A Teacher Apologizes for Testing

Along the lines of the continuing thread in this blog about how destructive testing has become, here is a blog post about a 3rd grade teacher’s heartfelt letter of apology to her students for taking time away from learning in order to prepare for and administer tests.

Those of you who scroll down to the comments will note that the first comment beyond “nicely said” once again confused Common Core standards with standardized testing. There is a link, but teaching to the standards does not automatically imply using a standardized test to assess student learning.

Then there is the confusion between assessment (of or for learning) and evaluation (of a program, a strategy, or a method of teaching). Standardized tests are not good for either one, but they are separate things.

The good news: if teachers really do teach to the Common Core literacy standards, a lot fewer people will be confused by the smokescreen the Tea Party, the Flat-Earthers, and the politicos are throwing up.

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Deliberate Confusion About the Common Core

Colorado has become the latest state to suffer a brouhaha over the Common Core State Standards, due primarily to a push by a group of people who don’t understand the Common Core. I suspect many of them have not even bothered to examine the standards and think through their objections. In an article in the Denver Post, educators who should know better are complaining that the standards will result in a “de facto curriculum” that must be taught.

It’s true that states are developing (or more often, purchasing) standardized tests based on the expectations of the Common Core. The educators and parents who are complaining about testing driving teaching are absolutely correct, but that is not the purpose of Common Core. They are conflating testing with standards, and it’s confusing everyone — especially reporters who understand little about education.

At their heart, taking out all the specifics about non-fiction text and “new approaches to math,” the Common Core Standards aim to help clarify the bigger picture of multiple literacies. Mathematical and verbal language literacies are the ostensible focus of the standards released so far, but what the writers have created is a system of thinking about literacy centered on higher thinking skills in all areas of study — including science, social studies, and the arts.

If the protesting, self-described “Moms” waving “No Common Core” placards at the Colorado state capitol took the time to actually examine the Anchor Standards that connect all grade levels, I doubt they would object so loudly. Why would they not want their children to be able to read various types of “text” (including dance, visual art, music, and multi-media)? Why would they not want them to acquire and use language with clarity and accuracy, and to be able to listen and speak knowledgeably and critically? Why would they not want their children to look for and be able to point out supporting details and evidence to back up their assertions?

The more cynical minds out there might suggest that many of these objectors are Tea Partiers, whose very last desire would be for their children to be able to see through their flimsy arguments in favor of discrimination, repression, and a “maker/taker” view of society. There may well be some of that going on. There is certainly a misplaced hysteria over what these folks claim is a “top-down” approach (none of the others have been?) and “governmental control of education.”

The people who made the decision to establish standardized testing as the measure for student success and teacher evaluations are not educators. They are politicians. They used to work for us. Now they work for the big textbook and test manufacturers. If you don’t like testing, don’t blame Common Core. Vote for someone else.

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A Relentless Defense of Ignorance

The Ignorati are coming — out of the wood work. On the heels of the infamous Coca-Cola “America the Beautiful” kerfuffle, which brought all the racists (“#Speak American?” …really???) out of their musty coffins, Bill Nye chose to debate a self-proclaimed “Creationist” who maintains the Earth is only 6,000 years old.

These knee-jerkers have learned very well the lessons of our current, fixed-mindset culture. They think small, possibly because large thoughts scare them. They see limits and scarcity everywhere, even though we have limitless possibilities and abundance if we only change the filter we are using to see the universe.

To me, this is the direct result of our hard-nosed, “feet-to-the-fire” insistence on holding teachers “accountable” for student learning by tying their evaluations and even their income to the chimera of test scores as a measure of “teacher performance.” What results in the classroom is a fear-based strategy of teaching directly to the tests, even when the tests are badly (or even maliciously) designed.

What I have seen in practice, from Ohio to Texas to Virginia to California (and increasingly in all 36 states I have visited as a teaching artist), is teachers who have to face a fundamental question every single day: “Do I teach what students need to learn, or do I teach them to pass the test?”

