Standing Up for Students: One Middle School Teacher’s Urgent Plea against Standardized Testing during the COVID Pandemic

We have officially been in our “Stay at Home” order for about four weeks. In addition, Michigan schools will no longer meet face-to-face this year. During my time at home, I have been doing some processing and reflecting on education and where our education system is currently functioning, is going, and will be going after all this is over.

Image from Pixabay user F1 Digitals

There is one particular thought that keeps popping to the surface of my brain as I sift through all the chaos that is swirling. As states, educators, and parents push forward to ultimately guide our students for the rest of the academic school year, it is my professional and personal opinion students will not be ready for any type of standardized assessment for some time. We are essentially in survival mode and trying to get our students engaged and ready for the next school year. I have even made the plea on Twitter for there to be a call to postpone testing for the next 3-5 years. Only then will our students will be somewhat back in a state of normality and have a better foothold on academics. It is not an unrealistic request given that more states are shutting down for the entire school year like Michigan. Now is the appropriate time to reexamine the necessity of standardized testing and the need for it at all. Education advocate Diane Ravitch has been advocating for teachers and students for years to stop testing students and let teachers teach curriculum instead of teaching to the test.  Continue reading

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Routine Argument Writing Practices: Using Images to Spark Conversation

Students enter my classroom, milling about as they retrieve their writing journals from the bin, and make their way to their seats. While a few glance at the image projected on the screen at the front of the room, most ignore it (and me) and focus on each other. It’s a typical day in my seventh grade ELA classroom.

Kathy Kurtze uses speech bubbles to help students talk about what they see. Click to see more of these.

The bell rings, kids settle as I quickly record my attendance, and I turn out the lights.  I glance around to see that journals are indeed open, pencils poised, and I take a position in the front of the classroom, my journal and pencil in hand. The image is stage left of me.  Above me, posted on the wall in shiny plastic, are speech bubbles with sentence stems. I had drawn large, cartoon-ish bubbles with a wide marker, written phrases in each, and after laminating and cutting them out had posted them before the first day of school. We used them that day, and almost daily ever since. Phrases included the following: “I believe ___ because…”  “ I agree with X when s/he says Y, because….” I see what X is saying, but I think….” “I understand what X means when s/he said Y, but I also think…”   “I disagree with X when s/he says Y because…”.  Just a few short weeks into the school year, my students know which one to use when, and even stop themselves and begin again if they haven’t used one in their initial statement. Some even correct others who begin without one. I expect this day to unfold in the same manner. How did I get here, to this point of patterns being internalized? How did my students learn phrases so well that they could (and did) use them even in their history class when analyzing DBQs (Document Based Questions)? Let’s look at how a lesson unfolds, and see.

Several years ago, I attended a session at an MRA (Michigan Reading Association) Annual Conference led by a docent from the DIA (Detroit Institute of Arts). Its topic– ‘reading’ images–intrigued me. I grew up east of Detroit, and visiting the art institute was a common family outing, so I was excited to see which of my favorite pieces would be utilized in this exercise. I came away with more than a rekindling of treasured memories. A few things stood out: with the lights out, students feel more anonymous, and are freer with their participation; the teacher keeps it simple with three repeated phrases:

  • What do you see? 
  • What does it mean? 
  • Why do you say that?

 The teacher repeats what each student says, framing the area the student is referring to with large hand/arm gestures, never making commentary (no “oh, good!” just simple parroting of what was said). I used this practice to ‘read’ images with my students for many years. When I learned about using images to spark conversations in argument writing, I adapted the questions slightly but used the rest of the same technique. Today is no different. Continue reading

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The TOLI Seminar in NYC

When faced with what seemed like unending snow days in the winter of 2019, I decided to take advantage of an invitation that always spoke to me – applying for the TOLI summer seminar in New York City. Because I love Holocaust literature and exploring big cities, this seminar seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime experience, one for the bucket list. TOLI stands for The Olga Lengyel Institute for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights.  The application process required me to speak about my teaching while making connections to the Holocaust and social justice issues I address in my classroom. I doubted myself because I am not a teacher who has a unit on the Holocaust or felt like I placed a lot of emphasis on genocide and social justice as a seventh-grade teacher. 

Or so I thought. 

What I learned is that much of what I do each day reinforces social justice and empathy, and while I didn’t do a formal study of the Holocaust, I did have something to offer this seminar and its participants. What resulted was indeed a trip of a lifetime, creating friendships with some of the most beautiful people I have ever known.

