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The Fire Inside

Posted by Chuck Olynyk on November 22, 2014 at 10:55 PM

Today is Saturday, November 22, 2014 and Day 311 of Year Five, Day 1494 since I began writing about education, Day 1426 PF or Post-Fremont. It’s the 28th anniversary of my knighting in the Society For Creative Anachronism, where I swore an oath to defend those who cannot defend themselves, something I believe I’ve taken seriously outside what some would call a “dress-up game” or “cocktail costume party.” It is also the day after the hundredth anniversary of my father’s birth, so I’ve been moody about what he taught me, as well. The day before that, UTLA members rallied at Mariachi Plaza, a short distance from Roosevelt. The first 70 days of the Fall Semester have passed. I haven’t written a word for this blog in 119 days.

I wrote something like that 176 days ago, when I needed to share my impressions about Marshall Tuck. Old news: he lost the bid for becoming California’s education tsar (I know, I should write “czar,” but I’m being ethnically correct here). Current news: his legacy lives on in the form of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools.

I could write about not having a dean and watching discipline go to crap (but I already wrote about that back in June http://rememberfremont.webs.com/apps/blog/show/42412976-smokin-in-the-boys-room

And it hasn’t gotten any better). I could write about iPad “deployment” (like it’s a military operation—“Gunny, what’s your evaluation of this operation?” “It’s a clusterf*c#, sir.”—“Heartbreak Ridge”), but that’s not the Partnership’s fault.

No, instead I’ll write about assessment—and what my kids lose to it. Earlier this semester, we as a department, were informed we’d be giving benchmark assessments, that ALL departments would be doing so and that these assessments would all be occurring at the same time. Administrators would be able to see, as they walked from room to room, that children would be working in silence as they struggled to go through the hoops, and we as a body would sit together and calibrate our grading. We would score the benchmark assessments (which are not the same as periodic assessments, I was told this week), bubble in scores—and hold up pre-slugged scoring sheets to a camera in order to record the data. This would be use of technology, I presume.

(Question from one of my drill team angels, a number of whom were present for this: “Mister O, are ALL your meetings like that?” “Pretty much.”)

Besides the question “Why don’t we just log on and click the scores?” there came another: “Who gets the data?”

The first assessment was a disaster. Many students stared at a reading covering material which they had not encountered before. It was the same at every grade level. Large numbers of my students fidgeted, turning in partially completed graphic organizers, highlighted sentences, three-sentence paragraphs. Many of my AP World History students kept asking, “What if we don’t do this?”

The only answer I could give was, “For every act of rebellion, there is always a consequence. You have to decide if the consequence is worth it.” (I kept thinking of “Shogun”: Toranaga-sama: “Then it is treason!” Anjin-san: “Only if you lose.”)

Many refused to do it. “It’s a waste of our time to take this, and a waste of your time to grade this!” (Flashback to “The Dirty Dozen”: “Major Reisman: “Hey, hey, we got something out there.” Capt. Kinder: “Yeah, and the Navy has a word for it—mutiny.” I scored what I could but never bothered to enter it. If my best and brightest thought this was a waste, how good I grade this as a test grade.

They got participation grades worth a day of notes: you either played or you didn’t. I thought about what we lost in those few days, what we couldn’t cover because we were being “assessed.”

Then came word about the second assessment. We’d have input on what we were doing by grade level, which I gave and which was mutually agreed upon, primary sources from the Enlightenment. There were windows for dates. Then that went to Hell. I realized I’d have to abruptly scrap the rest of the unit I was covering. The Renaissance was gone: no Shakespeare, no Reformation.

Kids groused. “Isn’t this stuff going to be on the AP test?” asked one of my bright rebels. “This is bogus,” said another, using more colorful language, “No Shakespeare? I thought he was supposed to be important.” I didn’t know whether to feel better because they were upset—or worse.

I shrugged it off. “You’re taking this awfully calmly.”

“Play the cards we’re dealt.” We wrapped up the Renaissance with an essay and launched into the Enlightenment. Handouts, primary sources, highlighters and bulletpoints, with an eye on the calendar for “iPad deployment.” We knew it would play hob with the assessment, but were told, “School goes on.” School goes on? That didn’t sound like ideal “assessment conditions.”

The iPads have yet to be deployed. We soldiered on, counting on that week in December. “No,” we were told. “Assessment will be during the week before the Thanksgiving break.” More lessons and dress-ups scrapped, in order to prepare the kids for the periodic assessment.

“No,” I was corrected. “BENCHMARK assessment.”

The dates were changed again. They’d take place AFTER the break, very likely with iPad going on. And we had it explained to us, as we debated on fairness and how many days to give this over, “It doesn’t matter if the students have ever seen this material before. This assesses their mastery of skills in analyzing any two documents.” I can’t remember when I heard terms like “drill down,” but I do recall hearing, “We can see which teacher is doing better and try to find out why.”

Without background knowledge? Teaching history without teaching what happened?

And that’s when I decided to “teach to the test.” NOT because I want those higher scores. This was material my kids were going to be exposed to anyway. They were going to write an essay anyway. But I refuse to put my students through another meaningless exercise.

We covered the American Revolution. Fifes and drums played in the background as I spun tales about the Founding Fathers, startling kids as I acted out what occurred at Lexington and Concord, drawing gasps and tears as I spoke of the friendship of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and how they met their ends. Intrigued, some read the Declaration of Independence on their own, coming up with insights and questions we debated.

In the end, I ran off copies, handed them out, watched for two days and got back essays from a mere 49% of my students. Someone else said, he got the same results. This time, I’m grading it as a normal essay, one I taught to. And while I’m grading, I’ll be thinking about how we’ll be told how we need to “provide academic rigor,” yet “re-assess” our grading practices, because so few participated.

 

 

 

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1 Comment

Reply bstam5432@aol.com
11:06 AM on November 23, 2014 
This is all so very sad. I remember trying to contort myself attempting to "cover" certain material that just didn't fit with where I was at in the lessons. One of the reasons I made the switch to teaching English is i have more freedom in what I teach and at Options, we don't give periodic assessments. The only thing I do have to worry about is the CAHSEE and teaching CAHSEE prep and that is actually ok. Another thing I don't have to deal with is admins using eduspeak. The day before our Thanksgiving break, our principal thanked us profusely for everything we did for the kids. I know there are advantages to large comprehensive high schools and there are things I miss about Fremont but where else can we take our kids on 25 field trips and take 10 to the Czech Republic but an options school?

I think your last point was that you were "teaching to the test" but doing it much more creatively and the kids still got the same results on the "benchmark." An asessment you would have created yourself would have been much more valuable than the corporate one. But they won't let you do that.