On the Eve of Testing: “Standardizing” the Library

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It’s Friday, which means I should be dishing up popcorn for patrons, talking book recommendations to students, and working on my Battle of the Books display and plans for poetry month in April.  I should be compiling the social justice web-quest for my English I classes and collaborating with their teachers to talk about scaffolding students’ information literacies through inquiry.  I should be checking in on the class that is in the library using our online resources to explore careers. But, I’m not.

Instead, I’m using an entire roll of purple butcher paper (valued at $175) to cover every. single. stack and shelf. in the library, because Monday is the first day of STAAR testing.

It’s not the extra task added to my already brimming plate that’s ruffled my feathers; I can manage my time and make things work. And I will get back to all of those things and more once the transformation is complete.

It’s the principle of the thing.

Why must every book cover and title, poster and sign be covered in preparation for testing in the library?  For two reasons:

Reason 1.  Students will be writing essays on the tests next week and might get an idea or thought from glancing around the library, and upon seeing a book that they read in the 8th grade, suddenly have inspiration for an example to use in their writing.  This would not be fair or a true test of their writing abilities.

“Libraries store the energy that fuels the imagination. They open up windows to the world and inspire us to explore and achieve, and contribute to improving our quality of life. Libraries change lives for the better.” Sydney Shelton

Reason 2. A student in one Texas school may have generative material on the walls that a student in another Texas school or classroom does not have.  This is an unfair advantage on the test, where students are expected to write uniformly and predictably to achieve pre-set numerical scores that will accurately then rank their writing ability as “unsatisfactory,” “satisfactory,” and “advanced.”  There is no room for “creative,” “inspirational,” “unique,” “authentic,” and “relevant.”

 “A public library is the most democratic thing in the world. What can be found there has undone dictators and tyrants: demagogues can persecute writers and tell them what to write as much as they like, but they cannot vanish what has been written in the past, though they try often enough…People who love literature have at least part of their minds immune from indoctrination. If you read, you can learn to think for yourself.”  Doris Lessing

The test is a refined instrument that we rely upon as a democratic society to ensure that all students are receiving equitable and comparable education in the free, public system.  Apparently, our democratic society feels that thinking for oneself is not a desirable trait in its citizens, nor is the ability to be “immune from indoctrination.”

It’s not just in my library that this is happening today.  Classrooms and testing centers all across Texas have sterilized their walls and spaces in preparation for the April testing season. It’s not my campus or institution that sets the context for this irony.  We comply, as all others must, in the name of public education, bending a knee to allow the state the measure our students and our work, only to jump back to our feet when the day is over and return to the real work at hand, that of facilitating learning.

Now, I must return to today’s work at hand.  Mr. Shakespeare, Maestro Beethoven, and Emperor Napoleon must be tucked into their respectful nooks for the coming days lest some student writer get the wrong idea for his writing.

Reaching Readers on the Threshold of Spring Testing

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1Finally, it’s starting to feel like spring in Texas complete with thunderstorms, 80 degree afternoons, and plenty of sunshine.  In addition to pesky spring allergies, however, spring brings with it another pest–standardized testing.

Many of us gear up these final few weeks between Spring Break and “the Test” with test-taking strategies and test plans for our students.  “Real” instruction halts…for weeks…with what benefit to our students?  One friend posted last night on Facebook that she was sick from the fact that her 3rd grader was experiencing testing anxiety at home over a practice STAAR test.  (Sigh).

Many studies have shown that traditional “test prep” leading up to the day of the actual test is actually detrimental to student performance as authentic, engaging, relevant literacy experiences are set aside to practice crossing out multiple-choice options, filling margins with notes, and learning how to use a highlighter “just the right way.”  Student anxiety rises, which leads to lower performance.  We’ve created a very unhappy, Pavlovian drooling dog.  Rather than conditioning students through engaging, rewarding, personal, and powerful literacy experiences to build their confidence and solidify their identities as readers and writers, we’re delivering electro-shock therapy every time they go to read or write in order to get ready for the test.

Thank goodness for teachers who see that the greatest marker of students success is not a snapshot of a quantitative score in a completely unauthentic setting, but rather the greatest marker of success is seeing each student develop and grow in his or her own reading and writing identity.  And when the latter is accomplished, the former follows.

One practice  that is often first on the chopping block this time of year is independent reading or SSR (Sustained Silent Reading).  As you may have already figured out, I am an independent reading champion–especially in the secondary grades.  I often hear comments from teachers and administrators such as, “We don’t have time to let students ‘just read.’  We have to prepare them for the test!”

