Tag Archives: students

Getting Schooled on Testing

Florida Parents Sue Over State Testing

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The war has started.  The first shots have been fired in Florida by an irate group of parents in seven different school districts.  Their children were a part of the growing wave of “test-day opt-outs” that are occurring in every State that uses a high-stakes State test to determine students’ fitness for being promoted to the next grade, consideration for accelerated programs, and evaluating teachers for competence, ability, and possible execution.  State tests have developed such power over our learning lives that students and teachers obsess about them to the point of making themselves ill with stress.

The districts being sued have all decided that since the students who opted out did not take the tests, they have therefore not passed the tests, and have no right to be promoted to the next grade level.  So, a whole lot of sweet, pig-tailed little honors students that avoided super-stressful testing are now weeping over the prospects of still being in the third grade as their BFF’s now advance to fourth grade.  180+ days of instruction with a teacher does not apparently count at all towards advancement.  State tests are sacred.

You can tell by Florida Governor Skeletor Scott’s evil grin that he is quite satisfied with how State tests are working out.  After all, State tests provide aggregate data that public schools are failing in Florida.  Emperor Perry and the Crowned Prince Gregg Abbott of Texas have used them for the same purposes in the State where I spent my career teaching.  Low performing schools are taken over and run by a State agency.  Funds are cut to public schools.  Art and band and music programs are dropped in favor of remedial teaching and repetitive basic courses.  More money is given to private schools, magnet schools, and charter schools whose test scores prove they are more worthy of spending it (especially since the wealthier kids with fewer handicaps from their background are the ones going there, while kids from lower-income groups, minorities, special-needs students, and English language learners are generally kept out).

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And, of course, State tests can weed out the teachers that the State deems incompetent, unworthy, and, well… goofy because those teachers who don’t mindlessly engage in test preparation, don’t have students who score well on tests.  The State can use this means to get rid of teachers who are too innovative, popular among their students, creative, engaging and nice.  It can promote teachers who have “good discipline” because students constantly fill out test-preparation worksheets mindlessly in their classes all day.

But the numbers are there to prove the State is right about education.  Test data exists in black and white.  How can anyone argue that numbers don’t tell us which kids are stupid and which kids are acceptable?  How can I argue it?

Skoolgurlz

Well, it helps to be able to understand the endlessly boring hours of test analysis that teachers are subjected to by school administrators panicking about how poorly they are soon to do on the high-stakes test.  I happen to be smart enough to hear and understand how the tests measure what they measure, and what they actually mean.  For example, the reading portion of the State test emphasizes certain skills over other skills.  Inference, the ability to draw conclusions from the evidence given in the text and determine what is true by logic, is given more weight in the scoring than simpler abilities like factual recall or simple spelling ability.  Scores are not a matter of the percent of questions the student answer correctly.  They are based on which skills and sub-skills the student shows mastery (80% or higher success).  A student can get 80% of all questions correct and still fail the test.  And for some students with learning difficulties, developmental delays, or English-as-a-second-language difficulties, those more valued portions of the test are still beyond their current level of functioning.  I have worked for schools that received commendations for their tests scores.  I led a middle school writing program that topped expectations on writing scores through middle school and high school. I have also worked at schools who were punished for low test scores, and worked for good principals who lost their jobs because the scores were beyond their control.

I pray that the judge in Florida will support the parents and censure both the heartless school districts and the State testing program of Florida itself.  Darth Vader’s education system should not be winning.  We need to go back to the source and learn from Jedi Master Kenobi…. or even Yoda again.

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Filed under angry rant, autobiography, education, humor, marching band, Paffooney, pessimism, rants, teaching, Texas

School’s Out…

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“School’s out for summer
School’s out forever
School’s been blown to pieces

No more pencils
No more books
No more teacher’s dirty looks

Well we got no class
And we got no principles
And we got no innocence
We can’t even think of a word that rhymes”

-Alice Cooper

Once again it is that day that every kid prays for… The last day of school.