On our first night, I met several people in the lobby of our Columbia University dorm along with one of the seminar directors, Alice, who distributed maps to New York City public transportation and umbrellas if we didn’t have one. My dreams of this trip had me leaving the dorm early each morning to stroll through sunny Central Park to take in the sights and sounds of New York City. Unfortunately, what happened was seven straight days of rain – a soaking rain that could not be denied. In hindsight, it was appropriate weather for the heavy, difficult material we were tackling. On the first night, we didn’t let the rain get us down and instead headed from Columbia University by bus and subway train to a neighborhood we have all seen in the movies and on TV, Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Nestled in a block between Park and Madison Avenues with amazing apartments complete with opulently dressed doormen, is a lovely home with three floors that once belonged to Holocaust survivor, Olga Lengyl. I knew we were all in for something amazing when we were greeted at the base of the stairs with a sign that read, “We love our teachers, Welcome.” I got a little choked up reading it. The TOLI people, some educators, and some not, already appreciated me for the work I do. At that moment, my core belief was validated: Kindness matters; it really does. Their kindness and powerful words in a simple sign taped to the wall led me through twelve days of the most profound learning of my lifetime. Continue reading

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“Show and Tell” Using Peer Templates to Teach an Argument Move

My high school juniors sit, gazing at their Chromebook screens as they think about my challenge to “extend” their evidence. I can see and feel the tension, so I know it’s time for “Show and Tell.”

Extending is one of the four terms referenced by Joseph Harris in his text, Rewriting: How to Do Things with Text. Used extensively in argument writing, Harris calls extending “a move” that writers make; a strategy to quote evidence and then extend it with the writer’s own thoughts and interpretations. It’s where you, as a writer, “develop your own line of argument” (73). Students find the independent thinking – the outside-of-the-box idea about where an independent path of thought can emerge from someone else’s argument – incredibly difficult. They can see and agree or disagree with a source author’s position, but to come up with a new line of argument, a new path tangentially aligned with their source is not something they’re used to doing. One way I encourage their independent thinking is by using “Show and Tell.”

I learned long ago that “Show and Tell” is not just for early elementary students. (Image from Unsplash user Ben White)

I learned long ago that “Show and Tell” is not just for early elementary students. High school students want to be recognized for the hard work they’ve done to hone their writing skills. I do silly things, such as add a sticker to a very well-written paper.  After many years of sustaining this habit, the students almost always receive their stickers with pride. It is a method of showing, that often leads to telling what they’ve written. For “Show and Tell” related to extending, I determined that I would take writing improvement a step further and make copies for each student in the class of a successful student writing move. I would hand out the sentence or the paragraph, and invite the other students to follow along,  as I read aloud. Then students would analyze their peer’s writing for the moves the student made, and copy the format as necessary in their own writing. “Peer Templates,” I call them. Graff and Birkenstein’s They Say I Say is a great resource for sentence templates, but my students appreciate seeing their peer’s writing even more. Continue reading

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Inquiry, Immersion, and Interdisciplinarity on Beaver Island

This past summer, sixteen educators from Michigan districts as diverse as Utica, in Macomb County, and St. Louis, a rural district in Gratiot County, participated in a week-long, intensive workshop at Central Michigan University’s Biological Station on Beaver Island, taking advantage of the island’s unique biodiversity to explore language arts, science, and the arts.  As science and literacy teachers work to integrate the Next Generation Science Standards through interdisciplinary, inquiry-based learning, this kind of institute offers them a unique opportunity to explore, collaborate, and plan for the coming school year. 

“The Beaver Island Institute is an incredibly immersive professional development experience that provides educators with creative strategies for blending literacy and science,” said Karyn McConachie, an 8th & 9th grade teacher from Eppler Junior High of Utica Community Schools. “The week provided us with much-needed time to collaborate with colleagues, so we can plan for classroom implementation of these strategies.”

Since 2016, a team of university and K-12 faculty have welcomed ELA and science teachers to this unique experience. In four years, a total of nearly 50 teachers have attended the Beaver Island Institute from districts across the state of Michigan. Throughout the week, they participate in field activities to promote discussion and collaboration as well as inquiry-based workshops to identify key standards from the Next Generation Science Standards, the Common Core Literacy Standards, and the ISTE technology standards.  Originally funded by a grant to CMU from the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation, this year’s institute was supported through generous gifts from Thomas R. and Iris B. Harrison Foundation, the National Education Association Foundation, and the Macomb Intermediate School District. At a value of approximately $1000 per participant, all sixteen teachers were able to attend the institute at no cost.  Continue reading

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