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!

Teaching Seventh Graders – It’s Like a Box of Chocolates!

I love this job.  I love the highs and I love the lows.  I love the way that every day is different.

The greatest one liners I have ever heard come from the seventh graders.  They don’t even realize they are  funny.  These moments remind me I have the greatest job in the world. When I have a bad day, my brain tends to conjure them up. Here are a few:

Line #1:  (To another student) Stop asking me if my hair is attached to my scalp!

Line #2:  (To another student)I was in 6th grade when I dated that 5th grader! That doesn’t make me a cougar!

Line #3:  (After taking a reading test) That passage was sooo long, I had to stop and pray to Jesus!

Line #4:  (Don’t ask me how this came up!)  Ms. Mort, my uncle is single.  Do you want me to set you to up with him?

Line #5:  (During football season)  Your Seahawks are going DOWNNNNN!

Then there are those heartfelt moments, the result of writing students do in my enrichment class which is called The “Write” Stuff!  These are moments when students allow me to see their passions, their pain, their struggles, and their imagination.  On good days, this class is the place where students first realize they love to write or reignite a forgotten passion for the craft. Here are some of my favorites from this year:

Piece #1:  A student wrote about the frustration felt when the parents fight over who will have custody.  It was a powerful cautionary tale that would have made Dr. Phil proud.

Piece #2: A student wrote a fictionalized account of a relative’s suicide.  The piece helped that student process the tragedy and it urged people to “soldier on” through the tough times because things get better.

Piece #3:  A student wrote a powerful poem about two relatives’ experiences with cancer and how they bolstered each other during the tough days.

Piece #4:  A student who admits to a certain amount of laziness in the class early on started to write a story about a haunted mansion after I put up a picture of  a dilapidated house. The prompt consumed the student who worked tirelessly on that story the entire quarter.  It included such vivid descriptions that I made sure it was published in the local newspaper.  This student now considers himself a writer with a sophisticated vocabulary.

Piece #5: An emerging writer whose predictable response throughout the year was “I don’t know” worked tirelessly on a single paragraph praising the virtues of his papaw.  For this student, this was a huge accomplishment.

Piece #6:  A story about a bullying situation.  When the student read it out loud to her peers during a peer conference, they praised her honesty and her writing a midst a good deal of sobbing.

Then there are those moments when tough love is in order, and change actually occurs as a result.

Example #1: Those discussions with students who are about to fail.  Presenting them with the facts and hearing students earnestly say “What can I do about this?” with a glint of true understanding that I really do care about them makes all the days I was frustrated with that student melt away.

Example #2:  The genuine apology for a mistake made such as an outburst or non-compliance.  When the heat subsides, some students see the error of their ways and are incredibly remorseful. That experience can serve as a teachable moment when I handle it right, and the result is usually a much stronger connection with that child.

Example #3: The student who has nothing, and has given up as a result.  Often the smallest kindness can turn this student around.  I had an extra lunch bag earlier this year, the kind that keeps drinks cold.  A student didn’t have one, so I offered it up.  Because of this gesture, this student transformed in my class although he is still a hellion for others.

Some days, teaching leaves me emotionally drained which makes me incredibly grateful for the silence that surrounds me when I finally make my way home.  Other days, moments with my students flood my emotional reservoir to the point that I feel my heart will burst.  There is no other job that could possibly fulfill me in the way this one has.  God knew what He was doing when He made me a teacher!

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!

Classroom Hoarder

I admit it.  I have been a classroom hoarder.  I don’t hoard at home.  I can’t stand too many clothes in the closet, hate cluttered countertops and tables, and prefer minimal amounts of furniture.  I like space to move around.  But my classroom filing cabinets are a different story. I have this ridiculous compulsion to keep every lesson, every extra copy, every activity I have ever done in class thinking it might come in handy “next year.”  The problem with that is that I rarely use old lessons, and if I do, I tweak them so that they fit the next group of students. So, this summer has been one of ownership of the problem and an attempt to rectify it.

After lugging boxes of file folders across four states, all my files finally found homes inside two desert sage (fancy name for dirty brown) four-drawer filing cabinets in room 212 at Bath County Middle School in Owingsville, Kentucky. These folders included lesson plans, class sets of short stories, articles, essays, file folder centers, test prep materials, and project ideas accumulated during my twenty years of teaching. .  Because our ELA department chose to use the Michigan Association of Middle School Administrators and Oakland Schools’ curriculum maps (the best maps I have ever seen for schools who want to use the readers/writers workshop approach), it was time to do some purging. They are curriculum guide masterpieces.

The first day was devoted to emptying the cabinets.  Folders were piled on top of the cabinets and on a dozen chairs and desk tops.  Who knew two filing cabinets could hold so much.  I now know why the custodians leave the cabinets right where they are every year!  Once they files were removed I was awestruck by the amount of paper.  Had both sides been blank, I would have had enough paper to make two years’ worth of copies!  Unfortunately.