My daughter doesn’t really get it, though.  She doesn’t really understand the sentiment of the poor misguided school girl named Alice Cooper.  Kids are supposed to hate school.  Their teachers are supposed to be witches and warlocks who live for creating misery in the lives of their students.  My daughter should know that already, since her mother and I are both teachers.  (I am retired now, actually… and I do miss making kids’ lives total misery.)  She is actually going to miss her middle school and all her middle school teachers.

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She was up late last night using air-dried clay to make dragon sculptures to give to each of her teachers.  Her art teacher was recently telling me about how wonderful she is at art and how wonderful she is as a student during a recent scholastic awards dinner.  In fact, most of her teachers only have good things to say about her work in middle school.  And teachers are supposed to hate kids and hate teaching, right?  They are supposed to only be in teaching for the paycheck, marking time until they retire, living lives full of bitterness and revengeful interactions with children.

O, I am guessing that I am actually the problem here.   I never felt the way teachers are supposed to feel about kids.  In fact, I… like kids.  Oh, no!  The secret is out.  I miss being a teacher.  I miss the kind of devotion you get from the kind of students who stay up late making clay dragons for you as a goodbye gift.

While I was a teacher, we were not allowed to be Facebook friends with students.  Society frowns on teachers getting too close to students.  But now that I will never teach again, or be in the same room with any of them again, I have been saying yes to students’ friend requests.  So, I am now going to share with you pictures of former students that they have shared with me.  Of course, I won’t tell you their names.  I don’t want to embarrass them by revealing that they don’t hate all of their teachers the way they should.

So, there’s photographic proof that once I actually was a teacher.  And I know that it probably also proves I didn’t do a very good job of making their lives miserable and making them hate me the way I should have done.  But I miss it terribly.  And I would work harder at being bitter and crabby if only I could go back and do it some more.

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The Oubliette

Every Dungeons and Dragons player, especially game masters, know about the oubliette.  In the foundations of towers in the castles of the French you often find a windowless room with the only entrance in the ceiling.  It is a dark hole where you throw captives you want to simply forget.  In fact, the name comes from the word in Middle French, “oublier” which translates to “forget”.  Now, of course, as a former school teacher, I know about oubliettes.  I have been in one more than once.  I have tossed bad kids in there more than once.  But the thing I had to learn about “forget holes” is that there is always a way out.

Eli Tragedy

I had a principal who decided I had betrayed him because he overheard me talking sympathetically to a teacher he had been berating for asking that he discipline students she sent to him for disruptive behavior.  He overheard me saying that he would be more understanding if he tried to manage a class himself once in a while.  For my indiscretion he took away my gifted class and gave me in its place a class composed entirely of students who had been repeatedly sent to him by teachers for being disruptive and unmanageable.  It was a class from hell.  Really… from hell… Satan’s stepson was the first student he put in that class.  I was told I would have to discipline them entirely without help from him.  But as tough as it is teaching twenty dysfunctional learners at once with no outside help, it was do-able.  In fact, I liked some of the kids in that class.  (Hated some too, though, because you can’t always like every kid no matter how crappy they act.)  I didn’t manage to teach them much English.  They all spoke Skuggboy fluently the whole time.  But I did endure.  In fact, when that principal was suddenly jobless two-thirds of the way through the year and replaced by a new principal, I got a chance to get some back.  She overhead Satan’s stepson doing his comic stand-up routine in response to my specific directions and came in to remind him who was in charge in the classroom and who deserved respect.  That reminder lasted for a good fifteen minutes and was a prelude to a parent-principal conference that same afternoon.  I saw his evil smile turned upside down for the first time that school year.