There are an incredible number of Ignorati who are willing to believe that success on a standardized test means children have “learned,” and that teachers have much if anything to do with how their students score on such tests.

The testing pathway for 3rd graders in Texas, for instance, requires them to study and learn measurement before they investigate geometry! Excuse me? What are they measuring, if not geometric shapes? How can you have a grasp of measurement before you understand geometry? What group of university idiots designed that sequence?

The problem with the system of curriculum and testing in Texas (and for much of the nation as a result) is that textbook manufacturers also create the tests, so they have a captive market of millions, with no checks or balances. They can do whatever they want. It is cheaper for other states to just buy the same books and tests than to have their own designed, so what goes in Texas goes for millions more children across the country.

And what goes in Texas is culturally and developmentally inappropriate curriculum that seems designed to separate the “high achievers” (read: white children from privileged backgrounds) from the “low achievers” (read: kids of color who are going to jail or the ghettos and poor barrios). Add in the prison-preparatory nature of schools these days, and you have a perfect recipe for continued stratification of society. Not to mention a whole new generation of Ignorati.

The Common Core State Standards, while not perfect, have done what none of the previous-generation curriculum standards could do: they emphasize higher-level thinking skills. They ask students to read not only for information but with a critical eye, searching texts for supporting details and summarizing them for their main ideas. This, of course, is very frightening to the Tea Party folks as well as to the skinheads, the survivalists, and the creationists. What if people stop believing they know what they are talking about? What if they start thinking for themselves?

If the average person starts being able to tell truth from lies, assertion from evidence, and logic from bombast, the policies the oligarchy has been putting into place may crumble. The country might become a true democracy. That scares the wealthy Ignorati to no end, and they are doing all they can to stifle true learning.

When half the US Congress is now millionaires, all of them more interested in winning re-election than in crafting legislation that will help real people, we cannot depend on lawmakers to right these wrongs. We must stand up and demand better. There are real, live, high-performing teachers out there, leading their students out of ignorance, and we need to give them the facilities and tools they need, and get the heck out of their way.

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A Teacher’s Courage Shows

This brave second-grade teacher took the leap to design her classroom for student learning rather than for teacher control. I love her conclusion, about the reason for getting to “Yes” when making changes to support student needs.

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The Arguments for Arts Integration Mount Up

Here is a great blog post on the subject of grading students:

Isn’t it interesting, that every time educational researchers and practitioners make a discovery about best practices in learning, they are completely consistent and natural outcomes of arts integration strategies?

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Article on Arts Integration and the Common Core Standards

Susan Riley has published a very interesting blog post on enhancing the Common Core State Standards with Arts Integration techniques. Check it out at the link below or at Education Closet’s Facebook page:


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Tips and Tricks for Arts-Integrated Lesson Design

Scientific Thought in Motion: Dance and Science Integration
Note: This post was originally written as part of a course in arts integration for teachers. The focus was on integrating Dance and Science, but these ideas actually apply to all kinds of integration planning.


Start with Big Ideas
In the art form, an excellent place to begin is with the elements of that form. In the case of dance, we identify Body, Energy, Space, and Time as the primary elements. Each has several sub-elements, and those can help us find connections to the “big ideas” in the connected curriculum — in this case, science.

Let’s take an example. As I scan through the big science ideas about systems of the human body, I see immediate dance connections with shape, size, pathway, symmetry, energy, speed, rhythm, and (of course) body.


Once I have a sense that this is a rich playing field, I need to know more about the details of the science, and I also need to know how to access student prior knowledge — including any misconceptions they may have. (When I ask a group to create a human heart in movement as a short challenge task, I very often see them trying to duplicate the shape of the valentine heart rather than the complex, four-chambered organ we actually possess.)

