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.

 

If you want a funny and yet completely on-the-mark and disturbing look at standardized testing in our country, you should skip my post and watch this John Oliver clip instead. It’s long, but worth watching all the same. (Hey, my post is long too.)

 

I’m going to tell you my personal experience with standardized testing, specifically the PSSA (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment).

The test is constantly changing, so for teachers and students, it’s a moving target. We get a list of “eligible content” and a few “sample questions,” but we never know what our students will be asked to do from year to year. The teachers never see the test unless we sneak peeks over our students’ shoulders while they take it.

From the moment the test booklets enter our building, we go into high-security lockdown. In my building, teachers are recruited to put barcode labels on the test booklets, but there are always administrators in the room watching to make sure no teacher opens a booklet to see the questions inside.

Proctors for the test are required to watch a training video, pass a test, and sign a security document. One of my favorite parts of the video were the DO and DON’T scenarios.

DON’T: A teacher stands at a podium, monitoring students. A boy raises his hand. The teacher walks over and stands beside him.

The boy says, “I don’t understand what the question is asking.”

The teacher puts a hand on his shoulder. “Do you remember the strategies we used in class?” He nods. “Try one of those.” She pats him on the back and returns to the podium.

DO: A teacher stands at a podium, monitoring students. A boy raises his hand. The teacher walks over and stands a distance away, so she doesn’t have a view of the test.

The boy says, “I don’t understand what the question is asking.”

The teacher says, “I can’t help you,” and returns to the podium.

I always wondered why she didn’t just stay at her podium and give him the finger when he raised his hand. The attitude was pretty much the same, and it would’ve saved her some steps.

The state testing agency sent agents out for surprise security inspections. They might peer at you through the window or walk in, sit down, and watch you for the entire test period. One of the things they would be looking for is any deviation from the test instructions.

We had to read from a script. For many years, the first section of the PSSA consisted of a Math test with a multiple-answer section and TWO open-ended questions. The directions called for the teacher to have the students open their test booklets to see the multiple-answer section and the FIRST open-ended problem. In the directions, we read that there were TWO open-ended problems, but since each one was two pages long with multiple parts, many students incorrectly assumed that both problems were contained on the facing pages they were looking at. The directions did not allow us to tell them to turn the page and see that there were more questions.

As you can imagine, many, many students accidentally skipped the second open-ended problem. After years of teachers complaining to the state, the PSSA directions finally changed. In my last year of teaching, we weren’t allowed to show the students any of the pages. We just wrote the page numbers on the board (pages 6-9) and left the kids to find the problems on their own.

If we saw a student accidentally skip part of the test, we were not allowed to tell them. Whenever they indicated they were finished, we had to take the test. Even if they’d only spent 15 minutes on a test that was meant to take an hour. (And there’s always one of those kids in every class.)

Students are instructed NOT to talk about the test questions to each other, to their teachers, or to their parents. As John Oliver says in the video, the test has all the transparency of Fight Club. As teachers, we tried to prepare the students as best we could, based on the stated eligible content. We taught fifth graders both climax and turning point, because we never knew which term would be on the test. We made them distinguish between third person limited and third person omniscient, even though some adult writers can’t tell the difference. (Seriously, I’ve seen Big 5 published books making mistakes in that area.) The PA Common Core mistakenly uses the term Point of View both in its correct sense (1st person, 2nd person, 3rd person) and also as a synonym for Author’s Perspective, so that’s what we teach them, even though it is wrong and confusing to the students. And when a math open-ended question says they can either show or explain their work – we’ve never got a straight answer out of the state whether points are taken off if they don’t do both.

So that’s the test. School funding rides on it. Teacher evaluations and salaries are hinged on it. And now kids in my school district will be getting less physical education, music, art, computers, science, history, and geography so they can work harder to prepare for it because their scores have been trending down.

I’ll ask my daughter’s question again: “Do you think it might be the test that’s to blame?”

I haven’t written much on my blog about why I left teaching last year. I meant to. I even have a document in my blog file labeled Why I Had to Leave with a long list of topics to write about. I was furious about being driven out of my profession by the choices made by my school district. After I was gone, however, and facing my new career as a full time writer, I decided it would be better not to burn any bridges.

This week, however, I learned from my former co-workers that my school district (still my district because I live in it and my daughters attend school there) is making some changes to personnel and student schedules.