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Whenever I put a student in the oubliette (asked them to stand outside the classroom door until I could talk to them about their bad behavior) I never left them there more than five minutes.  I would quickly give the class the directions they needed to continue on their own, and then I would go out to execute the prisoner.  It usually was an explanation of how I wanted them to behave, and then giving them a choice, whether they wanted to go back in and do the right thing, or they wanted to visit the office with a written explanation by me of exactly what they did wrong.  Even though nothing would probably happen to them in the office, they rarely chose that option.

So, there is always a way out… but there are many forms of the oubliette, and no one is immune to being sent there.

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Filed under forgiveness, humor, Paffooney, teaching

Stupid Is Lovable

Stupid Boy

One does not have to be smart in order to be lovable.   In fact, I think, based on my years as a teacher and reputed smart person, being smart is actually a handicap to being loved by others.  Some of the sweetest, most lovable students I ever met were the the special-education students who were mentally handicapped.   I worked with them at times as a substitute teacher in 2006 and 2007.  I also encountered them routinely doing hallway duty at Naaman Forest High School.  They always said hello.  They always smiled.  Though they rarely knew my name.  Some of them went out of their way to shake hands with me and ask me how my day was.  I discovered along the way that teachers who worked with them on a daily basis tended to be nicer, more welcoming and friendly than other teachers.  That simple enthusiasm and likability is obviously contagious.

I promise, doing the things that happy but somewhat stupid people do works when you have to deal with others on a daily basis.  I know because I tried it.  It took me several years to work past the foolish teacher-notion that you have be the boss and you have to be mean to get students to learn.  You start trying to iron out bad behaviors by calling them out and shouting them down, which only leads to threats that have to be carried out, students sitting in misery in the principal’s office, parents calling with concerns or trying to boss and bully you, and more trips to the store for antacids and headache pills.

sweet thing

What actually works better is meeting the students at the door with a stupid grin on my face before class ever starts.  “Good morning,” I say.  “You are looking smarter than usual today.  You must be ready to learn the most important lessons anyone ever learned.”

“Are we doing something in class today?” they always say.

“Of course we are,” I answer with my stupid grin, “wonderful things!”

When the lessons start and the class clown puts wasted sticky-notes on his eyelids and ears and tongue, I don’t get mad and tell him to straighten up or else.  I tell him, “Something is different about the way you look today.  Did you try a new hair gel or something?”  When the others break up in giggles, I tell him, “Whatever it is, it makes you look good.  You should wear it that way for every lesson you do.”

Sometimes you have to stop a serious consideration of themes in the Kurt Vonnegut short story from the Literature Book to take a serious wiggle-break.  Students need to stand up and shake apart whatever stiff dead-parts they may have grown from sitting too long in one spot.  Most of them shake their behinds.  You know, the part they use for thinking most of the time.

You do these stupid things, and the students begin to love your class.  They begin to love what they are reading.  It is a simple, stupid thing… but so very necessary.

Of course you can’t cure all the dead-brains, jerks, and snarks this way.  Some will never buy in.  But it works with most.  Kids will behave well for you if you love the stupid parts they all have in them.  They will love you because you let them be stupid without serious consequences.

Now, I know there are many… some of them principals and teacher-evaluators who will be offended by me talking about kids being stupid.  Some will mistakenly think I am insulting them.  But I am not.  I often need to make a distinction between the kind of stupid I am talking about here and the angry, hurtful kind that I prefer to call ignorance.  That kind of stupid is the kind that makes Donald Trump, a person who actually knows better, call Mexican immigrants rapists.  It is a different thing to do something stupid because you are unintentionally wrong about something, or impaired somehow (like me when my blood sugar is low), or valuing silly over accurate.  Stupidity often can’t be helped.  but when you demonize Muslims because you want to make political points with people who are angry and fearful and honestly don’t know anything about Muslims they haven’t heard from ignorant people, then ignorance means ignoring what you probably know is true anyway to do something that intentionally chooses not to make use of whatever useful intelligence you have.

So forgive me for writing a stupid essay about stupid being lovable.  I can’t help it.  I am just stupid sometimes.

