Muddling through the blogosphere

April 17, 2011
by blogwalker

Some Tips for Getting Students through State Testing

April can be a tension-filled month at many schools sites, especially those sites that are in PI (Program Improvement). Thank goodness for Rudy Alfonso and his 5th grade filmmakers, who  have some suggestions for helping students get through the mandated week(s) of high stakes testing. If you’ve already seen Rudy’s 2010 The Secret to the CST, than you’ll be happy to know that he and his students have just released the CST 2011 Movie:

I love Rudy’s make-students-part-of-the-solution approach to standardized testing.

If you have testing tips for teachers to share with students, please jump in and add a comment….because apparently, budget crisis or not, standardized testing is still alive and well.

April 17, 2010
by blogwalker

A Tale of Two Title 1 Schools – What a difference a freeway exit makes!

I’m trying to imagine the climate at Oakridge Elementary School last week, based on my friend Alice’s description:

I arrived at my school Monday to a site abuzz. Coworkers had heard from teachers at other school sites in the district sharing that on Friday, they had received an email that was going out to “a select group of teachers” in our district, offering them the chance to work in high needs schools. Recipients were directed to a site for the Talent Transfer Initiative, a project from the Department of Education ARRA (stimulus) funding. More information about the background of the program can be found on the site for Mathematica, who will be evaluating this project. Although “priority schools” are not mentioned in the email, it’s pretty clear that in the district, my school in particular (being identified by the state as bottom performing) and the other five priority schools are the “target” school or schools for the program.”

It was only last month that the greater Sacramento area was treated to the SacBee’s front page feature story on the possible closing of Oakridge (which I blogged about here.)  I work in the next district heading south down Hwy 99.  Oakridge is situated in south Sacramento. The northern part of my district is also in south Sac. Not surprisingly, there is a good bit of flow through traffic in our transient Title 1 populations, with students starting the year in Sac City USD and then transferring into Elk Grove USD and visa versa. Therefore, ‘those students’ can potentially become our students.

If you continue down Hwy 99, past the off ramp for Oakridge, and take the Florin exit, as I did last Tuesday, and head over to David Reese Elementary School, you will find a more promising environment for teaching and learning – despite that fact that Reese is also in Program Improvement.  The school has had a series of administrative changes, but I’ve heard more than a few teachers refer to their current principal as “a gift.” And how many school websites feature their administrators and office staff dancing in chicken suits?!

My first stop at Reese was Mr. Alfonso’s 5th grade classroom.  I joined SECC cameraman Doug Niva as he interviewed a number of Mr. Alfonso’s filmmakers about their SEVA film entries. Hearing students share what they were learning from movie making (e.g., storyboarding, script writing, camera shots and angles, teamwork) made me wish all Title 1 students had access to project-based learning as part the school day  – even during  the month of April, which is often referred to as “the cruelest month of all” in terms of drill ‘n kill at Title 1 schools.

Mr. Alfonso was not in the classroom during the interviews. An off-track 5th grade teacher was covering his classroom (working with students on a vocabulary building exercise)  while Mr. Alfonso and a film team were somewhere else on campus working on a film production – with a Friday deadline. When the crew returned to the room, I was treated to a preview of The Secret to the CST, a production that would be shown during a Friday assembly to remind students about testing strategies. Hmmm…students consuming AND producing tips on test taking…

Thursday I was back at Reese, this time to join Teresa Cheung’s 4th grade students for an  interview with earthquake relief worker Leisa Faulkner who had just returned from  her latest visit to Haiti. Thanks to two of Mr. Alfonso’s filmmakers, the interview was recorded.

Next week, I’ll be back at Reese to help Ms. Cheung’s students decide which medium (podcasting, movie making, blogging) would be the best tool for taking Miss Leisa’s interview beyond the walls of the classroom and for honoring her request “to not forget Haiti.”

Will the Reese students achieve higher CST scores than the Oakridge students? I don’t know. No matter how demoralized the Oakridge staff is, I know Alice and many of her colleagues will continue to work well past contract hours in their race to level the playing field of  grinding poverty from the surrounding community – as will the Reese staff.  Come September, CST scores will be published. But if I were to place a bet…

Two Title 1 schools, both in PI, only a few off-ramps apart, but while one site is being taken apart from without, the other is rebuilding from within….

