELA team saw this as a trend across all grade levels and decided to have students focus on single paragraphs to ensure they could write a well developed paragraph with a topic sentence, supporting details, and transitions, for there was no point in having these students writing essays until they had mastered the paragraph.

At the end of this year, only 56% of my students can proficiently write a persuasive essay with supporting evidence (and that is without including counterclaims), but there has been marked improvement.  All but three or four students now effectively indent and use margins.  About 90% effectively use transitions.  The ability to elaborate is not where I want it to be and if tested today by the state, most would not be proficient in this area on the rubric, but most students progressed. Had I plowed on, I don’t think my students would have experienced the growth they did.

After further reflection on the post-tests, it is clear many  of my students still lack the ability to develop their own ideas and determine what constitutes an effective detail or example.  Circular reasoning still litters their writing and impacts their elaboration scores. Again, thanks to some amazing departmental discussions, many of the ELA teachers recognized the same trend. While many have improved because they effectively use a four square graphic organizer to plan content, others are not yet able to develop specific details and examples on their own.   Data suggests many of my students have not progressed to a level of proficiency in this area as required by my state, but they have grown.  I have their baseline and post-test essays and their scored results as proof.  The students also see their growth as writers, and they are proud.  This growth would not be recognized by the state if they had to take on-demand test this year (many went from low to high novice), but they have grown nonetheless.  Maybe when these students take the on-demand test next year, they will move from high novice to apprentice or even proficient as several demonstrated on the post-test this year.

Final Thoughts

Teaching is definitely messy. The curriculum is simply one messy part of teaching.  Yet, none of the messiness matters when that student who you encouraged or pushed or loved with kindness or toughness throughout the year finally gets it.  “It” might be the content.  “It” might be work ethic. “It” might be empathy for others or how to behave in a classroom.  “It” might be the understanding that they are loved by someone.  “It” might be that they matter to me and my life is forever changed because of them.  Regardless of the “it” they come away with, the reward of teaching comes not from checking boxes on a curriculum map, improved test scores, or accolades offered up by a teacher of the year award.  It comes from the messy business of teaching that occurs every day.

Most paradoxes apply to all walks of life, but these are some that ring true to my own teaching career:

True leaders are servants.

Content is mastered through personal connection.

To lead, you must follow.

Less is more.

Success can’t be measured.

Great teachers mess up.

May you find your own paradoxes and personal truths as you continue on with the messy business of teaching.  the reward that come with them in your own classrooms.  Thank you for what they do every day.  You change lives, a very messy business indeed!

Reader’s Workshop: An Answer To Reader Apathy!

  

Getting students excited about reading is crucial to their academic success. Unfortunately, when it comes to reading, the “thrill is gone” for many by the time they enter middle school.  This is a tragedy because middle and high school students must read well to be successful.  I heard someone once say that students learn to read in elementary school but that they read to learn in middle school. It is gospel truth!  So how do we keep that passion for reading alive for the majority of our students?  By creating an environment so inviting, that kids actually WANT to read!

It is necessary students want to read if they are going to improve their reading ability.  Why?  Students improve their reading skills by reading a lot – not by doing worksheets or answering multiple choice questions or answer open response questions. No, the very assessment formats used to determine student mastery on state standardized tests do nothing to increase our students’ desire to read.  In fact those very things can kill a love of reading, especially if that is the way a teacher “teaches” reading.

Students learn to read better by reading self-selected texts, talking about what they are reading with others, and applying strategies to what they read.  Examples of those strategies are paraphrasing, summarizing, connecting texts to themselves, to  other texts, and to the world, questioning what they read, annotating text (marking it all up).   These skills are done naturally, as needed.  It is up to the teacher to show kids how to use them and then provide multiple opportunities to practice them in a reading classroom.

Pulling teeth without Novocaine would be much easier than asking students to use these reading strategies when tackling more complex text or their science or social studies textbooks.  It simply won’t happen. I have known for years that kids aren’t reading anything and, in fact, go to extraordinary lengths NOT to read something. Many work ten times harder to find a way not to read something than to simply buckle down and read.  I have seen kids Google YouTube in an effort to find a video so they don’t have to read a short story or find a shortened summary in hopes that will get them through a class discussion.  I have seen boys shmooze a girl who likes him to tell him the main points so he didn’t have to read.  I have seen pretty girls do the same. While all of these strategies showed me they had coping strategies for life (maybe not ones I endorse), none of these strategies improved their reading skills.

