Friday, August 11, 2017

When Student-Led Learning.....Isn't

I debated for quite a while about how to write this, or even WHETHER to write it, but since The Written Word (as opposed to face-to-face spoken word) is one of my Things, and because when I'm talking to people they're likely to interrupt me and derail my Train Of Thought, here goes. Of course, it goes without saying that when I ask you to imagine this situation, it's not remotely imaginary - hence the source of my aggravation and discomfort and frustration and trying-to-find-the-words thing. It's not meant so much as What The Hell Were You THINKING (those thoughts I have about lots of things LOL) or a passive-aggressive swipe at a project that I'll confess has left me frustrated on more than one occasion than as Can We Please Be Honest About What We Mean, written down so I can just get my words assembled into a semblance of order. This post was begun after one particularly frustrating-to-me-as-adult-facilitator class session as a brain dump, so this is a stream-of-consciousness approach going on here more than a calculated endeavor.

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Ladies and gentlemen, imagine if you will a multi-age educational setting in which over the summers the older students (normally in their own classes, Junior High and Senior High, so even separate from each other!) have in the past been lumped in with younger, to the displeasure of the older students, who have their own Way Of Learning, their own Way Of Being, separate from the elementary-aged students, but that many of those older students are not just content but actively HAPPY about their normal separate setting. (This would be the Senior High group, grades 9-12)

In a no doubt well-intentioned move to keep the older kids from being stuck expected to learn with and work with the younger ones (a situation which resulted in abysmal attendance in the upper grades last summer), the administration conceives a plan: Let's find the kids a Project to do over the summer! Proposal: Build A Little Free Library From Scratch! Woohoo! And even better: this project will be entirely student-led! (Kudos to you, Dear Reader, if you can already see the flaw in this design.)

A Little Free Library (from http://bookriotcom.c.presscdn.com/)
Most of the year and especially in Summer when families are traveling, the makeup of the class - and the leadership of said class - changes week-to-week. Sometimes there are folks with some experience in Building Things From Scratch and Using Power Tools, while other weeks, not so much. 



 Summer begins. Wood is obtained, and a couple sheets of plexiglass. Other adults in this place, connected to the institution but otherwise not to the youth, do the cutting of the pieces (for which I thank them :-)) because kids can't be trusted with power saws (I don't entirely disagree, for the record, and there is of course the potential liability component, but....this is a Thing That The Kids Can't Do, that *only* adults can do, which Matters!). In class there are sort-of-blueprints as a guide: pictures of the finished LFL's, and drawings of the component pieces, complete with measurements. 

 
(Missing: a set of assembly instructions, even a list of needed hardware, because it seems that the person who created the blueprints hadn't originally intended them for a youth project...) Online, there is talk among the admin and the adults who volunteer to help of a timeline for completion, as Summer is finite, but as of August, no such timeline has materialized, for whatever reason. [Update: there's a timeline of sorts since I originally wrote this.]

What could POSSIBLY go wrong here?

I spend a couple of Sundays with the youth since I enjoy woodworking and haven't done much of it since 7th-grade wood shop class *mumble mumble* years ago (my parents had to write the school a letter granting me permission to NOT take home ec, so that dates me, I suppose!). The first Sunday I'm there it's Week Two of sanding the pieces of wood (with fine-grade sandpaper, as it doesn't seem anyone knows that coarse-grade is the way to begin). I notice that many of the pieces are actually WET - not slightly humid-damp, like I'd expect in the DC area, where summers are humid, but soaked-through WET - and that many are also VERY visibly bent ("warped" is really too kind a term), possibly from having been leaned (while wet?) against a wall for a week between class meetings. Not the most auspicious beginning, but sanding is a task that all the kids can help with, even if sanding the wet pieces does nothing but rough up the surface, thus limiting what can really be completed.



On one of the Sundays I'm there, the "plan" is for the students, NONE of whom have ANY idea what their construction options even ARE (and frankly, the adults aren't that far ahead of the kids!), to figure out, on their own, how to assemble the pieces without any guidelines. Kids and adults who don't know when to use nails and when to use screws, let along whether to use one hinge or two per door, are expected to fabricate assembly instructions; it was truly a case of the blind leading the blind.