I also have to devise a strategy to use one of the dance connections to help illuminate the science idea. That same strategy should also shed light on a dance element or dance as communication. So I have to narrow it down.

Now you get to engage more deeply in the creative process of lesson design.

Let’s say I want to narrow down my lesson to pathway in dance, and the flow of blood through the heart in science. My approach to teaching this lesson might start with having my dancers use the locomotor movement of walking to travel through the room in curving pathways. I could then ask them to layer in different energies, such as flowing, constricting, absorbing, and releasing. They can imagine themselves as red blood cells, picking up oxygen from the lungs and delivering it to all parts of the body.

Gradually I let the story build. This is evolving objectives. We might add in the idea of absorbing carbon dioxide from the body and releasing it in the lungs, making a cycle in action. Then we differentiate between veins and arteries (direction of flow relative to the heart).

The last step in the story would be to show a short video of blood flow in the heart, and have students work in small groups to create a model of the heart in motion. This could be a five-minute challenge.


Shape the Lesson
Everything above is the middle of the lesson, the learning experience. We still have to add a beginning (some sort of introduction, anticipatory set, or other engaging “grabber” to set the stage), and we need an ending in which students have a chance to reflect on their learning and make connections to other topics. These are critical to the success of the lesson if we are aiming at deeper learning.

Some ways of beginning a lesson are to don a bit of costume (such as a lab coat), bring in a model or specimen for students to discover, or show a short video with engaging content related to the topic.

  • Tip: Never, ever begin an arts-integrated lesson with the words, “Today we’re going to talk about…” I’m sure you can deduce why!

For the ending of the lesson, be sure to leave at least five minutes to pose reflection questions and preview any further lessons if this is an integrated unit. Some good reflection-starters are:

  • What surprises did you have in this lesson?
  • What questions do you have now?
  • Where could we go next with these ideas?
  • Do you see any connections to other things we are learning?

Test and Revise
OK, planning time is over. Time to field-test the plan. As you lead the lesson, don’t be afraid to have your outline in hand and refer to it frequently. You may not be fluent in your language the first time out, but as long as you have a “cheat sheet” of important vocabulary and steps of the lesson, you should be able to keep everyone engaged.

I try to notice hesitance on the part of the students to move, which usually indicates I have not given them enough information (or enough connections with meat on their bones) for them to know what to do. I may have to re-phrase or re-image what I want.

I also am thinking about pacing. I know if I talk too long, I will start losing students. If I go too quickly, they won’t have time to really put intention and meaning into their movement. I may realize that I won’t be able to teach the entire lesson as I envisioned it. The students may need more time to just play with the movement in order to enlarge their movement vocabulary. We might not get to exploring the actual heart chambers until the next lesson, which is fine. Smaller bites are almost always good!


Evaluate and Refine
After a few revisions, you may find the lesson plan works very well and also serves as a template or jumping-off place for additional lessons. The fun part is that each lesson you lead increases your skill and facility at the planning process, and you begin to develop effective shortcuts. Then you are ready to write a new and improved “tips & tricks” post of your own!

Photos from CETA “Scientific Thought in Motion” course session at Kensington Parkwood Elementary School, Maryland, USA: 12/6/2012.
I found this article online just about the same time I posted this entry. Here’s an interesting quote from “The Eight Aspects of Teacher Learning” on a site called Powerful Learning Practice (http://plpnetwork.com/2012/12/20/7-aspects-teacher-learning/):
By Sister Geralyn Schmidt

Good teachers design learning

Recently, when I perused my twitter feed, I came upon a blog post titled Teacher as Learning Designer. Andrew Miller, the author, states: “If you are a teacher and you are trying to explain what you do, say, ‘I am a learning designer!’ Teachers need to be empowered with a variety of instructional designs to meet the needs of all students. They need to be honored for their expertise to create creative and engaging learning environments. We can re-frame the concept of “teaching” to truly encapsulate all that teachers can and should do!”

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