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Filed under humor, Paffooney, strange and wonderful ideas about life, teaching

Humbuggery

Technically I am not supposed to be celebrating Christmas.  Jehovah’s Witnesses have institutionalized “Bah, Humbug” and made it a religious offense to celebrate Christmas or any other birthdays.  And I have not yet been disfellowshipped from the JW religion.  That is, however, a mere oversight on their part.  They have not read this blog enough to be offended with my worldly views.  I have suggested here that I am a Christian existentialist… something that any JW who understands what that philosophical term means would call an atheist.

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Fozzie tells really bad jokes, which isn’t necessarily irredeemable, but Alf not only tells bad jokes, he also eats cats. How can they be saved by religion?

I definitely understand why atheists avoid proactive religions like the Witnesses.  For one thing, JW’s believe in the redeem-ability of the human race.  Open the door, listen to the proselytizer’s mini-sermon, read the infallible Bible verse, and paradise in an everlasting life on Earth is yours for the taking.  So, get out there and knock on some doors with a Bible in your book bag!  These redeemable Texans whose doors they knock upon being the same ones that have the police arrest Muslim clock-making teens for showing their project to a teacher, and throw hungry school children’s lunches in the trash in front of their friends if they owe $1.70 over the limit for their reduced lunches.  These redeemable Texans are also the ones who sent Ted Cruz to the US Senate and may help elect him president.  Despicable is too good a word for that type of human being… unless Sylvester the cat is the one saying it with extra sloppy spray coming out of the sides of his mouth.

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I confess that I have been working on a comedic science-fiction novel about a planet-wide civilization destroying itself for greed and despicableness.   I even put Ted Cruz in that story as lizard-man alien (which I am not sure if it is an insult or a complement to Cruz).  I also idolize Mark Twain, and often wonder if he isn’t right about the “damned human race”, and how Noah should’ve let them drown.  So I should be embracing humbuggery for so many reasons…

Senator Tedhkruzh

Senator Tedhkruzh, the lizard-man from the doomed planet Galtorr Prime.

But today I re-connected on Facebook with a former student from not so long ago.  Ronan Pablomia was an ESL student from the streets of Manila in the Philippines.  As a teacher, I normally love students, even the stinky ones, and I tried for three years to get through to this kid.   He was repeatedly in fights in school with other students.  He was disruptive in the classroom, saying intentionally horrible and insane things during class.  He was probably an un-diagnosed bipolar person, but he was definitely diagnosed as having a learning disability and a rage disorder.  He was hostile and made life so miserable for his classmates that they begged both the principal and me to expel his sorry behind from our high school.

Today he had the remarkable good sense to tell me on Facebook that I was the best teacher ever.  He said he finally acknowledged his fighting problem and got help (after getting out of jail).  He has a job now and is helping to support his parents.  He apologized for how stupid he acted in class, and I ended up reminding him that the best students are the ones that learned the most.  He was not the smartest kid ever, but he was bright, and if he has learned to control his bipolar temper, he definitely qualifies as one of kids who came the farthest down the learning path, and probably learned the most after all.

So Ronan gave me an excellent and unexpected Christmas gift.  He added one more hint that my career as a teacher was not in vain, and three years worth of patience and suffering did not go for nothing, even though he never graduated high school.  Maybe the aggressive and carnivorous primates that populate this planet are not all that irredeemable after all.  So have a happy Christmas.  Frohe Weinachten.  Feliz Navidad.  And God bless us, every one.