You know what? See that bridge? Burn, baby, burn.

burning bridge

photo credit: burning via photopin (license)

I didn’t think our district could sink much lower than they did last year when they fired all the custodians (members of our community, some of whom had worked in our schools for decades), outsourced the cleaning, and used the saved money to create a new administrative position and promote a principal into it.  In other words, they put their lowest paid employees out of work and gave a raise to one of their highest paid employees.

But yes, they can go lower.

Last week – during Teacher Appreciation Week – they announced that they will be eliminating 6-8 positions for physical education teachers and drastically reducing the elementary P.E. program. They are also eliminating the intermediate science lab positions and slashing the music, art, and computer programs. All this so they can devote more of the school day to preparing students for the state tests.

You see, test scores have been trending downward in our elementary and middle schools. Over the past several years, our district has done a lot of things to improve test scores, such as:

  • Institute MAP testing 3x per year to track student progress
  • Analyze students by their scores on various assessments
  • Adopt the Common Core Curriculum
  • Standardize all assessments given to students in reading and math
  • Reduce instruction in science, history, and geography to provide more instructional time for state-tested subjects

Since student scores continue to decline, our district has decided we need more test prep. My fourteen-year-old daughter’s response to this decision was: “You mean, since all the test prep didn’t work, they’re going to do more of it? Doesn’t it occur to them that kids did better on the tests when they did less test prep and, you know, taught stuff?”

Again, she’s fourteen. And she saw this. Immediately.

Then she went on to say: “Does it ever occur to them that the problem is the test?”

Yeah, about that test … I have a lot to say on that subject. But that’s going to have to wait until Wednesday when I tell you about the test – the test teachers never get to see – the test students aren’t allowed to talk about – the test that changes every year – that drives our entire education system.

But today, I’d like to finish up by defending the teaching staff at my former school — they are dedicated, hard-working individuals who put in countless hours working under stressful conditions while going above and beyond for their students — and our PTA, who have always, always supported teachers and students and generously provided us with anything we asked for.

It’s the leadership in our district and the leadership in our state government that I’m pointing the finger at here. The people who view students as data points.

Why did I have to leave? Because 26 years ago, I became a teacher to teach students — not plot data points.

 

 

 

We’ve had a mild autumn here in Pennsylvania, with t-shirt and sandals weather continuing all the way through October and into November. There have been cold and rainy days here and there, but even my summer annuals are still blooming.

 flowers in November

My daughter wants to remind us all, though:

Pumpkin

Yes, she’s a GOT fan.

 

I finally finished the first draft of BRANEWORLD during that week when I had all those book events and 600 miles of driving to do. Finished it up in a hotel room, in fact. For some reason, the busier I am, the more enthusiastic my Muse is! I spent about a week planning out revisions, and I’m now a third of the way through Draft 2.

Ah, revisions! SO MUCH BETTER than first drafts.

I also start teaching my adult course, Writing for the Children’s Market, at Delaware County Community College on Thursday. I’m not looking forward to the commute during the height of rush hour traffic (says the woman whose former job was 2 miles from home), but I am looking forward to teaching the class!

I’ll try to keep up with the blog this month, posting on my usual Mondays and Wednesdays and visiting while I can, but I’m WAY more enthusiastic about the second draft of my WIP than I was about the first, so if I seem to be scarce, that’s probably why. I might not be NaNo-ing, but I bet I can get this second draft done before the end of the month. BRANEWORLD is a MG science fiction adventure through multiple-dimensions — The Adjustment Bureau meets The Boy Who Reversed Himself, with a little string theory for kids thrown in.

Sharon MayhewToday, I’ll finish up this post with a shout-out to Sharon K. Mayhew – a blogger many of you might know – who is starting her own freelance editing service. You can check out her website here: The Manuscript Maven. In honor of her launch, Sharon has generously offered free critiques to one winner on each blog announcing her new business. Each winner will have the choice of the first 250 words of a picture book critique/line edits, the first seven pages of a novel critique/line edits or a query critique/line edits.

To enter, simply mention in your comment that you’d like to win a free critique from Sharon. I will randomly choose a winner next Monday, November 17.

 

Thanks, Robin at Your Daily Dose, for suggesting this format when my mind is too scattered to write cohesively …

Here are my final days of teaching in bullet points:

  • When I mentioned in an email to my blogging pal Lenny Lee that I was facing three upcoming retirement parties in my honor and wondering how I was going to get through them, he sent me a very apt gift.  Thank you, Lenny!

