dianne salerni author
dianne salerni author

This will be the final post in a series of Why I Had to Leave Education … for now. (Until something else sets me off.)

When my nephew started third grade at my former school this past fall, my brother-in-law asked me, “What’s this ‘content class’ Joe keeps talking about?”

And I groaned. Because the dismissive term administrators used to refer to science and social studies had finally trickled down through the teachers and is being used with students. That was something I always refused to do. I always called the class science or social studies in spite of what it said on my schedule. (Social studies was a term that confused kids enough, since it included history, geography, civics, and economics). Calling any part of a student’s day “Content” is like — in my daughter’s words — offering a high school class called “Stuff.”

I can trace the use of the term “content” back to a philosophy of education that states: “Process is more important than content.” That is, teaching students strategies for learning was more important than what you were actually learning. The facts themselves didn’t matter. I disagree with this philosophy. Yes, it’s important to teach students how to find the main idea and supporting details in a non-fiction text. It’s important to teach them how to research, how to summarize, how to analyze — how to learn.

But the content matters! Elementary students should be learning the classification of animals (mammals, fish, birds, reptiles, amphibians), the continents and oceans of the world, the difference between climate and weather, the geography of the U.S., the water cycle, etc. These facts produce a wealth of background knowledge that American children should have – and that actually improves their reading comprehension! (Something administrators tend to overlook.) It may be true that in today’s modern world, we can Google anything we want to know, but that does not replace the benefit of having a wealth of information already inside our heads!

I saw this for myself every year when I used a released item from the PSSA as a reading assessment. The story was called Running from the Sun, and it was about two space cadets trying to survive on an asteroid after their shelter explodes. A rescue ship is hours away, and the cadets are in danger of being boiled alive in their space suits when the sun rises. So, they decide to run across the surface of the asteroid – using the low gravity to help them – keeping just ahead of the sunrise until the rescue ship can arrive. It’s a great short story, one of the very few reading tests from the PSSA that was worth reading on its own (exciting, with themes of friendship, perseverance, and bravery) as well as an excellent reading assessment.

Over the years, I saw reading comprehension greatly decline on this test. Why? When I started using it, I could count on fifth grade students knowing what an asteroid was and some facts about space. In my final year of teaching, most students did not know even the most basic concepts necessary to understand the story.

The final blow for me, as a teacher, came last year when the 60 minute Content class was slashed back to barely 30 minutes to make room for RTII – Response to Instruction Intervention. What the heck is that? It’s a Pennsylvania mandate requiring reading intervention for 100% of students, based on data from diagnostic tests. For RTII, each teacher in my building was assigned 2 or more different groups for reading intervention, including a “core” group that didn’t really need intervention but was going to get it anyway. The groups ran for 6 weeks, and then we would have 2 weeks off to analyze the data and form new groups.

What did we do with the 2 weeks in between?  Here’s a quote from my former principal:

“Keep up with the reading strategy instruction. I don’t want to see you using those 2 weeks to sneak more content in.”

Sneak more content in. Remember: Content is science. Content is history. Not … you know, cigarettes.

This was yet another nail in the coffin for me: Why I Had to Leave.


