I think he is preaching to, or clarifying for, the choir here as we all know that we are in a catch-22 situation. We have to adhere to standards, but we all recognize that there is an implicit cost involved. That cost has been the quality, at times, of instruction, and the depth of teaching. He points out that "real, sustained change requires strategies that are more realistic, patient, and multi-pronged" than just a new checklist of standards. When I was first hired, my department chair told me that to teach a new student to read or write, we must teach as a parent would teach their child: softly, with love, and with an awareness of their ability. I think our job is to do just that, and to fit the standards in around our good teaching as Gallagher tells us to.
I agree with Renee about this first chapter. I feel like teachers are stuck between KNOWING what is good instruction in reading and writing and being bound to getting to all the standards we are supposed to focus on with our students. I agree specifically with Gallager's concerns "the tests already appear to be shaping instruction in a way that is not in the best interest of students" and "I am concerned that the curriculum and instruction will be tilted so that our students will be given less practice reading novels and poetry."
For the past couple of years, we've had a nonfiction emphasis in my department as well as school-wide due to the increased coverage of nonfiction on the SOL tests. I am at the point where I almost feel guilty spending time covering a novel with my students. I feel guilty spending half of a class period having a book pass or book talk or giving my students silent reading time, because in the back of my mind, I'm thinking about all the standards I need to be covering in the little time that I have to cover them.
I agree with most of his "good news" points as well. I definitely see more writing across the curriculum at our school recently due to the increased importance on writing... and I have teachers from other content areas coming to me to see what the basic grammar and writing standards are, so that they can support them in their classrooms as well with their assignments.
I also agreed with his concerns that we're raising a generation of memorizers who have trouble thinking deeply and critically. The wait-time in my classroom at the beginning of the year is LONG until my students realize I'm not going to feed them the answers or tell them how to think or what to think while we're reading a selection. When it comes time for a quiz or assessment on something we've read or discussed, my students always want to know if it is a multiple choice assessment. I agree with Gallagher that it will take a definite change in our teaching and expectations to deprogram our students from this type of surface level thinking.
Renee and Stacie, I agree with all of your comments. And so much of this chapter, in particular, resonated with me (I found myself marking every other sentence, so I'm having a hard time prioritizing what to comment on first!). What I came away with is a sense that we need balance, and that's something I think Gallagher emphasizes effectively throughout the book. Of *course* we have to acknowledge the reality of the test, but that doesn't always require us to succumb to incessant test prep or test-focused instruction.
When Gallagher points out that "some of the most valued standards (e.g., the ability to write a multi-draft essay) [are] not going to be tested at all," that hit home (2). After all, so MUCH of what we want our students to leave us with--a love for reading and writing for their own sakes; an ability to think creatively, outside of teacher- or test-provided options; an inclination to connect what one reads (whether fiction or nonfiction) to one's life and world--these aren't things that we can (or want to!) test, but rather skills that I hope permeate every activity, discussion, moment in my class.
I want administrators to understand that we're not in denial about the tests; instead, we feel that "every day our students spend taking or preparing for a test is a lost instructional day" (11). So, I definitely agree with Stacie that I feel guilt on days that I don't focus on the test . . . but I always feel *more* guilt on days that I do. I wonder what else I could be doing that's of more value. It's the balance between the two sides that's so hard to strike.
The first part of the book that I marked was the three lessons: "Avoid falling in love with these standards, recognize that the standards by themselves are necessary but insufficient, remember that good teaching is not about "covering" a new list of standards; good teaching is grounded in practices proven to sharpen our students' literacy skills."
This is largely how I teach anyway, but I love that Gallagher pointed out that the standards are necessary. Many teachers talk about how awful the SOLs are (perhaps referring more to the tests than the standards?) but then teach directly to them. Throughout the book, Gallagher gave instructional strategies to teach the standards without teaching to the test. Much of the problem with SOLs isn't that they exist but in how we interpret what we must do with them.
So I'm not redundant (you've all addressed his points well), first I'd like to reinforce something Lindsey said. I've never really taken issue with the literacy embedded in the standards; I think they are overall solid and encourage reading and writing at a deeper level. However, the specificity of the breakdown gets a bit absurd and is what leads to teachers feeling pressured to "cover" all the terms, some of which are just ridiculous. I really don't see any need in life or in reading to identify the apostrophe, for example. It actually showed up this year as an option on a sample test, so I felt the need to recite "Twinkle, twinkle, little star" to teach the term even though I personally have never used the term in all my years. The general ones about vocabulary, too, are frustrating because some of the roots they throw in are ones I don't know (I can deduce, but this is after all my years as a reader/teacher) despite the fact that I am an adequately literate person. Roots can be helpful but are not the key to vocabulary success. So yes.... what Lindsey notes is true; there is a much greater issue for me in how the standards manifest themselves on a test rather than on the standards themselves. Even when my kids KNOW the term, its use in the text might be ambiguous or poorly worded, which throws them off.
