The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

What Great Teaching Looks Like

Today’s post is another gem from the blog “Literacy and NCTE”. I am grateful to Lu Ann  Mc Nabb for keeping this feature going with essay after essay by wise teachers who continue to make me believe that there are still good things happening in our public schools.

Today’s author is Martha Brockenbrough, the author of several books for young readers who has also worked as a teacher, journalist and editor.

I don’t envy teachers these days. You know what you’re up against—I don’t need to tell you.

But what I can tell you, as a writer, a parent, and a former teacher, is this: The things that drew you to the profession are still the truth about why teaching matters. You are a teacher because you love and value children and because you believe that caring about them is the best way to help shepherd them into a hard-edged world.

Given the importance of this quest, the long shadow cast by standardized tests is more than ridiculous. It’s an outrage. No child is motivated—except in the most transient, soul-damaging ways—by standardized tests.

So what does work with children, especially when it comes to reading and writing? That thing you already know how to do. That thing that drew you to the classroom in the first place. That thing that means you will never forget the best teachers you ever had.

It’s love.

And this is what it looks like.

It looks like Mrs. Cleveland, my third-grade teacher, who knew I needed something to get through the math that scared me. She planted a branch in the corner of the classroom and called it a tree, and she hung strips of paper on its twigs, each of which contained a word. When I was done with my math, she let me pick a word and use it to start a story. And she read every one of those stories and told me I was a writer.

It looks like Ms. Adams, who understood why I never had money for books from the Scholastic catalog, and sometimes bought books for me with her own money.

It looks like Mr. King, who had us write down the titles of the books we read, who never questioned our choices, who simply encouraged us for reading.

It looks like Mr. Bayley, who read to us for 10 minutes every day even though we were old enough to read to ourselves.

It looks like Tom and Mike, who weren’t even officially teachers—but who were coaches who knew I wrote stories and volunteered to read them, even though they weren’t any good.

Love also looks like teachers I observe today, including Mr. Hankins and TJ Shay, making sure students are reading strong, contemporary books that help them feel what it means to be a human being. And it looks like librarians Andria Amaral and Shauna Yusko, who literally keep their students fed, because no one can learn on an empty stomach.
This is more important than using reading as proof of achievement or intellectual prowess. Books are a safe space for us to practice being people, for us to understand the complexity of our own thoughts and feelings and the reality of the complexity of others in our lives.

Great teachers keep that safe space intact and honor it. Great teachers know that the act of protecting the curiosity and individuality of our students is powerful fuel. Kids who are secure and loved as learners have everything they need to perform at their highest levels on standardized tests.

They don’t need to be taught to perform to them. They simply need to be shown that unfolding themselves as they are—with courage and hunger and resilience, with self-respect and respect for others—is everything they need to succeed in this world.

How does love look in your classroom or library? Like games? Letters to future selves? Stories? Snacks? I’d love to know.

Meanwhile, thank you for what you do. I am a writer today because of the teachers who loved me. There is a test that measures that: life itself. I owe my happy and productive one in no small part to them, and to people like you.


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If I Were the Queen of Schools

Today’s post is in many ways a summary of all the things I have written about in this blog and other places over the past several years.  It seemed to me that readers could  benefit from seeing all my ideas condensed and consider whether the things I propose would really make positive changes in American education. Let me know what you think.

Having complained long and loud about the misguided school reform schemes that have dominated  public education over the past several years, I think it’s time for me to step up and offer my own ideas for making schools work. Be warned that my proposals are not only unorthodox, but also teacher-biased, and cheap. Well, at least cheaper than the test-drenched practices now in place.

My version of school reform is based on two premises: (1) poverty and its accoutrements are the major causes of students’ poor academic performance (2) the principals and teachers who live their professional lives in schools are the ones best qualified to make decisions for schools and to implement them.

Convert schools in high poverty areas to full-time community centers.

By moving as many community services as possible into school buildings and making them available in the evenings and on weekends, schools could provide  social supports to poor families more efficiently and economically and also add recreational and self-improvement activities now in short supply.