As of the end of July, what the Grade 6-12 group of sporadically-attending kids and their sporadically-assisting adults have is.... a bunch of pieces of wood, cut (more or less) to the indicated measurements, which have been sanded over the course of a couple of weeks by the students, and some ideas for graphics for bookmarks and pamphlets for the inside of the LFL itself - that's it, after 7 weeks of Summer. As of the beginning of August, there are some half-primed pieces and some unprimed pieces which had to have parts cut out of them by adults helping kids learn how to use drills and hand saws. [Update: As of August 20th, one side of each piece has been painted, and WOW at the paint color....not unlike infant diapers I've changed over the course of motherhood. LOL]

What went wrong here? Any guesses?

(Hint: refer to the title of this post.)

What part of this student-led process has been, in fact, "student-led?"

Did students select the Little Free Library project? Did they even suggest it?

No. It was given to them, and they accepted, but what were their other choices? Were there any other choices? Did they have any input into how their summer would be spent here? (Answers: also No and No.)

Do the students have the experience or knowledge, let alone the expertise, to do more than the most rudimentary parts of the construction?

Nuh-uh. Heck, even the regular adult leaders don't have that!

Just what part of this project are the students LEADING?
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Now imagine, if you will, an alternate reality in which the students are asked if they'd prefer to be with the elementary kids again for the summer or would prefer a project of their own, and if the latter, what kinds of things might they come up with. In the past, students here have come up with food drives, garden planting, collecting towels and other linens and pet supplies for the local animal shelter, things like that, and it would have been interesting to see what THEY would have suggested, based on their experiences, their areas of interest, their thoughts.

In the event that they had come up with the Little Free Library idea on their own, I'm pretty sure that the kids themselves would have recognized pretty quickly that it would take skills they don't have to get one put together unless it came in a kit where pre-cut parts of non-warped wood could be quickly assembled into functional and weatherproof houses for books, and that a day or two of bake sales or car washes or even just asking the congregation to contribute could raise the necessary funds. The kids could also have come up with a timeline on their own, for that matter, but that was also not left to them.

Instead, I'm not seeing kids who are really invested in this project. It's not theirs; it never was. In classes, it's been hard to get students engaged. They're *willing* to help, but it's not intrinsic true authentic engagement because there was nothing truly authentically student-led about it. The idea of a LFL isn't a bad one; it's not even wrong for adults to have proposed the project or for them to be leading it - it's just not "student-led" when that happens. Words matter. 

What this project has ended up being is an adult-proposed barely-directed project led by a hodgepodge of adults, most of whom don't have the knowledge or experience to make this work (and at least one of whom, as an Adult Supposedly In Charge, would not have selected this project in the first place), cobbling together pieces which other adults, after having done the obtaining of the wood and plexiglass and primer and paint AND doing all the cutting of the pieces, will also have to do the majority of the work assembling. The students' jobs basically have boiled down to sanding, priming, and painting, and since we're almost out of Summer, the youth get to help the adults do the assembly. So yeah....adult project, really, with kids doing whatever bits & bobs of work can be accomplished in one-hour increments without power tools other than a drill one day (no nail guns or electric saws, and nobody brought a sander either.).

So, a word of advice to teachers and administrators about student-led learning: if you're really honestly truly wanting to do authentic student-led, you HAVE to 
Let. 
The. 
Students. 
LEAD. 

Facilitate minimally and then get the hell out of the way. Let THEM lead YOU as much as possible. Once these kids hit middle school and especially more in high school, it's time to give them wings, to give them more responsibility, chances to take on leadership roles in their classes and in their institutions - schools, churches, scout groups, whatever, so this is a prime time to institute true student-led learning. But it has to be done authentically, or you run the risk of student dis-engagement. 

Words matter.

Want a student-based project? Let the students LEAD.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

How Does a Veteran PARCC Refuser Feel About PARCC?