This year was the first year our entire language arts department came together and supported one single initiative: Reader’s Workshop.  You may wonder why it took me 19 years to try reader’s workshop.  In all honesty, I have no idea. I have been an avid proponent for writer’s workshop for over 10 years.  I have seen writer’s workshop transform students opinions about writing.  Kids who wouldn’t write a sentence come by my room and share their latest novelette or their student government speech.  They recognize their words have power after writer’s workshop.  So why was I so reticent about reader’s workshop?

Maybe it was the constant pressure of THE TEST.  Maybe I was too afraid to try something this radical on my own without more team support.  Maybe it was my own insecurities about teaching reading (I feel like I am a much better writing teacher than reading teacher).  Maybe it was the lack of control I felt when every students was reading a different book. How in the world could I possibly know the kids were reading?  I hadn’t read all those books.  How could I ensure every book they were reading could be used to teach the same skill?  In short, I felt a severe loss of control.  If all the kids were reading the same text or texts, then I could do my homework and know what happened in each book.  The very same fears I had about writer’s workshop had to be addressed once again.

It took adding a couple of new ELA teachers to our staff (Cami Stevens and Sasha Reinhardt) who could cut through the bureaucratic crap, the jargon, the crap that tends to get in the way of great teaching.  They helped me see the importance of allowing students’ reading choice and building some independent reading time into the schedule to convince me to try reader’s workshop.   New blood in a department can do wonders for stodgy old teachers like myself. The phrase “reader’s workshop” took hold.  Unlike writer’s workshop (which many teachers shrink from), this seemed doable to our department.   We had a clear goal…let’s help kids learn to love reading again.  As a department united, we approached our principal.  We are blessed.  John Slone treats us like professionals and believes in our professional opinions.  He ok’d our experiment, and we set off to change students’ attitudes about reading.

Thanks to one of our new ELA teachers, Sasha Reinhardt (a truly amazing teacher), we all read Book Love by Penny Kittle.  I had read Kittle’s book Write Beside Me the previous year which focused on writer’s workshop for high school, so I knew this author was a guru.  If anyone could teach us how to incorporate readers’ workshop in middle/high school, we all felt this woman could.  And she did!  After reading the book, every one of our ELA teachers was excited, ready to change the reading culture at our middle school.

We started by doing booktalks – getting students interested in classroom books we had.  We booktalked in the library.  We booktalked in our classes.  We booktalked in the hallway with kids. We booktalked everywhere.

We added a ton of new books to our classroom libraries.  These teachers believed in what we were doing so much that they purchased books out of their own paychecks. As a department, we scoured library sales, Goodwills, and found books sales we could attend.  We begged for donations.  I even sold my engagement ring from a failed marriage, and turned those bad memories into good memories – books for my students.  Soon, all of our classroom libraries began rivaling our our library.  Books became a staple in every ELA classroom.  Not boring books – books kids wanted to read.  I now have a classroom library of 750 books!  Kids love to come in and peruse the shelves.

Students started setting weekly reading goals, and we read for 10 to 15 minutes in class every day, and for the first time in 19 years, my kids couldn’t wait to read. Now when I give students things to read in class, they don’t automatically groan. They rely on past reader’s workshop experience that proves to them that reading can be fun.  This goes a long way when doing close readings of more challenging texts.

We started taking pictures of kids who had finished books and putting those pictures in the hallway.  This got other kids excited about the books they saw my readers holding.  Those books were quickly checked out of the libraries.  After about a month, the school culture about reading changed.  Reading was no longer for nerds.  How could it be when your football star was going on and on about the latest book he read by Mike Lupica?  How could it be when the student who never performed last year couldn’t stop talking about The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton?Clearly, our school had taken a turn.  It became “uncool” to say you didn’t like to read.  Kids who had never finished a book had read an entire novel.

When we started this, most kids said they had only read one book or none every other year of school.  I believe them.  Now they were reading one, three, six in a quarter!  Why the change?  Here is what the kids said:

  • We can pick what we want to read.
  • I like setting a weekly goal and seeing if I can beat it.
  • We can actually read our books in class.
  • I get ideas for books from my friends because we can talk about what we are reading.
  • There are so many good book in here (the classroom)
  • I just never took the time to know how good reading can be before.

This initiative has transformed our school culture.  We presented our initiative to the school board in the fall.  Students came in and shared their thoughts about reader’s workshop.  Their excitement about reader’s workshop was electrifying. It had school board members on the edge of their seats.  Their testimonials convinced every adult in the room that we are onto something – something that should be innately obvious to every person in and out of education – that kids must enjoy reading and read lots to improve their reading skills.  Unfortunately, in education, we tend to over analyze, complicate things.  As a result, we sabotage ourselves and the kids.  So teachers, let the kids read and read lots.  It is clearly the answer to reading apathy!