Saturday, April 30, 2011

I ain't taking no deep breaths

THE TEST is almost upon us!  Recently I met with my principal to discuss what grade I’d like to teach next year.  After many, many hours of soul-searching I had listed second grade as my first choice on my preference sheet, but there may not be an opening, so I then spent many, many hours agonizing over whether I’d rather move to first grade or stay in third.  My principal asked me to be “completely honest” about my reservations in third grade. 

“Well,” I said, “I’ve never done test prep before, and I’ve never had a class like this before, so getting this class through test prep has been…”

He finished the sentence for me.  “Get me the hell out of third grade?” 

Bingo!  I have not enjoyed doing test prep – what teacher does, really? – but I also do not believe, as some teachers do, that a solid curriculum is enough to prepare eight-year-olds to take their first standardized test without any additional “test-taking” support.  One of the highest readers in my class has committed a bubbling error on every single practice test we’ve taken.  Another one of my highest readers has raised her hand during practice tests to ask to see a dictionary.

Then there’s Marco, an IEP student who’s reading below grade level (not dramatically, but still), whose main issue with THE TEST is just plain stress.  During countless practice sessions, I’ve turned around to find Marco with tears streaming down his face, shaking his paper at me in frustration.  Because Marco’s IEP grants him modified promotional criteria, there’s little danger that he’ll have to repeat third grade even if he does fail the test (which – fingers crossed! – probably won’t happen anyway).  But Marco doesn’t know that, and he’s starting to crack under the pressure of day after day of reading test passages that are just a little too hard for him. 

I’ve been working on some coping strategies with him, like: If a question is getting really hard, just turn your paper over for a few seconds and take some deep breaths before you go back and read it again.  But the other day, I saw Marco’s fists starting to clench in anger.  When I got there, before I could even say a word, Marco looked up at me, waved his paper in my direction and angrily blurted: “And I ain’t taking no deep breaths!”

Oh, THE TEST.  May our pencil points stay unbroken, our bladders empty, and our minds calm!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

April is the cruelest month

More than any other school year, I've had a difficult time blogging about teaching this year (as my near-total lack of posting obviously suggests).  I've always blogged a lot about my frustrations with my administration; at my new school, thankfully, most of those complaints no longer exist.  As hard as it is to believe, I've been busier than ever with planning and also dealing with parents outside of school, which is sort of new for me; it was extremely rare for parents at my former school to communicate by e-mail, but this year I feel like I spend a lot of time at home composing e-mails to parents.  Last year I posted a lot about my frustrations reaching my students; while my class this year is at least as "entertaining" as last year's wild bunch, I feel like I'm dealing with a lot of frustration more on a personal level than an academic one, which is difficult to put into words on this blog.  Perhaps it's because I lack a certain amount of autonomy in the classroom now, and I don't feel entirely comfortable posting about my co-teacher and our negotiations over lesson planning. 

I will say this: I had no idea how difficult it was going to be to work with someone else in the classroom.  For two years at my former school, I frequently parallel taught in classrooms with other teachers (i.e., either I pushed into a classroom or a supporting teacher pushed into my classroom; the class was divided into two groups and each of us taught a group on opposite sides of the room).  But we weren't necessarily teaching the same thing at the same time, we rarely planned together and we weren't "responsible" for the other teacher's students in terms of conferencing with them or recording data.  Co-teaching in a CTT classroom is entirely different.  You don't realize how many decisions you make in a day as a teacher until you've had to collaborate on every single one of them.  Also, at my new school, teachers have a lot more freedom to plan their own schedules and their own curriculum, so that actually makes it more difficult to work with someone else because all that has to be decided upon.  I've realized that my instincts are to plow through the curriculum and try to cram everything in and get it done, because I'm used to being told exactly what I'm teaching and when I'm supposed to be teaching it.  When my co-teacher has had to suggest slowing down or reviewing material, I've looked at her like she has seven heads.  If we review multiplication facts again, we won't get to number patterns in time for THE TEST!

Ah, the test.  That's the other thing: test prep.  It's been extremely stressful.  First of all, I've never taught "test prep" before, not least of all to kids who have never taken "THE TEST" before.  I'm convinced we don't know what we're doing and if (when?) they do poorly, it will be our fault for not adequately preparing them.  Second of all, I went to this TC workshop where I was shamefully reminded that my students are eight years old.  They are eight years old and I have spent the last four weeks being impatient with them because they don't understand how to bubble the bubbles correctly and we just taught you to circle the genre in the directions and that answer choice is directly from the passage and none of you are taking this seriously enough.  Meanwhile, we have been gearing up and gearing up for the test, and then we hit vacation, and now the weather is finally lovely and I'm sure none of us want to return to school for THE TEST.  When it's over (by the middle of May, both the reading/writing and the math test will be over), I'm not sure what we'll do.  We have other units left to cover, of course, but I fear the kids will be mentally checked out of school for the year now that it will no longer be on THE TEST, and as teachers we'll be looking ahead to next year.

I know I'll be back in my own classroom next year; CTT is not for me!  I'm hoping I'll be back in second grade next year, too (that is, if I don't get fired; just read this morning in the Post that the budget is still not looking good for teachers).  I'm not sure if it's my third graders, or just all third graders, but third grade is a little too much attitude for me.  I like my students small and sweet, not sassy (well, they can be a little sassy, like when I said to Mario, "It's not the end of the world," and he said, "Yes it is!  In 2012!  Like the movie!").  I also think I prefer the second grade curriculum.  We spent three torturous units in a row this year in book clubs.  That entailed: grouping the kids by reading level while simultaneously taking into account our ridiculous behavior issues; finding an appropriately leveled series for each book club to read; digging up multiple copies of multiple books in each series for each member of the book club to read; attempting to make sure each member of each book club read the same amount of pages each night in preparation for book club discussions; and monitoring book club discussions for signs of intelligent conversation.  I'm not necessarily anti-book club units, but I am anti three-book-club-in-a-row units.  In our class, we have many, shall we say, interesting personalities, at least a few of whom on any given day would outright refuse to meet with their book club, look at their book club, or sit near their book club.  A few of our kids will go so far as to call other kids "cheaters" or claim, "He stole my idea" if someone expresses the same theory about a book (and we're not exactly talking Gamp's Law of Elemental Transfiguration here, we're talking "I think she was being a good friend because she said I'm sorry"). 

Thank goodness, our last unit of the year is more palatable; the kids research another country and then write little information books about that country.  Bonus: connection with social studies!  The other thing I miss about second grade is teaching science and social studies; my third graders go to science twice a week with another teacher, and we in theory teach social studies once a week but in reality hardly ever manage to squeeze it in (especially now with THE TEST) looming.  I can't help feeling like there were so many little things that I managed to squeeze in last year with my class because it was me and only me calling the shots, and if I wanted to take five minutes to do something, I could.  I'm hoping that next year will be a nice fresh start and then I can really enjoy my new school, which -- aside from my issues with my co-teacher -- I really do like.