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Wally

Wally

I spent some considerable time working on the Naked Hearts trilogy in my blog, writing about nothing but girl students who fell in love with me.  That was a sort of Narcissistic writing experience that convinced me that I was somehow worthy of the love those young ladies felt in their little pink hearts.  I was not.  At least, not more deeply than the teacher-student level… the appreciation level.  Because there is love and then there is LOVE.  I have never really felt any sort of desire for a student.  Dread, yes, desire, no.  It is not only something illegal, but it is really downright icky.  The students that fill your classroom are all incomplete works of art.  The paint is not dry and can easily be smeared.  I am never the artist involved, so it is not my place to ever touch the oil paint of their lives, not even with skilled touches of the paintbrush.  But the one time I really regretted not having the ability to do touch-ups and help others to see what I can clearly see in a brilliant work of monkey-house art, it was with an incomplete little oil painting known as Wally.

Wally Nardling was a bright, talented, and gloriously goofy young boy with a zest for life that nothing, it seemed, could kill.  My Paffooney portrait above not only looks like him, it looks exactly like him.  And that is not because I am a gifted portrait artist.  I am not.  I am a cartoonist.  But Wally was a living, breathing cartoon character with a cartoon personality to go with it.  It was a golly-gee personality like he was the boy Sherman from Jay Ward’s Mr. Peabody and Sherman time-travelling cartoons.  He was always ready to try any new thing and experience any creative idea, without ever for a moment stopping to consider consequences, or thinking about how others might see him or think about him.  He was good at drawing Japanese manga-style cartoon people.  He drew in colored pencil just like me, cartooning all over his notebook and folder and, sometimes, even the margins of his homework.  He was very creative, and had numerous off-the-wall ideas that made other students cringe as he explained them to the class.  He was very proud of his accomplishments as a reader, and bragged about the books he had read, including every book of the Harry Potter series (which actually was three books shy of being finished at the time).  Other students, especially some of the non-reading Hispanic students, hated everything about him.  After all, his father, Dr. Nardling was the absent-minded professor type of teacher who taught them in fifth grade, and he could be downright mean to kids who tried to get away with monkey-nonsense in his classroom.  And his mother was a medical doctor from Mexico, but Wally had not learned any Spanish at all in his brief time on Earth.  He was the butt of every poo-poo joke the vatos could pool their limited monkey brains to think up.  Other boys, especially the vatos, were cruel to him at every opportunity.  (Vatos, if you are not aware, are the semi-criminal cool guys of Latino culture who lurk in the boys’ bathrooms with gold chains around their necks and the faint smell of mota, which they may have recently been smoking on their clothes.)

Well, his seventh grade year, in my Gifted and Talented Class, we got involved in the Odyssey of the Mind creativity contests. I intended to put a link here, but WordPress is giving me trouble, so here is the web address;  http://www.odysseyofthemind.com/

Wally was a natural.  We put together teams to handle different problems that the contest offered.  Wally always got chosen last for teams in real life, but nerd class was different.  The other two boys, H. G. Ruff and Jack Penny immediately recruited Wally for their team.  They chose the project where you had to design and build a balsa-wood structure to hold up as much weight as possible while you present a creative narration of the unfolding event.  H.G. and Jack cooked up the two-headed narrator idea, sewed the costume where they could both get into the same shirt and pair of pants to provide the two wise-cracking heads.  They left it entirely up to Wally to design the structure.  This he did brilliantly, a cone of balsa bits with numerous cross beams to hold up weight, and super-glue to hold it all together.

We went all the way to Del Rio for the regional contest.  The performance was supposed to build suspense  as the team (basically meaning Wally) piled up increasingly heavy weights on the structure, trying not to crush it.  The other competing teams went ahead of us, the first one crushing their rig almost immediately, and having to hope their song-and-dance routine would fill out the rest of the time limit.  The team that had the best reputation managed to pile on only two pounds ten ounces before their structure collapsed.  That was a full eight pounds less than they supposedly had piled on in practice.  We started our performance with H.G. and Jack already gloating over the win.