Well, we know from countless studies, teacher and student experience, and good ole’ common sense, that when students “just read” a book of their choice for the sheer joy of reading, they are actually:

1)  building reading fluency and stamina

2) developing vocabulary skills and being exposed to thousands of new vocabulary words for their lexicon

3)  developing their identity and confidence as a reader

4)  becoming better writers

6)  practicing close reading (and even analysis!) with texts that are on their appropriate reading level

7)  building background knowledge

….the list goes on and on….what I see in this list are the exact goals that I have for my students in the days leading up to the test.

What does it look like in practice?

Rebecca is a first-year English I teacher, who has discovered that a thriving independent reading experience is at the heart of her students’ literacy experience in her classroom.  She held fast to her practice, even daring to up the number of minutes spent a week reading books of their choice in her classroom rather than bringing in practice test items drilling test-taking strategies.

When she asked me for ideas for her students to respond to their books and celebrate their reading experiences the Friday before Spring Break, I introduced her to a response strategy from Aimee Buckner’s Notebook Know-How called “lift a line.”  In the back of my mind, I knew that Rebecca had been working with her students on creating thoughtful open-ended responses to texts, and I wanted to build upon those skills while providing them an opportunity to celebrate as a community of readers .

Lift a Line–a text-based response strategy.
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After 10 years of experience working with teachers and students on the TAKS short answer question and now the STAAR open-ended response item, I understand that the #1 obstacle students face in scoring higher is the thoughtfulness of their response.  Many of them are taught (drilled) the structure of the response through any number of mnemonic devices and acronyms.  While many hours are spent in class memorizing these strategies, not much time (if any) is spent on building text-based response skills, which these testing items are designed to measure.

Here’s the difference.

Let’s look at this formula to start:

1+ 3 = 7

Is this a formula?  Yes.  It has all of the parts of a formula, right?  Numbers, computation symbols, solution, etc.

But what’s missing?  Reasoning…this formula is not rational.  I would argue that this student understands the basic parts of a formula, but the student is missing the mathematical skills to use the formula efficiently to demonstrate his understanding of basic arithmetic.

We do not teach young mathematicians to add and subtract by drilling in their minds the parts of the formula and writing a correct formula FIRST.  We teach them mathematical concepts by having them experience and manipulate concrete situations involving these concepts.

That’s what happens when students are taught to respond to a text by working through a formula or rigid strategy, rather than developing authentic responses to the text first, then crafting an effective written expression of their response.

The ability to form text-based inferences is not a strategy; it is a habit of mind.  Therefore, it takes lots of modeling, scaffolding, practice, and extensions with increasingly more and more complicated texts.

Buckner’s “Lift a Line” allows students to practice beginning with a line from a text that speaks to them for whatever reason and then responding to it in their own way.

At the end of the independent reading time, Rebecca invited her students to choose a line from their books that stands out at them for any reason at all.  Write the line at the top of the page and then spend 5-7 minutes writing about their thoughts, questions, connections, wonderings, confusions, etc.  Anything that comes to mind.

Modeling this step when first introducing this strategy is paramount so that students see and hear how you as a reader respond in different ways to things that you read.

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After writing in their notebooks about their line, Rebecca invited students to think about what they wrote and then illustrate the line on a piece of paper so that we can see some of their thoughts visually on a page.

What happened?

By beginning with students’ reflective responses as readers, Rebecca scaffolded their reading experience to move them to a deeper level of interpretation.  In order to respond to the line and then illustrate it, students had to think analytically to draw new meaning.

lift a line 2

What did this accomplish for students in the weeks before they take their STAAR test?

1)  students celebrated their reading experiences as a community, which builds their identity and confidence as readers

2) students drafted, revised, and published a creative, thoughtful response to a text

3)  response skills were reiterated and extended in an authentic setting

4)  they had a positive literacy experience where they were engaged and HAVING FUN!

This was a success in Rebecca’s mind because she had been carefully scaffolding and integrating powerful reading and writing practices in her classroom all year, not just in the days leading up to the test.

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From here, students have a terrific foundation build on authentic response to create a full-fledged open-ended response-style paragraph complete with their own inference for a topic sentence that they formed from their line (textual support) and a conclusion or connection they drew.  Niiiiiiiice!

Still not feeling ready to “drink the cool-aid” so-to-speak when it comes to independent reading?

You might visit my series on independent reading in high school.  Leave me your thoughts, questions, and experiences!