The other thing that strongly resonates with me is his observation about narrative on p. 11 being put on a back burner. Just because the ultimate goal on a test is a presumably persuasive prompt, the art of storytelling (not fiction necessarily but making meaning of personal experience through crafted narrative) is important not only for its value in making their writing personal and relevant but can also transfer into rich anecdotal evidence in a prompt. When many of the prompts say "based on your own experience," they scream for a story to prove the point (and really, what else do most kids have?) but none of the anchors are narrative,which leads teachers to believe that only canned writing is appropriate. When the new Understanding Scoring came out, I questioned Tracy Robertson at the DOE on why there were no examples that included narrative, and she agreed that narrative support is valid (she'd be denying best practice to say otherwise), but said there were no plans to add examples of this type to anchors, which I think sends a false message to teachers about what good writing is. Beyond the test, I start EVERY class in the fall with a narrative or two (all levels, every grade) because it helps me get to know them, and they learn that I am interested in who they are and what they have to say. Getting other kinds of writing from them after this is a lot less strenuous as they know I value them as writers. Research also supports the idea that narrative can build strong written expression and voice.. go Barry Lane!
I resonate with Gallagher's depiction of the California writing test. "When a state tells its teachers that writing is literally worth zero, is it any wonder teachers abandon writing and turn their classrooms into multiple-choice test-prep factories?" (p 4)
I don't know that this has necessarily happened with writing in Rockingham County, but I do feel it has happened with English in general. Despite having two SOLs, I feel that administrators are not sympathetic to the task of preparing students for a world that is saturated with daily reading and writing. They see only the task of preparing students for the tests.
I have always felt it was a difficult thing to hold in balance preparing students for life/college/the world beyond high school and preparing students for the SOLs. But I'm starting to realize that balance shouldn't be the goal. The goal is always the best interests of the students.
I find myself nodding in agreement with all these comments (and also searching for the "Like" button - but I digress).
I found Lesson 1 particularly interesting. Having seen any number of standards come and go, I can't say I've "fallen in love" with any of them. This seemed to apply more to policy makers than to me.
I was teaching in Pennsylvania when NCLB first arrived, and the discussions we had then about the standards themselves were not much different than they are now, especially when it came to writing: good writing is good writing, and well-written standards reflect that.
However, when it came to testing, the first state-wide writing assessments in PA were actually designed as multi-draft essays spread over two days. On the first day, students were given the prompt and allowed time to pre-write, draft, etc. These were collected. On the second day, students produced their final drafts. There was also no limit on how much they could write. Additionally, all the essays were scored by teachers from around the state at various three-day sessions. As I recall, at one session we had just over 100 teachers and we scored over 90,000 essays.
The scoring was a great experience for many reasons. However, all that eventually fell by the wayside due to budget cuts.
As I read these comments I found myself nodding along quite frequently. It is so important to find and maintain balance in our instruction, yet it can be so difficult when testing and accountability interfere with teaching and learning.
After reflecting on the “good news” and “bad news” I was left with the following thoughts. It is VERY good news that the bar has been raised and an effect of the increasing rigor is instruction that focuses on deeper student reading, thinking, and responding. For students to bring their own unique perspective to text and then share that with others is thrilling to me.
The bad news (from my perspective as an elementary reading specialist) is the focus on testing and test prep. All of my students are struggling to decode and/or comprehend on-grade-level text. They need even more time to read, think, and respond. Yet, as the dreaded testing window draws nearer, practice testing and test prep emerge and time for instruction fades. The students who need the most instruction end up receiving less.
The first comment that jumped out me was, "schools started churning out memorizers instead of thinkers." Although in my experience this has been truer in other subjects, it was a reminder that the ability to analyze etc. should be our first goal. I have also found that often when discussing reading with students, the answers are not simple multiple choice answers. Rather, we can have different perspectives and hold different opinions. As long as students can support their views with text evidence, I encourage them to disagree with me. The other point that I connected with was the importance of writing instruction. Plucking a main idea out of a paragraph does not have the same level of understanding that creating a paragraph with a main idea sentence does.
I'm sorry for being late to post these; my summer didn't allow it.
Gallagher’s notes on the skill of close reading are of particular interest to me as I think about the surging interest in “high-low” books in our library. Many students who are clearly capable of following plots in longer, more complex books continue to choose these short, simple texts. I’m very interested in getting students to stretch their reading abilities. I’ve seen in my own home how my son’s interest in trying new and harder books has been impeded by his lack of success on the corresponding Accelerated Reader tests and I’d like to be able to encourage readers both at school and at home.
Kimber Tate, Coordinator of English, Reading and Libraries