It's almost May, which means it's almost PARCC Season here in our school district. This year we're only taking the "End-of-Year" test, which I have to put in quotes because the 4th marking period is barely underway: this is NOT the END of the year by any means, not with 7-8 weeks left! (Last year we had a PARCC window just before Spring Break and another only a couple weeks afterward - NUTS!)

At any rate, neither child took PARCC last year,  and our refusal letters have been sent for this year as well. This afternoon, The Monkey began to write down her thoughts about PARCC: she wanted a "brain dump," a place where she could put into words her impressions from last year and some thoughts about the test and how she'd like to spend the time this year, hoping that they could be read publicly. I haven't really edited, just posting what she wrote, in her own words, at her request. Without further ado, I give you: MONKEY!

My idea of the PARCC testing
By: 5th grader at MES

    I am a 5th grade student at MES, and I have to go through the PARCC testing. I am in 5th grade, so this is only my second year of refusing PARCC (in 3rd grade, I had to take the MSA instead). As I have not actually taken PARCC, I do not know what the actual test is like (but I have taken the sample ELA test). I am assuming though, that it is not very easy, because when I was in 4th grade, and, if I remember correctly, they gave us 95 minutes for the test with 60 questions I think they said. So it must have been hard. Even if they had taken one minute for each question, it still would have left us with only an hour to do the test. Maybe because they wanted us to finish in time.

    At one point in the PARCC testing, they said to the 4th grade students something like, “And at the end of the test, you will find a question where you must make up a short story at least three paragraphs long, using the words below.” That was one of the questions! It starts to make me wonder how hard the test really is. That also brings me to think, if it’s really that hard for all of the questions, then maybe the test is too hard for the students, and therefore might be an unfair test to young students. My mom told me that they use the students grades on PARCC, partly to test the teachers. If they give the students a really hard test, then their score wouldn’t be high, and then the teachers would need to teach “better”. I like my teacher just the way she is. She is a great teacher.

     My mom also told me that in the manual, the people who made PARCC said that non-testing students can’t be seated in the room with the testing students, because it would be a distraction to the other testing students. [Mom's note: this was explicitly stated in last year's PARCC administration manual, although the language has been changed for 2016.] Last year, I refused the PARCC, but they still kept me at my normal seat, next to testing students. My mom asked the school if I could go help out in other classrooms, but yet, they still had me stay in the classroom for the whole testing time, every testing day. It was kind of annoying, but it did provide me with plenty of time to read or think.

    Although PARCC gave me some good things too. I missed some of class time (but not all, which was good, because I like school), so I could have a “brain-break” thing, which was very useful. I also got to read a lot because since I refused, I just sat there in the room, had the headphones on that they provided us with (to block out any distracting noise), and simply read the whole time. After that very long period of time reading, my reading grade went up. So in a way, by refusing PARCC, I improved my reading (although I am very glad that they don’t say that if we take the test, it will make us smarter, because it didn’t make me any smarter, I actually got smarter by refusing the test, although not directly.)

A couple things I would love to do instead of sitting around for an hour to two hours each time, would be:

    Help out in another classroom
    Finish any other schoolwork
    Write a story
    Draw
    Do anything useful

Opt-Out 2016: Part the First

And so it begins.....




To Whom It May Concern:

    Our daughter Monkey will NOT be taking the PARCC assessments in the 2015/2016 school year. As we did last year, our family is once again refusing to participate in the PARCC testing of our children. We feel that we have much more complete and relevant information about how our children are doing from the reports their teachers give us, which comes on a timely basis and is specific to their educational needs, strengths, and weaknesses, unlike feedback from PARCC. We are primarily concerned (in academic terms) with how our daughter is learning; we are not interested in whether her education, as measured by test scores, is superior to that of children in any other jurisdiction, and we feel that the scores themselves are not likely to be indicative of the quality of her learning or of her teachers.

    We support our children’s schools and teachers, and we thank
Monkey's teachers for their teaching and support of her education thus far. However, we do not support the time and money that standardized testing takes from the school year, nor the unrealistic demands placed on students during the test (in how many real-life scenarios will they be expected to spend this many hours working at their seats in utter silence with no access to reference materials or to bathroom breaks at will, using only Chromebooks to do their work?), nor the (eventual) use of test scores to evaluate teachers and schools.

