Monday, March 26, 2012

Eat it and Like it

My 12 year old son is a picky eater.  He began that way in the womb, as I craved salty potato chips and chocolate while I was pregnant.  Today, with coaxing, he will try almost anything, but he is still very hesitant when he is presented with something unfamiliar.  If I try to sneak a green "unknown" into his dinner, however, he shuts down and refuses, wary and suspicious of any other hidden agendas I may have included in the meatloaf.
When I was a child, my father's response to my dinner complaint was always, "Eat it and like it."  A bowl of cereal was not an option.  If I did not like it, I did not eat.  I am most likely a bad mom, but sometimes I do give in.  My son will live if he eats a bowl of cereal for dinner instead of my beef pot pie, but I just don't understand his logic.  He likes beef and he likes pie.  Why not together with some other things in a lovely casserole?  He explains it like this, "Mom, you always take something awesome and mess it up with vegetables."

Last Friday, we concluded two weeks of PSSA testing.  PSSA stands for Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, which is our annual standards-aligned test that is administered in the spring for students in grades 3-8 and grade 11.  (If you are really interested in learning more about the test itself, click here. )  Nationwide, states have a test like this that is aligned to core standards, and it is used to determine student, teacher, and school proficiency in the areas of reading, math, science, and writing.   Proficiency is tied to many things, including funding, and most recently, it is now being used to determine teacher ratings.   As we were trained to administer the assessment this year, we were given much more strict guidelines and had to sign a paper attesting that we would adhere to all of the rules of test administration.  I'm sure that this extra measure was due to the fact that there have been nationwide reports of teachers and schools caught "cheating" and changing answers on student assessments.

Now, I am a fan of assessment.  I check student progress daily and use it to inform my instruction.  I monitor student data, and even enjoy analyzing it to determine what my students need so that I can tailor my lessons to meet student goals.  Every time I do a running record, have a student conference, or do any progress monitoring, I have students' needs in mind.  My goal is to grow readers.  I want to model healthy reading habits and feed them strengthening strategies that foster their metacognition, their "thinking about thinking" while reading.  Ultimately, however, I want my students to be successful and I want to nourish their love for books and reading.  My continual assessment and instructional response is my "food" that helps my readers grow, and I feed them every day.   And it is delicious.

The Friday before we began our PSSA testing, we had a "PSSA Pep Rally," and it was a fun, well planned event.  Students sang songs and did a PSSA rap, we had special guests from a local football team speak about "doing your best on the test," and we even had their mascot do a cheer and dance for the students.  Students were excited and prepared and ready to "show what they know" the following week.
When the day arrived to begin the reading portion of the test, I read all of the directions verbatim to my small group of readers.  I followed all of the protocols, and I smiled with encouragement as they eagerly began their work.  I observed their hard work, highlighting words and using their scrap paper to map out PLORE, which their classroom teachers had diligently taught prior to taking the PSSAs.  But as the minutes, hours, and days went by, the students in my small group, most of whom I know personally as readers, began to wilt and lose their stamina.

By the last testing day, one of my students proclaimed, "I hate reading."
I didn't respond.  How could I argue?  I witnessed it firsthand.  They took something awesome and messed it up with vegetables.  But for now, we have to eat it and like it.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Epic Fail? Epic Opportunity.

Epic. Fail.
We took three trips up the bunny hill before my youngest proclaimed that he was ready to take the lift up to the top of the mountain.  With experience on the snowboard, he refused to go to ski school this time, and began down the slope with confidence.  Why would skis be any different?  
Nine rescues later, complete with thrown poles and 10 year old cursing (which is not as bad as real cursing, but still...), he proclaimed that "everyone" was laughing at him.  One run.
Quitting.  Failure. 

The day before, I stood in front of almost 200 primary grade students and over a hundred of their parents to do a read-aloud in honor of Read Across America.  Our second grade students had finished a fantastic presentation of "Seussical Junior," and I began my part as the applause died down.  Of course, reading is my favorite thing in the world, so I have the best job in the school.  I get to read ALL DAY.   With practiced ease, I made my way through the Seuss-ified text, tackling the tongue twisters, rhyme, rhythm, and invented words like a pro.  Using my district-supplied iPad, I read the e-book with confidence.  The students were captivated, and read along, "I am I!" on cue.
That darn "Time-Telling Fish."

I am a good reader.  I am a very good reader.  I teach students how to read and monitor their reading every day.  I love to read aloud, too, and I had practiced reading Happy Birthday to You! * three times at home.  I planned where students would read-along with me, and it was going swimmingly well until that darn Fish.
When I realized that I had read the two sets of text backwards on the page, starting with the bottom sentence instead of the top one, I stopped.  I knew it didn't make sense.  With over 300 pairs of eyes on me, I thought, "Did they notice?  Should I just keep going?" Time seemed to stand still as I looked at the crowd, until I met one pair of eyes, wide with horror.  One of my students knew.  She knew I had made a mistake.  Despite my practice, regardless of my reading expertise, I had Failed to read the page correctly.

When teaching my students to self-monitor for understanding, I make "mistakes."  My students quickly catch on as I model metacognitive processes while reading.  They laugh and enjoy the game of "catching" Mrs. B's mistakes.  "All Readers, even Mrs. B, go back and re-read to fix it when it doesn't look right, sound right, or make sense."  My mantra is well known among my students.
This time, though, my mistake was not contrived.  It was real, and my face was burning as I began my self-talk.  In front of "everyone," I confessed that I had made a mistake, and I knew that it didn't make sense.  Backing up, I re-read the page correctly, and continued without folly to the "Birthday Pal-alace" and back home again.  My concluding statements about the joy of reading were met with applause, and many parents thanked me on their way out of the auditorium.  Still, I know that "everyone" had witnessed my moment, including all of my students who struggle with reading every day.  Imagine facing every reading task, knowing that it will involve mistakes, failure, and the perception that "everyone" is laughing.

My son eventually overcame his skiing struggle.  We went right back up and tried it again.  And again.  And again.  And, although he still fell on his last run, he was able to disconnect himself from the notion that he had to be perfect from the start.  He could make mistakes.  He even began to notice "everyone" falling around him as they came down the hill.

My hope is that all of my readers noticed my "epic failure" on Friday.  I want them to come into my room tomorrow and say, "You made a MISTAKE!"  If they do, they will know that it was a real one, not one contrived for the purpose of instruction, and not a game.  I look forward to the conversation that will follow.  I think I will call it an Epic.  Teachable.  Moment.

*Seuss, Theodore.  Happy Birthday To You!  New York: Random House, 1959 Digital edition.