In restructuring school building use, the only adjustment to the daytime programs would be the addition of basic health and dental care for students. During evening and weekend hours, however, libraries, gyms, meeting rooms and computer labs would be open, offering a variety of activities for adults and young people. In addition, inexpensive and nutritious evening meals could be offered in the school lunchroom.

Turn over the management of high-poverty schools to professional educators.

We need to lure the best principals and teachers into low performing schools by offering them incentives of autonomy, professional advancement, and higher salaries. Under the leadership of a dynamic principal, chosen by the school staff and parents, schools would be empowered to create their own structures, including a principal’s cabinet and grade level instructional teams. Within each team, roles and salaries would be differentiated according to teachers’ expertise, and willingness to take on additional responsibilities.

Evaluate teachers on their own performance, not those of students

Although principals’ views of teachers’ competence are not perfect, having a wise and alert administrator observing what teachers do to help students learn is the only rational way to evaluate them. Not only formal observations should count, but also classroom drop-ins, finding a teacher in the library helping some kids with research, noticing how often a teacher volunteers to do something extra for the school, seeing a teacher eating lunch at her desk while she reads student essays, and teacher leadership among colleagues.

Offer early retirement to burned-out teachers and incentives for ineffective younger teachers to resign or transfer to non-teaching positions.

At present, removing an unsuccessful teacher in any school district is a long, unpleasant and expensive process. But the problem is not teacher tenure. It is the lack of evidence of failure that makes attempting to remove a teacher look arbitrary or vengeful. The first step to improve the situation is to insure systematic evaluations of  teachers with prompt feedback and offers of assistance. Ultimately, all teachers marked for dismissal should be provided with counseling, a dignified resignation process, and some incentives.

Cut reliance on commercial educational materials for students while increasing teachers’ professional development opportunities

Rather than depending on slick commercial programs and their disposable materials (i.e. workbooks), schools would do better to invest in high quality literature, technology, and reference books for students and professional books and university courses for teachers.

Increase the size and power of the school library and make the librarian a key figure in the education of students

Every school needs a full-time professional librarian/technologist along  with an aide so that the library is open full time during the school day and perhaps for a while after school closes. Not only should every class have a regular weekly library time, but also times when teachers can sign up to send small groups for specific assistance in finding and using library materials. School librarians should also meet with teacher teams to plan units to be taught and make sure that the materials students need are available. To make these things happen fully funding a school library should be a high priority for the principal and the school district.

Provide poor children with the background knowledge and support they may have missed at home and in their community.

What makes school difficult for most poor children is not their lack of ability but their meagerness of social, cultural and literary experiences. What many have missed out on is being read to, having substantive conversations with adults, visiting museums, parks, forests, and beaches, and being members of an educated community. To learn academic content and skills successfully, poor children need a school environment that is not only welcoming and supportive, but also rich in books, hands-on activities, cooperative learning, and exposure to the world outside their home community. Every high poverty school should receive additional funding for student field trips and in-school music and drama performances.

Reduce the number of standardized tests and the time devoted to test preparation

Not only do standardized tests now dominate schools’ curricula and classroom teaching time, they are extremely expensive and of little value beyond informing local districts and state officials about schools’ average test scores. Within our schools today tested subjects crowd out other subjects, and test preparation becomes almost a subject in itself. In addition, tests influence teaching style in general making it shallow and formulaic to fit the limitations of a multiple choice testing format. Both students and schools would be better served if standardized tests were given only every four years and classroom teachers were allowed to use their own methods and judgment to determine the extent and quality of each student’s learning.

Make every school a place where students want to be

In the recent studies of  test scores from school to school and district to district, researchers cite student absenteeism and indifference to learning as some of the causes of low scores and stagnation in student progress. If instead of advocating for better teaching and more rigorous students expectations, schools concentrated on providing classes and assignments that appealed to students’ interests and also gave all students opportunities to make decisions and play important roles in school operations we would see better performance from  everyone.

Although I could add a few more change proposals to my list, I believe that those above are the basics. Through my experience as a teacher and a principal I learned  a  lot about what helps teachers to teach well, children to learn, and schools to be the the healthy, happy places I have known and the even better ones I still dream of.