Sorry, Alice, but based on the apparent total lack of support coming your way from the “higher ups,” I’m betting on Reese.

March 9, 2010
by blogwalker

3 Area Schools Told: Reform or close

Are you kidding me… close Oak Ridge Elementary School?! In what is already less than a RPOAKRIDGESTUDENTS.embedded.prod_affiliate.4banner year for education in general, it was painful to start my morning with a local story, the Sac Bee‘s front page story: 3  area schools told: Reform or close.

Oak Ridge Elementary School is part of the Sacramento City Unified School District.  It also where my friend Alice Mercer teaches. Many readers of my blog also know Alice. And if you know Alice, you know that students who enter her computer lab have opportunities to  connect, create, collaborate, and share – and to experience what 21st century teaching, learning, and citizenship is all about. You also know, through conversations with Alice,  how hard the Oak Ridge team works to level the playing field for their students and to provide them with tools and programs that will take them beyond “basic.”

I’m not sure how to interpret Sac City Superintendent Jonathan Raymond’s response: “It’s not a list you want to have a school recognized on. We’re obviously disappointed about that. But looking at the numbers and the data, it’s not a surprise.

For the sake of the  students, parents, teachers, and administrators of Oak Ridge Elementary School, I hope having their school on “the list of the state’s lowest-performing schools” will not lead the site backwards into “the genteel unteaching of America’s poor.”

Hang in there, Oak Ridge Elementary!

October 15, 2008
by blogwalker

Using Books to Enliven Reading – Gail Lovely

Gail is opening the session with the Issac’s Storm video (great storm in 1900 in Galveston) to accompany book read by elementary students. The movie was created in PhotoStory3. She’s comparing the Issac visual representation to Ike’s storm effects via (love this program, but it’s blocked in my district). Same music even, but much more “modern” looking.

Primary resources to go with Around the Great Hornspoon:

Moving on to The Quiltmaker’s Journey:

  • – math end of quilts
  • drawing a grid with math tie-in –
  • other lessons in book:
    • kindness, generosity (make posters, make PSAs
  • Moments in Time – Wisconsin Public Television
  • Jan Brett’s website – Town Mouse Country Mask – checkout website for masks, finger puppets, videos on how to draw characters
  • Lemony Snickett’s website: Checkout the videos. Great samples for filmmaking.
  • The Arrival – Showcasing my friend Monica Edinger’s classroom project and author visit.
  • StoryNory – audio versions of books with historical tie-ins (e.g., Cinderella stories)
  • Moments in Time – Wisconsin Public Television
  • Digital Media Overdrive – Audio files of hundreds of books!
  • LibriVox – Audio books to download (public domain)
  • State of Florida – huge repository of books by reading level/grade level
  • Bookhive – storytelling as an entry point – great way to engage students and to model inflection and fluency.
  • Book Pals Storyline – Check out Lou Diamond-Phillips reading Polar Express and their Readers Theater
  • Read Write Think – Simply the best for literature-based activities and book list
  • Google Book search – In some cases you can embed the stories into a blog or wiki
  • – Free and you can invite collaborators – Similar to for mindmaps. Being a long-term fan of Inspiration, I’m loving having the free version, which allows you to upload any mindmaps you’ve created in the full-blown program.

Great session. I’ll try to get to her afternoon session.

July 8, 2007
by blogwalker

Overcoming the Achievement Gap – Can It Be This Simple?

To pass the time on my flights to and from NECC, I grabbed – and dusted off – a few magazines from my nightstand. The first article to catch my eye was from the April/May 2007 edition of George Luca’s edutopia: Overcoming Underachievement – How a simple writing exercise dismantled negative racial preconceptions. I’ve since reread this short (2 pages) piece several times. The article describes a study run by researchers from Yale, Stanford, and the University of Colorado, with many quotes from lead researcher Geoffrey Cohen. The researchers had a theory that “the disparity in academic performance between white and African American students is partly fueled by a psychological effect called stereotype threat.” To narrow the achievement gap, they proposed using “a simple fifteen-minute writing exercise.”