    We are aware that Maryland does not have an “opt-out” option for families. We are not “opting out;" we are declining to participate. There is no penalty to our children or to our family for this in any set of laws or codes that we can find. We are not averse to reasonable testing, nor to assessment that is ongoing and will be used to remediate academic shortcomings in our children’s learning, nor to testing that assesses what children have learned and what they can do in realistic environments and settings, nor to testing that does not turn a school’s schedule upside-down for several weeks of the school year, nor to end-of-year testing that actually takes place at the end of the school year; PARCC does not meet any of these criteria in our opinion. Additionally, in a letter from Congress clarifying ESSA policy: "Hundreds of thousands of parents have chosen to keep their children from taking state-mandated tests, and these parents have every right to determine what is in their child's best interests." (full letter attached)

    Last year during PARCC testing,
Monkey sat in the classroom and read silently while her classmates tested. (Mrs. B. & Ms. G. can fill you in on how that was handled.) While we don't object to a repeat of this activity (in fact we credit the sustained silent reading with giving her the opportunity to get focused on a book and series, and her reading has been voracious ever since), we assert once again that it would be a far better use of everyone's time for her to either have enrichment activities to complete or to have her assist in a classroom; she loves working with other kids and she loves helping teachers.

    Please don't hesitate to contact us if you have any questions about our position on PARCC testing.

Sincerely,
Mr. & Mrs. Crunchy

Friday, December 4, 2015

Guns and Fear

Anyone on Facebook these days is sure to have noticed changes in the tone of conversation about politics (no matter what country you live in) and more recently about gun control, given recent shootings. My own thoughts aren't that consequential, but I get tired of repeating them, so here, fueled by a too-short night of sleep (thanks, cat, for being hungry at 3AM, and body for failing to get back to sleep afterward :P), is what I just posted on yet another thread:
 
Wherever one stands on gun rights, I am wondering why there is so little focus from all of us - from individual citizens to the highest levels - on the mentality of people who would carry out such acts. Certainly some are truly mentally ill, but I also see a culture of fear and anger that fuels everything from shootings like this clear up to politics - The Donald, basically an overgrown warmongering schoolyard bully, is the frontrunner for POTUS, FFS! When people feel too afraid and too powerless for too long, this is the sort of thing we can expect from groups and from individuals.

Add to that the easy availability of guns, and it's a powderkeg, and nobody should be surprised when it goes off. I say this as someone who grew up with hunting guns in the house (and if I get to move back home, I plan to take Bambi from my veggie garden to my freezer and crockpot my damn self LOL) and who enjoys a good round of target shooting: I'd have no trouble with gun laws strict enough to require AT LEAST the stringency of licensing we have for cars, complete with training and regular recertification. I'd even be OK with limits to the kind/amount of ammo I could buy and the kind of weapons I could purchase. I'm a suburban mom, I don't need a fully automatic anything except a dishwasher.  

So what's stopping us from enacting sensible gun legislation? Fear. Fear of powerlessness - and in recent times, more and more people have less and less power.

IMO, it makes no sense to address one without addressing the other. When we're powerless, we fight, we hang on for dear life and fight tooth and nail for every scrap of power we can get, we think with our guts instead of our brains, we think that the schoolyard bully presidential candidate will fight for us and make it all better, we blame The Other - Muslims, immigrants, Liberals, Conservatives, the Wealthy, the Poor. We get stuck in the pattern, we pass it to our children, and nothing changes except that the cycle perpetuates and strengthens.

This goes way deeper than guns. Getting rid of guns would only be a band-aid over a much deeper wound. /rant

Friday, September 18, 2015

Why Parents Should OPT OUT of Common Core Testing - a response to Karen Quinn

Mercy, mercy, mercy - I made the mistake of clicking on this link to an informercial-trying-to-pass-for-article in the Washington Post on September 18th. The basic upshot of the article, written by one Karen Quinn, founder of TestingMom (actual motto: "Make your kid smarter today!"), "a Web site that helps pre-K to 8th graders ace important tests and build skills for school success," is that standardized testing is Good For Your Children and Informative For Parents.
In case you thought I was kidding about the motto...

