Wednesday, June 15, 2011

What the SOL Tests Taught Me

We just finished up with all of our end-of-year standardized testing. It was less stressful than last year for multiple reasons (later in the year, my second year administering them, different group of kids, etc....), but it was still stressful nonetheless. The week before, during, and after, I learned a lot about myself, my kids, and the SOL tests in general. Let me share a few of my revelations with you here...

1) I am an internally violent person. Now, it's not something you would notice just by looking at me... or even by spending time with me. But, if you were to observe my thoughts while I watched my kids take these tests, you would most definitely judge me. It is PAINFUL to stand behind a student who is testing and watch them select wrong answers. It is even MORE painful to stand behind a student and watch them select wrong answers simply because he or she is too lazy to read a passage or give the best effort. It may or may not have gone through my head on multiple occasions that I really wanted to slap (literally) some sense into some of the kids (or possibly worse in the most extreme of circumstances). Additionally, my students understood the seriousness of my words when I told them there was to be NO talking until the last test was submitted, so I didn't have to follow through on any hypothetical threats of corporal punishment. Thankfully, though, as I discovered, all of my violence is internal and no children were harmed in the taking of the tests. :)

2) My kids are royalty. So, on the occasions where I wasn't threatening their well-being, my alternative was to wait on my students hand and foot. I have a couple of students who can get VERY moody and overly emotional, which always results in them shutting down mentally. So as to avoid any melt-downs, I was walking on eggshells for the half-hour or so before each test. I'm quite sure my students could ask me to give them hundreds of dollars, let them have recess for the rest of the year, or be their best friend and I would agree, if it was a testing morning. :) It's a fine line between trying to maintain some semblance of control over the class, but at the same time, wanting everyone to be in overly-cheerful, determined-to-succeed moods. Again, we achieved success and no major emotional issues played a role in this year's testing!

3) Kids will be kids. The first 4th grade SOL this year was Reading. Since it's known to be a very loooong, draining test, I wanted to make sure my kids had plenty of sustaining energy (not just "sugary-cereal" energy!). Thus, the night before the test, I bought fresh blueberries (full of antioxidants and brain boosters!) and made homemade, healthy blueberry muffins. I brought those in and served them with bananas and Kool-Aid (which actually has substantially less sugar than Juicy Juice and the other "healthy" juice boxes!).
With the food also came a motivating message. :)
Most of the kids ate the muffins and I only heard a few complaints about kids not liking bananas. Overall, though, it was just kind of a lax morning with some treats from the teacher. Well, test scores came back quickly and were not as impressive as they should have been, so I was disappointed in my kids. The night I got our scores, I was pretty bummed and unmotivated to make any goodies for the test the next day. Upon arriving to school, I realized I really couldn't let them go into the test without some sort of pepping up (see lesson #2 above!), so I broke out a bag of LifeSaver Wint-o-Green mints (which are supposedly good for the brain?) and Smarties. I placed two of each on each child's desk and HOLY MOLY! You'd have thought every student won the lottery with the way their faces lit up when they saw their desks. They were all smiles going into that test, and wouldn't you know it? The scores were better! This was about the time I remembered that kids are just kids, and fancy-schmancy or healthy doesn't mean a whole lot to them if it's not sweet! So, taking my cue, I decided to make breakfast cookies for our final SOL (Math). I searched long and hard to find a recipe that I thought looked both tasty and healthy. I went and bought everything, whipped 'em up and brought them in. To make sure all were pleased, I also threw out some water bottles, Smarties and orange slices with the cookies.

I made it loud and clear as soon as everyone had arrived that it was a brand-new breakfast cookie recipe and I would not be offended if they didn't like them. That announcement was unnecessary, though, because I heard ooohs, ahhhs, and yummmmys all over the classroom. When these scores came back, they were the highest of all! YAY!

4) Wheat germ is a real thing. Who knew? It was one of the ingredients called for in the aforementioned breakfast cookie recipe. Apparently it's the core of a wheat grain and is very healthy for you somehow or another. It took me about 15 minutes of walking up and down the baking goods aisle of the grocery store before I finally found it, but, hey, if it works! :)

5) I'm beginning to believe all the complaints about Standardized Testing! Upon first starting my teaching career (last year!), I didn't think the SOL tests were all that bad. Sure, it made the curriculum very tight and uniform, but considering I had NO clue what 4th graders were supposed to learn, I found it to be beneficial in focusing and guiding my instruction. Now, as I sort of have an idea of what I'm doing, it's becoming much more constricting. Everything has to be taught with an exact language in a very specific number of days.
While I can deal with the teaching part of it, another issue that I now have with the SOL tests is that after a year of working with my students, teaching them how to read, seeing them grow to have a love for reading and watching them read chapter book after chapter book, a score from a 2-hour block of time decides whether or not they know how to read. Sure, they're not the strongest readers ever, but at the same time, I know that most of them are reading at a fourth grade level and should've been able to pass a fourth grade reading test. It's just frustrating that that test is all or nothing and now our school is suffering as a result of school test scores. Buttttttt, since I don't see the tests going anywhere anytime soon, I guess it's time to figure out how to get my kids passing!!

