Even before the Common Core standards were adopted by 45 states in 2010, politicians and self-made millionaires, among others, have been obsessed with standardized testing. From what I have seen, educators–teachers and administrators–are on the opposite side. Many educators have evaluations that are tied to student scores, even after the passing of Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Thus, in New York State, many administrators feel the need to make teachers use the modules, for if the state created them, they must help teachers improve their schools’ test scores, right? And teachers feel the need to teach to an inappropriate test to help raise the test scores, right? Not even close.
I know the standardized tests are scary now-a-days, but there is SO much more to teaching! We teachers don’t have to teach to a test, and we shouldn’t want to if we want our students to be prepared for college and beyond. So what should we do instead? Here are some of the “essentials” that work in my classroom:
1. Allow students time to read what they love. I’m only in my 14th year of teaching, but the one “essential” I see work wonders more than anything else is the time I give to independent reading. Every year more and more of my students come into high school grade levels below where they should be with reading. It’s heartbreaking, but I know what I do helps. I start by showing a few statistics about what reading can do for the brain, as well as analogies that are linked to what my students love: sports. (This goes on throughout the whole year, since sometimes after a long break, students need a refresher.) By the end of the school year, I hear, “Yes I know, Mrs. K. The more I read, the better I get at it.” They get it! But then the summer and 10th grade comes, and only 25% of them return to my room to check out books. Some of my more reluctant readers who finally started reading in March or April come back to visit, but then break my heart by saying they are “thrilled” they don’t have to read anymore. My answer is always the same: “That may be true, but are you getting any better at reading?” I also make sure to mention that “one book” that hooked them in 9th grade. They reminisce a bit, but it’s not enough. I don’t see them anymore in class, so I can’t “talk books” or start a short read aloud. I post information and visuals in the hallways, but it still isn’t enough. For the rest of high school, 75% of my students (more or less), will never read again unless it’s assigned, and many students don’t even read those books. This needs to change. More effort needs to be put into spreading the importance of independent reading! High school students need it just as much as elementary and middle school students. If we don’t get students to enjoy reading, they will never want to do it.
2. Reading and writing strategies can still be taught when offering CHOICE! Yes, it’s true! Whole class novels still have their place, but in my classroom, I first need students to trust that there are many great books out there. At the beginning of this year, one of my classes chose between four books to read for what I called an IR discussion unit. The books were All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. (Even though all of these titles were in my classroom library, I still had parents sign off that they were okay with their children’s choices.) Students then had a reading schedule, though they could read ahead, and I taught mini-lessons about writer’s craft, literary devices, and writing strategies. Students had discussions in their “book groups” almost every day, and what they noticed was more than I ever could have hoped for. This unit was amazing, for my students and I loved it, and we learned from one another.
3. Creativity fosters thinking! With all these standardized tests, students over the past five years have been sharing with me that they just don’t get to be as creative as they used to. I agree, for I have seen what has been thrust upon teachers. Creativity goes out the window. That’s why I try to make time for a little creativity wherever I can. One day, it might be a creative writing prompt (talking in a character’s voice, adding a new portion to the end of a scene, etc.) and other days it might be acting out a scene. One of my classes just finished a project where they had to create a visual representation of something from their book, along with a written explanation. Here are just a few of the 18 amazing projects I received:
4. Pictures can be used K-12! I’ll admit I was hesitant to use a picture book in my 9th grade classroom, but I am so very glad that I did. My students were transfixed by the images and story, and in some classes, students even came to sit on the rug where I was reading! Writing strategies can be taught through picture books, and that’s why I started using them. Now I make time for them because I can also allow my students that little bit of time to be a kid again. The giddiness, laughter, and smiles make it all worth it.
I mentioned just four of my “essentials,” but I’m sure there others I haven’t thought of. What are some of your “essentials” in your classroom?