Today I give you a choice of blog posts.  If you want something light-hearted and humorous, check out the guest post on first drafts I wrote for my agent, Sara Crowe, last week.
If you’d rather have the Dark Post, continue reading here for my yearly diatribe on government-mandated standardized testing.
The 2012 PSSA tests were rolled out this year with a whole new set of security measures designed to make sure teachers don’t cheat.  That’s right – they’re not worried about students cheating. They’re worried about teachers cheating. Because increasingly, teachers’ jobs depend on students passing this test.
Every item in my classroom that could possibly influence a test question had to be covered.  Yes, I had to take down the poster defining similes and metaphors – that only makes sense.  But I also had to cover the alphabet. And the calendar. And the weekly agenda that lists the days of the week.  We didn’t have to cover the clock, but I’m sure that oversight will be addressed in 2013.
There was a big change in proctoring instructions this year: Teachers are no longer allowed to inform a student if he or she forgets to complete a section of the test.  This is a bigger problem than you might think. The PSSA consists of two different books – a test booklet and an answer booklet – and students switch between multiple-choice and open-ended questions located in two different places. For years, schools have complained to the state that the directions we read aloud to the students are confusing and often result in students missing some of the open-ended responses.  The state hasn’t changed the wording of their directions by a single word, as near as I can see, but they have instituted the new rule forbidding me to point out a blank section to a student.
A cynical person might wonder if the state wanted students (and teachers) to fail the test.
More and more, this test assesses not what students know so much as whether they can follow directions.  (Again, insert cynicism here about what kind of citizens the government wants to create.)
Three students raised their hands during the math test on the first day to ask me the same question:  “It says for me to explain my answer. Am I supposed to give the answer, too?”  An adult might think that’s a silly question – how can you explain the answer if you haven’t identified it?  But this is a serious question from a fifth grade student who is trying very hard to follow the directions.  And as I said, THREE kids asked me the same thing.
Thanks to test security measures, I was unable to tell them what to do.  “I’m sorry,” I said each time. “I can’t help you.”
I’m only your teacher, after all. I’m not supposed to help you …

Are you sick of hearing me complain about standardized tests? My students are certainly sick of taking them. One of them even came to school yesterday in spite of having thrown up at home that morning. He held himself together just long enough to finish his test.

If he had whoopsed all over his test, my principal would have been required to bag it and send it back to Harrisburg. All tests must be returned to the state. And while it’s satisfying to imagine state officials handling a pukey test, it would probably be an undeserving clerical employee and not one of the Ivory Tower intellectuals behind NCLB.

Next week my students take the state writing test, having just completed a battery of reading and math assessments. By coincidence, my school district rolled out a new writing curriculum this week, which was presented at today’s faculty meeting. The presenters began with a few belief statements regarding the teaching of writing:

Our district is committed to building a strong community of writers who engage in daily purposeful writing in a collaborative environment.

We believe writing is a recursive process that allows choice and opportunities to write for a variety of authentic purposes and audiences.

I whole-heartedly agree with these statements; however, I couldn’t help but reflect on how little these beliefs are respected in the state-mandated writing that will take place in my classroom next week:

Choice? No. Students write from a prompt – often a stultifyingly boring prompt composed by people who truly must be locked up in a tower somewhere. Expository essays, persuasive essays, and creative narratives are the three types of writing eligible for assessment. Because there are 3 types of writing and 3 writing tests, you might think there would be a sample of each. You’d be wrong. Last year the state asked for 3 essays and no narratives. If you consider that children enjoy being creative and demonstrate their strongest voice while writing stories, you might draw the conclusion that the Ivory Tower people just plain hate kids.

Community and Collaboration? No. The students take their writing test in a silent room. They may not confer with anyone; they receive neither peer nor adult feedback on their writing. They don’t even get feedback from the test evaluators – just a score. Students are not permitted to use dictionaries, thesauruses, references, or any resources that writers use in real life and on a normal classroom day. They write in total isolation.

A Recursive Process? Okay … Students can be as recursive and process-oriented as they like during the test, as long as they are finished in approximately an hour. They absolutely cannot look back at a previously completed sample, or peek ahead at the next day’s prompt.

I know my students will try to do their best. They always do. And yet, having just finished an exhausting array of reading and math tests, I have little hope that they will be at their creative peak next week.

All you lovers of writing out there – I know you’re probably cringing at the thought of an assessment like this. Send us your good vibes. We’ll need them.

Pennsylvania students are currently in the throes of their yearly state testing. The testing window is shorter than ever, with only 8 days to complete 6 tests and all make-ups due to absences. Fifth grade students get the pleasure of following that up with another 4 tests in writing, to be completed during the same week that many of them plan to be absent for Take Your Child to Work Day. Needless to say, Pennsylvania teachers and students are feeling the crunch of some rather poor planning on the part of the PA Department of Education.

After the testing one day last week, my reading class was discussing a poem titled The Grass on the Mountain. It’s a Paiute Indian poem, translated into English by Mary Austin, and it’s an expression of the tribe’s longing for spring during the hard winter months. Our discussion prompted students to make a connection to their own endurance of the standardized testing marathon … which led to a little creative enterprise.