The two headed narrator cracked some of the best jokes H.G. had ever written.  (I had nixed all of the jokes Jack contributed.  He was a master of scatological humor, and we knew ahead of time that event judges were all female.)  Wally had two pounds already balanced on the structure.  And then, his enthusiasm failed him.  Instead of adding the five-ounce weights the way the other team had, he tried to put on a whole pound more with one weight.  Over-confidence killed it.  The balsa wood cracked and gave out.  H.G. forgot two thirds of his remaining lines, and we ended up short of the minimum time limit, too.  We lost by ten ounces, which when translated into the complex scoring system, meant we narrowly lost over all.  Second place and no trip to the State tournament.

The other boys blamed Wally for the loss, though they hadn’t really pulled off their part either.  The worst part was that Wally blamed himself.

“It’s my darn fault, Mr. B,” he told me with tears in his eyes.

“You got us this far, Wally.  You did a good job.  You built the actual structure.”

“Jack and H.G. are gonna keep on calling me Wally Weasley and making fun of me in front of the girls.”

“In many ways, you are more like Harry Potter,” I said.  “You have more magical ability in you than they will ever have.  You just have to keep believing in yourself.”

He grinned at me with that goofy grin of his.  “I know.  One day I will be able to turn H.G. into a frog.”

If I ever did anything to teach that boy something he didn’t already know, I don’t know what it could be.  One day he will create a cure for cancer, or explore the surface of Mars, and I will have not had any sort of hand in it in any way.  He was a diamond in the rough, and I simply wasn’t capable of polishing a diamond like that.

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When Teachers Write About Students

Dion City JH

As a writer of fiction, my characters have to come from somewhere.   A writer always writes best when he writes what he knows.  So, I am in a unique position for writing the stories that my body and soul ache to push out into the wide, wide world.  Most of my characters have to be little people… students, kids, and other denizens of the monkey house where I spent the majority of my real life.  (It helps to be told that the monkey house I refer to is a composite of all the middle schools I ever taught in.)  Of course, the students I taught were, over time, dancing in front of me metaphorically naked most of their days in my classes.  They told me everything about themselves in both conversations and their writing.  I know even their most embarrassing secrets.  Their identities have to be protected (not because they were innocent, Joe Friday, they were certainly never that, but because they have a sacred right to privacy).  So I rename them in my writing with fake names.  I take some of the incidents and eccentricities of their lives and splice them together with those of other kids.  And I transport them to imaginary worlds.  Some of my former students, reading my novels and other writing, actually don’t recognize themselves.  The picture above from the planet Dionysus in the 36th Century contains three of my former students.  Do you suppose they will recognize themselves if the story ever gets told?  The sauroid boy, a native Dion from the jungle world in the story, is modeled after Sparky, a boy I taught in my fourth year of teaching.  His real name was not Clay Snarkley, but that’s how I refer to him in my writing (when I talk about the real boy, not the alien dinosaur-child).  Sparky was one of those kids who lives his entire life on center stage.  He was the class clown who was always making a wisecrack any time the lesson involved a question that I asked students to answer.  And his wisecracks were actually funny.  He didn’t read well, but he was highly intelligent and creative.  He’s the one who fed re-fried beans to his three best friends before school and organized the Great Fart-Gas Attack in the middle of Sustained Silent Reading Time.  (That terroristic attack failed, of course, because with my lifetime of clogged sinuses, I had no sense of smell to offend.  I was perfectly comfortable.  It was the girls in class that were so enraged that Sparky narrowly escaped having a serious behind-ectomy and being the subject of ritual sacrificial revenge after school…with knives and fingernails.)  Sparky was one of my favorite students… of course, you probably know by now they were all my favorites, and he not only makes a good sauroid-alien, but he is a character in my on-going series of home-town novels, where he has to be transformed into an Iowa boy rather than a Texan.  It all means then, that I am writing humorous fiction for middle-school kids that is full of real people, people who are mostly still walking around out there living their real lives.  And if I draw them and write about them and use the details of their lives in my stories, they don’t have to be embarrassed by any of it.  As an artist, I transform the world as I perceive it through my artifice.  Their monkey-house secrets are safe. 20150807_135157

 

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