Assessing Learning Without Tests

In deciding what to post today I went back to my file of pieces I had written in the past that were published somewhere else.  I was drawn to a particular essay about my own years as a teacher, a high school department chairman, and a principal, during which schools did not use standardized tests or end-of-course tests to “measure” student learning.

Throughout my career as a teacher I was never much of a test giver. It wasn’t a matter of laziness, but of not wanting to play “Gotcha” with my students. What I hoped to find out were the positives for each student: the things that they had grabbed onto and made their own. Although the ways I used to find out those things won’t work to measure student achievement or the “value added” by a teacher, they helped me to know each student’s strengths, weaknesses, and personal interests and to shape my teaching accordingly. Later, as the chair of a high school English department, and then as the principal of an elementary school and a middle school, I worked with  teachers to help them do similar types of assessment. Often they came up with great ideas I had never even imagined.

As I write this I can almost see the looks of distain on the faces of many “experts”. They don’t understand that my philosophy of education was– and still is–different from the one dominant over the past several years that seeks to prepare all students for college or the workplace and ensure that America’s place in the global economy will always be near the top.  In my view the purpose of education is to enable each student to become a fully functioning adult in all the roles he or she has chosen, or is given to play. If, in the process students attain wealth or fame, and the American economy soars, so much the better.

My versions of assessment are what any good teacher can find in students’ projects, writing, talk, and behavior.  Although at times they were  scheduled events, mostly they were observations of everyday activities and behaviors.  My memories are far from complete, but I can describe several activities my teachers or I used at different grade levels to obtain meaningful information about student learning. Below are some samples for different school levels.

When I taught the elementary grades my students often worked with a partner or in small groups. I encouraged them to build things from ordinary materials, using either written instructions or just their own imagination. Sometimes I asked them to turn the stories they read into puppet shows.  At other times each student chose an animal to read about and then wrote about and drew the animal for a class book.  Often, for homework they were asked to identify math problems in their own lives and explain how they solved them. Estimation was an important part of almost every math lesson.  Students wrote weekly notes to me commenting on my teaching or their own work.  Older students often read aloud to children in lower grade classes.

At our middle school in reading classes students were able to choose a book to read from four or five offered. Often, the books were connected to the history or geography they were studying.  With fiction, teachers asked students to choose one character and keep a diary for him or her over the course of the story, reacting to plot events and other characters’ actions.  Sometimes, in studying geography or history students created an imaginary country on a map that had symbols for cities, highways, rivers, and other physical features. As often as possible they were encouraged to make math a part of other subjects by drawing objects to scale, comparing foreign money or weights to our own, or computing distances or times.

In high school classes student writing almost always accompanied reading.  After a short story unit, for example, students wrote their own stories.  Sometimes they imitated poetic forms or wrote book reviews posted for others to read.  They translated scenes from a Shakespearian play into modern colloquial English and acted them out for an audience. Teachers often shared significant newspaper and magazine articles with students and encouraged them to write letters to the editor when they had something to say.  We also pushed students to participate in community events and projects and to speak at public meetings.

As I listed the learning demonstrations above, others jumped into my mind.  But I never intended to be encyclopedic, only to give the flavor of the things that enabled the teachers I worked with and myself to evaluate student learning without giving tests.  As often possible, good student work was shared with families, other classes, the community, or friends.  In those ways we did our best to be accountable to all our stakeholders.




Yawn! Test Scores As Usual

Over the past week I’ve been reading articles about the most recent NAEP test scores . The two major points of interest are whether scores have improved, stayed the same, or declined and the differences between white, Hispanic, and black students.  Although test score patterns appeared to be similar from state to state, the analyses of the causes were varied and highlighted different factors. I came away from all that data and its interpretations confused and unsatisfied. I suspect that like many people my age, I am not good at interpreting data. More significantly, I don’t trust data to give me the answer to the most important question: what can we do about it?

However, before I get into my concerns, let me briefly—and as clearly as possible—report on the factual information I found.

According to the official report on the most recent NAEP results, the national average math scores for 12th graders in 2015 were lower than those in  2013. Student math scores in Grade 4 were higher than those in grades 8 and 12 for both years.

The national average reading scores did not change significantly from 2013 to 2015. Scores were very similar for students in grades 4, 8, and 12.