What really grabbed my attention about the experiment is that the setting could easily have been a middle school from my district: “… a middle school attended by about even numbers of African American and white students, mostly from middle or lower middle class families… this school already had positive forces in play – sufficient resources, devoted staff, academically prepared students…” Nevertheless, an “invisible obstacle” was blocking African American students from “fully exploiting those benefits.”

The 15-minute assignment (randomly assigned with a control group given a different set of choices) was “to choose from a list of attributes the ones they value, such as relationships with friends or being good at art, and write about them.” The researchers believed that allowing students to write about things they cared about would “counter the fear of being stereotyped long enough to boost their grades on the next assignment.” And it did. Grades improved not only on the next assignment, but on their final grades too.

It’s a no-brainer that letting students write on topics that are important to them fosters improved writing. But what jumps out to me is that the significant achievement gains were attributed to a single assignment. Teachers are under tremendous pressure right now “to fit it all in,” but I think they can always squeeze one more thing in if they see the value. I’m going to pass the article on!

Of course, I couldn’t keep from thinking what if… the students were invited to go “live” with their essays in a Web 2.0 environment?!?

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May 5, 2007
by blogwalker
1 Comment

High Stakes Testing – California 2nd Graders Get a Break

pencil.jpgThis month is testing season in California. Unless our Govenator “wins a battle his aides say he plans to fight in the Legislature,” this year’s second graders will be the last to sit through standardized testing. I’m quoting from the front-page article in today’s Sacramento Bee. I’m not sure how many other states are including 2nd graders in their mandated testing, but I share 2nd grade teacher Jinder Chahal’s observation that “You’re testing their ability to sit there and focus.” Fifty-minute stretches are a long time for 7 years olds to hang on to their #2 pencils!

I’ve been thinking about common-sense approaches to testing and test prep ever since reading Doug Noon’s March 30 Borderland post. Doug refers to Lucy Calkins’ A Teacher’s Guide to Standardized Reading Tests and includes a summary to test taking strategies:

  1. Use the text, not your life, to pick your answer: Avoid relying on your opinions, memories, or personal experience;
  2. Sometimes it’s important to refer to your life: When context is thin, as in a vocabulary exercise, sometimes we need to inventory our prior knowledge;
  3. Choose to answer the question: Learn to paraphrase the question, and consider all of the answer choices;
  4. Risk an unfamiliar choice: Use the process of elimination when all of the known choices seem wrong;
  5. Check your answers: Be selective when reviewing your answers, and develop a system for keeping track of the difficult questions. You don’t have to retake the whole test.

Doug points out that “Test item writers are devious.” I agree. It’s sort of like a game. It’s us against them. And to beat them, we need to provide students with effective reading strategies. I really like Linda Hoyt’s Spotlight on Comprehension. In her chapter on Comprehending Standardized Tests, she stresses the huge difference between test practice and test preparation and the need to treat testing as a genre. Hoyt cites the above Calkins’ research throughout. She starts with “consider stamina for testing.” This is a no-brainer, but it’s the first time I’ve really thought about it. If we seriously expect 3rd graders to sit for up to 70-minutes stretches, we need to expand beyond their usual 15-minute sustained silent reading time. She recommends 30 minutes per day of SSR, with a 60-minute session one day a week.

The other strategies listed are:

  • Read tests with a different purpose: “Figuring out the test writers’ thinking, their tricks and their distracting questions, enables a reader to comprehend the test in a way that transcends the passage and leads to higher levels of success. “
  • Model the thinking of a good test taker: Hoyt gives “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” as a model for “thinking aloud and opening a window into our thought processes for students.” Just as the contestants say things like “I was drawn to C but I am not going to choose it because _______,” we can do the same kind of verbalization for students.
  • Study lots of questions: “Help them notice that in the genre of test, we cannot rely heavily on our world knowledge. This is a genre that requires reliance on the text more than on our ability to make connections.

I rejoice with teachers and students across the nation who have finished or will soon be finished with this year’s round of testing and hope that, in addition to better test scores, we have also fostered better readers.
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