She starts out by admitting that "Parents and students object to these tests for reasons that are arguably valid and true. They say that meaningless mandated tests are taking over our schools, too much time is being spent in the classroom preparing for tests just so the government can find out how well teachers and schools are performing, the tests are used to rank, sort, judge and label our kids, teachers and schools and that isn’t fair, and the Common Core standards and tests that assess them are too hard" - and then goes on to say we parents should embrace them anyway.

The 5 points Quinn lays out are as follows:

"1) Your child needs to learn how to take a standardized test. In a few years, your child may take the SAT or ACT, and his score will impact whether he gets into college.....It takes years for a child to learn how to be a good standardized test taker. Sitting for the Common Core test will help your child get better at the test-taking skills he needs to master if he is going to apply to college."

My comebacks:
1) Maybe. Not all colleges even require either the SAT or ACT any more.
2) Even if my child eventually does apply to a school that requires the SAT for admission, does she REALLY need to start learning these skills in 3rd grade? In KINDERGARTEN? Does she need to spend more time ANNUALLY testing than the SAT will take, even if she takes it TWICE? Um....no. There are So. Many. OTHER. better and more constructive ways to both use the time and the money allotted to schools.

"2) You will learn important things about your child. If your child takes the test and does well, that’s great to know. If your child scores below expectations, you need to find out why."

PARCC was administered last year in my kids' schools. (My kids did not participate.) It is looking increasingly likely that scores will not come back to schools until AFTER DECEMBER of this year - at least a 7-month lag time! They'll be more than halfway through the next grade without those scores, and yet their teachers this year will somehow find a way to see where my kids are academically and go forward from there, just as they have year after year.

When the scores DO finally come back, I wouldn't be able to tell whether my mathematically-gifted child's scores truly reflect her ability to Math, her ability to Explain Your Answer in a test-acceptable format (verbal skills aren't her strong suit, and I already know that and don't need PARCC to tell me), her stamina (she's ADD and "checks out" after about 20 minutes, so a 75-minute testing segment is a lost cause), or whether the scores would be impacted one way or the other by a glitch in the computer or the test itself. Her teachers won't be able to tell whether, back in March and May of last school year, there might have been problems with computation, with reading problems, with fractions - the score won't give ANYONE enough usable "actionable" (I hate that word, but it applies here) information.

"3) Your child will feel good about herself. " (Followed by an anecdote of a girl who did tons of test prep and scored well and Had High Self Esteem as a result.)

Are you aware, Ms. Quinn, of how these tests are scored, of what happens to the results?  There's no passing grade set before the tests are given; nobody knows how many questions have to be answered "correctly," what score will constitute "Proficient." These delineations are calculated AFTER the tests are taken and scored. So far, about 70% of kids are being told they are Not Proficient, that they are in fact failures. Tell me how this makes a child "feel good about herself."

"4) There’s value in preparing for this test. Years ago, when my kids were little and time was taken in class to teach them how to take the state test, I felt it was a waste. With the new Common Core standards, I don’t feel that way. To get ready for this test, kids are learning how to cite evidence from primary or secondary sources to support their point of view and show why they believe their analysis in essays is correct. They are taught to lay out the reasoning behind their answers to math questions. These are important thinking and communication skills that will serve our kids for school and for life. They are not just skills that apply to taking a test."

My older child was in one of the last cohorts to make it through our school system ahead of Common Core rollout, while my younger was the second cohort to experience it from Kindergarten onward. My older child also learned to cite primary and secondary sources, and in fact to do many of the other things that Common Core demands of students. The difference is that in her case, she wasn't being asked to do many of these tasks before she was developmentally ready, nor was her Early Childhood (that's birth-8YO, not just preschool) time taken up with academics in lieu of social-emotional development/non-academic skills. She still got a good education without the Common Core tests; this reason is specious at best.