The official report did not include any explanation of declining scores or the differences from grade to grade. Nevertheless, I have opinions about both. I suspect that scores are declining from grade to grade because older students recognize that the NAEP has no effect on their grades, promotions, or graduation.  When it comes to the decline in math scores from grade to grade, the most likely cause is the greater difficulty in the types of math taught in the upper grades. Compared to arithmetic, which is a part of every day life for everyone, algebra, geometry and calculus are strangers. In addition most 12th graders are no longer taking any math courses and have forgotten at least some of the math they learned before. Reading assignments, on the other hand, are a part of all courses throughout all the grades, and they increase in difficulty.  Twelfth graders are still learning how to read well.

Articles in Education Week and other news sources looked at the NAEP results from a different perspective, focusing on the differences from district to district and between white, black, and Hispanic students. In addition, they included researchers’ opinions on what should be done to reduce the “achievement gap.”

As one might expect, the lowest scores were in high poverty districts, and in those districts there were only small differences between students of different ethnicities. The researchers’ conclusion was that in such districts no one does very well. On the other hand, there were large black-white gaps in wealthy districts. Researchers found this situation disturbing, but concluded that wealthy students were getting more support to do well outside of school and greater pressure from their families. They also saw problems in high poverty schools, where there were fewer resources to support students and lower teacher expectations. The only suggestions for eliminating those problems were to integrate communities and schools more and to provide equal resources for all schools.

After reading all the data, analyses and suggested solutions, I found myself unsatisfied. There was certainly nothing new about identifying the core problem as poverty and all the bad experiences that go with it. But it was clear that nothing is going to happen to change those conditions in the near future. And although I agree that giving schools in high poverty neighborhoods more resurces would help, I am still not convinced it would turn things around for the majority of students. They would still be living in impoverished homes and dangerous neighborhoods and still be steeped in beliefs that they are losers. If there is to be any help for these children it must come from a major change in our society that would include health care, good jobs, decent living conditions, and affordable college education for all Americans.

Do you see any political party or its leaders interested in making those things  happen?


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It’s Muddy in the PARCC

Yesterday, a friend sent me a copy of an essay that appeared in another blog recently. It was written by a teacher who wished to remain anonymous. She(?) wrote about the 4th grade PARCC test that her students had taken, citing specific items she considered inappropriate for that grade level. I will not quote those items here because I understand that they are under copyright. But I will describe what they expect from 9 year olds and give my own opinions about their appropriateness for this grade level.

The first prompt cited by the teacher presents passages from an article and a poem on the same topic. Students are asked to write an essay that explains the differences between the structural elements in the article and the poem, including specific examples from both texts. The task is intended to test students on the Common Core standard RL.4.5: “Explain major differences between poems, drama and prose, and refer to the structural elements of poems (e.g., casts of characters, settings, descriptions, dialogue, stage directions) when writing or speaking about a text.”

Not only am I certain that I never had to analyze and compare structural elements of prose and poetry in 4th grade, I think that the idea of writing an essay on this topic is way out of line. It might have been more reasonable to ask students to name the differences between prose and poetry or even to ask, “How can you tell whether you are reading a poem or a piece of prose?”

The second prompt presents prose passages about sharks from two different documents and asks students to write an essay that includes details from both. On the surface this seems to be a reasonable task for 4th graders, but in this case the teacher claims that both passages are written at a middle school level, which would make the task developmentally inappropriate. If that is accurate, I totally agree.

The third prompt offers a story about a young girl and her family and then asks students to write a new story using details from the first one. Again, I think this is a reasonable expectation for 4th graders, except that the question includes a requirement that the new story be about the girl trying out for the junior high track team. Both the teacher and I think it is unreasonable to include this specification when fourth graders are not yet familiar with middle school and its activities.

In all three cases the teacher also refers to specific standards from the CCSS that appear to be the ones tested by the tasks prescribed and finds faults therein. I didn’t pay much attention to her arguments because for me the entire CCSS is a dead issue. Unquestionably, the standards were structured from the top down, resulting in many developmentally inappropriate expectations for the elementary grades. Moreover, the standards were conceived by non-teachers who were strangers to the realities of childhood and, I believe, the different routes students take to success in college or the workplace.










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