I'm sure I learned plenty more from the tests, but for now, I'm just glad they're over!! :) Summertime is just around the corner!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

My 4th Grade Experience

Every quarter, we are required to formally score 3 writings from each student. Seeing as it's the end of the year, I decided to have my students reflect back on their year. I took Monday off as a "mental health day" and had the substitute administer this prompt:

Fourth grade is almost over! We've done a LOT of learning and growing. Please write a paper (to be graded) about your 4th grade experience. You should include:
- An introduction
- Your favorite part(s) of 4th grade
- Your least favorite part(s) of 4th grade/what you would've changed
- Some advice for Ms. Wacek's students next year
- A Conclusion

Before turning it in, please check for spelling, grammar, organization, and neatness.

So that I'm not stressed out later in the week trying to get all my writings scored at the same time as report cards and everything else that comes with this time of year, I was trying to knock a whole bunch out tonight... To calm myself from a stressful day, I turned on some "soft hits" (bad idea!), sat back and started reading. Not even into the second paper, I thought I might lose it. My kids are INCREDIBLE. Not their actual spelling and grammar, per say, but their ideas. :) Reading these papers after a day like today when I felt like all I did was yell at them, they reminded me of exactly why I do what I do, and why I love what I do. :) Aside from their papers so clearly illustrating just how unique and specal each one of them is (some loved social studies, some hated social studies, some couldn't get enough math and some couldn't take another day of math, etc), allowing me a trip down memory lane over the past year, and thinking about each of their special personalities, I was touched by what some of them wrote about me (some of them touched my funny bone, but most of them touched my heart!). Since I can't say it any better than them, I'll give you some examples (mom, again, you'll need tissues.. I sure did!).

"Don't be afraid to talk to people. But there is a time and place and when Ms. Wacek is talking, that's not the time, trust me, I know."

"...This year in 4th grade, we made good friends. Along the way, we let each other down, but we still always love each other (kind of)..."

"In 4th grade, my favorite subject was science, math, and reading..... In 4th grade, my least favorite subject is social studies..... In 4th grade, my favorite food is chicken patty and fries." WHAT? Where was that part of the prompt?! :)

"I would change some of my friends and not hang out with the people that will get in trouble." Well, if he didn't learn anything else this year, that's a pretty solid life lesson, I'd say!

"The advice I have for Ms. Wacek is to treat them like you treated us when they do something bad. You need to discipline them, too. And you don't want to strain your voice." Haha. Thanks for lookin' out, kid!

"Ms. Wacek - next year, give 3 tickets for blue, 2 tickets for green, and 1 ticket for yellow, and try to be nicer." 

"In 4th grade, I loved Math and Science. I was nervous for everything. I did not like the tests because I'm bad at some of them. But, when my teacher believed in me, I did it!" If that doesn't pull on your heart strings, I'm pretty sure you might be heartless!

"The second thing I like about the 4th grade is the teachers. Well, I don't know about all of the teachers, but mine is nice enough. If you need help, she will help you. Please keep teaching me the best you can 'til the end of the year. I just want to say thank you for all the things you have taught me this year."

"I think the school year should've lasted longer. The school year went by quick!" Don't hear that everyday from a 10-year-old on the verge of summer!!

"My teacher Ms. Wacek can be mean. But, she never lets us down and we never let her down. We really care about her and she does too! I will miss my class, but not 4th grade!" This may or may not have been the point at which I completely broke down. Haha.

"I like the way we always do cool projects and things like that. I like how we get candy for things we are already going to do like push in our chairs. That's cool. What I don't like: Nothing. This place is perfect."

"Some advice: Kids, you better watch out because Ms. Wacek is going to blow you away!"

The number of times I messed up this year are innumerable. The number of wrong answers my kids got over the past year are countless. But, when it's all said and done, if I was able to show each of them his or her value and worth and they were able to understand just how important and special they are, it was all worth it. Since it's only my second year teaching, I don't know if I'll be one of those teachers that students look up 20 years down the road and come back and thank for making a difference in their lives. But for what it's worth, at least for now, these 20 little 4th graders can feel loved, valued and smart.

And for future reference, listening to "soft hits" while reading any of the above make them 100x more emotional and touching. :)