"5) What message do you want to send? Life is tough and it certainly isn’t fair. There are challenges ahead for your child and mine. What kind of message are we sending our kids if we let them opt out of things because they are too hard or (in our opinion) meaningless, unfair or a waste of time?"

The message I want to send to my kids is to not simply take a test that is sapping millions of dollars from their school system and countless hours of prep time from their schooling Just Because Someone Said So. I want them to think for themselves, to question, to take action to make the world a better place, to make their schools places of learning for the sake of learning again. I want to send them the message that their standing up, that OUR, as a family, standing up for something we believe in can make a difference, even if it's not a big one in our own community. Do you think they go through no adversity being the only ones in their classes sitting with books while their classmates are busy at their Chromebooks but sneaking looks at them? Do you think it takes zero courage to be the Different One? Nuh-uh.

We will be refusing the PARCC test in our Maryland school district again this year, NOT embracing it. I won't fault parents who do have their children test, but I urge all parents to do their homework before "opting in." The return on investment simply falls far too short: too much money and time taken from schools, unrealistic/too-high demands placed on too-young children, all for scores that don't come back in a timely fashion and give us too little information when they finally DO come back - ALL those "arguably valid and true" points she made above! - that's nothing worth embracing.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Opt-Out 2015 - Part the Second

Well, we knew it was bound to happen: the school is refusing our refusal. LOL

Hi Mr. and Mrs. Crunchy,

As with state-mandated tests, all students enrolled in Maryland Public Schools are required to be administered the PARCC assessment this year. Monkey will be taking the PARCC Mathematics and ELA assessments as is required of all students across the state in tested grades and subjects. Given that we are legally bound to administer the assessment to all of our students, we cannot accommodate your request for her to not take the assessment. Regarding Monkey's assessment last year, she is referring to a make-up session. Monkey was absent from the first session of her MSA test administration, and we assessed her during a make-up session as was required of us by the state of Maryland. This make-up process is the same used for any and all students who are absent during testing sessions, and this same process is in place for this year.

If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me.

*sigh*

Next step: Our refusal of their refusal of our refusal:

Dear Mr. Principal:

We are aware that M**** School intends to administer the PARCC test, that Monkey will be given the test. However, that does not mean that Monkey will actually take the test. That is the distinction.

This is not a request for M**** to not administer that test, or to opt out; it is simply to inform M**** that Monkey won't be taking the test. Short of someone putting her hands on the actual keyboard or trackpad, she cannot be forced to take the test - and non-testing students should not, according to the PARCC manual, be in the room with testing students. We are informing M**** of our family's intention and decision in advance so that appropriate arrangements can be made. We are happy to send work with her, or to suggest alternate activities, if that is helpful; we know the school will be busy during the testing windows.

As to the makeup session last year, she was in fact absent for the third morning session of the MSA, with makeups scheduled (according to a testing calendar I'd seen) not until the next week; if the makeup schedule had been changed due to the snow days last March, the courtesy of at least a phone call would have been appreciated, but - water under the bridge and all that.

Thank you for your understanding.

Sincerely
The Crunchies

From the PARCC manual:
http://avocet.pearson.com/PARCC/Home#7053

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Opt Out 2015 - Part the First (And Hopefully the Last!)

And so it begins....The start of our 2015 Standardized Testing Refusal. If you've been following along long enough, you know that last year we refused the MSA (Maryland's predecessor to the PARCC, and that while our older child's middle school was able to work with us and ultimately honored our wishes, our younger child's elementary school did no such thing; the younger was given the test with her class and took 2 segments of it out of sheer boredom, and when we kept her home for the third morning out of four, they took her out of class that afternoon and tested her, alone except for a single staff member.

So without further ado, here's this year's letter to the same school. There's a different testing coordinator at the school this year, and a different administration in the school system, and this time we have access to some of the PARCC manual and procedures in advance, so it will be interesting to see how things play out this year. I've already had some folks ask on Facebook if they may use our wording as is or adapted; by all means, be our guest. :-)
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