With all due respect to the Paiute Indians and Mary Austin, here is my students’ salute to their poem:

The Grass Under Our Feet

Oh, long, long
Have we sharpened our #2 pencils
The multiple choice and open-ended problems
Have possessed our school
Quiet are the classrooms
No sounds to be heard in the halls
Oh, long, long
Have we sat in our chairs
And filled in tiny bubbles
Wiping the sweat from our foreheads
And eating goldfish and juice from the cafeteria
We are sick with desire of the weekend
And the grass under our feet.

~ by Mrs. Salerni’s 5th Grade Reading/LA Class

The miserable weather has broken here in Pennsylvania, and April made a grand entrance with some truly gorgeous days! I also received the first professional review for We Hear the Dead on April 1, and it was no joke. Kirkus—the big, bad, difficult-to-please giant of the review industry—liked my book! You can read the entire review on the BN product page, but I’ll quote you my favorite line:

“The research is excellent, and the author displays a facility for fluid prose even as she writes in a modified archaic style that lends credence to the first-person conceit of the novel.”

I hope all my reviews are this good—but even if they’re not, I can tell myself: “Well, Kirkus liked it!”

Hopefully, this favorable review will be enough to float me through next week. State testing begins on Wednesday, and my 5th grade is about to face three weeks of tests: two weeks of reading and math, followed by one week of writing.

On Monday, my priority is to remove or cover everything in my classroom that could assist students on a test: writing tips, definitions of literary genres, reminders on what to include in an open-ended response. One year, the state even made us take down the cursive alphabet chart, although they revised their ruling on this later.

Meanwhile, the tests themselves are under lock and key in a specially reserved room. They will be counted and recounted during the testing days. All scrap paper used during the test will be shredded. The state does not require my principal to sleep in the room with the tests, but I’m not so sure that she doesn’t.

Worst of all are the Men in Black. I am not kidding about this. Yes, this is an example of your tax dollars at work. Pennsylvania employs a small army of test security men who randomly visit schools during the testing days. They inspect the official storage room for the tests. They wander through the classrooms, looking for posters displaying punctuation rules that some hapless teacher forgot to remove. Sometimes, they sit down in a classroom and observe the teacher and the students for an entire testing session. I’m sure that helps the students perform better on their tests!

Anyway, I expect next week will be grueling and stressful. But if I have a stupid smile plastered on my face throughout the whole thing, it will be thanks to Kirkus!

Happy Easter, everyone!

Reading in today’s society tends to be a social activity. People share books, recommend them, discuss them, blog about them, and list them on virtual library sites. However, across the nation, NCLB requires states to test reading in isolation. Students must make sense of text without the support of peer readers and answer questions that are judged by someone far away – someone who will never meet the test-taker or listen to an explanation of his answer.

Sadly, a lot of schools have given up teaching novels in favor of more test practice. I find this a worrisome trend, considering the downward spiral of American interest in reading. A recent New Yorker article reported that in a survey conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2002 only 47% of the participants had read a work of creative literature in the previous twelve months. That’s over half the participants admitting to not a single book in a year. Perhaps this explains why parents at a community event this fall complained about my school’s summer reading assignments. “It’s supposed to be vacation!” one parent said to me indignantly, knowing I was a teacher at her child’s school. She was unashamed to complain about the burden of reading a book over the 10-week summer vacation.

Luckily, my school still values reading books for the joy of reading, and although we have to balance our reading instruction with rigorous test preparation, we do ask students to read over the summer. We also maintain a place in the classroom for the social discussion of books – rather than simply hammering the students with worksheets, multiple-choice questions, and essays written in isolation.

Again, I ask myself, what is the true definition of literacy?

Could it possibly include the look on the students’ faces when we come back from the Book Fair? Should the definition of reading mention the way in which kids hug their newly purchased books to their chests with joy and anticipation? Why doesn’t the state come in and assess the contented sigh and subsequent silence that descends upon the classroom when I toss my lesson plans out the window and say, “Let’s all read the books we bought at the Fair today, okay?”