Kleenex

  • I did survive the parties after all. One was hosted by a long-time friend at her home, one was organized by the school Sunshine Committee at a local banquet hall, and one was a party thrown by my students with the help of my teaching partner. The student gifts included a one-of-a-kind copy of The Eighth Day — signed by my students instead of by the author — a Wordle, and a large box of letters.  When opening that box, I commented that I hoped it wasn’t going to be the present that reduced me to tears. One of my students said, “If it doesn’t, then we didn’t do a good job.” (Cue me reaching for one of Lenny’s gifts …)

Student gifts

  • You know how it’s almost impossible to empty a house when you’re moving? There’s always one more closet … one more drawer … and it’s the “junk” ones that are the worst. The places where you threw everything you didn’t know what to do with. Well, emptying a classroom is just as hard. And no, I can’t just leave everything for the 5th grade teacher who replaces me, because our building is being “reconfigured” next year. It’s just like the Mad Hatter at the Tea Party: “Everybody change places!” All my stuff has to be boxed up and sent … somewhere.

 

  • It is really hard to throw some of my things away. But I don’t want to take them home, and I know for a fact that nobody else wants them. The storage closet across from my classroom is FULL of things shoved in there by other retiring teachers who thought, “Somebody will want this. I’ll just leave it for them.” Well, nobody wants it. Books, folders, cartons, outdated media (like cassette tapes) … I don’t want to be one of the dumpers. So, after giving away items teachers genuinely plan to use, the rest of it is (sadly) going into the trash or recycling.

 

  • Each year in the spring, our school librarian asks reading classes at all grade levels to research new books and nominate titles for Student Choice Selections. The librarian goes through the nominated titles and orders new books for the library based on this list. Every book gets a special sticker inside, naming it one of the Student Choice Selections. This year The Eighth Day made the list. On Friday, I got to see what the school library copies look like. Our librarian orders from a “school binding” company. They actually cut the pages out of the original book, rebinding them in a heavy duty manner. The books get a sturdier hardback cover with the original cover images imprinted on them. Finally, dust jackets are laminated. (And sent as flat sheets to be assembled by the school librarian.) Unfortunately, The Eighth Day arrived too late for circulation this school year, but that’s because they were back-ordered. Our librarian says this is a good sign that they were in high demand! Yay! They will be on the shelves for students next fall.

library binding

  • Finally, I can’t tell you how many people have clapped me on the back, hugged me, or high-fived me in the past few weeks and said, “Almost there! I’ll bet you can’t wait to start relaxing on Thursday, June 26th.” And I just smile. Because you know what I’ll be doing on June 26th? Lesson planning. In July, I’m contracted for a series of school workshop appearances through the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project — a summer camp for writers offered by West Chester University.  (I think my workshops will be focused on Point of View … and I can’t wait to start planning them.)

 

  • Also happening on Thursday, June 26th? My cover reveal for The Inquisitor’s Mark (pending final approval of the design, which will hopefully happen today.) Therefore, I will skip Wednesday’s usual post and see you on the other side of my teaching career — Thursday!

 

 

It’s June 18th, and I have one week left of being a teacher.

Today would have been the end of this school year if it hadn’t been for all the snow.  It’s hard to believe we were actually scheduled to go this late into June – one of those awful school board decisions that makes me grit my teeth.

(Although no mere calendar decision could be as horrible as their recent resolution to fire all our custodians – some of whom have worked for our district for decades – and to hire an outside service to save money, which they’re using to promote several administrators. Yes, they are putting our lowest paid employees out of work and giving raises to the highest paid ones.)

This year has been filled with so many aggravations, disappointments, and outrages, there’s no doubt in my mind I made the right decision to resign. But there have also been wonderful moments with my students, and as I sort through everything in my classroom, I’m dredging up 25 years worth of memories.

Here’s a picture of me with some of my students in my first year of teaching, circa 1989.

 

First year teacher

 

The connections I have made with students, parents, and fellow teachers over this quarter of a century far outweigh the bad stuff of recent years. I’ll have plenty of time after the resignation/retirement takes place to write about Common Core, EVAAS, and the deluge of testing. (Yes, I plan to use this blog to explain Why I Had to Leave.)

In my final week, I need to savor the good things.

Here’s a picture of me with some of my students last Saturday at the local library. They came out to celebrate the Summer Reading Kick-off and the release of The Eighth Day.

 

AG Library w students

 

My oh-so-critical eye sees every one of the 25 years between the younger me and this one. But even I have to admit the smile is the same. I love my students. I will miss them.